British sociologist Brown documents the sex-trade in Lahore.
Meet Maha, a middle-aged mother who lives and works in the walled city at the heart of Lahore. Her trade? She’s a dancing girl—that is, prostitute. But having hit her 30s and put on a few pounds, she can no longer command the prices she needs to keep her children fed. Three of her daughters are teenagers, though, the perfect age to begin servicing their own clients. Indeed, a future of prostitution is all these girls have ever expected, and they’re not well enough educated to do much else. Brown spent four years with Maha and her family, trying to understand the lives of women in Lahore’s red-light district. The result is a harrowing and heartbreaking story. Brown manages both to expose the horrors of the women’s circumscribed lives and to show that Maha and her daughters are complicated, smart, tough—victims of a horrible system, yes, but also, simply, people, no less multidimensional than anyone else. While the result is more ethnographic reportage than memoir, one of the most fascinating threads is Brown’s own changing relationship with her ostensible subjects. Over the four years, Maha becomes Brown’s friend, and Brown finds herself, occasionally, in a moral quandary. For example, one of Maha’s daughters, Nena, is being sent to Dubai, where she is to have sex with a high-paying virgin-fiend. Selling one’s virginity to a high-bidder in the Gulf is nothing uncommon, and Nena claims she’s happy about the transaction: she’s relieved that her family will finally have a little money. But Brown is beside herself: “Nothing has prepared me for the reality of this event,” and she doesn’t know where her role as sociologist stops and that as a friend who might intervene starts.
Riveting and important. Even readers who don’t think they’re interested in Pakistani prostitution will find themselves engrossed.