POLITELY speaking there is no prostitution in England, there are only 'personalised services'. But on the sloping streets of Highfields in Leicester, 100 miles north of London, thousands of Gujarati Muslims are speaking less and less politely about the services they see on offer in their neighbourhood.
The recurrent scene they are outraged about: a blue Ford crawls along Melbourne Road in the heart of Highfields. A window is lowered, the driver in dark glasses launches negotiations with a woman waiting on the pavement in a black blouse and a yellow skirt that almost isn't. There's no room for the cars behind to pass. They wait, and everyone watches. So do others along the pavement. The car turns into the next lane, the woman begins to step up to it.
Further up three women in burqas walk around a corner on to Melbourne Road. Another woman in a skirt that is a few inches nothing, almost a uniform in this business, is 'in the game'. One of the women in burqas steps on to the road to dodge what political correctness calls a woman sex worker. These are women from different worlds brushing past one another on the same streets, for years now.
Going by the oldest methods of settling things, the prostitutes who walk the streets of this conservative and increasingly crowded Muslim neighbourhood could have a point—they got there first. But about 20,000 Gujarati Muslims, who have crowded into rows of little houses on the crisscrossing streets, are feeling around for the might they believe their numbers warrant.
There couldn't be a more uneasy co-existence. Children step out of lessons in mad-rasas on to a world of naked flesh advertising possibilities. On the streets, around the corners, the Muslims go about determined not to take notice. But their businesslike visitors won't go away. And now a group of men from Highfields has decided that they, and their women and children, have had enough. But what they decide is one thing, what happens might be another as it has too often.
Recently a group of Muslim boys set up a vigilante group on Berners Street to keep kerb crawlers out. The women simply walked to another street. The cars followed. The group folded up and the girls are back. So again are the 'punters', as the male clients are called.
Leicester is seeing round three of the Muslims vs prostitutes battle in Britain. A year ago Muslims in Birmingham set up vigilante groups and drove the business out of the once infamous Edward Street around which many Muslims live. After that Muslims organised themselves into groups to take on prostitutes in Bradford in north England. Impatience with the police there started off a riot at the police station.
In Leicester it's lingering on longer. "We haven't yet got the kind of movement those Punjabis in Birmingham and Bradford started," says Farukh Subedar, a member of the Leicestershire county council. He looks Birmingham-wards, 30 miles west, in awe. For him it is the place with men of action.
The Birmingham Operation, and it was nothing less, was conducted with a dash of tactical genius. Groups of Muslims formed little bands that patrolled the streets all night. They kept in touch on mobile phones, with patrols in reserve to take on counter-attacks by pimps. Kerb crawlers were shadowed and pursued till the bands drove business out of their minds. The women were forced to retreat to other streets, to become other people's problems. "That is not the answer really," says Mir Juma, a Leicester councillor who has been trying to get the police to rid Highfields of the women. "All that these vigilante groups did was to shift the problem to the doorsteps of others." But who cares about that. You take the larger view if you don't live in Highfields. Shaukat Hasan sees it differently after a man in a car approached his wife.
"My wife came home crying one evening, and even before she told me I knew why," says Hasan, trying not to look at the woman at the corner in the little turquoise blue number. A car was slowing down near her. Too often the cars slow down around Muslim women who live here. A woman walking on a street is different from a woman streetwalking. Nobody talks of prostitution among local women, but that still doesn't stop some men in cars. Distinctions can blur on what their minds have mapped as sex streets.
The presence of some women along the streets has changed the way of life for thousands of others. Hasan's wife was approached a couple of months ago. She has stopped stepping out in the evenings. "How long can she be a prisoner in her own house?" says Hasan. "We can't take all this much longer."
Hasan wants to sell this house and go, but there are no buyers. Property prices have never been high, and that brought the immigrants here to begin with. A year ago people thought prices had hit rock bottom, helped by recession and the women. But they are still sinking. A three-bedroom house on two levels is being offered round the corner from Hasan's house for £25,000. No takers. Below a price you can't sell. The "For Sale" boards stay up a long time here and when they come off it is because the seller couldn't find a buyer.
"Our homes are now negative equity," says Subedar. "We have lost our investment, we have lost culturally, we have lost socially, we have lost our dignity and we have lost our freedom." It's a long list that gets longer in unexpected ways the longer you spend in Highfields.
"We had hell in our family when we had relatives from India," says Mir Baksh, who works in a woollens factory. A year after that visit the shame it brought hasn't gone. "We had this woman who stands outside our door almost every evening. I literally prayed that she won't be there when our relatives come. I pleaded with her, I pleaded with the police, she said okay but she was always there."
Muslims here have not just kept to their traditional ways, in fact, they've become even more conservative. One after the other, 12 mosques have come up in the Muslim neighbourhood, 10 for Indian Muslims, and one each for the Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Children at the madrasas are taught Arabic, not Gujarati. The elders, if they had their way, would line these streets with a new orthodoxy. But for those women who won't go away. "I wouldn't say we like it here but I think we're kind of used to this place," says a woman at a corner.
Highfields suffers primarily because of woolly British views on prostitution. "What we really need is decriminalisation of indoor work so that prostitution can go on," says a streetwalker. Prostitutes are demanding legalised brothels like those in Holland and Belgium. The British live with open prostitution but will not accept it offi-cially. In fact, the prostitutes have now begun to find some backing from police chiefs. The police chiefs of Lancashire and Yorkshire counties have publicly asked the government to legalise brothels. But in a pre-election year, this is one debate nobody seems to want in the House of Commons.
As things stand, "street prostitution in Highfields will carry on," says Sergeant Andy Allden, who heads the vice squad in Highfields. "There are two distinct problems here. The prostitutes loitering about plying their trade and the large number of men driving about looking for the services of prostitutes." And there are also the "voyeurs who just drive round and round".
Arresting the women has a limited effect, the sergeant says. "There are women here that we have actually arrested hundreds of times." They can be arrested but not detained. The women return, to the street. The government policy is to offer them advice at first—in Highfields they tell you how well that policy has worked. Women who ignore advice are then taken to a magistrate who might fine them £50. A little work pays for that.
Britain has no legalised brothels, but it has massage parlours. "Let the women go and work in massage parlours," says a member of a residents' association. But who is going to get them there? The massage parlours aren't legal either. The women can still be prosecuted, not for prostitution but for "keeping disorderly hours."
The Leicester police keep no record of all this as a matter of policy. "We do not like to get into the numbers syndrome," says All-den. "All excuses, nothing else," says Subedar. The men in Highfields are not looking any more to the police or to the Parliament but to the pioneers in Birmingham. "We will have to do this ourselves," says Subedar. Time for the men to take to the streets?