I thought long and hard about this post. Whether I should do it or not, even how. But in the end, it became something that I just had to write about or it would take something away from me.
Two nights ago I did something that I wouldn't have expected of myself. I took the side of organised, well-placed, safe society and its inhabitants over the fringe-dwellers, those who risk more than a limb or two for their existence.
This post may meander but I plan to have it flow in two ways. The first part most my readers can respond to, and I hope you will, the second part might only interest my Oman readers (if there are any apart from my mother).
I live in a pretty decent area. Some might, and have, called it upscale even. Till a few years ago, it was entirely residential but as with most things in Oman these days, it's become a hot mix of commercial and the residential. It's been done so peacefully that most residents haven't had a problem yet. The apartment building next to mine used to be a regular residential place till someone took it over and made it a serviced apartments kind of place.
The first few months there was a stream of very busy people, mostly airline crew going and coming at all hours of the day. These days, the building hosts a bunch of far-eastern women. Easily called Chinese here by everyone, these girls are women of the night.
Prostitution, as far as I am concerned, is perfectly okay. I feel bad when exploitation is part of the deal but prostitution has its place in society and sex workers are doing many of us favours inadvertently by keeping the perv-on-street count low.
But when those women leave their building and boundaries and decide to make the gate of my house their pick-up point, I am little uncomfortable. And when they decide to haggle, hail and harass their customers two feet away (literally) from where my child or the children of my neighbours are playing, then you know, I have a HUGE problem.
For many reasons.
Firstly, you never know what kind of people these women attract. This part of the region is known for its men having a propensity for young children -- boys, girls, doesn't matter. Paedophiles aren't exactly rare. Even if it weren't just paeds, there are kids of all ages who play there every evening. Some very lovely children between the ages of 1 and 17. If these women are going to hail their customers right there in front of where I stay, then the kids who play there at all hours of the evening from about 5:30 to 8:30, are at danger.
If these women came out by about 9 at night, I'd have stopped with feeling uncomfortable, I'd have told them to stick to their building and leave ours alone Life would have gone one. But they come out by 6:30. So when I returned from work one day and saw them blocking the entrance to my building with their haggling and kids looking on from two feet away, I had enough.
Secondly, we have those parking bar thingies that you need a remote control for when you come in from the outside to keep visitors' vehicles out. So when guests come they either park outside the building or have to wait for us to open those things for them. Many times when our guests are single men, there's at least three women heading towards them offering their services. It is an extremely embarrassing, even offensive, situation for many of our guests.
Third, when I wait outside my gate for a cab, I get opening bids, if not straight out invitations. I don't dress like a hooker, (at least not on regular days :p) I always have a book or a folder or an organiser in my hands so I look like I am going to work, and I almost never hail anyone but taxis. After the first couple of times when I was shocked, it became really uncomfortable and annoying to be slowed down for and to be thought of as potential paid sex person. Playing dress-up slut is nice but otherwise, being mistaken for a streetwalker gets uncomfortable.
So I, who has always been sympathetic to the cause of sex workers, decided to do something about it. I warned them if they didn't clear out I'd call the police on them. They told me okay, no problem. But in about 15 minutes they were back and all I kept thinking was about was my lovely little daughter being carted off and done unspeakable things to. I maybe overreacting but can you tell me with assurance that someone who happens to stop by for the sex workers and likes kids will not be tempted? It's not so far cry, is it?
Prostitution, like in many other countries, is illegal in Oman. But just as it is everywhere else, most authorities turn a blind eye to it because it meets many needs, including those of the large number of migrant labour who work and live alone, as well as tourism demands.
I called the police, who came in 15 minutes. And asked me to come meet them at the gate. They asked me what the problem was. It annoyed me a little to see that they sent two young boys who looked like they were out past their bed time but, hey, whatever. They at least had uniforms on.
I explained the problem to them. Thankfully, a neighbour was walking past to visit a friend and watch Chennai Kings in action over a drink and he stopped by very kindly to ask me what the problem was. He, my god, speaks fluent, fluent Arabic and was more than glad that I had set the ball rolling. He explained the entire problem to them.
Here's where things get really, really annoying. They're worse than some of the police in India. They said okay, "we're going to hang around and see if any of those girls are about. You keep a watch and call me if they are." I couldn't understand why I would do their job for them. But oh well. I didn't have to, luckily, because within 10 minutes of their patrolling they called me saying they'd picked up a girl and would I come and identify her.
I went down and yes, she was one of them. She, of course, absolutely refused and said she was waiting for her friend. Sigh, yes. After a little confusing chit chat they asked me to go in to the station and give in a written complaint.
I went. I waited an hour, intermittently asking them why they weren't taking my complaint down. I had left my kids back home after a long day and missed being with them. I saw a couple of Pakistani guys being brought in handcuffed, as well as ankle-cuffed (?). Nothing prepares you for seeing that sight in real life. I keep thinking we are all so desensitised because of what we see on television. But to see a free man in a free world being bound like that was like a kick in my stomach. I watched another man being hauled in for selling pirated CDs. All this while the woman they picked up was moved into the cell and about 20 condoms confiscated from her bag.
I must say till they gently took her to the cell, she was completely chilled out and flitting about smiling and flirting with the cops. But it broke my heart when I saw her first -- when she was picked up and put in the back of the police car. She had a slightly hunted look, which disappeared by the time we got to the station, though. And I kept wondering at her circumstance -- so far away from her country, from a family I am sure she has, cursing most men she sleeps with, having to do this to earn a living. My conscience wasn't at peace. My brain, however, justified my action saying if she and her friends hadn't crossed over to your territory, the place where you and your family have the right to feel safe, and at the risk of sounding prissy, respectable, then this wouldn't have happened. She crosses the line and you give up your bleeding-heart argument.
But I digress. A few neighbours got to know and joined me at the police station to give the complaint some backing, because hey, it's everyone's problem right. All of them had been thinking about doing something about it but hadn't got around. I watched, I observed and I realised this woman was going to go scott free. Which was okay with me but I was hoping she'd be let off with a warning that the next time she or her friends are seen around my building there will be trouble for her.
I'll tell you why I thought that. You've all been in sex ed classes in school right? When the condoms were fished out, that's how all the cops reacted, like a bunch of acne-prone teenagers (which they probably were) in a sex-education class -- giggly, nudging each other and then guffawing. They kept taking calls from their mummies waiting to tuck them in, ordering dinner or making plans for the weekend, I don't know what the hell they were up to, but they did everything but give me a feeling that this thing that I was spending precious time over was going to be taken care of.
Finally, I had had enough and went looking for the captain or whoever the boss around there was. I found and told him I'd been waiting over an hour, I have little babies at home and very harassed parents as well, can I please make my complaint and leave? I think babies did the trick and soon some machinery moved and I was sitting in a blue chair in front of a very sleepy guy (again just out of high school) while he asked me for 1356th time what the issue was. I told him, he took three minutes over each sentence and finally had a report.
I got a call the next day from a cop who spoke fluent English (I've got to start taking lessons in spoken Arabic). He asked me to come in that afternoon. I went in, he gave me a big hi five and everything. Instead of a formal how're you to which they don't expect an answer, this guy said 'how you doin'?' A little off-putting but never mind. He also had small hands. I know. I am judgmental like that.
So he sat me down and asked me what the problem was. I said well, there's not much, just that I am not a big fan of putting my kids at the risk of being molested or kidnapped, nor do I enjoy being mistaken for a hooker, also there is the small matter of guests getting totally freaked out because of the soliciting.
He said yes yes, of course, you work for so and so paper. I saw a picture with your big boss and that really big pop star. I was so impressed, I will take your boss's picture out and put mine in ha ha. I say okay, knock yourself out, but can we just come back to the problem?
So he says oh yeah. See, people like her keep other crime away, and she's not committing a crime by flirting with someone on the street. (!!) We don't have evidence. I say okay, 20 fancy condoms not enough? No, it's not a crime to carry condoms. Agreed. So please withdraw your complaint and we'll scare them so that they don't do it again. Otherwise, find out the details of the owner of the building, through him we can get to her sponsors and figure it out. When I realised where this was coming from -- sponsor's a big guy with wasta -- I saw no point in letting her languish in lock-up and withdrew my complaint on the condition that I get a signed letter saying she or her friends wouldn't hang around my building. I got that.
The past two days, things look clean. The next time it happens, I am going after this with a much more prepared approach.