150-year-old Bangladesh brothel fights closure

By AFP
Published: August 1, 2012
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Islamic group protesting against it, says it corrupts the town's young men and must be razed. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

Islamic group protesting against it, says it corrupts the town's young men and must be razed. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

MADARIPUR: Tara Das says she is the fifth generation of her family to work at the same brothel in Bangladesh, but now she is fighting against protesters who want her business to close.

The red light district in Madaripur city is thought to have been in operation for at least 150 years, and the sex workers believe the sudden wave of protests are orchestrated by developers trying to take over the valuable land.

Last month, about 10,000 people led by a new Muslim group called Islahe Kaom Parishad (the National Reform Council) rallied outside the rambling complex to call for it to be shut down and the 500 sex workers evicted.

“Ever since they held that huge rally, I could not sleep properly. Tell me where I shall go?” Das told AFP. “This is my home and this is the only job I knew from my childhood. Please save us from these religious leaders.”

The brothel, founded for native jute traders during the British colonial era, is a cluster of moss-stained three-storey brick houses and tin sheds in the middle of Madaripur, 60 kilometres from Dhaka.

It is legal as it dates back to before Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, but is now being targeted by activists from Parishad.

The Islamic group has held a series of angry demonstrations and is lobbying city authorities on the grounds that the brothel corrupts the town’s young men and must be razed.

Sex workers believe the activists are organised by businessmen linked to local politicians, and they report a campaign of intimidation including an explosive device found recently on the site and two attempted arson attacks.

“We told the authorities that we won’t leave the place. Our job is lawful. We also don’t have any underage sex workers here,” said Momo Rani Karmakar, head of the Madaripur sex workers’ union.

“We’ve inherited the place from our grandmothers, some of them are still alive. We are like a family here.

“It’s a conspiracy to grab our land worth millions of dollars,” she said, adding that 110 children living in the brothel settlement go to school every day.

Since the protests started, police now patrol the area while government officials say any final decision on redevelopment is still pending.

A committee, led by the regional deputy administrator, has been set up and has tried to open talks to encourage rehabilitation of the sex workers.

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