Pimp My Daughter: Iraqi Women and Prostitution

I saw the movie Taken with my friend and her husband the other day and walked out of the theater feeling scared. It’s not a horror movie; the plot focuses on the sex trafficking of young women. The buyers are rich Arab men, of course.

I wanted to be angry with the filmmakers for portraying Arab men as the root of all evil, but then I thought of Iraq and how prostitution sky-rocketed after the 2003 invasion.

Atoor. Image via Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for TIME
Atoor. Image via Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for TIME

While I blame men for female prostitution, because it’s their demand for the product that creates the market, this Time article laughs at my deification of women. Titled, “Iraq’s Unspeakable Crime: Mother’s Pimping Daughters,” it highlights the plight of young women, no older than 18, who are sold to sex markets by their own flesh and blood. No one knows for sure how many women turned to or were forced into prostitution, but according to the article, the number is in the tens of thousands. Many of these young women are widows. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs says that there are at least 350,000 widows in Baghdad alone, with more than 8 million throughout the country. The accompanying picture (shown above) is heartbreaking. It’s of 18-year-old Atoor, (Arabic for “perfume”). I look at her and see my sister, or someone’s daughter, and imagine how difficult it would be to resist prostitution when you are being pressured into it by your own family:

Atoor married her 19-year-old sweetheart, a policeman called Bilal, when she was 15. Three months later he was dead, killed during one of the many bloody episodes in Iraq’s brutal war. After the obligatory four-month mourning period dictated by Islamic Shari’ah law, Atoor’s mother and two brothers made it clear that they intended to sell her to a brothel close to their home in western Baghdad, just as they had sold her older twin sisters.

The first thing that struck me about this paragraph was not the brutality of her family’s decision, but the hypocrisy surrounding it. Why bother to honor Shari’ah when you’re just going to be accomplices in having your daughter/sister commit a criminal offense anyway?

Atoor’s reaction is brave to say the least:

Frightened, she told a friend in the police force to raid her home and the nearby brothel. His unit did, and Atoor spent the next two years in prison. She was not charged with anything, but that’s how long it took for her to come before a judge and be released. ”I wanted to go to prison — I didn’t want to be sold,” she says. ”I didn’t think it would happen to me. My mother used to spoil me. Yes, she sold my sisters, but she regretted that. I thought that she loved me.”

This article doesn’t exaggerate or underestimate the consequences of a war-torn society. It gives women like Atoor a voice, and this is especially critical give the despicable honor stigma prevalent in the Arab world. Iraqi society assumes all women involved in the sex industry chose to be in it and are thereby shunned from society, yet the men who pay for their service are never disgraced. In fact, the Iraqi government doesn’t even recognize these women’s struggle: to date the government has not prosecuted any sex traffickers.

This Aljazeera article focuses on the hardship of widows who, unlike Atoor, are not physically forced into prostitution, but find it is the only way to survive. It profiles Rana Jalil, a 38-year old widow and mother of four. She turns to prostitution after a doctor tells her that her children are malnourished. Before she turned to this dark profession, she begged shop owners for work but was treated with “chauvinistic discrimination.”

This article wisely points out that the lack of government assistance leaves these desperate women with no other choice.

Prior to the US invasion, Iraqi widows, particularly those who lost husbands during the Iran-Iraq war, were provided with compensation and free education for their children. In some cases, they were provided with free homes. However, no such safety nets currently exist and widows have few resources at their disposal.”

This 2007 report from The Independent confirms the correlation, describing the Iraqi sex trade in Syria:

“There are more than a million Iraqi refugees in Syria, many are women whose husbands or fathers have been killed. Banned from working legally, they have few options outside the sex trade. No one knows how many end up as prostitutes, but Hana Ibrahim, founder of the Iraqi women’s group Women’s Will, puts the figure at 50,000.

So for once, I can’t say that I blame Western media for making Arabs into the enemy. I felt scared after watching Taken because I recognized that enemy, and mourn his fall from grace, because it is my own.

While sexual violence has accompanied warfare for millenniums and insecurity always provides opportunities for criminal elements to profit, what is happening in Iraq today reveals how far a once progressive country has regressed on the issue of women’s rights and how ferociously the seams of a traditional Arab society that values female virginity have been ripped apart.

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