Painting Prostitutes


A few years ago, I went to Cuckoo’s Café, which is right next to the famous Badshai Mosque near the red light district in Lahore, Pakistan. While we were there, we came across Iqbal Hussain’s art as well since he had displayed some of his pieces in the entrance of the restaurant.

Hussain, whose own mother was a sex worker, mostly paints women of Heera Mandi (the red light district in Lahore) and is known for his controversial paintings in Pakistan. He continues to follow his own visions and paints his unconventional and radically innovative paintings. Hussain also has a great reputation as an artist in the international art world and his paintings have been requested by the Jordanian Princess and have been auctioned in London as well.

To be honest, I had never seen a Pakistani create such art before so it was so it was a bit of a shock to the system at first. My friends and I walked in to the Cafe and were in a state of shock as we hadn’t heard of Iqbal Hussain before. Later, we were told that his work is really appreciated by both, Pakistanis and foreigners as well.

SQ, a friend of mine, just sent me this article that was published in CNN this morning. It gives us a picture of how Hussain & some of the brothels around Badshai Mosque are now concerned about the Taliban & how they have been recieving threats from them as well.

*I had taken this picture above when I was at Cuckoos Café in December of 2006.*

LAHORE, Pakistan (CNN) By Ivan Watson – It’s hot and sweaty in a rat-infested room in Lahore’s historic red light district, a neighborhood of narrow alleyways lined with brothels.

A barefoot, long-haired woman is gyrating and twirling on the carpet, to the beat of a four-man band whose drummer sweats profusely as he pounds out a furious rhythm.
The dancer, who only gives her first name, Beenish, is performing a kind of Pakistani belly-dance called the mujra. Her harmonium player, a skinny bald man who squints through coke-bottle glasses, has been performing like this for the past 50 years. But he says the art form is dying out. “That spark, the way it was in the past, is no more,” said Ghulam Sarwar.

Last fall, a judge in Lahore’s high court declared the mujra dance “vulgar” and banned it from being performed on stage. Some here say the government is cracking down on easy, “immoral” targets in an attempt to appease religious hard-liners like the Taliban. Islamist militants are believed to be responsible for a recent wave of bomb attack, in targeting cinemas, theaters and cafes where young men and women fraternize together. “It is a gesture of good will to pacify the mullahs and the Taliban,” said Samia Amjad, a lawmaker in the provincial assembly. Though she is a member of an opposition political party, she said she supported the crackdown on vulgarity. “I see it as an essential part of Islam.

Dancers aren’t the only targets of the court censors. In late March, the Lahore high court banned two female singers from recording new albums after ruling that they sang sexually explicit lyrics. “If the current circumstances persist in Pakistan,“ said Noora Lal, one of the banned singers, “then singing will die out in this country.”

Pakistan is a deeply conservative Muslim nation, where the punishment for blasphemy is the death sentence. But there is one person in Lahore who openly mocks the conservative establishment: painter and restaurant owner Iqbal Hussain.

Though he said he has received multiple death threats from Islamist fundamentalists, Hussain continues to be Pakistan’s most vocal defender of prostitutes. All of the models portrayed in his paintings are sex workers. “I portray them on canvas, portray them as human beings,” Hussain said, “They feel pain. They want their children to be educated.”
Hussain knows the industry intimately. He was born to a family of sex workers. His mother, a former prostitute, passed away last month at the age of 98.

The small, soft-spoken painter has turned the house he grew up in, an old four-story building with ornate wooden balconies, into a popular restaurant for tourists and wealthy Pakistanis. On one side of the house there is a brothel, on the other side, the 17th century Badshahi Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world. In his subversive paintings, which Hussain said sell for more than $10,000 each, he highlights the overlap between Lahore’s sex industry and its religious community. In one canvas, hundreds of worshippers are depicted prostrating themselves around the mosque, while in the foreground, two women apply lipstick and makeup on a balcony. Hussain explained that the prostitutes in the painting were preparing to receive new customers as soon as the prayers in the mosque were over.

The painter claimed that on religious festivals, the brothels and dance halls in his neighborhood overflow with customers. “They come from the northern areas with their turbans,” Iqbal said, laughing. “All coming to this area. They’re not going to the mosque … but to the brothels!”

Nevertheless, the rising tide of the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan has some residents of Lahore’s red light district worried. “May Allah keep us safe from them,” said Beenish, the mujra dancer. “We are poor, humble people. They should not target this place.”



  1. sarah · · Reply

    the tawa chicken there is amazinggggg!

  2. Cuckoos Cafe was amazing. I’ve only been there once unfortunately but will definately check it out soon again. We went around Maghrib time and all the prayers were going on from different mosques at the same time. The view of Badshai Mosque from the Cafe was fantastic as well. We were all a bit disturbed by the paintings though. You should have seen our faces as we were so confused. ha ha.

    You can see the view of Badshai Mosque from the Cafe in this link –

  3. Sana Khan · · Reply

    I love Cuckoos Cafe-its one of the places I HAVE to go to every winter.Love his paintings as well-they are shocking but have heart breaking stories behind them-even from looking at the paintings at first glance some of the stories are visible.

    Omar, Sameen is a great fan of Iqbal Hussain’s paintings and interviewed him for some project in High School.She has all the stories behind his most shocking paintings.

    It would be incredibly sad to see Cuckoos closed down as it is considered a landmark for Lahori’s for its incredible view, food and the concept behind the restaurant.

    As a side note just wanted to say a mujra is NOT the Pakistani version of belly dancing-belly dancing when done right is extremely elegant and an art form- mujra’s on the other hand are incredibly crude and vulgar in any form that they are done.I really don’t object to the laws banning mujra’s as I find them repulsing.

  4. shaheryar mirza · · Reply

    hey went to cuckoos and loved it..i like hussains subject matter and the stories behind it..but as far as skills and mastery of the medium he is pretty much an amateur..that being said they still look awesome at cuckoos..not a fan of his work though..

  5. Excellent article! 🙂 And for those of you who’re going to Cuckoo’s for the first time, you MUST-must-MUST have their tawa chicken. It’s to die for! 😛

  6. Why is there a global misconception of the spelling of ‘definitely’? Anyway. Cuckoo’s is one of the most controversial places in Lahore. If you’re interested in all this you should read Taboo! by Dr Fouzia Saeed. It’s not a piece of literature, but definitely a very good piece of anthropology.

  7. These are my favorite paintings of his – thy are incredibly sad, disturbing and thought provoking:

  8. Read it. Good book. 🙂

  9. Rahil · · Reply

    Great article Omar! Cuckoo’s is a wonderful cafe, very atmospheric given it’s location and housed in a beautiful building. Definitely a must for anyone visiting Lahore. Iqbal Hussain’s paintings are very telling for anyone who delves deeper into the work and a great homage to that particular section of society. He himself is a highly interesting character with a life to match. Coincidently, I now own the painting featured above (except he went on to change the background to black, allowing the woman featured to make more of a stark impact). For more info on the area and it’s inhabitants, one should read ‘The Dancing Girls of Lahore’. I for one believe we definitely need more individuals like IH around, if only to bring attention to women who are largely shunned/forgotten.

  10. Omar remember our experience when we went there last time? Hahaha! Omar knocked on a door and then we heard a woman say “Kaunnnn?” and we were like ahhh!! Prostitutes! Run!

  11. Ha ha! That’s not true! Apu, Meshal, you, Jai, and I thought that the door was Cuckoos Cafe since we were huffing and puffing from all the stairs and didnt realize it was still another floor up. That’s when we heard the prostitute say “KAAAUNNN?” That was hilarious.

  12. No! It was on our way back down. And you and I were laughing like wouldn’t it be hilARious if someone was inside? And after we knocked we heard the woman’s voice, and RAN down the rest of the way! Hahaha!

  13. And the pic was taken December 2007 I thought – during Fathi’s wedding.

  14. Ijaz Ul Haq · · Reply

    What an Article. CNN and other forms of media are bringing up these stories to draw attention to all the wrong subjects that are occuring in Pakistan. Taliban are going to focus their attention on other things happening and not this. Beware that its the war against terror or the war of terror which is drawing your attention to all of this. Omar, put Dr.Mehdi’s article inthe Nation today for your blog viewers to put things in the right perspective.

  15. Sana, the pictures are disturbing. I havent seen them before so thanks for posting them here.

    Rahil, did you buy the painting from Lahore? Where does he usually present his art? Is it actually based on the ground floor of Cuckoos or somewhere else?

    Kalsoom, Fathi’s wedding was in December of ’06. You were in Washington DC in Deceber of ’07, remember?

  16. SQ 1, 2, 3 or 4?

    The food is great no doubt. The art work haunting no questions. Prostitution however should never be glorified and to me this article is attempting to do so…..i agree with your dads comments.

  17. Rahil · · Reply

    I don’t think prostitution can really be glorified, beit through art, writing, film or theatre – but that’s only my opinion. The red light area in Lahore is part and parcel of the old city, whatever one’s opinions are on the subject. Granted, the dancing (esp on stage) is ‘vulgar’ to say the least, but then one can use that argument against many other forms of ‘entertainment’ too. Some people think an artist like Madonna on stage is ‘vulgar’ too. And lets not forget CNN have just focused on one perspective here; as with most things in life one has to look at it from all perspectives before forming a balanced/unbiased opinion on this or anything else. I do agree however that religous hard-liners, Talbian etc probably have other matters at the forefront of their minds than the elimination of Lahore’s red light area…after all they need their ‘entertainment’ as well.

    Omar, I bought the painting through a gallery in Lahore. IH normally holds one or two gallery exhibitions during the year in Lahore/Isloo/Khi, but most of his unsold work is presented on the ground floor of Cuckoos.

  18. Prositution is any form is demeaning to all, be it men or women. its a form of physical and mental abuse. Majority of prostitutes in the world are not in it by choice per say. They are living in much worse circumstances than what is being suggested in this article. The reality of being trafficked, abused, low wage, lifetime contracts, not to mention the health issues that all come along with this. i know more people who inspite of knowing or being aware of this would easily pass a moral judgement on the womens that are in this dark deep world. there is also no difference in a prositute in vegas or a 12 year old girl stuck in heera mandi.

    i appreciate the history of the area, but lets get real, it is not exactly the same as it was probably in the days of Akbar, these are not his courtesans mesmerizing people with their song and dance. They are women, unable to escape and are confined to their lives as prostitutes in lahore. they arent independent girls who can negotiate even condoms with their customers after the madam has already bene paid in full.

    ih should probably also stop using these women as his muse and instead of just trying to bring this in front of poeple in form of paitings and a fancy restaurant he can use his voice to help the women out by trying to find a way out of the diamond market….

    if i wasnt at work, i would probably do a better job of putting my opinion about prostitution on this blog and how the media actually does a better job glorifying it than pointing out the harsh reality.

  19. Rahil A · · Reply

    SD, everything you have mentioned above is extremely valid and I agree, in most parts, with your comments. I don’t think anyone can argue against or disagree with the harsh realities of prostitution, some of which you have pointed out: human trafficking and sexual exploitation being the major elements. However, neither you or I can generalize about this topic based on one CNN article. I believe there have been some very thought provoking and insightful representations of prostitution in the media be it via TV documentaries, articles, books, music, theater and art. Examples being the ‘Dancing Girls of Lahore’ documentary produced by the BBC in the late ’80s, recent paintings by Ali Azmat, ‘Dancing Girls of Lahore’ book by Louise Brown (no connection with the doc), ITV drama ‘Sex Traffic’, the film ‘Eastern Promises’ etc. I think glorifying nor keeping it real is solely the responsibility of the media. It is also up to the individual: there is much information out there should we choose to look for it. But lets be honest here, how many people can be bothered to look, especially in our society? Would they not prefer to walk out of the cinema humming/visualizing tunes performed by Madhuri’s ‘Chandramukhi’, Rekha’s ‘Umrao Jaan’, Madhubala’s ‘Anarkali’ or romanticising about ‘Pretty woman’? As for what IH does or doesn’t do to assist the women, I have no idea, but his paintings certainly bring attention to them. If anything, the governments should promote safe sex within this industry (and of course to the ‘clients’) because there is also the question of simple economics: as long as there is demand and a willingness to pay, there will always be supply (be it forced or otherwise).

  20. Interesting discussion, guys.

  21. amber mirza · · Reply

    I went to Cuckoos Nest a year ago and found
    clumps of matted hair in my freshly
    baked naan. As if someones mooch fell of
    during the kneading process. Have not returned
    since. But I adore Badshai mosque. Theres
    a super tour guide named Asif who is highly
    entertaining and informative. That mosque
    is truely a marvel. Must have been majestic in
    its days.
    First time reading your blog O

  22. Amber – I’m dissapointed that you had such an awful experience! Cuckoos is awesome and you must have just gone on a bad day unfortunately. You’re right about Badshai Mosque though. It’s absolutely amazing. Thanks for reading the Blog finally ha ha and hope to get more feedback from your side.

  23. Intense painting but not one that I would have in my living room. Yikes.

  24. Can I have her number?

  25. How can one possibly put this up in their house? Don’t they have parents, friends, and inlaws coming over? Tsk tsk.

  26. CH, I agree.

    I’m a pretty conservative minded person – or ‘prude’ as you will and this kind of thing puts me off visiting Lahore.
    Besides ‘Art’ (as in painting) has never really appealed to me, especially not this sort. My first thoughts upon seeing the image here was ‘grotesque’. But maybe that’s what the painter intended.

    About prostitution itself, yes it goes on, no we can’t go all militant over it, it’s a reality and it’s a way of life for many.
    There’s a red light district right outside where I work in an area just outside of Manchester. and it becomes active at night, I make sure I leave my office way before, to avoid it.

  27. Please visit You can see art & sufi music as well.

  28. Nighat Rizvi · · Reply

    I am a huge fan of Iqbal Hussain’s work and have had the privelage of working with him on a peer education project in the area for Sex workers, HIV, and Aids as well. Iqbal Hussain continues to awe me with his amazing use of colour and depth of sensitivity. I’m delighted to read this piece. Thank you, OUH.

  29. I stumbled across this blog post while searching for images of gola ganda…(go figure!) one of the pictures was the Iqbal Hussain painting featured above!! I guess that could come under the gola ganda category 😛
    Anyways, here’s what I wrote on my blog after reading ‘The Dancing Girls of Lahore’, a most fabulous observation of life in Heera Mandi by Louise Brown.

  30. Today, I went to the beach with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave
    it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed.

    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.

    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is
    completely off topic but I had to tell someone!

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