By Mirza Khurram Shahzad –
Sex trafficking to the Emirates
The metro bus projects worth billions of rupees have been initiated in five major cities of the country. The stock exchange has surpassed a historic 30,000 plus mark. The dollar has slid to a 100 rupees rate. The army has launched a decisive operation against the terrorists to bring back peace and stability. The opposition political and religious parties are rearing up to bring a revolution for establishing true Islamic rule in the country.
Change is all over, but nothing has changed in civilization’s oldest trades, sex and slavery. The daughters of the nation are still up for sale. On sale to provide for their impoverished parents. On sale to provide for their jobless brothers. On sale because they don’t have the resources to get an education to earn an independent livelihood.
To get a good price on their bodies, they are offered to international markets, to international clients. They are exported because the domestic market is just no as conducive.
One of these daughters is Zunera, who once dreamed of becoming a computer engineer. Instead, aged 16, she was tricked into prostitution in the UAE, beginning a four-year nightmare of cruelty, violence and rape. Pakistan has long been an important source of cheap labour for the Gulf state, particularly its booming construction sector.
But campaigners and officials say hundreds of young Pakistani women are now also being trafficked every year to replenish the thriving sex trade in the brothels and nightclubs of Dubai. Zunera and her sister Shaista are two of them.
More than a year after she escaped from the clutches of her exploiters, Zunera’s pain is still etched into her stumbling, hesitant voice — and also into her body, which bears the marks of countless beatings.
Vivid scars run the length of her legs from ankle to hip, reminders of a botched operation after she was shot three times by the gang who trafficked her. Zunera and Shaista managed to escape their tormentors in 2013 but still live in hiding in a two-room house in a slum, fearing revenge attacks.
Their ordeal began in Zunera’s hometown in Punjab province, when the family got into money trouble and a neighbour named Ayesha offered the sisters domestic work. After a while Ayesha suggested she take the sisters to Dubai to work in her beauty parlour, getting fake papers to help the underage Zunera leave Pakistan.
Shaista is so traumatized by her experiences she can barely recount her harrowing ordeal. Fighting back tears, Zunera revealed the horror that awaited them at Dubai. “Ayesha took us to the lavatories at the airport and told us that we will be serving her clients for sex,” Zunera told this scribe. “We started crying and then she told us that we travelled on fake documents and if we said anything we would be handed over to police right there.”
Faced with no alternative, the sisters went with Ayesha, thinking they could just avoid having sex with clients. “The first time, she herself was present in the room and made us do what the clients wanted. We were raped in front of her and with her assistance,” Zunera said.
After that, Ayesha told the clients to keep their cell phones connected to her number during the intercourse so she could hear what was happening — and if they were refusing to cooperate.
“She used to torture us whenever we refused to perform certain sexual acts, and she told us that she knew whatever happened inside the bedroom,” Zunera said.
The women were not allowed to go out or even speak to one another freely. They could speak to their family in Pakistan by phone occasionally, but under watchful eyes and ears only.
“She used to beat one of us and ask the other sister to talk on phone to our parents, threatening to kill us if we revealed anything about the brothel,” Zunera recalled.
From time to time Ayesha brought the women back to Pakistan to renew their visas, frightening them into silence by telling them she would kill their whole families if they revealed the life they had been tricked into.
But finally in March 2013 the sisters picked up the courage to share their ordeal with their elder sister Qamar, who eventually obtained their freedom — but at a cost. “The brother of Ayesha and the younger brother of her husband came to our house. They fired three shots which hit me,” Zunera said. “In hospital, she sent policemen who harassed me and asked me to start walking despite the fact that my leg had undergone surgery.”
The family fled from the hospital and went into hiding because their neighbours also started abusing them for being “prostitutes”. Zunera’s family approached a court to try to crack the trafficking ring run by Ayesha and her husband Ashfaq. The court ordered the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to act but the case has since made little progress.
Lawyer Zulfiqar Ali Bhutta, who is fighting Zunera’s case, says the trafficking gangs often have influential connections to politicians and the police. “Several gangs smuggle dozens of young girls from Pakistan to Dubai for prostitution every week. Nobody takes action against them,” Bhutta said. “The main accused in this case, Ashfaq, fled from the court in front of FIA officials. They did not arrest him despite the court cancelling his bail,” he said.
“The accused in this case used to come to the court on vehicles bearing name plates of MNAs and MPAs. We don’t know who these Parliamentarians linked with them are but these gangsters are very powerful, well connected and influential,” Bhutta said.
The Response of the Governments
A recent US State Department report on human trafficking said the UAE government was making significant efforts to tackle sex trafficking, pointing to prosecutions and protection offered to victims. In 2013, the US report said, the UAE government identified 40 victims and referred them to state-funded shelters.
But if the UAE authorities are keen to confront the problem, in Pakistan, indifference reigns. “It is true that hundreds of girls are being taken to Dubai for work in beauty parlours, in music and dance troupes, but there is no proof that any of them has been smuggled for prostitution,” Syed Shahid Hassan, deputy director FIA Faisalabad, told AFP.
For Zunera and Shaista, their ordeal has abated but not ended.
Ayesha has surrendered to a court but then been freed on bail. The sisters now live in constant fear that a gunman will come back for them.
“She (Ayesha) has come back from Dubai and is searching for us. We are under constant fear. She can trace us any time and get us killed. We need protection and want her behind bars but the government is doing nothing,” says Zunera.
Shahid Hassan, the Deputy Director FIA, says the gangs trafficking the innocent women are too smart to leave any traces.
“We are unable to find any clues that all these women are being taken abroad for prostitution forcibly. And if there is no evidence that a woman is being forced to go abroad, how can we take action? Even in the case of Zunera and her sister, these two women travelled with Ayesha to Dubai dozens of times, how can I believe that they were forced to travel with her for so many times and they never complained to anybody”.
“The court gave clear instructions to build a case against Ayesha and her gang but the FIA did nothing. They closed their eyes when Ashfaq fled from the court room after his bail was cancelled and later told the court that they were unable to find him.
This is not the only gang which is smuggling women abroad for prostitution, but the authorities are doing nothing to trace them. They are a party with them and are bribed. The pimps have also connections with the politicians and use their influence,” he said.
So when will the actual change come? The power has been shifted from the military to the elected government. The judiciary has gained independence. The opposition has succeeded to mobilize workers for an upcoming revolution.
But nobody is being convicted for these heinous crimes no matter how many Zuneras are raped on gun point or for a few pennies to feed someone’s greed.
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad