Any discussion reference or allusion to sex is not tolerated in conservative Muslim Pakistan. Even dancing and singing are regarded as immoral and sinful and any women caught doing either risks being accused of being a whore and losing her chance t get married

The male students at Haqqania Madrasa almost never see women. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “There are no female teachers, no female cafeteria workers; no female preference whatsoever at the madrasa...When they got used to me, most of the students expressed interest in talking about sex. Many of the were convinced that all Americans were bisexual, and that Westerners engage in sex with anything, anywhere, all the time. I was asked the dominant masturbation style of Americans, and whether American men were allowed by law to keep boyfriends and girlfriends at the same time." Goldberg said he and his photographer had "been asked for sex."

Adultery is a capital offense in some places in Pakistan. Jinnah, or sex outside marriage, is punishable by death. It sometimes happens under vigilante terms as Pakistan’s “honor killings” attest. Fornication is a crime punishable by public lashings and imprisonment. The punishmnet for pre-marital sex in 100 lashes. Under Pakistani customs still followed in much of the countryside, a man or woman can be declared outcasts or killed for having sexual relations outside marriage, or choosing their own spouse.

Some Pakistani men consume fala as an aphrodisiac. Fali is a goldfish found in the Indus River that only swims vertically.

Contraceptives in Pakistan

Contraceptive prevalence rate: 34.2 percent (2017/18). This figure is the percent of women of reproductive age (15-49) who are married or in union and are using, or whose sexual partner is using, a method of contraception. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Contraceptive use (any method, women ages 15-49): 34 percent (2018, compared to 12 percent in Sudan and 84 percent in the United Kingdom) [Source: World Bank ]

Top method of contraception: male condom [Source: Birth Control Around the World ]

Types of birth control used (2015); female sterilization: 9.8 percent; male sterilization: 0.3 percent; pill: 1.8 percent; injectible: 3.3 percent; IUD: 2.6 percent; male condom: 9.9 percent; vaginal barrier: 0.9 percent; early withdrawal: 8.4 percent; rhythm method: 0.8 percent; traditional 1.5 percent total: 38.5 percent [Source: Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide 2015 — the United Nations ]

Types of birth control used (1994): female sterilization: 4.1 percent; male sterilization: 0.1 percent; pill: 2.1 percent; injectible: 0.4 percent; IUD: 2.7 percent; male condom: 3.4 percent; vaginal barrier: 0.9 percent; early withdrawal: 3.4 percent; rhythm method: 0.9 percent; total: 18.2 percent [Source: Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide 2015 — the United Nations ]

The Guardian reported: “The most popular contraceptives are the injectable contraceptive and birth control pills, says Babar. Ease of use makes them particularly attractive for women labouring in the field. Almost every contraceptive method is sold for five Pakistani rupees (about five U.S. cents) apiece to a family, allowing Marvis [Marginalised Area Reproductive Health Viable Initiative, See Below] to generate an income from the sale of the products, which Marvis obtain at a government-subsidised rate of 3 rupees per piece. [Source: Sabrina Toppa and Allah Bachayo Khaskheli, The Guardian, June 1 2016]

Low Contraceptive Use in Pakistan

In 2011, just one in five Pakistani women ages 15 to 49 used modern birth control. Karin Brulliard wrote in the Washington Post: Contraception is shunned under traditional social mores that are fiercely defended as fundamentalist Islam gains strength. Rates of contraceptive use are particularly low in rural Pakistan, which is home to two-thirds of the about 180 million people in the nation. In this area of Sindh province, literacy rates are dismal, teenage marriage rates are high, and 10-children families are not uncommon. [Source: Karin Brulliard, Washington Post, December 14, 2011]

“Even in Sindhi deserts and the northwestern mountains, Pakistani women have heard of modern contraception, survey data show. That is in part because government and private health agencies, some funded by U.S. assistance, have churned out advertisements featuring jingles about condoms and vignettes about couples visiting health clinics.

“Greenstar is the country’s largest contraceptive provider, but “we’re a drop in the bucket in a country of 180 million,” said Shirine Mohagheghpour, the technical adviser for Greenstar, an affiliate of the Washington-based Population Services International. “You have to do this community by community.”

“In urban, middle-class areas, the message is slowly resonating. Two hours away, in the city of Mirpurkhas, a similar talk with women and a few mothers-in-law sparked boisterous discussion. Several said children were simply too expensive. “If it’s a sin, there shouldn’t be doctors who offer it,” one said of contraception, eliciting nods.

“At a private clinic in Mirwah, a woman named Buri, 35, said firmly that a small family is best. But it was too late: Married at age 13, she was pregnant 12 times before she opted for tubal ligation, a sterilization procedure. Ten of her children lived. None attends school. “They are uninterested in school,” she said. “Parents are too busy in the fields to pay attention.” Next to Buri lay her sister-in-law, silently shivering under a floral sheet, in labor with her first child. Presiding over the scene was their mother-in-law, a woman in ornate silver jewelry, who matter-of-factly stated that the newborn should be the first of at least eight children.

Three Stoned to Death for Adultery in Pakistan

In March 2007, two Pakistani men and a woman were stoned and then shot to death for committing adultery in northwest Pakistan. The Irish Times reported: “A jirga, or council of elders, in the Khyber tribal agency near the Afghan border ordered the execution of the three, two days after they were caught and handed over to the council for judgement, residents said. "Allah Noor, Shehzad and the woman, Tasleem, were caught red-handed in a compromising position by activists of the Lashkar Islami religious group," said one resident. [Source: Irish Times, March 15, 2007]

“Hundreds of people threw stones at them before relatives of the two accused men shot them dead. Sex out of marriage is a crime in predominantly Muslim Pakistan and punishable by stoning to death under Islamic laws, although that punishment has never officially been handed down. But in remote, semi-autonomous tribal areas, jirgas often decide on such issues. Hundreds of people are killed every year in Pakistan, most in rural communities, after being deemed to have dishonored their families. A government official in the area, southwest of Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province, said the accused had confessed to the jirga, and that authorities had not intervened.

In May 2014, pregnant 25-year-old Farzana Parveen was stoned to death by her own family in front of a downtown Pakistani high court in Lahore before a crowd of onlookers for marrying the man she loved. Associated Press reported: “Nearly 20 members of the woman's family, including her father and brothers, attacked her and her husband with batons and bricks in broad daylight before a crowd of onlookers in front of the high court of Lahore, the police investigator Rana Mujahid said. Hundreds of women are murdered every year in in so-called " honor killings" but public stoning is extremely rare. [Source: Associated Press, May 28, 2014]

Pakistan Amends Law on Adultery

In 1979 Zia decreed the establishment of shariat courts to try cases under Islamic law. A year later, Islamic punishments were assigned to various violations, including drinking alcoholic beverages, theft, prostitution, fornication, adultery, and bearing false witness. Women's groups feared that Zia would repeal the Family Laws Ordinance of 1961, but he did not. The Family Laws Ordinance provided women critical access to basic legal protection, including, among other things, the right to divorce, support, and inheritance, and it placed limitations on polygyny. Still, women found unfair the rules of evidence under Islamic law by which women frequently were found guilty of adultery or fornication when in fact they had been raped. They also opposed rules that in some cases equated the testimony of two women with that of one man.

Among some ethnic and tribal groups ssch as the Pashtun and Baloch, adultery has traditionally been punished by death to both parties. During her second term as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto tried to enact legislation to prevent rape victims from being charged with adultery and provide more educational opportunities for girls. She didn't have much success.

In 2006, th president of Pakistan amended an Islamic law which allowed hundreds of women facing charges for adultery and other minor crimes to be freed on bail. AFP reported: “The much-awaited amendment by General Pervez Musharraf would free 1,300 women facing various charges until their trial. The president has sought to reform Islamic laws on blasphemy and women's rights in the past but backed off because of strong opposition in deeply conservative Pakistan. [Source: AFP, 8 July 2006]

The “amendment is the president's first to the Hadood Ordinance, legislation based on the Quran and Islamic tradition. Under the ordinance, women can be sentenced to death by stoning if found guilty of having sex outside of marriage. Drinking is punishable with 80 lashes, theft with the amputation of the right hand. However, such punishments have not been carried out in Pakistan as courts from the Islamic and ordinary legal systems overturn each others' decisions in unresolved jurisdictional battles. Human rights groups say the Hadood Ordinance makes rape prosecutions almost impossible because under the laws, the victim must produce four male Muslim witnesses in court to prove the charge.

Prostitutes in Pakistan

Prostitutes in Pakistan can be found at truck stops, cheap hotels and restaurants near the bus stations, and red light districts, where they are licensed as "singers." Many of the prostitutes who worked at upper class joints in Karachi and Islamabad in the 1990s and 2000s were Russians, Azerbaijanis and Tajiks who claimed to be Turks. Many of them were smuggled into the country with the help of the Russian mafia and Pakistani police. According the Independent the prostitutes ask for between US$100 and US$150 but can be bargained down to US$50 to US$100. Pakistani women charge US$50 or less. For a time many Afghan prostitutes worked the streets in Peshawar. They were fairer-skinned and regarded as more eager to please than their Pakistani counterparts.

In a book about a prostitute in Lahore, William Grimes wrote in the New York Times: Louise Brown, a British academic who studies the sex trade in Asia, spent seven years, off and on, living in Heera Mandi” — an area associated with sex in Lahore. "The Dancing Girls of Lahore" is her report, both chilling and heart-warming, on a neighborhood where all the rules seem to be changing except the ones that keep Pakistani women in a state of abject servitude. .Brown, author of "Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia," has a sociologist's eye and a novelist's appreciation of her surroundings and the human drama that plays out before her... Her main character, Maha, a prostitute on the downward side of her career, comes alive in all three dimensions, fully realized in the circumscribed world that has defined life for her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother before her. [Source: William Grimes, New York Times, July 23, 2005]

“Prostitution, in Heera Mandi, is a family profession. Maha, like Brown, has a nose attuned to the subtlest gradations of status. Her miseries and her triumphs depend on it. In her prime, like the rest of the women of the quarter, she commanded top prices. At 12, she was sold to a wealthy sheik in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for a single encounter. Later she enjoyed the patronage of powerful, wealthy men, who, in Pakistan, are expected to keep multiple mistresses. Prostitutes refer to such clients as their husbands and, if lucky, can amass enough cash and gifts to buy a comfortable retirement.

“As the years pass, the clients become more numerous and less wealthy. Maha, in her 30s, overweight and shopworn after bearing five children, now depends on the uncertain charity of the feckless Adnan, an opium-addicted businessman who once set her up in a nice house outside Heera Mandi but more recently ordered her back to the old neighborhood. "I'm old and finished," Maha tells the author, who writes: "She's probably right."

“The family fortunes look bleak, and Brown looks on in distress as Maha grooms her three daughters for the trade. In spare, eloquent prose, she explains the harsh rules of the game. Adnan was Maha's last chance. After he leaves her, a question of when rather than if, she will be hard-pressed to attract another patron. Her son cannot hope to marry respectably. Unless her daughters rise to the occasion, she could very well wind up in Tibbi Gali, the discount sex market, where older women sell themselves for as little as 20 rupees, the price of a bottle of Coke. The once-beautiful Maha, fiery and proud, still refers to herself as one of the "'ten-thousand-rupee women' (US$169)." Brown perceptively analyzes this boast, often heard in Heera Mandi. By maintaining a prosperous front, prostitutes defend their price.

“Maha is a fighter, and Brown renders her life in full, sensuous detail: the long hours of boredom punctuated by vicious fights with her daughters; the search for solace in fattening foods and codeine-laced cough syrup; the firm belief in black magic and spells; the lurching mood swings. Perhaps the girls can find their way into films. (The neighborhood has produced many of Pakistan's movie stars.) Or perhaps Nena, Maha's most attractive, accomplished daughter, can find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow on sex-junkets to the Persian Gulf states, or in the protective arms of a wealthy patron.There are no truly happy endings. But against all the odds, women like Maha manage to make a life. Brown, astonishingly, makes that seem plausible.”

Mujra Dancing

Prostitution in South Asia has traditionally been associated with mujra dancers found at carefully hidden bars advertised by word of mouth. Mujra, or courtesan clubs, have traditionally been associated with men’s nights out during the Eid festival that marks the end of Ramadan. The custom is most alive in Lahore, which has a reputation of being more open and liberal than other places in Pakistan.

Mujra is derived from Kathhak classical dancing in India. Kathhak dancers enjoyed high status in the Mughal era and often entertained members of the court. There were so many of them at that time they formed their owned caste. The remnants of this caste, many of them illegitimate children born to mujra, are linked with an alternative community of artists and poets that hang out around Heera Mandi (the Diamond Market) in Lahore.

Mujra dancers do not perform a strip tease act or anything like that; they simply dance, often shaking their bottoms and breasts and wearing bells around their ankles. Maureen Paton wrote in the Times of London: women “wearing leather ankle straps hung with bells below their traditional costumes of tunic and leggings, will simply mime to film music...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, if the client wishes, is part of the equation.”

Whittaker Khan, a British-Pakistani woman who wrote a play about mujra dancers, told the Times of London, “They never take off their clothes during the performance because the culture is so repressed. But dancing is so associated now in Pakistan with prostitution that it is difficult to practice it purely as an art form; and men from respectable families don’t marry such girls.”

William Grimes wrote in the New York Times:For as long as anyone can remember, the neighborhood known as Heera Mandi, tucked into the northern corner of the walled city of Lahore, Pakistan, has been a red-light district. The name means "diamond market," but long before the British arrived in the mid-19th century it was already well established as a pleasure center, a place for Pakistani men to stray from their arranged marriages and to spend time with beautiful women schooled in the arts of song, dance and seduction. [Source: William Grimes, New York Times, July 23, 2005]

The old neighborhood, with its crumbling buildings, is on its last legs now. The fabled courtesans of Heera Mandi, once sought out by princes and emperors, are a distant memory, their role much reduced, like the geisha of Japan. Today's client is more likely to be a fat businessman flashing a Rolex and driving a Range Rover. The women, hastily trained, dance to music booming from a tape deck if they dance at all. Some are barely in their teens. Art has given way to pure commerce. "It was good in those days, but all that has changed," an old prostitute recalls. "Nobody bothers with singing and dancing anymore. We were trained for years, but today nobody does that."

Heera Mandi — Lahore’s Red Light District — and the Artist Based There

Heera Mandi (Diamond Bazaar), near Fort Lahore, is Lahore’s red-light district. Lahore’s electronic bazaar is located along Mall Road, Here you can find pirated versions of Hollywood films released the same week they appear at theaters in the United States. Parts of Mall road are shaded by old trees planted by the British. In the divider are orange flowers.

Controversial artist Iqbal Hussain lives in Heera Mandi and paints the portrait of the “dancing girls” and others who make their home there. Reporting from there, Michele Langevine Leiby wrote in the Washington Post: “Anyone who approaches the immense carved doors adjacent to Lahore’s famous Cooco’s Den restaurant will get the once-over from a pair of sharp-eyed sentries. If you can make it past these doormen, you will enter an art space unlike any other in Pakistan. Here, painter Iqbal Hussain has been quietly documenting the lives of the sex workers of Lahore for most of his life. The son of a prostitute, Hussain grew up among the Lahori demimonde. “I try to paint my own people and my own land as I see it,” said the soft-spoken, bespectacled artist nicknamed Cooco (pronounced “cuckoo”), whose family owns and runs the restaurant. His studio is in his childhood home in the city’s all-but-vanished red-light district, in the shadow of a magnificent mosque. [Source: Michele Langevine Leiby, Washington Post, November 18, 2012]

“Hussain, 62, is a controversial figure in Pakistan, not only for his paintings of sex workers but also because of works that proffer scathing commentary on Pakistan’s inclination toward a more and more religiously strict and intolerant society. And while the more liberal-minded art aficionados might appreciate his paintings on an intellectual or aesthetic level, they rarely purchase them. People think the images, highlighting the misery of society’s most vulnerable, will bring them bad luck. “The rich women, they want art that matches the curtains,” he said.

“For centuries, this part of the ancient walled city was the epicenter of a thriving industry of bordellos and dancing girls. In Hussain’s youth, the singing of women filled the air in much the same way the call to prayer does today. In his romanticized version of old Lahore, the most successful courtesans were renowned for their grace and charm. The wealthiest families sent their daughters to them to be trained in poise and elegance — a harder-edged version of the Swiss finishing school.

“As the neighborhood has changed, Cooco’s has become a respectable establishment where middle-class men bring their genteel wives and well-dressed children to dine in the shadow of the beautifully lit Badshahi mosque. The Mughal-style edifice, built in the 1670s, was once considered the largest mosque in the world. Hussain remembers the old days well. “For the women in little brothels in Lahore’s red-light district, the best business [was] during Eid,” he said, referring to the major religious holiday. “There would be a big queue over there,” he said, nodding toward the mosque, “with everyone waiting for their turn.”

“The studio is full of treasures: intricately carved wooden objects, Hindu statues and other artifacts from Pakistan’s Mughal past. Some of the pieces had been in the same families for generations. But as Pakistan became more conservative after the military rule of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in the late 1970s and early 1980s, people began selling them to the well-known artist because having the statues in their homes was seen as un-Islamic.

“The more controversial works are propped against the walls, their images hidden. In a back corner, protected by an enormous iron padlock, are the pieces that almost no one gets to see. Hussain produced a key and showed a series of eroticized studies of the female figure, including a couple in an embrace and a reclining semi-nude. He keeps them locked away to avoid being accused of promoting vulgarity. Not far from Cooco’s, women still ply their trade — but the grace, if it was ever there, is long gone, as they lean into car windows to negotiate their transactions.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (, Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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