TANGAIL, Bangladesh – A man screams, and blood is drawn. Several hundred women emerge from their bedrooms, stumbling into the street. Eager-eyed, they stand on tip-toes and sharpen their elbows to get a better look.
Somewhere through the knot of angles and limbs an elderly woman in a mustard-coloured saree can be seen – can be heard – swearing, as she drags a man almost twice her size down a concrete alleyway by the torn collar of his t-shirt.
Behind the pair follow three teenage girls in Western pyjamas and skinny jeans, hissing and jeering and waggling nails filed to a point. The man turns a freshly scratched cheek to spit at their feet – and a chorus of silver bangles jingle in unison as the 16 year olds’ friends pull them back by their waistbands and they rain tight-knuckled blows against a wall of air.
The girls aren’t playing by the rules. They’re supposed to be sitting on upturned laundry buckets outside one of the eight official entryways to the brothel, faces bleached white with Gopinath’s ‘panc–cake’ powder. Their job is to lure customers into the brightly-painted labyrinth of moonshine and ganja smoke, where ten minutes of sex sells for 200 Taka [£1.80] and women are in control – albeit often of one another. But it’s August, and the prospect of another hour spent in the choking humidity of the South Asian summer sun isn’t tempting. Plus, the man didn’t pay.
Everyone sounds angry in brothels all the time anyway. I think we have a lot to be angry about.
Dating back 200 years, Kandipara is the oldest brothel in Bangladesh: a self-sufficient maze of windowless bedrooms, tea shops, roti stalls and drunken tailors. On a good day, its 400 employees will see 11 customers each, ‘or maybe 12’, they say, expressions sketched in contrasting shades of hope and dread. Either way, morning shifts start at approximately nine o’clock as businessmen and students from Tangail begin their rickshaw commutes to the office with a quick stop-off to stock up on sex and cigarettes. Then a steady stream of taxi drivers, shopkeepers and labourers find excuses to drop in throughout the afternoon.
But today doesn’t appear to be a good day. At least the drama serves as a distraction.
Moyna doesn’t like the chaos. One of the brothel maids is squatting on the floor preparing lunch on a small stove, and the 19-year-old can smell turmeric simmering next to garlic and bay. It’s tempting to give up; to curl up on the wipe clean tablecloth that covers her bed during work hours and retreat. But her neighbour, Kajol, has fixed her with a watchful gaze, so Moyna stands firm in the corridor.
She’s only been at Kandipara for a fortnight, after catching a bus from Bangladesh’s largest and most notorious brothel in Daulatdia, where she was trapped for five years. She turned up at Kandipara and nervously asked to rent a room. After half a decade in the sex industry, she figured finding a smaller, safer brothel was the best she could hope for – but now, as a freelancer, she needs to prove herself. Leaving Daulatdia, and the madam who imprisoned her there, took courage. The curry can wait.
‘Everyone sounds angry in brothels all the time anyway,’ she says, combing almond oil through her hair. ‘Most of the time, everyone is.’ There’s a pause. ‘I think we have a lot to be angry about.’
Her words are weighted and precise. She has little interest in her colleagues who lose control and fight back against their customers. ‘But I understand. When I first started working, I wanted to kick and bite and hurt every man who came into my bedroom like I was a dog. I begged them to leave me alone, but they wouldn’t stop.’
She was 13, and nobody had ever told her what a brothel was.
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