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.
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Likewise, women in the emerging indigenous democratic movements in Muslim countries have well-founded fears that the rights they do possess will be the first to disappear in the destabilization and disarray of post-autocratic societies. Women stand between the twin dangers of both religious and secular fundamentalists. In the case of prostitution, the conservative view punishes women for being sexually violated in prostitution; the liberal view romanticizes prostitution as self-determination and regularizes it in state-sanctioned brothels, whether in the East or West.Skip to next paragraph
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Both these views have facilitated the expansion of sexual slavery in many parts of the globe. They have also furthered the extensive ways in which women become “goods and services” – as sexual instruments of exchange in trafficking, as objects of sex tourism, and as indentured domestic workers who are often sexually exploited as well.
Confronting sexual exploitation in the Middle East
For the past two years, I have had the opportunity to speak and work with Iraqi and other Middle-Eastern women to confront the violence and sexual exploitation that is taking place in their countries. With the breakdown of institutions and security worsened by the US-led war in Iraq, Iraqi women began to report an exponential increase in domestic violence, rapes, honor killings, wholesale slaughter of women on the streets of Basra, and the trafficking of women for prostitution internally and to countries such as Syria, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
Due to the courageous work of women’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) and Asuda Combating Violence Against Women in Kurdistan, we know that victims of violence and sexual exploitation are jailed instead of protected. We have learned that women are not only blamed for being raped and prostituted, but are killed to preserve family honor. And these NGOs have also found that temporary marriages, or mut’ah, in which a Muslim man with religious approval contracts with a woman to sexually service him for a day, a week, or longer, are on the increase as a regional face of prostitution. As of 2009, the Iraqi government had not prosecuted any traffickers, pimps, recruiters, or buyers.
Women in the emerging democratic movements in the Middle East have the right to expect more substantive journalism from the Western media – not a reduction of their aspirations and efforts to brothels, beer, and bikinis.
Janice Raymond is professor emerita of Women’s Studies and Medical Ethics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.