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Contrasting the Reality of Pakistani Sex Workers with Netflix’s ‘Heeramandi’: A Closer Look

The Netflix series “Heeramandi” has captured the attention of viewers with its portrayal of the luxurious lives of courtesans in the 1940s, set in the royal neighborhood of pre-partition Lahore. The show, also known as “The Diamond Bazaar” in English, showcases the courtesans engaging in relationships with aristocrats, forming alliances, and rivalries amidst India’s fight for independence from British rule. However, the reality for modern Pakistani sex workers in the present-day faded red-light district of Heera Mandi is far from the glamorous depiction seen on screen.

Shagufta, a 65-year-old former sex worker from Heera Mandi, dismissed the show’s portrayal, stating that the current state of affairs in the neighborhood is vastly different. She emphasized that today, the focus is solely on the physical display of the girls, with little resemblance to the opulence and respect that courtesans once commanded for their artistic talents in dance and music during the Mughal era.

Despite the show’s popularity, attracting nearly 11 million views in its initial weeks on Netflix, opinions are divided on its impact. While some view it as a revival of interest in the tawaif culture, others question whether it perpetuates stereotypes and taboos surrounding sexuality in conservative societies like Pakistan. Ar. Naveen Zaman, a cultural researcher, sees the show as an opportunity to delve into a previously shunned history and spark discussions on topics considered taboo.

The legacy of courtesans dates back to the Mughal era, where they held significant influence over the local aristocracy. However, during British rule and subsequent Islamic reforms in Pakistan, the once vibrant “diamond bazaar” of Heera Mandi was relegated to a red-light zone, eventually facing a crackdown that led to the closure of brothels and the end of traditional music and dance performances.

For individuals like Noor, a 38-year-old sex worker, the show fails to address the harsh realities faced by women in the sex work industry today. Unlike the romanticized portrayal of tawaifs in “Heeramandi,” modern-day sex work in Pakistan is marked by stigma and lack of respect, with individuals like Noor facing ostracism even from their own families.

The series has sparked conversations about the historical significance of courtesans, but for classical Indian dancer Manjari Chaturvedi, it represents a missed opportunity to shift the narrative towards empowerment and artistry, rather than reinforcing stereotypes. Chaturvedi believes that the focus on sexuality in the show only serves to perpetuate stigma, rather than highlighting the cultural richness of the courtesan tradition.