Thursday, June 02, 2005

Thoughts On The World's Oldest Profession

(The following article is an adapted version of the original which was first published on June 25 2003 in the deliciously controversial MuslimWakeUp! ezine (www.muslimwakeup.com). It is listed as one of the "Editors' Picks". Iy was something I wrote whilst coming to terms with learning that one of my close friends had returned to the profession after promising never to go back. I am re-posting it after watching a disturbing documentary on child prostitution in Indonesia. That documentary was shown on Australia's Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) TV channel (http://news.sbs.com.au/dateline/index.php?page=archive&daysum=2005-06-01). What troubles me most is that many Muslims such as myself cast judgment on women and girls in the profession without seeking to understand the circumstances that lead them to make this choice - presuming they even have a choice!)

God's Whores?

Back in the days when I was young and innocent, my mother would regularly seat me in front of the VCR and force me to sit through a 3-hour Urdu/Hindi movie. It was her way of getting her ‘piyara beta’ (allegedly beloved son) to brush up on his language skills. It was also her attempt to immunize me from totally assimilating into local ways (which in my white Protestant sectarian retro-Aussie neighborhood meant ensuring I did not hate Catholics too much).

After 10 of these awful sessions, I knew the drill. I could predict the story, the actors, even the playback artists. I knew that Muhammad Rafi was dead, and that chances were his amazingly sweet and versatile voice would be replaced with that of Kishore Kumar, a gentleman mum often referred to as the dude with ‘avaare ki avaaz’ (the voice of a lecher). I could even measure how far the fist of the ‘ghunda’ (gangster) was from the victim’s face during a fight scene. And up which trees the orchestra was hiding when the couple were dancing and singing in the park.

But then one day mum showed me a movie whose story line still haunts me. It haunted her when she first read the novel as part of her undergraduate studies at Aligarh Muslim University. The story was yet another illustration of what an awful deal corrupt and violent men dish out to women. And that includes Muslim men.

Umrao Jan Ada is said to be a masterpiece of Urdu literature. It is set during the eve of the East India Company’s move out of Calcutta and across the rest of northern and central India. These were the last days of the decaying and decadent Mughal Empire. Yes, they were tolerant (apart from Aurangzeb who mercilessly massacred the followers of sufi-inspired Guru Nanak and pushed them beyond the fringes of the Indian Muslim community). Yes, they were cultured. Yes, they were rich. Yes, they were my ancestors.

And yes, they were decadent. Many a courtesan entered the Mughal court. Religion and religiosity did not seem to matter when it came to sexual pleasure. But I guess the Mughals were just following what everyone else did.

Visiting courtesans and prostitutes was a gentleman’s game. The great nawabs and princes would gather at the ‘mahkhana’ (glorified brothel) where they would marvel at the poetic skills, the linguistic masonry and the sheer intelligence of girls who were usually kidnapped from their families at a young age and trained by poets and musicians and other cultural technicians on the art of being a respectable courtesan.

Of course, my semi-drunken Mughal ancestors weren’t just interested in the great minds and sweet words of these highly cultured women. For a few bags of gold, they had access to other treasures. Although the men had to prove themselves worthy, and this was not just an issue of money.

Umrao Jan Ada has been cinematized in both Pakistan and India. Mum reckons the Pakistani version has better ghazals (lyrical songs), but the Indian one is more true to the novel. I beg to differ. But that is not the point of this article.

The point is that the character of Umrao Jan (her real name was Ameeran) is so typical of the hypocrisy many have toward women (and in some cases, men) who work. Yes, it is true that this is a most oppressive and exploitative industry. Yes, women are often physically and psychologically abused. But they are still women. They have made their choice. And some may not have even had a choice.

Umrao Jan was kidnapped in her early teens. She had just been engaged to a young chap. Her dad had an argument with someone who had Umrao Jan kidnapped and sold to a ‘randi’ (female pimp) to be raised as a ‘thawaa’if’ (courtesan). Umrao lived in this brothel environment for some 6 years, during which she was taught classical music, poetry, etiquette and other culturally seductive arts.

Eventually, Umrao was unleashed upon an unsuspecting community of male admirers who had never seen anything like her. She was a princess. And like all princesses, she attracted a prince. He wooed her, seduced her, promised her his heart and then dumped her when his mummy found him a more ‘decent’ girl (ironically one of Umrao Jan’s friends who grew up with her in the brothel but who never appeared as a courtesan).

The town where Umrao stayed was attacked by the British, and she joined a convoy of refugees. One night she found herself in a town that looked ever-so-familiar. Some of the refugees asked her to sing for them. She sang of the familiarity of the place. In the audience was a young handsome man whom she felt she had seen before.

After the performance, Umrao went walking and found a house she recognized and an old frail woman who she had seen many years ago. The old woman recognized Umrao as her own daughter. She told Umrao of her father’s death from the grief of her kidnapping. Then the young handsome man in the audience appeared. The old lady said to him: “Look, son! Your sister Ameeran has returned!”

The boy looked at her scornfully and said words that represent the attitudes many of us have. “She cannot be my sister. She is not Ameeran. Ameeran is dead. This woman is Umrao Jan. She is just a prostitute”.

Umrao Jan left after hearing these words. The Indian version of the movie ends by showing Umrao looking at herself in the mirror and touching the mirror. The novel doesn't say what happened to Umrao in the end, but some have suggested that she committed suicide.

So how should we see Umrao. How should we allegedly pious and spiritually astute people view someone like Umrao Jan? I guess the first step will be to declare that prostitution is haram (legally forbidden) and that prostitutes will go to hell. And that society should reject and shun prostitutes.

But let me ask all you mullahs and mullettes this. Why do prostitutes exist? Why is there a plentiful supply of sex-on-tap? Simply because there is plentiful demand. And who are the clients? Usually the respectable people, the judges and politicians and businessmen and lawyers and doctors. And priests and rabbis and maulanas also.

So why are the customers, the clients, the real reason for prostitution to exist let off the hook so easily? And why are the workers, the service providers, the women with often multiple mouths to feed condemned?

And why is it that a prostitute is so dirty and awful whilst a girl who sleeps with some dude she just met at a bar or club and who bought her a drink so clean and wholesome? It reminds me of this female stand-up comedian I once saw who had this to say: “I cannot understand you men. Like, I go to a bar. And I sit there and one of you comes and buys be a drink. And then he expects me to sleep with him. Now tell me this – which prostitute would sleep with you for four dollars and twenty five cents?”

Among those of you reading this will be people who claim to believe in Jesus (peace be upon God’s Noble Messiah). And some who even claim to be following him. Now I ask you this. Who was Jesus’ closest female companion? Who was the one who went to the Garden where his tomb was to rub herbs on his body in accordance with Jewish custom? Who was the one who spent so many hours and days with him? Who was the one who shared his own blessed mother’s name?
Jesus had two Mary’s in his life. One was his mother, the one who miraculously conceived him whilst she was still a virgin. The one about whom the Qur’an says that she was chosen over and above the women of all nations. And the other Mary?

She was a prostitute.

Real Islam, indeed real religion is designed to rid us of the pomposity and self-righteousness that plagues so much religiosity. The prophets of God sat with and made time for those whom society pushes away. Christ spent time with tax collectors, fishermen and prostitutes. Christ did not go to King Fahd of his day and seek a few measly riyals in return for loyalty.

We know that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God be upon him) was known to spend time with a woman in Madina who suffered from schizophrenia. He also had a close friend Julaybib who had no known ancestry and apparently suffered from some physical deformities. And he was so fond of a black woman whose name has not come down to us but whose place in paradise is assured since she spent so much effort sweeping the Prophet’s mosque. And where did the great sufis come from? They originated from those poor starving semi-naked People of the Bench (‘ashab as-suffah’), the equivalent of today’s street people.

We don’t look up to street people or schizophrenics or cleaners. We look up to scholars and philanthropists and martyrs. Yet the Prophet told us that a person from each of these honored categories will be amongst the first to be dragged into hell.

He also told us about the prostitute. The one who finished her shift and went to the well. She saw a dog that was dying of thirst. She took pity on it, dropped her shoe into the well and dragged it out full of water for the dog. For showing kindness to a dog, the prostitute earned God’s mercy and forgiveness.

During his recent tour to Sydney, Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller referred to this incident. And he made a comment to this effect: “How I wish I was that prostitute. We should all wish we could have been her. She understood the reality of things. May God give all of us the understanding possessed by this woman”.

Yes, God created whores too.

5 comment(s):

  • Salam,
    Actually, Mary Magdalene was probably not a prostitute and may have been Jesus' wife. See lots of books on this including Starbird "The woman with the alabaster jar." Mary Magdalene got a bad rap around medieval times.

    By Blogger Anna in PDX, at 6/02/2005 06:31:00 AM  

  • my name is majed ihsan.

    im here to say hi. i read your articles.. nice stuff.

    email me


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/02/2005 09:35:00 PM  

  • Salaam -

    as someone who work some 40 hours a week with people with schizophrenia, and other assorted mental illnesses ... i think we'd be a lot better if we paid more attention to what folks categorized as "mentally ill" are saying to us all... we might learn a lot more at times than listening to "scholarly" types...

    I think this huge gaps and distances that exist between "leaders" "scholars" and "those whom society pushes away" is part of the reason why i find many of the present day books i read on Islam (often by academics) - to be so full of jargon, and no real flesh and bones.

    There is a saying attributed to Imam Ali, "live close to the masses/"common persons" - and protect their welfare..."

    By Blogger redwood, at 6/03/2005 04:55:00 PM  

  • If I follow your train of thought correctly, can I surmise that lets all be prostitutes, and lets turn our children, male and female, into prostitutes...
    Or, in actual fact what you are saying is that there are prostitutes to be pitied/loved and "saved", and then there are prostitutes to be condemned and loathed (as there are lawyers, then there are lawyers; there are scholars, then there are scholars; there are politicians, then there are politicians; so on and so forth.)
    On the story of the prostitute and the dog, the way I understand it was to illustrate the act of mercy itself, rather than the occupation of the person or the dog. You can be a lawyer, politician, thief, rapist, etc, etc but if you show the same kind of mercy to a fellow creature, you will be equally rewarded, as given to the prostitute. Any act of mercy or “goodness” will be amply rewarded by the Creator, irrespective of their occupation or position. And, by the same token, so does acts of wrongdoing or wickedness, irrespective of their occupation or position, no matter how high their “turbans” are.

    Allah Almighty Knows Best!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/09/2005 02:57:00 AM  

  • A well written, well thought out article. It definitely concurs with my beliefs. Interesting writing, irf :)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/09/2005 10:57:00 AM  

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