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women-964On August, our Election Commission — in an announcement that sounded too good to be true — had recognised the title of sex workers to be added to our National ID cards. That is, along with journalists, nurses, tailors, priests and many other existing professions, sex workers were legally accepted in the central database of voters’ roll.

Election Commissioner Shakhawat Hossain was quoted by the AFP: “If anyone wants to put sex work as a profession, we will recognise that. There is nothing wrong with it. After all, it is one of the oldest professions on earth. We honour the human rights of all professionals.”

Joining many other activists I leaped and saluted Mr Hossain and the EC for publicly announcing something that made sense after a long time, holding the respect that one truly deserved. The Sex-Workers Network of Bangladesh (SWNOB) immediately drafted a ‘thank you’ letter and started preparation for a celebratory event.

That joy however did not last long. Within a week, the EC shocked everyone again, by withdrawing their decision.

During the first formulation of the voter list in 2007, 14 vocations were included in the registration form: government employee, private sector employee, physician, engineer, teacher, lawyer, banker, trade, labour, farmer, student, housewife, daily wage workers and unemployed. Then later on, the Photograph with Electoral Roll Project had proposed that the EC include 30 more vocations — such as blacksmith,
fisherman, carpenter, cobbler, boatman, porter, butcher, cook, vendor, rickshaw puller, barber, tailor, judge, contractor, driver, nurse, journalist, retired government employee, gardener — in the registration form. The EC approved all at first. Within a week, however, they recalled their decision, and approved only 29, omitting the one and lonely profession of sex work.

Sohul Hossain, another Election Commissioner, was then quoted in saying that people of this occupation will have to use the option of ‘other’.

It is important to note that this is not only a ‘Voter’s ID’ card but ‘National ID’ card. This ID card is not only used in casting votes but is essential and required by the State for many other purposes including opening bank accounts, in getting passports, or in getting license from trade bodies. And most importantly, as it pertains to the sex workers, this card is used for getting their children admitted to schools.

“National ID diya labh ta ki hoibo? Amar miththar theika shoira ashtey parbo o churi koira thaka thekey bachtey parbo.” Said Shahnaj Begum, President of Durjoy Nari Shongho (DNS). “Being able to tell our profession on our National IDs — it is the first form of recognition to fight our long-winded process of establishing our basic-rights. For example, I don’t have to hide during a natural disaster if I have this ID, otherwise, without an ID I will be kicked out, be it at the relief-places, schools, offices or even for getting proper medical help.”

Yes. The NIDs may or may not be a big deal for you or any other privileged citizens of Bangladesh, but for the general sex workers vulnerable to rape, abuse, and harassment in a male chauvinistic system —it is crucially important.

In defence of the rejection, the Election commissioner Sohul Hossain mentioned that the vocation ‘sex worker’ was omitted from voter registration forms in order to discourage it. But of course they can go as ‘other’? It is almost like saying, “We will use them, and reuse them, but we cannot afford to admit their existence to ourselves.”

Since when is it the job of EC to take such a moral stance?

Will we be able to remove sex work, one of the oldest professions of our society, by systematically keeping them ‘hidden’ on our state system? Or would there be 20 million more individuals who will jump into choosing this profession just because they can mention it on their IDs now?

Honestly, does the EC really think that getting them listed through our National IDs will really make more of us embrace the shackles that come with this profession?

By NOT giving them the recognition, aren’t we, the greater part of society, forcing sex-workers — the majority of whom already form the most marginalised part of the oppressed female sex — to continue living in captivity? In that ‘darkness’ of it all, how will anything change for the better?

If being ‘adults’ mean we cannot speak loudly and clearly of what we do in life, and instead are asked to cheat and hide our professions, then what kind of democracy is this?

Had they been given the option to truthfully state what they do, it would hold a clear account of not only how many members of our community are forced down this path, and thus addressing the deeper problems of our society but also an idea of how many depend on their services.

It may have been less disturbing, had we known the reasons behind why this independent constitutional body, within just few days of ‘approving’ something, was all of a sudden compelled to withdraw their decision.

At some point we are bound to come out of this captivity. The sticker above my desk reads: “Kono nirobotai jouno-kormideyr ostitto bilin korbey na — ashun odhikar er kotha boli.” Perhaps EC, our new moral police, will find some compassion in their hearts to understand that and create the platform for healthy dialogues on our class-based, profession-based social concerns.


Wasfia Nazreen is a development practitioner, a multi-disciplinary researcher and a journalist. She is a member of DRISHTIPAT Writers’ Collective.

20 Responses to “Sex workers and our moral police”

  1. Abu Musaab

    Hi Wasfia,
    I know that you practise a certain form of Buddhism which I assume by your frequent referrences to teachings of Buddha ji. Let me quote from the Lord Buddha’s view on prostitution(ref can be produced if required).
    On voluntary and involuntary prostitution He said:
    1. The man who sleeps with the woman engaged in prostitution voluntarily is the worst person.
    2. The man who sleeps with the woman engaged in prostitution involuntarily, for the sake of survival, is in delusion rather than seeking betterment through enlightenment.
    Finally the Buddha said ‘ marriage is one of the happiest ways of life and sexual immorality only leads to suffering.
    Therefore, it is evident that your position on prostitution articulated in your write-up does not concur with the teachings of your Lord Buddha ji.
    Abu Musaab

  2. Masud

    I don’t support this. Why should the country recognise them as sex workers and approve the title in the ID card? Shouldn’t we rather try to rescue them and provide them with some alternative mode of earning so that they can live with honour and dignity?


  3. Russel Ahmed.

    I also agree with Miss Wasfia Nazreen. We should give them their due rights without any excuses. It is an ancient occupation. Many countries of the world have already granted them due legitimacy and rights. But where are we? All we can do is create controversy and but never attempt to solve any.

    Thanks to Miss Wasfia once again for her write-up.

  4. Somnath GuhaRoy

    Personally, I hate the fact that any unfortunate woman should have to take up sex work against her wishes in order to sustain herself or her dependents. And if anyone takes it up as a choice it would not deter her/him if we looked the other way. I remember a half-mad (probably due to personal problems) beggar woman on the streets who used to sell her body in order to buy medicines and food for an unrelated dying old man on the street, even though she used to earn enough to sustain herself by the alms she got. The man used to curse her and himself too for this, but she was not deterred. It is very hard not to condemn ourselves as a society where any human has to make such a choice. If we would condemn her, why not first condemn a butcher or a fisherman who too may not have any other choice to earn?
    There are too many unsolved issues if we continue to act holy and keep things under wraps — lack of access to civic facilities, harassment by police and goondas, prostitution rings, etc.

  5. priscilla raj

    What exactly did Mr. Shakhawat mean by human rights with regards to sex work? Is taking up the profession of sex work is a human right or is the right to mention’s one’s such profession is a matter of human right? The EC and the government should make many more attempts to clarify their stand with regard to sex work? EC’s hesitation about putting this profession in their occupation list is a typical example of the government’s ever evasive and ridiculous position on the matter. The way Mr. Shakhawat has talked about the human rights of sex workers doesn’t reflect seriousness that this question deserves.

  6. Nobody

    I’m ready to debate with anyone and everyone on this topic, on this thread. I would especially like the author, Wasfia Nazreen, to join in the discussion. You can’t just write an article like this and stay away from the discussion. It’s too often that authors write sensitive articles, but don’t has the courage to stand and come forward to follow-up.

  7. Nobody

    It’s interesting to see so many idiotic, blind Bangladeshis who are so desperate to appear as “modern” are supporting the author’s point of view. Do they want their daughters to take up this noble profession? I feel that the people who supported the author’s position ought to support their daughters to become prostitutes, otherwise it would be hypocritical of them to support this article.

    As for the author, Ms. Wasfia Nazreen, she appears to represent the naive, rich, liberal-minded elite of Bangladesh who grow up in a sheltered environment, insulated from the outside world, and exposed only to a foreign culture, so much so that she cannot even imagine for an instant that there are some aspects as to which a foreign culture may be wrong about. Educated in English medium schools, they go to Western universities when they grow up, these people think that parroting the West will in some way make them more respected amongst their peers.

    So, let us follow the author’s logic. Prostitution is a human right, and anybody who opposes it is a ‘moral policeman’. Well, tell me something:

    * Do you support incest? (incest = brothers marrying sisters/sons marrying fathers, etc.) No? Shame on you, moral policeman!
    * Do you support female genital mutilation? No? Shame on you! Moral Policeman!
    * A teacher wants to teach a class, naked. She/he is a nudist. Do you support him/her? You don’t? Damn you, ignorant “Mullah”! Go back to your suicide bombs!
    * An adult wants to commit bestiality (sex with animals). You don’t support legalization? Yet another example of how mullahs are ruining this society and turning BD into another Afghanistan!

    And so on…

    I’m ashamed that not a single person, with the exception of ‘khan hq’ has spoken out in favour of self-restraint and decency. If the majority of Bangladeshis are like the people who support this author, it is no wonder Bangladesh is in the situation it is today.

    • Selina Akhtar

      Mr. Nobody,
      Please come out with a real identity if you want to debate. You have to be fair. Personally, I feel this article is very timely and could only be appropriate.
      Selina Akhtar
      Uttara, Dhaka

    • Somnath GuhaRoy

      Your concern for a clean society is laudable, but it is not fair to damn with epithets those who hold a different view.
      Also, there is nothing wrong in being rich or studying English (or Bangla or Hindi or …) or appreciating Western (or Eastern) thoughts if it would open windows and minds.

      • Russel Ahmed

        Thank you for coming up with such a good debate on this issue. Keep it up.

    • Wasfia Nazreen

      Hi Nobody,
      Apologies for the delay, this has just now been brought to my attention.

      Of course, I’ll debate but first may I know who i am debating with?

      Secondly, my founding schooling was done in Bangla medium. I grew up through much struggle, far away from the sheltered environment you speak of… supporting myself from the age of 14, paying university and all tuition through my own hard work. Therefore, i am not clear to which ‘rich’ society you are referring to.

      Before you condemn someone to such extremes, it might be a good idea to do some research and get your facts right.

  8. nisha

    Our societies maintain double standard to the core – couples are not allowed to hold hands, kiss, hug publicly. But the state turns a blind eye to issues that bring women to sex work and harasses sex workers. It also turns a blind eye to the buyers, pimps, and potential punters. But this decision is a way forward, even if the sex workers are lumped as the ‘other’. Women have always been the ‘other’ in the society.

  9. Eduardo Romero

    Congratulations for a great article. So rare!

    There are many professions that are not particularly appealing. Garbage collector, road sweeper, sex worker… People mostly do those jobs because they don’t have much of an alternative. For the money of course. Don’t most of us work for money?

    I completely agree that the EC’s decision is basically hypocritical: these people (women, men, children) are there, but let’s keep on pretending that they don’t exist.

    I have met some sex workers who were happy with their profession, which by the way is completely respectful. Who preferred providing sex services than waiting tables in New York City or cleaning houses in Paris. They simply want to practice their profession in a safe and clean environment. Like everyone else should be entitled to.

    Of course no one should accept children in it. Just like no one should allow children collect garbage or work in a mine, or in a construction site, like we see each day in this city.

    Acknowledging the existence of the sex workers, by regulating it, would basically contribute to make their lives safer and to avoid the unacceptable involvement of under age people in such work.

    I believe this country needs more opinions like the ones found in this article.

  10. Tirtha

    General Sakhawat’s statement appears to be a breakthrough opinion in regards to such a sensitive social issue. It is an unprecedented position from a person holding such an important public office.

  11. khan hk

    As I said earlier, sex work should be eradicated completely so that no woman ever goes through the agony of being called a sex worker. We need to learn to respect our women folk so that they never fall victim to any social injustice.

  12. khaqn hk

    I am not going to argue over what should be or should not be. But allowing “sex work” claiming it as a human right as claimed by Shakawat Hussein is just preposterous! How can he say this while countless of women as well as under-aged girls are passing their days in utter agony taking up sex work as their profession? Sex work is anything but a profession. It should be immediately banned and those hapless women involved in that “profession” should be rehabilitated with a dignified profession.

  13. Rajeeb

    Thanks for the great write-up! More voices should be raised regarding this issue. But coming to think of hypocrisy, isn’t everything that is related to the word ‘sex’ is a taboo in our society? Nothing can be a better proof than the huge population of how sexually active as a nation we are? And yet we preach ‘don’t talk about it’. It’s the same thing about homosexuality too (and every other sexuality). Just by not acknowledging it wouldn’t make such a basic human instinct fade away.

    Again, we need more such voices!

  14. Waliul Haque Khondker

    Bravo Wasfia! A very well written article! The EC did act logically! Their subsequent switch over to ‘Other’ smacks of hypocrisy! The reason for this reversal of original decision could very well be a ‘Mullah pressure’! Don’t the so-called Mullahs (For that matter EC too) know that ‘hypocrisy’ is the worst form of sin? Then who are they trying to please? Sex work is a licensed profession, so omitting it from the list of professions can be challenged in the court of law through a writ petition.

    • Abu Musaab

      @waliul Haque,
      which department in Bangladesh issues license to sex-workers?

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