They Thought I Was A Prostitute: Travels in Central Asia

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This is a guest post by Natasha Chowdory who recounts her experiences living in central Asia where the name ‘Natasha’ is synonymous with prostitutes.

I knew there was a problem when I introduced myself to my new co- workers. ‘Hi, I’m Natasha’. You know that look where everyone does the hot-potato eye-flick at each other? It didn’t end there. I went to the other office and the same sequence of events happened, introduction, name, awkwardness.

It came to a head when teaching in my first week. One of my students took me aside to tell me that I shouldn’t say my name was ‘Natasha’. He whispered to me, with some waffly hand-motions, ‘it means that you’re a prostitute’. I tried to be logical, was it the way I looked? The way I dressed?! My student rushed to assure me. The name. It’s all in the
name.

According to my student, ‘Natasha’ means prostitute because it was a name bestowed upon Russian women who worked as prostitutes. When I felt more comfortable where I was working, I asked some of the other (female) teachers if it were true. After exchanging glances, they all agreed it was, but none of them had felt that it was their place to tell me.

Of course ‘Natasha’ is a common Russian name, so it only makes sense that prostitutes would be likely to choose a name like this – capitalizing on their ‘Russianness’. At least that was my theory. After all, I did see Russian prostitutes in South Korea and they were called Natasha and Elka respectively.

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I get that this might not prove that ‘Natasha’ means prostitute (and it doesn’t by the way, it rather means ‘Child of Christmas’) but association is powerful right? You meet enough people you hate called Lucy and you’ll come to associate bad feelings with the name ‘Lucy’.

Where I was living in Baku, prostitutes were prevalent. The oil draws them there like a disease draws flies. Let’s break it down:

Oil = Expats (US/UK/Scandinavian) = Money = Spending = Prostitutes

It’s very much a thriving industry in Baku and other Central Asian/Middle Eastern locations in Dushanbe and Bahrain.

These women are a curious mixture of the young and sultry seductress. You’re faced with women who are older than the ages they’re trying to portray, wearing clothes that are very tight, and draping themselves over old men – especially at nightclubs.

They tend to chat to foreign women and try integrating themselves into the social group before sliding over to the man (doesn’t matter if he’s available or not).

I watched this happen in the space of 15 minutes. Slightly disturbing and fascinating all at the same time.

In fact the simple act of being a female in Azerbaijan lends itself to people thinking you’re a prostitute if you’re dressed in a certain way regardless of skin colour or language. Travelling here you’ll need to have a willingness to let you Western sensibilities go (slightly). However, once you get out of the city, people are nice, they want to feed you, want to know why you aren’t married – especially if you’re vaguely attractive and you look like you could bear children!

As for tips?

– Don’t wear a skirt. Just don’t do it. Men will follow you home and think you’re a prostitute whatever you name is.

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– Don’t go out by yourself at night, men will follow you in their cars (Lada’s – a favoured choice of young hot rods in former USSR countries).

– Don’t smile at people. It will be assumed that you’re a prostitute or mentally deranged.

But there are plenty of nice things, like men offering their seat for you when you get the bus or the subway.

Also if you go as a teacher or a charity worker, people will respect you (as long as you aren’t doing any of the above).

So while Central Asia has its dangers – as a woman there are places you shouldn’t go (cafes exclusive to men, discos filled with expats and prostitutes) – like any major city, you just have to exercise caution.

Especially if your name is Natasha!

 

About the Author: Natasha Chowdory

Intern at One Plus One, E4er, Occasional blogger, cloud watcher, avid devourer of books (suggestions welcome). Twilight NOT allowed. Solo traveller, don’t really do the ‘group trip’ thing. 

7 COMMENTS

  1. Well, the name “Natasha” is just the affectionate form of the popular Russian name “Natalya”. Those who read “War and Peace” by Tolstoy might remember the main heroine Natasha Rostova.

    In itself “Natasha” is not synonymous with “prostitute”.
    My guess is that it simply was used in some anecdotes in this context and thus became the part of folklore.

    I recall one anecdote in which man asks a little girl – “What is your name?”
    And when she says – “Natasha”, he says – “Wow! Such a little girl and already Natasha??”

  2. Great article. I recently experienced similar things… traveling the world as a solo white woman can make all the wrong impressions – I had a 20 hour layover in Turkey which I spent in the city and was harrassed to an extent I don’t even want to describe. Good to see you at least found a way to deal!

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