Identity

We Speak to Muslim Sex Workers About How They’ve Survived the Pandemic... and Ramadan

“The moment Ramadan ends, I’m hopeful they will forget all the restraint and visit us, but even that seems unlikely now due to this sudden spate of new infections.”
May 12, 2021, 11:17am
kamathipura sex workers

Across the globe, as sex workers fight for their right to get vaccinated, there are some places that acknowledge them as essential workers. 

But for many Muslim sex workers across Asia, particularly in conservative Muslim-majority nations, this Ramadan presents a dual quandary: the moral and the monetary. 

While the economic conditions of most sex workers are too fragile for them to put work on hold for the holy month, this Ramadan has been even more challenging.

“When the pandemic hit last year, some non-profits gave us food packages,” says Ruqaiyya, who spoke to VICE on the condition of changing her real name for her protection. She shares a small room with four Nepali sex workers inside a moss-covered shack in Mumbai’s red-light area of Kamathipura. “But now not even a ghost comes our way.” 

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With India battling a scarring second wave, sex work has dwindled for Ruqaiyya and so have the chances to feed herself every day.

In a study conducted in the red-light districts of five cities in India, it was found that more than 90 percent of the 776,237 sex workers surveyed face acute debt bondage and slavery due to the pandemic. 

But more than the depleting savings, what makes Ruqaiyya worry is that Ramadan might perhaps never be the same again. She misses wading through the bustling lanes of the nearby Bohri Mohalla for iftar delicacies (the evening meal with which Muslims break their fast), and frantically bargaining with the roadside traders of Crawford Market for a pretty new dress for Eid. 

Those small pleasures that her work could afford her have disappeared along with most of her work itself. The motley group of small-time insurance agents, bakery workers, labourers, and shopkeepers who formed her regular clientele are mostly unemployed now as the pandemic rages on.

“Soliciting clients from the streets is impossible. The road leading up to Mumbai Central and Grant Road railway stations used to be our fiefdom after midnight. Now all we see are cops ready to thrash us the moment they see our glittering saris,” she says, exasperated. 

Occasionally, Ruqaiyya and her roommates are hired by agents from nearby neighbourhoods for small jobs like sewing curtains, finetuning toys like dollhouses, and giving a gloss finish to women’s slippers. But the frequency of this income is anything but consistent.

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“It is a domino effect,” she explains. “Nobody will buy dollhouses and toy trucks now. No one cares for slippers either. But we are not surprised, only helpless.” 

Ruqaiyya’s sentiments are echoed by Anissa, who lives almost 9,000 kilometres away. Anissa, who also requested anonymity, is a “waria” or a transgender person – stigmatised by their fellow Indonesian citizens even though they were revered in ancient Hindu-Buddhist times. 

“There are barely a few dozen of us [waria sex workers] here in Sunan Kuning (in the Semarang city of Indonesia). Most of us already come from extreme poverty,” they tell VICE. “So, it’s not like we are going to be surprised by what the pandemic has brought upon us.” 

Anissa’s relationship with Ramadan has always been unusual. They only offer non-penetrative services on the menstruating days when they cannot fast. But clients for these services are few and far between. Their most recent encounter was with a cop who lost his wife of 30 years to the coronavirus. 

“It was the first time I might have prayed for a client during Ramadan. He was just so broken. He could barely let out a whimper. I still don’t know what he sounds like,” they say. 

Just like Ruqaiyya, Anissa’s alternative income sources have dried up too. Before the pandemic set in, they’d solicit clients by dancing in the famous Mixwell bar at Denpasar, Bali. 

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“I am a passable woman, so I am slightly more privileged than the other warias. I never faced problems soliciting clients from the bars of Denpasar. But now, even physically going there is impossible. There are vague restrictions on inter-district travel. To add to that, my pimp’s second-hand bike was charred only last week which means I have no mode of transport,” they say. 

Anissa is now based out of the sex quarters or “lokalisasi” at the Sunan Kuning area in Central Java’s largest city, Semarang. The high rents of Denpasar are unaffordable for sex workers. 

In a recent study conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, it was found that the mental trauma of the pandemic is disproportionately high in sex workers based in lower and middle-income countries. The first global study of its kind, it sampled almost 25,000 sex workers across Asia, Europe and the Americas.

The mental toll is certainly staggering. Some of Anissa’s colleagues lost their lives to pneumonia after they had to sleep outside, unable to pay their rent due to the pandemic. Anissa says the lokalisasi they’re currently living in has almost begun to resemble the Cipinang prison in East Jakarta where they’d worked as a toilet cleaner for years. 

“Funnily enough, this is perhaps the only place in all of Java where you will find faith and sin juxtaposed together,” they explain. “The area (Sunan Kuning) is named after a Muslim saint who spread the word of God in these islands in the late 18th century. If you want to reach his sacred grave, you must pass through the pretty lanes of our lokalisasi. Successive governments have tried to completely shut us down, but we somehow find ways of bouncing back.”

Instead of using the holy month as an opportunity to organise sex workers into the formal workforce, the trend of sending them back to their hometowns is not a new one. The local administration of Sunan Kuning tried doing it back in 2015, and now even Nigeria is doing the same

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Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan, a Muslim-majority nation, stringent pandemic restrictions marked the beginning of Ramadan making things bleaker for sex workers.

“Barely a week into Ramadan, the restrictions were imposed again. Things are hard, of course. No one’s had it easy,” says Gulnara, a sex worker based in Fergana, one of the largest cities of Uzbekistan. Gulnara spoke to VICE on the condition of not using her real name for her safety. 

Formerly part of the informal sex workers collective of the Oltiariq district (the capital district of Fergana), Gulnara now solicits clients on her own by visiting the coffee houses of central Fergana. “But now, with the 50 percent occupancy rules in the restaurants and coffee houses, I am unwelcome,” she says. Gulnara, like so many other sex workers in Uzbekistan, stares at an indefinite future. 

The sacredness that many Muslims cling to in the 30 days of Ramadan has exacerbated things for Gulnara. “The restaurant owners now want to make way for only those patrons who are strictly there to break their fast. I don’t even know if prayers can help at this point. The moment Ramadan ends, I’m hopeful they will forget all the restraint and visit us, but even that seems unlikely now due to this sudden spate of new infections.” 

Despite the glaring and disturbing similarities however, Muslim nations aren’t a monolith with regards to their approach to sex workers. In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, almost all its older sex workers were vaccinated just two months before Ramadan at the country’s largest brothel. 

It’s a ray of hope for Muslim sex workers straddling a fine line between keeping the faith and getting by – albeit a small one. 

Follow Arman Khan on Instagram.