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As a controversial new play exposes a secret seedy side to Britain’s Islamic culture, Maureen Paton uncovers the plight of women in the 'mujra' clubs




Above a halal butcher’s shop in a suburban West London back street is a carefully hidden world. On prearranged nights, Asian girls dance in the upper rooms for groups of Asian men in an erotic entertainment advertised only by word of mouth, with taxi-drivers bringing the customers to the door.

Sometimes there will be a live band on the rudimentary stage, but more often the women, who wear leather ankle straps hung with bells below their traditional costumes of tunic and leggings, will simply mime to film music. For this is Asian karaoke with a difference. As a signal to show his appreciation, a man will toss a £5 or £10 note in the direction of his chosen girl. And after the performance is over, sexual services are bought and sold in an adjoining room.

Nothing needs to be spelled out; it is understood that sex can, if a client wishes, be part of the equation.

Such pragmatic transactions, so similar to the private arrangements made at some mainstream lapdancing clubs, are not something that most Westerners would tend to associate with devout Muslim culture. But the same scene is repeated above other shops or in private homes or converted cinemas in many areas of Britain where there is a substantial South Asian community.

Pakistan is an Islamic state where sex outside marriage is officially a crime, which means that these “mujra”, or courtesan, clubs provide a rare and tantalising insight into a diverse subculture beyond the usual pious clichés and patronising assumptions about the influence of the fundamentalist minority. The mujra tradition has existed in the sub-continent for centuries; and now it has been transported over here.

So far, very few white Britons are aware that, along with the arrival of the curry houses that so transformed this country’s tastebuds in the late Sixties and early Seventies, came another, more underground, import from Pakistan which catered for certain sexual needs in the immigrant population. During the Eid festival which marks the end of Ramadan fasting, Asian men will often visit such places for a lads’ night out.

Yet so discreetly has the mujra conducted its business over the last few decades that only now, with the growth of lucrative sex-trafficking rackets extending to the South Asian as well as the East European communities in Britain, have the police begun to focus their attention upon illicit activities and human captivity in such members-only clubs.

When I contacted the Metropolitan Police’s Clubs and Vice Unit last week, a spokesman said: “We are aware there are premises in London where women have been trafficked into the UK from South Asia under the pretext of being employed as musicians and dancers and are then being forced into prostitution. The Met’s Quadrant initiative is committed to targeting organised crime in the South Asian community in Britain.”

Further confirmation of sex slavery comes from The Poppy Project, a Government-funded organisation which assists fugitives from prostitution with accommodation and rehabilitation. “We had four Asian women referred to us in January by the police,” a spokeswoman told me last week. “They had been trafficked into Harrow in northwest London: they came over as cultural dancers, and when they arrived their passports were taken away by their minders and they were forced into prostitution.

“Two of the women were planning to return to Pakistan because they had children over there, but the other two were too scared of reprisals if they went back — so they were planning to claim asylum here. But unfortunately our project was full because we only have funding to provide accommodation for up to 25 women at a time across the country. We had to turn them away and I don’t know what has happened to them.” All of which shows that a new stage drama called Bells, named after the mujra dancers’ distinctive ankle straps, is very far from being the product of a writer’s overactive imagination.

Fledgeling playwright Yasmin Whittaker Khan’s new work, which is being produced by the long-established Kali Theatre Company, tells the story of a love affair between a client and a courtesan who sees him as a conduit for escape from the club. Not only does the play feature what Khan describes as “in-your-face” sex scenes but — just as daringly for certain cultural sensibilities — a male Sikh character who is homosexual. Tomorrow, Bells will begin a short UK tour at Birmingham Rep, where a previous Asian play about rape in a temple led to such clashes last year between Sikh protesters and police that the playwright, Gurpreet Kaur-Bhatti, was forced to go into hiding after receiving death threats. The play was eventually taken off in December on safety grounds.

Khan, a lively divorcee in her early thirties, is a youth worker who has dabbled in television presenting, most notably alongside Jonathan Ross’s brother Paul in the Channel 4 show Mad For It. She was adopted by a liberal-minded white British family at the age of 13 after the deaths of both of her Muslim parents: her mother had been murdered when Yasmin was five and her father was arrested for the crime, although he was subsequently acquitted.

That unusual background, which she openly discusses, has made Khan perhaps more prepared to confront taboos than most; as she explains: “I love writing about things that people don’t talk about.”

After hearing on the Asian grapevine about the mujra clubs in Britain, she has spent the last two years developing Bells. She even managed to join the all-male audience at several courtesan clubs, persuading the bouncers to let her see the performances. “I was quite upfront with them: I said I was a playwright and was doing research into the dancers. I had an Asian male friend with me, but I wore Western dress — they wouldn’t have let me in if I was wearing Asian dress, otherwise they would wonder why a respectable Muslim girl would go to a courtesan club where men went to relax and be themselves,” says Khan, who describes herself as agnostic.

Unlike lap-dancing clubs, the mujra show does not involve striptease; instead the undulating dancers shake their breasts and bottoms at the audience. “They never take their clothes off during the performance because the culture is so repressed,” Khan explains. “But dancing is so associated now in Pakistan with prostitution that it’s difficult to practise it purely as an art form; and men from respectable families don ’t marry chorus girls.”

Exactly the same applied to white British society at one time, of course. “It’s just a matter of the two cultures proceeding at a different pace,” shrugs Khan. Courtesans can be found in the history of every court’s culture. Those in Pakistan enjoyed a special status under the Muslim Mogul rulers, who were generous patrons of the arts. Like their ancient Athenian counterparts, the hetairai, and Japan’s geishas, they were trained in music, dance and conversation and enjoyed more freedom of movement and even political influence than other women. It was from the courtesans, by tradition, that the sons of the nobility acquired sophisticated social skills as well as their first sexual experience.

These days the lowly descendants of those courtesans — for it is a world they are born into as the illegitimate children of the dancers and their clients — are based within an alternative community of artists and poets around the Diamond Market in Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan. They form a caste apart. Some of the more gifted dancers aspire to be actresses in Lollywood, the Lahore movie industry, but the stigma surrounding their profession is difficult to shake off.

When the mujra clubs began to take root in Britain, they were a natural magnet for British Asian girls running away from strict families; but prostitution has always recruited among society’s waifs and strays. “There’s not a market for runaways any more — it is girls from abroad now,” says Khan. “Among the working girls in Pakistan, it’s seen as a step up to come to Britain. They get promised all sorts, only to find that they are physically shut in when they get here and lose their freedom. Most of the dancers are quite religious: they pray and fast, they practise their Islamic faith. But I have even seen guys in the audience with big beards that signify a certain level of religious devotion.”

Khan knows of four or five such clubs in West London and three in East London, with others in such cities as Manchester and Bradford. “You have to acknowledge what it is: without sounding like a hardcore feminist, I see it as the exploitation of the women. It’s not glittery like the films: the reality and the pain hit you. It’s the ultimate male fantasy, women dancing for you, but there is no glamour involved for the women.”

Further corroboration of the seedier side of the mujra clubs comes from Hannana Siddiqui, of West London’s Southall Black Sisters, a campaigning Asian feminist group established in 1979. “Two years ago we came across two cases of dancers escaping from the mujra clubs,” she says. “The women turned to us because they wanted to be protected from their agents and promoters, who threatened them with violence. They were under pressure to be sexually available to men and their families back home depended on their income. They had insecure immigration status, so we applied for them to stay in the country and tried to get them accommodation. But we lost track of them because they didn’t keep in touch; perhaps they were frightened of reprisals.”

Political correctness, paradoxically, meant that until relatively recently the police and other organisations were wary of tackling problematic issues within the close-knit Asian community, effectively leaving it to police itself until the statistics for such horrific crimes as honour killings and forced marriages led to a shift in attitude. “Multicultural thinking has been about non-intervention,” says Siddiqui.

“The problem of Asian women being involved in prostitution is far more hidden than other types of sex industry or trafficking. Maybe it’s because there are fewer or because it’s extremely shameful in most Asian communities, so the women are extra-vigilant in keeping quiet about it because it brings so much dishonour to the family.

“These brothels are very discreet and haven’t got into the sauna business yet, as other prostitution networks have. But it’s rubbish to say that all Muslims have higher sexual morals than white Britons. It’s like any community, any religion — you have people with high moral standards who live by them, but you also have plenty of people who are hypocrites.

“A lot of men are not living by the standards they try to set for women or others in the community; there are a lot of double standards going on. In Bradford, when there were vigilante actions against white prostitutes, the local Asian population was saying: ‘We don’t want these women on our streets.’ But it turned out that some of the Asian men were having sexual relations with the women. This is all down to hypocrisy — and male patriarchy.”

Meanwhile, the secrecy surrounding the mujra clubs serves only to perpetuate the enslavement. After uncovering such human misery, it comes as no surprise that Yasmin Whittaker Khan is in favour of the legalisation of prostitution.

 

23rd March 2005