Despite a threat from Islamists, two Pakistani brothers stealthily manufacture fetish and bondage wear, earning more than $1 million a year from their Western customers.
Cracking the Whip in Pakistan – A Pakistani Underworld – The New York Times
A Report by Adam B. Ellick
In Pakistan, a flogger is known only as the Taliban’s choice whip for beating those who defy their strict codes of Islam.
But deep in the nation’s commercial capital, just next door to a mosque and the offices of a radical Islamic organization, in an unmarked house two Pakistani brothers have discovered a more liberal and lucrative use for the scourge: the $3 billion fetish and bondage industry in the West.
Their mom-and-pop-style garment business, AQTH, earns more than $1 million a year manufacturing 2,000 fetish and bondage products, including the Mistress Flogger, and exporting them to the United States and Europe.
The Qadeer brothers, Adnan, 34, and Rizwan, 32, have made the business into an improbable success story in a country where bars are illegal and the poor are often bound to a lifetime in poverty.
If the bondage business seems an unlikely pursuit for two button-down, slightly awkward, decidedly deadpan lower-class Pakistanis, it is. But then, discretion has been their byword. The brothers have taken extreme measures to conceal a business that in this deeply conservative Muslim country is as risky as it is risqué.
It helps that the dozens of veiled and uneducated female laborers who assemble the handmade items — gag balls, lime-green corsets, thonged spanking skirts — have no idea what the items are used for. Even the owners’ wives, and their conservative Muslim mother, have not been informed.
“If our mom knew, she would disown us,” said Adnan, seated on a leopard-print fabric covering his desk chair.
“Due to cultural barriers and religion, people don’t discuss these things openly,” Rizwan said. “We have to hide this information.”
Even customs officials were perplexed at how to tax the items, not quite sure what they were, they said.
Recently, when a curious employee inquired about the purpose of the sleep sack, a sleeping bag-like product used in certain kinds of bondage, she was told it was a body bag for the American military in Iraq.
Adnan Ahmed, a former air traffic controller who is now AQTH’s chief operating officer, said the items were undergarments. When asked if he considered a red-hot puppy mask an undergarment, he had a straightforward, but honest reply: “No. It’s just for joking.”
Still, word of the business has at times escaped. Last year four “powerful guys” from a conservative Muslim group threatened to burn down the factory if it was not closed within a week. The brothers calmly explained that it was merely a business, and that the items were not used in Pakistan. The next day they bribed a local Islamic political organization to ensure their safety.
These days, the gravest danger is Pakistan’s crumbling economy. The brothers idolize former President Pervez Musharraf, crediting their success to his industry friendly policies, like not requiring export licenses and banning trade unions. When Mr. Musharraf resigned last year, the brothers “didn’t eat for three days,” Adnan Qadeer said.
Since President Asif Ali Zardari took office, Adnan said, trade unions have been legalized and prices of some raw materials, including leather, have shot up, as have interest rates. The result: a 15 percent dip in AQTH’s profits.
Echoing the pervasive fears of entrepreneurs across the country, the brothers are considering relocating to East Asia if Pakistan becomes more unstable — or if they receive another threat.
The shoddy factory seems like an ode to their humble upbringing. Adnan’s executive bathroom has no toilet paper. Rizwan has no office. And their preferred lunch is Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Their inspiration for success came from their father, a civil servant who supported a family of six with a $150 monthly salary. While other children were forced into labor, or played aimlessly, the Qadeer brothers had to study.
In 2001, after the brothers graduated from a university, their father lent them $800, enough to purchase their first computer and to cover several months of rent on a studio apartment. There, the brothers searched the Internet day and night for a high-value garment product that was not widely available.
They experimented with basic leather goods, like jackets and pants. Adnan slept at mosquito-infested stitching factories to oversee sample runs that, in the end, proved more costly than their Chinese competitors.
“It was very hard time,” Adnan said. “We had nothing in our pockets, not even money to fuel our motorbike.”
Rizwan said: “People used to say: ‘You can’t do business in Pakistan. You’re wasting your time. Just go get a job.’ ” But our father boosted our morale.”
The brothers said Pakistan’s “stone-age production” worked to their advantage. The country, they said, lacks visionary product development. “Everyone’s still making the same products,” Adnan said.
Then, they discovered a kind of straitjacket online. At first, they thought it was used for psychiatric patients, but it quickly led them to learn about the lucrative fetish industry.
Without family connections in the finance industry, and with nothing to mortgage, they were refused a loan by four banks. “Our education was our only connection,” Rizwan said.
They finally secured a loan from an American bank, and then the Sept. 11 attacks offered a timely chance. Orders for garment exports were canceled across Pakistan in the slower economic climate, allowing the prices of raw materials like leather to be cut in half.
But fear after Sept. 11 raised suspicions among their own Western clients. On Sept. 12, 2001, a customer sent an e-mail message with a photo of two F-16s flying over Pakistan. Orders were canceled.
Today, they sell their products to online and brick-and-mortar shops, and to individuals via eBay. Their market research, they said, showed that 70 percent of their customers were middle- to upper-class Americans, and a majority of them Democrats. The Netherlands and Germany account for the bulk of their European sales.
“We really believe that if you are persistent and hard working, there is an opportunity, in any harsh environment, even in an economically depressed environment like Pakistan,” Rizwan said.
A major perk, they say, is attending international fetish shows to see how their products hold up in action.
“I go to Sin City every year,” said Rizwan, referring to Las Vegas in a sheepish laugh. It’s all business, he said. “Clients know our country and culture, and they don’t invite us to participate. We’re a little bit shy.”