Mall Girls

I just read about Galerianki, the Polish documentary on the phenomenon of mall girls, on today's International Herald Tribune. For the uninitiated, the mall girls are those teenagers, often in school, who hang around in shopping malls and try to spot wealthy individuals, draw their attention and perform sex acts in return to gifts, often in the form of expensive branded clothing, mobile phones and other accessories. Deviod of parental attention, as their parents struggle to keep pace with the demands of post-socialist Poland, these girls do not think they are prostitutes, and call their clients 'sponsors' or 'boyfriends', and sometimes 'frajer' ['loser].

This story attracts my interest because of a coincidence. I spotted the story on IHT only after having a discussion with someone in the Philippines about those girls in Philippines, young and full of girlie charm, who perform sex acts for money to pay for their exams. Yes, it is as bizzare as that: I learnt that students make themselves available because they have to pay an examination fee around this time, and they do not mind doing anything to get the money. The logic is simple: They don't care about sin etc, and consider this to be a question of their future and their survival.

The person who was narrating this story to me was talking with great sadness. She was telling me that she wants to make a documentary about these girls. And, also about those girls who will cling on to foreign visitors, however ugly and bald/potbellied the person may be, because they consider marrying them to be their option out of a desparate existence at home. We talked about individuals that we know who have been through similar experiences, and the popular perception that it has created about Philippines - as a place of easy girls and sex trade - which undermine the hardworking, professional Filipinos who excel at various trades, including nursing, hospitality, retail and teaching.

The IHT story brought me some universal perspective on what I was thinking. The Polish documentary states that the Catholic Church is failing to provide answers to the young, who are drawn into the spiral of consuming aspirations. The shopping mall is the new Church, one can say. Ironically, I write this sitting in Dubai airport, yet again, looking into the huge Duty Free in the airport. In Dubai, they have obviously built some of the world's largest, priciest malls, which has its own variety of mall girls. So has all malls all over the world - one can say that malls have replaced churches, community centres and brothels all together. From that angle, Dubai airport presents an interesting layout option for future supermalls to be built around the world. It combines a mall and prayer halls with a hotel in the second floor where rooms can be rented by the hour. How convenient!

I am aware that the comparison is flippant, but it is hard not to feel angry. Shopping Malls were to bring Freedom and Choice to poor, ruined-by-socialism countries of Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. They did. CHOICE was the magic word in the Eighties: this was the word which won us the cold war. Capitalism offered choice. Brands. 20,000 different kinds of shoes. [In a bizzare display of choice, we knew that Northern Ireland's First Minister, Peter Robinson, a public servant, had 1000 different ties; and his disgraced wife, Iris, matched that with 1000 different bras] That extent of material choice will transform our society, we were told. I remember a particularly cynical discussion when the Indian communist party almost expelled one of its senior members for claiming that he bought the only available kind of shaving blades in Russia, and that did not work very well. So, when Soviet Russia imploded, we knew that people wanted choice and it was a triumph of Freedom of Choice over socialist barrenness.

Looking back, however, one can ask a number of questions. Is it possible to create material choices, the number of shaving instruments you can buy, and not demand mental subservience? What if people stop shaving? So, one must create and maintain an image of well-groomed individual - through artful communication - so that smart girls will demand smart blades. In that formulation, choice of the number of items you can buy come at the cost of one inalienable choice the human beings should have had: Of not buying. These Galerianas in Poland can not survive, socially, without flashy phones and expensive clothes. The choice and freedom to be able to possess such things left them with no other choices than being a prostitute.

Besides, consider the Filipino example I just talked about. I always wondered, often aloud, why do various governments want to send their people abroad. To earn foreign currency for the country, I was told. Valid reason, for sure, but it sounds like flesh trade from the word go. It is like selling the lifetimes of your poorer citizens - and it is invariably poorer citizens for countries like Philippines, Bangladesh and Nepal - to earn Dollars so that the rich people in these countries can live in wasteful abundance. The government's enthusiasm to send people abroad, to work in labour camps and brothels of Dubai, can often be matched with the number of SUVs on streets of Dhaka, Manila and Kathmandu.

I hope I could say that the point is to change things, but challenging the core beliefs like choice and freedom are difficult, and I must admit, fraught with danger. As much you may see prostitution as a gross violation of the idea of romantic love, and detestable abuse of the dignity of human body, you may not want to encourage ex-communication or fatwas as a sustainable method of running our societies. But the concept of freedom needs a new debate when you consider the plight of these fateless girls hanging around in the malls of Manila and Warsaw, their freedom to have sex is absolute, along with their absolute dependence on the material possessions of life [though one may need to look closely at why paying of tuition and/or exam fees should need to push people so far]. This may lead to a thinking that no freedom is possible without a complete culture of self-control, though such a doctrine will be dismissed by the preachers of freedom as a socialist utopia.


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