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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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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.

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