Bangladesh—one of the few predominantly Muslim countries where prostitution is legal—is home to a walled brothel district, where many of the women sex workers were either trafficked or born inside the brothel's walls. Photojournalist Sandra Hoyn recently visited the Kandapara brothel in the Bangladeshi district of Tangali to capture images that show what life inside the brothel walls is really like. The result is a series of beautiful but often heartbreaking photos.
Cosmopolitan spoke with Hoyn via email about what it was like to be a visitor to one of the oldest and largest brothels in Bangladesh.
How did you find out about the Kandapara brothel?
I am interested in human relationships, in various factors of human life, [and] especially human existence on the edge of society. I read that Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim countries where prostitution is legal. The Kandapara brothel in the district of Tangail is the oldest and second-largest in the country—it has existed for some 200 years. I was curious about living in the brothel and [the women's] situation in the society.
How did you gain access to the brothel?
Was it as simple as just walking in?I spent four weeks from January to February 2016 in Bangladesh. At the beginning, it was difficult to get access to the women and customers. I was there with a translator and a local photographer. The first week, I didn't take photographs, I just walked around and talked with them. Taking intimate photographs was possible after they trusted me. Some customers didn't want to be in the photographs, especially those with a rich family. But other customers didn't care at all about it.
Even without understanding our language (just with the help of a translator sometimes), some of the girls and me became very close. Most of the women in my photographs found me, and they asked me for photographs and selfies when I walked through the streets in the brothel. Every day I met with them, they became more open and wanted to share their experiences. Every time I tried to get in contact with a girl on my own, it was more difficult—many didn't want to and didn't let that mask fall. So I decided to walk through the brothel and wait until the girls spoke to me. These girls I visited regularly.
You mention in your piece for the Washington Post that women inside the brothels are "weak but also powerful." What makes them powerful, and how did you see them wield that power?
The most vulnerable stage is when a young sex worker enters the brothel at the beginning as a bonded girl, usually from 12 to 14 years. Coming from poor families, the girls are often victims of trafficking. Bonded girls have no freedom or rights. They belong to a madam, have debts, and are not allowed to go outside or keep their money. When they have paid all their debts, usually between one to five years, they are independent sex workers in the brothel (mostly between the age of 18 to 35) and they have more rights. Then, they can refuse customers and keep their own money. From the moment that a woman has paid her debts, she is free to leave the brothel. But these women are socially stigmatised outside their "homes" and thus often choose to stay and continue supporting their families with their earnings.
Many women have their "boyfriends," or regular customers who pay them. I know one woman who has turned down the marriage proposals of her most faithful client because she doesn't trust that he will let her keep her money. She'd rather maintain her independence as a sex worker.
In the brothel, the women are smoking, dancing, talking loudly, and sometimes fighting with the men. In the public area, this counts as bad manners. It depends on their status, but they can also refuse customers if they don´t like them.
The women also took care of me, made sure that nothing happened to me, and stayed with me to avoid misunderstandings. Sometimes when some men came to close to me, the women protected me and kicked the men out of the brothel.
What was it like for you, personally, to be in the walled brothel? How did you feel, what was going through your mind?
I have had mixed feelings. Of course often I felt pity, sad. Sometimes I felt very bad to be taking pictures. But I always had to remind myself that I am a photojournalist. Sometimes it is difficult to keep the journalistic distance. Taking portraits of Pakhi, a 15-year-old girl, together with a customer she didn't like at all was a bad experience. She is like a friend to me. It felt like I was abusing her when I took those pictures. But I forced myself to do it, it wouldn't be real if I didn't show it. Her customer came in a group of five men who all wanted to have sex with her one after another. This was horrible.
The brothel is like its own microcosm, it is a city in a city. In the narrow streets, there are food stalls, tea shops, and street vendors. I spent every day from morning 'til evening in the brothel and some days I forgot where I was. It was sometimes like everyday life in another city with it's own rules. Many of the clients enjoy drinking alcohol, which is forbidden outside for Muslims. I saw many men going to the brothel just to drink a tea or have a talk with the women.
Inside the brothel, the women didn't wear the hijab, just when they leave the brothel to go shopping. When the women have free time, they danced and laughed together. They are joking with each other, kidding the customers. The girls laugh a lot, are very lively and cheerful. They play and often forget their sadness. There are also a few customers who are really in love with their girls.
Most of them have sad stories—but they are really strong, at least outwardly. I admire that they manage their lives under these circumstances and do not give up. They are not just survivors or victims, they are fighting and enjoying their life in their own way. They still have dreams. Most women have the dream to earn enough money in the brothel to buy their own house outside when they are old, and they want to not be dependent on men. They want earn enough money to give their children at least a good school education. They want them to have a better future than they did.
Why do you think it's important that people see what life is like inside the walled brothel?
The sex workers are not treated like normal citizens, but they are a reality that society has to accept. Their environment should be improved. Recognising the existence of sex workers is the first step to ensure that they have a right to live a normal life as any other human being.
Getting this problem out in the open will hopefully bring change. Public awareness is important.