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.

  • http://www.muslimahcomments.wordpress.com Muslimahcomments

    Assalaamualaikum-

    After the turmoil that Iraq has been put through it makes perfect sense that women would use themselves and others(even their daughters) to make money. There actually was a very good PBS program on prostitution, Iraqi refugees in places like Jordan and Syria and the damages of war on women. For instance, they focused on the number of rapes committed against Iraqi women and the subsequent abandonment of these women by mates who felt that they women had been “dishonored”. To be honest I think the blame needs to be shared all around.

    For instance, in what ways have the U.S. or Iraqi government compensated people for property destroyed or husbands lost. One thing that has happened in Afghanistan is the acknowledgement that something is owed to people by some US forces. Meaning they have looked to Aghani customs to settle debt over the loss of human life. While this does not take away the trauma it is an acknowledgement rather than the hands up and shrug approach.

    On Taken: What a horribly, racist and zenophobic movie! Did you notice that all the men that were villains were either Eastern European (the Romanians encroaching on Western Europe) or the Arab Sheikh with his Virgins. (What about the stereotypical dagger that was pulled by the kohl eyed Arab bodyguard? Ya know Arabs just can’t handle those complicated guns!)

    The movie was largely about the Eastern threat towards Western ideals of male chivalry and white women’s inherent purity. Kind of ironic that there was never a pause to think about how much rich white people have fueled sex tourism and sexual exploitation in places as diverse as Thailand, Haiti and various countries in Africa. I guess the whole point of the movie was to reverse the “reality” in order that we could sympathise with the threat against white innocence. Because it really would be TOO realistic to show women, men, boys and girls of color?

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    Personally, I take issue with the picture of Atoor used. I understand that perhaps she can’t show her face for security reasons, but why not just put a large black bar over her eyes like most outlets do? I think this picture is just playing up the exotic sex slave stereotype, while simultaneously playing to issues of saving these poor women who’ve been forced into prostitiution.

  • http://rawi.wordpress.com rawi

    Thanks so much for writing this, as I was unaware of the scale of the problem. I bet this is one more thing the US government never thought about before going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, at least one stated reason for which was to liberate their women.

    That said, I think this analysis is somewhat skewed, and I’m a tad surprised by the uncritical approach to what sounds like an otherwise unremarkable action movie (disclaimer: I have not seen it). The film appears to serves as a point of departure for this post if only because the focus is placed on the Arab men — instead of, say, on the global sex-trafficking network. Lost is any attempt to read the underlying constructs of power, nationality, ethnicity, etc that might have coded the story.

    The fault with Hollywood (though I realize “Taken” itself is a French production) lies not so much in making the Arab an enemy, but in being so successful in portraying the white American self as the normative subject, and in associating all things evil with the non-American Other. The possibility of women being victimized by prostitution cartels in America’s own backyard is neglected, because that story is not sexy enough for the big screen. The real action happens outside, when an American girl goes abroad and gets kidnapped by scary non-American men. Coz by the end of it all, we can feel good about the awesome country we live in, safe and secure within its well-protected borders. Who cares what thousands of Iraqi women are having to suffer?

    Here’s a review that raises some valid questions along the same line: “But even worse is the film’s regressive message that virginal American girls should not go abroad as bad men from the Middle East and Eastern Europe will ravage them. Bryan’s lack of concern towards all the non-American girls being held captive is extremely worrying but not as much as the scene where he is completely vindicated for sadistically torturing a suspect.” (http://blog.cinemaautopsy.com/2008/07/20/film-review-taken-2008/)

  • Faith

    The articles themselves were fine and highlight the struggles of Iraqi women sex workers. However, I strongly take issue with the movie Taken for similar reasons as rawi. I’m sure there are plenty of rich Arab men who buy sex slaves but there a lot of white men from America and other Western countries who buy sex slaves all over the world. This threat truly is global. Also, prostitution rings are a big problem here in the US too. Yet, Arab men and Eastern European men (it wasn’t clear if they were Muslim or not) are the only boogey monsters? I think that image is troubling.

  • Sobia

    I agree with the comments here. I too have not seen Taken but the idea of it sounds terribly racist. I agree with muslimahcomments when she says:

    “Kind of ironic that there was never a pause to think about how much rich white people have fueled sex tourism and sexual exploitation”

    So true.

    But I’m a little unclear with a few statements:

    “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.”

    And it was Americans who invaded Iraq. Are they not responsible, in large part, for this situation in Iraq? It is not Arab/Iraqi men alone. Was there any mention how it has been the invasion of Iraq that has lead to such dire situations for Iraqi women. As was pointed out, things for widows were much better before the American invasion of Iraq. We must lay blame on those responsible.

    “So for once, I can’t say that I blame Western media for making Arabs into the enemy. ”

    Prostitution is a huge industry all over the world and the majority of women who are in prostitution are somehow forced into it. In Canada (and the US I’m sure) we have a huge problem of human trafficking, especially women being trafficked into the Canadian sex industry. Therefore, I would say its not Arabs who should be painted as the enemy but rather those who perpetuate and fund the sex industry all over the world. This is not at all unique to the Arab world.

  • Rchoudh

    This Taken movie sounds racist, sexist, and xenophobic! This is the usual Hollywood nonsense, wherein foreign brutes desire beautiful American white women because don’t you know these women are not like any other (Barf)!

    As for the issue at hand I too have unfortunately read about too many articles dealing with the ways Iraqi women fall victim to prostitution either by being kidnapped or tricked into it within surrounding Muslim countries. And I’ve also read at least one article from Marie Claire magazine about how Iraqi women decide to become prostitutes because as refugees in Jordan they have no other source of income. One interesting thing about that article was that it highlighted the fact that Arab men weren’t the only clients of these women, which included American and British soldiers and contractors on leave in Jordan. I was surprised to find an American magazine exposing a hidden reality of what occupying militaries, despite their public proclamations of respecting the women of countries under their control.

    Finally it disgusts me to find Muslim men engaging in such hideous actions without thinking of the consequences of their actions. Do they not stop to think at least once that Islam forbids both men and women to engage in illicit sex?? And society’s double standard never ceases to upset me.

  • Phil

    “And it was Americans who invaded Iraq. Are they not responsible, in large part, for this situation in Iraq? It is not Arab/Iraqi men alone. Was there any mention how it has been the invasion of Iraq that has lead to such dire situations for Iraqi women. As was pointed out, things for widows were much better before the American invasion of Iraq. We must lay blame on those responsible.”

    spot on, next time some person talks about going to war to “liberate” women (muslim or not) remember iraq. Generally speaking wars never help women.

    PS. Aljazeera English has quite a few (good)interviews/articles which just focus on the victims.

  • Rchoudh

    One other thing regarding that movie. I just read an MSNBC article about how more and more American women are voluntarily choosing to get into the sex trade because of the bad economy; it stated that women choose this line of work because of the flexible timings and higher pay. I’m thinking movies like Taken don’t focus on American prostitution because it’s assumed that most women here that get into it do so voluntarily and also because oftentimes they get paid alot more than their counerparts in other countries. Never mind the fact that alot of Latin American women are sexually and economically exploited and forced into sex work right here in America. Nope only Western white women are exploited and abused, especially by foreigners, in the sex trade.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Fatemeh – As odd as it may seem, that might be how she wears her scarf normally when in public. I’ve certainly seen other women wearing their scarves in a similar way.

    I did have Taken in my Lovefilm* queue, thinking it was a vaguely cheesy thriller, but since finding out it’s just another Reel Bad Arabs trope, it’s been swiftly removed

    *UK version of Netflix.

  • other

    Don’t forget the “chauvinistic discrimination” that women face in finding employment in the labor market. The US invasion is also an example of chauvinism/patriarchy towards another nation. However, patriarchy has alot to do with this situation because women have very few choices. And the societal values.

    Not there was an American movie “Traffic” depicting sex trafficing of women and children (this includes boys) from Mexico and around the world in the US by affluent white males, and purchased by affluent white males.

  • Zahra

    I have to echo other comments here: forced prostitution, and particularly young girls being pimped by their mothers is a major problem in the US and many other countries. (Jody Raphael’s book Listening to Olivia is a good overview.) It can also be the start of a cycle, where those daughters then pimp out the next generation. These are very difficult problems to solve; it’s much easier and more effective to prosecute the men who use prostitutes instead.

    And I think Sobia’s right. If the US has destroyed the social safety net that protected widows and others, it should replace it. It’s the right thing to do.

  • http://forgetbaghdad.blogspot.com Nadia

    “And it was Americans who invaded Iraq. Are they not responsible, in large part, for this situation in Iraq? It is not Arab/Iraqi men alone. Was there any mention how it has been the invasion of Iraq that has lead to such dire situations for Iraqi women. As was pointed out, things for widows were much better before the American invasion of Iraq. We must lay blame on those responsible.”

    Yes, thanks for saying it so I didn’t have to.

    The US stalled for a very long time in funding aid to Iraqi refugees because it didn’t want to admit the extent of the humanitarian crisis- that would mean thatthe war was going badly-like to the point that the MENA UNHCR staff was working for free in 2006 because it didn’t get enough money to fund their salaries. Then when support funding finally did come through it went to Jordan and Egypt but they refused aid to Syria for political reasons, who unfortunately host the largest number of Iraqi refugees by far. The Iraqi government’s solution to the widow problem, instead of making sure they get their pension, was to offer men a bonus for marrying one, a tiny proportion of widows and poor families in general get any kind of assistance from the government even though they’re entitled to it. But I mean almost no Iraqis have regular access to electricity or running water either.

    But no I don’t think it’s unanimously assumed the girls are there by choice, enough girls are kidnapped, or lied to by recruiters that tell them they are going to be working in legit jobs in Dubai, or raped that there must be some awareness of that reality. Not saying that people would not still pass judgement, they would, but I think people would know better than to think they are there because they want to be.

  • http://www.7obsessions.blogspot.com Yusra Tekbali

    Great comments, however my post isn’t an analysis of Taken, or else I would have focused on the problems I had with it. I wasjust using it to show how my immediate reaction to it reminded me of the sex business in Iraq, run in large part by Arab men. Also, as alluded to in the last paragraph, the U.S. occupation has halted progress in Iraq, but placing blame where blame is due means blaming Atoor’s brothers and mother for example for wanting to sell her into slavery. There action reflects their desperate situation but that does not mean it justifies it. (Palestinians have faced innumerable pressure under occupation and yet I would not blame Israelis if a Palestinian family decided to pimp their daughters). I agree that America is responsible for destroying the security fabric in Iraq, but I also believe in owning individual action.

  • http://www.7obsessions.blogspot.com Yusra Tekbali

    Rchoudh, that stuff about American women turning to sex industry is so wild! I wonder if they’ll make a term for it, like recessionista, but prostitutista or smthng. It’s the first i hear about it.

  • http://forgetbaghdad.blogspot.com Nadia

    It’s not physical insecurity though it’s a matter of destitution, these families as individuals aren’t choosing to go to places where they can’t work and be separated from their families, Iraqis don’t have a prostitution epidemic because they are worse people than their neighbours. Those that initiated the conflict do have a responsibility to deal with the fallout both the US and the Iraqi government just chose not to.

    I know this is all obvious but I think it bears repeating. My only issue with this post really was the line at the end about this article making Arabs the enemy or not, why does it have to be either or in that case, extremely ugly times breed really shitty actions, this isn’t about any one people.

    Though, now that I’ve typed that out, I can think of some severely annoying articles that covered this story in ways that are pretty problematic.

    Also people keep telling me that sex work in the USA really does not pay any better than McDonald’s but I don’t know ow much truth there is to that.

  • emmaculate

    I like the introspection and thoughtfulness of this article. However, this one line is a bit simplistic:

    “I blame men for female prostitution, because it’s their demand for the product that creates the market…..”

    What’s the problem? This assumes that sex is bought and sold like any other product; it isn’t, thankfully; even in the most tolerant communities, prostitution is regulated differently from, say, groceries — and in many places it is wholly clandestine. As a result, the economic ‘model’ of prostitution is closer to something like illicit arms trading or drugs; and I doubt you would blame drug users (or the drug dealer on your street or even the poor souls growing opium in Afghanistan) for the existence of the heroin trade!

    You overlook the first rule of advertising: demand does not spring up organically, it is created.

    As with most transactions, capitalist-era prostitution is a complicated mixture of supply, demand, organization, globalization and custom. In its current form(s), it is a product of social, sexual and economic inequality, for which it would be as wrong to vilify the prostitutes themselves as it is to blame their clients.

  • Sobia

    @ Yusra:

    “but placing blame where blame is due means blaming Atoor’s brothers and mother for example for wanting to sell her into slavery. There action reflects their desperate situation but that does not mean it justifies it.”

    I question whether they actually want to. To me their ‘wanting’ to sell her could only be proven had they done this regardless of the economic and security situation. In ideal conditions I personally doubt they would want to sell her. Although you are right that ultimately they make that decision to sell her, but we do not know the horrors they are living through. We do not know what types of situations lead people to do such things. And we do not know that we, put in that same situation, would not do the same thing. Its just such a complex situation.

  • Krista

    This was an interesting article. I have to say I was taken aback by the title of the post. Although I’m sure this wasn’t your intention, I felt like this title seemed to mock and trivialise this issue.

    I’m also concerned about the shift in this post from acknowledging that there are serious problems in Iraq with regards to prostitution to a suggestion that we shouldn’t “blame Western media for making Arabs into the enemy.” The issue of the invasion of Iraq and its impact on these problems has been brought up already, so I won’t go there, but even without going into that, I think there is a BIG difference between talking about problems within a society and talking about that society as if it is an enemy. We can’t blame Western media for showing that there are problems in Arab countries and societies (even if we might criticise the ways that these problems are often talked about as if they are absent in the West), but making Arabs seem like the enemy IS a problem.

    Last, I know the focus of the article wasn’t on the movie Taken, but the way the movie was referenced made it seem as if it was an accurate portrayal of Arabs… There’s a great review of the film here (http://brokenmystic.wordpress.com/2009/02/19/hollywood-vilifies-muslims-and-arabs-yet-again/) that provides a very different perspective.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    The blame for the title goes to me. Snappiness and cultural references got in the way of sensitivity, and I apologize. We all know that sex slavery isn’t funny, and it wasn’t my intention to mock or trivialize the issue.

  • Rchoudh

    I’m sure other astute posters have mentioned this already but I think it bears repeating that blame should go around everywhere. For me I would first blame American foreign policy for invading and destroying Iraq using deceptive means and then not thinking through about rebuilding that country and paying reparations to it for their blunder. I’ve been reading too many articles about how Iraq remains unstable because America can’t be arsed into reconciling the sectarian tensions that still exist there and because of the global economic crisis that has affected Iraq as well. I fear that Iraq will once again destabilize while Afghanistan is being “stablized”, thus causing a circular chain of events…
    Next the blame should go to the Iraqi government for not prioritizing what needs to be done to help its citizens. Women’s issues I fear are the least of their concerns since they still have to deal with sectarian tensions, a slowing economy, etc. It’s hard to tell when if ever they’ll get around to helping out all their citizens, women included.
    For the Iraqi women’s situation in other countries, the blame should go towards those governments that ignore the plight of these refugees and don’t try to provide alternative means of support so that they don’t have to resort to prostitution.
    I believe for the most part women around the world who resort to prostitution do so either out of force (kidnapping, deception) or desperation (no alternative means of support, no family support). Very few women, Iraqi women included, actually choose to go into this profession willingly because they know how it would negative affect them psychologically, socially, and economically. So I would not place any blame on them for their dire situation.

    @Yusra

    Yeah I’m surprised they haven’t come up with some silly wacky term yet!

  • http://forgetbaghdad.blogspot.com Nadia

    The countries that took in Iraqis don’t have a lot of financial resources to begin with, even for supporting their own population-Iraqis in Jordan are almost equivalent to ten percent of its population. Syria did open its schools and hospitals to Iraqis which cost it billions every year, it’s not sustainable without support from the int’l community. Iraq’s neighbours that had any money shut them all out, pretty much.

    Anyways, I don’t want what I said earlier to be misinterpreted as just blaming one party, the sitch in Iraq is definitely complicated and there are many actors. I just meant that war and poverty are the catalyst. Just like Kurdistan has high rates of honour killings in both Iraq and Turkey now compared to the region, AFAI understand they were not common in the early 80s; you just can’t look at these situations without referring to political factors before you start talking about culture.

  • Rchoudh

    @ Nadia

    Good thing you mentioned about Syria/Jordan’s help. I honestly did not know the extent of their help. And you’re right about the indifference in providing aid by surrounding countries (Gulf States). That’s similar to how they treat the Palestinian issue (all talk and no action in actually helping the Palestinians as exemplified by the Gaza War). Thanks for pointing that out.

  • http://forgetbaghdad.blogspot.com Nadia

    That’s similar to how they treat the Palestinian issue (all talk and no action in actually helping the Palestinians as exemplified by the Gaza War).

    Truth. Or for helping Palestinians living in their own country!

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    Agreed! I thought Taken was a regular horror movie until someone told me about the horrific racial implications. Rawi’s & Faith’s comments highlight issues I have with the movie, despite the fact that I haven’t seen it.


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