Last year I asked a friend to come with me to the red-light district in Delhi. She’s a writer with interests in women’s issues. My motivation for going wasn’t foolish curiosity but rather a need to know and to understand the face of prostitution in Delhi. I’ve heard that most of the women are stolen from poverty-stricken villages in Nepal and across north India, sold and resold and forced to work until their bodies age prematurely. They wash-up on the streets of Delhi, homeless, diseased and broken.
Delhi screams of gender injustice. Everyday I see the ravishes of poverty – class politics and class economies that keep the poor, particularly poor women, disenfranchised. It enrages me to see women carrying loads of bricks and sand in perfect balance on their heads at construction sites – guided by men, equally poor but more worthy of less strenuous work because they have a Y chromosome. Injustice roars at all levels here. Poor women don’t get educated enough to get entry-level jobs or they’re not allowed to work outside the confines of their caste, if they work at all. I asked one supervisor at a catering company whether he would hire a woman – he insisted he would but he said that a woman has never applied for a job. The truth, The lie – both say a lot: Women don’t apply for entry-level jobs; Men won’t hire women.
The middle class and the wealthy have access to sustained education and the white-collar jobs that come with that education. There are plenty of powerful and professional women in India’s booming economy. But does the boom trickle down? It’s also a highly conservative place and it’s easy to see that women face inequality at best and basest oppression at worst. Honor killings and rape are permanent headlines in the papers here.
Back to a year ago when I wanted to visit the red light district – I couldn’t find someone to take us to GB Road, the area near Old Delhi where brothels line the street atop plumbing and electrical shops. So we didn’t go, life took over, we put the visit on hold.
Collapse months and lots of related stories and you arrive at this week. I decided to give the proceeds of the play that I wrote about last week to an organization working with trafficked women in Delhi. I met with a group that is opening a home for young girls below 18 who have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution.
The stories brought me to tears and the need to see GB Road roared again. Mom agreed to come with me and we went this week. Maybe it was a stupid thing to do but I figured that if we walked with purpose and met people’s eyes, we would be safe.
The girls are stolen, sold, raped into submission, burned with cigarettes and tortured until they comply. They service up to 30 men a day in dark, squalid rooms. Very young girls are the preferred and illegal commodity and they rarely leave the buildings. Men are stupid enough to believe that the younger the girl the cleaner the vagina. It’s also believed that young girls make men more virile. The police know that the brothels teem with the underaged but they extract bribes from the pimps and business thrives, uninterrupted. In fact, the police have a satellite office in the middle of GB Road and a precinct at the top of the street. For the children of prostitutes, life is misery. They hide under the bed while mom works. Adult prostitution is actually legal with caveats that are ignored.
I urge you to watch this extraordinary documentary. It will haunt you:
Here are photos of the visit. First a view of GB Road. The brothels line the upper floors of the buildings. Notice how some windows are bricked-in with only very small openings:
The women were not pleased with my presence and they hissed or gestured for me to get away. Most scattered or covered their faces when they saw the camera.
Pimps sit on stools at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the brothels. Sometimes there was an older woman near the stairs – perhaps a madame steering business. I’ve been told that during the busy hours, men line the hallways inside, drinking and waiting their turn.
Your faithful police, here to help (and extort):
Women shout at the men below:
Happily changing the subject – Earlier in the week I went to Little Lhasa, the Tibetan refugee colony in Delhi. It’s home to thousands of immigrants and Tibetans born in India. Tibetans here are not granted Indian citizenship. They live stateless, administered by a government in exile. In December, India granted citizenship to a woman born here to Tibetan parents. It was an important milestone for Tibetans refugees in India.
There were Buddhist monks and businesses catering to Tibetan tastes:
With mom in front of the temple:
George has named my three house guests (Grandmom, Barbara and Kiki) the “Gran-Bar-Ki’s” . Here are the GranBarKis at a friend’s rug showroom:
And me, holding the most expensive piece of clothing that I have ever touched: a ten-thousand-dollar ($10,000.00!) beaded wedding skirt. I didn’t buy it. Too heavy.