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Opinion

Are brothels and bikinis signs of progress for Arab women?

No. So why has the Western media used them as a gauge of social freedoms? Sexual exploitation isn't sexual liberation. Women in the emerging democratic movements in the Middle East stand between the twin dangers of Islamist and secular fundamentalism. They deserve better.

By Janice G. Raymond / March 8, 2011



Amherst, Mass.

Western media have too often measured emerging democracies by the yardstick of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” A recent article in The New York Times, “Next Question for Tunisia: The Role of Islam in Politics,” appears to offer the additional standards of “brothels,” “beer,” and “bikinis.”

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The article recounts how a few weeks ago in Tunisia, “military helicopters and security forces were called in to carry out an unusual mission: protecting the city’s brothels from a mob of zealots.” The set-up and analysis that ensues seems to suggest that democratic aspirations are preserved in Tunisia’s recent safeguarding of these state-sanctioned brothels. The article goes on to highlight the fears that growing Islamist influence in Tunisia will threaten women’s rights. But the real question is this: Were Tunisian forces in this case protecting women from Islamic extremists, or were they protecting the rights of brothel owners and users to sell and buy women?

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It took the Islamists to signal “No to brothels in a Muslim country!” Hopefully, it will not be one of the first victories of Middle Eastern democratic movements that brothels in Tunisia are being secured at the same time that activists are challenging so much else that is regressive. No woman should have to earn her living servicing 5 to 15 men a day on average in what amounts to sexual slavery. Such numbing mantras that “prostitution is inevitable” have become mindless excuses for rationalizing systems of prostitution in democratic and non-democratic countries alike.

Dangers of secular and religious fundamentalists

Islamists don’t own the protest against brothels. The media portrayal of resistance to brothels as solely the provenance of religiously conservative and intolerant zealots not only omits but also distorts the democratic movement of feminists in Muslim countries. Muslim feminists work to gain rights that truly protect women and offer them a better future, including the freedom from sexual exploitation. The framework of The New York Times article reinforces a traditional male conceit of Western liberalism – sexual exploitation portrayed as sexual liberation.

Women’s rights advocates in Tunisia, Egypt, and other protesting countries in the Middle East are not demanding the right to be prostituted. Many have seen firsthand how their sisters in Iraq have been made victims of sexual exploitation by the helping hands of a war that was waged, among other reasons, in the name of democracy and to free women from tyranny. One woman who risked her life to combat the introduction of Islamic law into Kurdistan stated: “If before there was one dictator persecuting people, now almost everyone is persecuting women.”

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