Sex, Work and Videotape
A recent report suggests that there may be about 1000 women plying the world’s oldest profession in Kabul. That’s around one in every two thousand women in a city of around four million people. So how do you spot one? There is no red light district, no thigh-high boots and stilettos and the only fishnet you’re going to catch a glimpse of is the pale blue grill covering the face of the 75 per cent of women who wear the burqa. Just spotting a woman driving here is the equivalent of catching Ronald Mcdonald riding a pink elephant down your local high street. Not surprisingly there are no happy hookers swinging their patent leather handbags round the back of Kabul Bus Station touting for business. No, the sex trade is one of those supreme examples of the parallel universes that exist out here. Which is why it’s so interesting.
Kabul is unlike any other city in the country. It has a high proportion of young men who are now connected to the outside world via progressive TV stations, the internet and smart phone technology. They feel it in their fingers, they feel it in their toes and sex is all around them and so the feeling grows. Only here it’s look, but don’t touch. Sex outside of marriage is illegal, and ‘fraternising’ with a woman is virtually impossible. In the ancient power struggle of sex versus religion, the mullahs seem to have the upper hand. But enter stage left – Prostitution – the oldest profession in the world. Highly illegal but as most Afghan men will testify, pretty common. Even during the Taliban times there were apparently a number of brothels here. There still are, just don’t go looking if you are a white boy. Even though many ex-pats believe they can shape-shift into an Afghan male by simply growing a beard and throwing on a shalwar kameez, the world of local whore-mongering remains completely taboo for the kharajee (foreigner).
A young Afghan friend gave me the low down: if they don’t have a prostitute’s number they get in the Corolla and cruise up and down certain areas like Macroyan (a popular haunt for the unmarried and upwardly mobile Afghan ‘yoof’). If they see a girl sporting fancy shoes or painted nails (there’s not much else on show), they pull up and wait for her to get in the car. If she doesn’t get in the car, she is not selling anything. Just like Kings Cross but without the chewing gum. I ask if I can go kerb crawling but I am told in no uncertain terms “you can never go there. It is too dangerous and if you got caught…“. Westerners, it seems, have to make do with Chinese and Russian imports.
Cut to my date with the streetwalker of Kabul; “I’ve got one for you! I’ll be round your house in twenty minutes.” It was 9am, and my fixer without warning had rustled up a lady of the night/early morning to interview. I had no time to warn my guards about visitors and hardly any time to tidy up. I’d waited months to try and find one prostitute to interview but my new eager beaver assistant turned up with two. The walk of shame into my compound was palpable. Even though both of them were wearing matching burqas their profession seemed obvious. Maybe I was projecting but I felt the whole street was silently tutting. Having got the niceties out of the way, “No I don’t want sex, I’d like to talk to you please” the interview began.
Tiffany Downs (false name) started off with the expected tale of woe, this isn’t a job anyone chooses in Afghanistan. Husband killed by Taliban whilst working for the Americans. She couldn’t get compensation, the Taliban threatened to kill her, she had to leave her home and had nowhere to go, her family had previously disowned her due to the fact that her marriage was unsanctioned. No money, no job, no hope. She finally got a job at an international NGO but it came with offers of paid sex from Afghan staff. She then lost her job. Her kids were starving and she couldn’t pay the rent. So she had no choice but to go on the game. I’d read many similar stories before; sadly this type of tale is not even rare, it’s just another tragic example of the fate of dispossessed women who get little or no sympathy from their brutal male dominated culture. She mentioned that prostitutes constantly run the risk of being gang raped by the police if caught and the penalty she could pay if she is formally charged is about five years in prison for both her and her kids.
No laughing matter. Only like most Afghans in situations almost unimaginably difficult to people who grew up in the west, she had not a trace of self-pity or self-absorption. In fact she was somewhat like a caricature of western call girls – strong, funny and sharp. When I requested if could take her picture (without showing her face), she asked me if I wanted to take a picture of her pussy. I think she was joking but you might be pleased to learn that, like the News of the World during their regular hooker tabloid exposes, our reporter declined the offer and left. I don’t think I’ll see her again but then again I wouldn’t know if I did. Nice shoes though.
The Afghan Hound