Channel 4 News, February 28, 2012

Afghanistan’s Secret Prostitutes

He has forced her to leave the classroom and become a prostitute. He, the husband, is now also the pimp

You never have to wander far from your front door in Kabul to be confronted by the dire poverty in a city where billions have been spent in foreign aid over the past decade of occupation by the west. Where an entire sub-economy has grown up around the semi-permanent presence of foreign NGOs.

You will see the beggars somehow surviving in the middle of traffic-choked streets (this city has some of the worst air-pollution on the planet) pleading with their missing body parts , appealing for alms, mouthing words that can never be heard above the din of the traffic at a near standstill in the freezing crisp air.

Or the widows, invisible in their burkhas, who sit in the snow at the roadsides, holding babies swaddled, but still coughing in the sub-zero air, for hour after hour after hour. They too, hope for the odd Afghani from generous passers-by.

Or get up early and go to the known places where they gather. Men, often hundreds of them, desperate for work of any kind for perhaps a dollar or two per day – maybe 100 Afghanis in their pockets after 10 or 12 hours hard labour in sub-zero conditions. Anything’s considered. No, change that. Anything’s grabbed with both hands unconsidered.

But behind closed doors of houses, reasonably well-to-do houses, there is also quiet despair.

In a Kabul suburb we have come to a woman’s house. We’ll call her Habiba. She’s playing with her daughter on the carpet, a toddler. There’s a small but modern flatscreen TV in the corner. A house of several bedrooms. In her headscarf and jeans she is very westernised by Afghan standards. On several occasions Channel 4 News meets Habiba and films and talks to her, with her husband not present. Even meeting an Afghan woman at all in her home would be quite unthinkable in most parts of this country and most of this city too – let alone doing so with no husband in the room.

But what we shall witness in this house goes so far beyond the norms of Afghanistan’s conservative society – so far beyond the norms of British society come to that – it is hard to find words to frame it.

Habiba, in her late 20s, is a schoolteacher. Her husband, a civil-servant. Or at least they were.

Prostitution in Afghanistan has increased

Some months back her husband’s epilepsy and other health problems forced him to leave his job, he said. And then he took to drink. And he also took to beating Habiba up if she declined to do his bidding.

By any standards in any society that bidding is extraordinary. He has forced her to leave the classroom and become a prostitute. He, the husband, is now also the pimp.

“I hate this life,” she says, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Right now I hate myself and my husband. I think I am the worst person in the world. It is horrible. And what about my daughter?”

She cries uncontrollably. “What kind of example – what kind of role model am I for her? But if I don’t do this I will get beaten.”

And you do not have to tell Habiba that in Afghanistan, if you leave your husband then you leave your children too and there will be no coming back and no safety net at all, financially. And your life and safety will be in real jeopardy. Habiba is trapped and Habiba knows it.

The motive for this couple in allowing us to film them and their extreme means of maintaining their income, is curious. They both think that if there is publicity in the west about this kind of thing and the lack of any kind of real support for people too ill to work, then things will somehow improve. It seems a deeply far-fetched, not least in a world where that same west is hell-bent on getting out of its Afghan mire as fast as it possibly can.

“I want her to go back to teaching. I want to get treatment and go back to work myself.” Says her husband in one breath. But in the next, he turns to Habiba and shouts:

“Get this place ready – we’ve got guests arriving.”

And Habiba will – must – obey. She must prepare the food and the tea. Tidy the front room to receive the guests. Make sure that everything is in order in the room behind the curtain where, after a little cursory chat and the exchange of a wad of Afghanis given to the husband (not to her) she will be taken by the hand by one of two men come to visit.

Behind that curtain in a room used for the business, she will make more money in a little over eight minutes, than she will in two weeks in the classroom. Except she won’t of course. the cash never was – never will be – given to her.

When the client returns to sit down and take a little more tea, she will follow meekly and sit too, in her own home, with the husband she now says she hates.

Then there will be laughter as the husband, the cliient and his friend pass an enjoyable afternoon. Habiba will offer food. She will offer and pour green tea. She will say nothing. And after twenty minutes or so, warm handshakes from the two visiting men for the pimp. Then a cursory slap of Habiba’s feebly proffered hand, from the punter – a sort of horizontal high-five, without the joy and happiness. And they are gone, out into the snow and another item of this secret business has been transacted.

She will now clear up the food and do the dishes. And only then will she confront her husband, all of it captured on the camera we have left running – with their agreement – in a corner of the room.

“Look at you – you just sit there and don’t say a thing. Say something – for God’s sake!! How can we go on living like this? You should be scared – God is watching you and you should be really scared.”

Her husband – her pimp – just sits there and says nothing it all.

A little later in the day they will go out shopping. They will trudge through the snow to the bazaar close by. He, carrying their daughter. She, dutifully walking a couple of faces behind her man as tradition demands, and clad in the full blue burkha one sees so much in Kabul. Just another Afghan family. Outside they follow the customs, culture, traditions. Indoors in secret, they are all obliterated for money, but at huge cost.

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