The New Pornographers: Operation Iraqi Freedom?

Few people would agree that pornography has hardly been an indicator of freedom or political stability. Some more would also agree that it is not a universal symbol of advancement or female empowerment. Nonetheless, this week Tarek El-Tablawy, an Associated Press writer, affirmed that pornography availability mirrors Iraq’s improvements in security and politics.

More surprising, however, is the fact that many well-known websites published his article with little or no analysis. Websites such as News 1130, National Public Radio, the Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, CBS News, the Raw Story, among others, have republished El-Tablawy’s article. Many of the comments posted in the different websites show that a large number of readers agree on the fact that now Iraq is free because pornography can be found in the streets.

The article presents many problems. With the American troops coming back to the United States, some critics consider it odd that El-Tablawy seems to imply that the invasion, the dead, and all the efforts were for one sole purpose: to sexually liberate Iraqi society. As the New York News & Features explains, if pornography is a reflection of security and stability, then the American troops have nothing else to do in Iraq. On the other hand, although some people believe that democracy in the country is not strong enough, the Sun claims that now Iraq is a better place to live and an expression of the country’s new lifestyle is the availability of pornography.

How is pornography a sign of political stability and freedom? Pornography has existed for centuries and it has been available in most countries, whether legally or illegally.  However, people do not usually affirm or question a country’s stability or freedom based on the availability of pornographic materials.

Even though bloggers such as Costarikker feel that Americans are always blamed for everything happening in the Middle East, the appearance of pornography cannot be blamed on them. Nonetheless, the popularity of El-Tablawy’s article in the West not only legitimizes a discourse of “us” vs. “them” by scrutinizing their pornography consumption without also examining ours, but also emphasizes a very Westernized idea of freedom and political stability.

People who support the appearance and legitimization of pornography in Iraq forget that pornography is still a big issue in the West. Furthermore, in societies where pornography has been stigmatized and condemned, religious authorities tend to react badly. This is not unique of the Muslim world. In some Latin American countries, pornography is still illegal and the Church still has the power to oversee and ban the entrance of ‘inappropriate’ materials into certain countries.

In addition, as the Financial Times reports there are still big issues in Iraq that show that the country is far from being secure, democratic and free. Political, religious and ethnic sectarianisms are still present in the region, and democracy was imposed through a war of intervention, which makes it weak. Most Iraqis lack access to quality welfare services and unemployment is still a big concern.  Nowadays, discussions on pornography overlap with religious fanaticism, political instability, and 50,000 American soldiers staying in the territory to oversee the establishment of democracy in the country.

While the Iraqi government and the Americans focus on dealing with terrorism, they do not realize that, after all what Iraq has gone through in the last 10 years, the availability of pornography in the streets may be one more reason for extremists to react against what they believe is the “Westernization” of the country. While many people may think that the availability of pornography is a step forward toward “development,” this is a very Westernized assumption in the sense that it is commonly conceived that everyone goes through the same developmental process and ends up being like the West. Therefore, according to El-Tablawy’s thesis, Iraq would be a “backward” country that “oppresses” people sexually for not letting them enjoy the wonders of pornography.

Most striking is the little female involvement in this discussion. Aside from Jezebel, which does a long analysis on the presence of Arab and Latin American girls in pornography materials available in Iraq, none of the websites mentioned the impact that this may have on the female population, especially considering the skyrocketing rates of prostitution and sex trafficking that have resulted from the Iraq War.

Pornography has served many purposes in most societies; however, one of the most important ones is the over-sexualization of the female image. Whereas some people may argue that pornography is an expression of female sexual liberation, this thesis has been twisted from a feminist Western discourse and has been misused to imply that all women should feel proud of being able to be represented in such an industry as pornography. However, we forget that even in the West women still face challenges. Although this cannot be blamed on pornography alone, it is this representation of women as only-sexual beings that has allowed society to exclude women from many aspects of public life.

In the Iraqi context, Jezebel clearly shows how Arab women in pornographic films have been exoticized. It seems to be that for the male audience, Arab women are portrayed as “forbidden fruit:” off-limits and therefore, very attractive. In addition, the author reports on the even bigger appeal for veiled girls in pornography movies. This is particularly interesting, since one of the main arguments for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was the liberation of women from oppressing regimes that forced them to wear veils and stay at home. Have they liberated them? Or just taken off their panties while keeping the veil?

Is all this to liberate women from religious oppressive regimes and to oppress them with other types of patriarchal systems? Is pornography our liberator?

The government’s refusal to give any kind of response to the pornography issue shows that women are not a priority in their agenda. First, women were one of the backup excuses to invade the country. Then, women are usually the main targets of extremist religious groups, which tend to emphasize the dangers of female liberation. In a country where the government seems quite concerned with stopping terrorism, people should realize that the availability of pornography in the streets will only provoke more radical reactions and female oppression. Moreover, the government may be legitimizing a practice that will have a long lasting effect on women’s role in public life and in politics and may ban them altogether from these fields by not responding to the issue.

Whether pornography is morally “good” or “bad,” its availability may be alienating more than a few Iraqis and even Americans. Were all the lives lost for the sake of Iraqis’ sexual liberation? Is this so-called sexual liberation a reflection of freedom of political stability? El-Tablawy thinks it is, but his polemical thesis is only good for controversy, not Iraqi women.

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  • Mary Alice

    Great article. I’ve read quite a bit of feminist writing on supporting sex workers and that whole industry as a woman’s choice. But I know that it isn’t always the thing these women most want to choose. All I can give is my American perspective, but I think a few women may actually want to do pornography, but I think many more of them have no other opportunities, or have had abusive and difficult childhoods that lead them to this kind of work. Since when is it feminist to hear a few people saying “I’m not exploited or damaged by the pornogrpahy industry, this was my choice” to ignore the many many women who say they are exploited and that they didn’t have enough other choices. I’m not saying it should be illegal, I just don’t think it should be blindly praised without examining.

  • Lumos

    “this is a very Westernized assumption in the sense that it is commonly conceived that everyone goes through the same developmental process and ends up being like the West”

    I hate when some Westerners always assume that everyone has to go through the same developmental process they did.According to them,the “Muslim world” still has a good 500 hundred years or so to catch up with the “Western world”.

  • ayeshter

    I think that the liberating/expoltive argument regurding Pornography rests on who is making it and who the desired audiance is. If it’s made by both men and women with a desire to reach both audiances, I won’t say it’s nessarly good, but it’s more sensitive. But when it’s made by men with a purly male audiance in mind, it tends to be expoltive. It’s important to keep in mind that the majority of porn made whatever western nation is “by boys, for boys” and therefore the majority of it is not, what I’d consiter anyway, Feminist friendly.

    Since both Iraq and the USA are, arguably, male dominated societies, I highly doubt that the porn now flowing throght Iraq is anymore gender sensive than the American varient. I don’t see this as an opertunity, as much as another mode of opperssion making it’s self available. Now, the confining reality of Patriarchy under the guise of religion has western style objectification as it’s bedfellow in the new Iraq. ..sigh..

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Thank you all for the great comments. Yes, I know that some women go willingly into pornography and that is completely valid. Nonetheless, the reality is that many of them don’t. They go into it because they are in need. Therefore, their experience is completely different to those women who have chosen to do so. In addition, if we are going to argue that pornography frees people… we are still oppressed! Comparatevely how much pornographic material is there out there for women (taking into account what women may wish for)? In the case of Iraq the chances of women benefiting in somehow from pornography are slimmer and, on the contrary, they may be victims of fundamentalist groups or other organizations. Besides, in a country that is somehow starting from cero, how can women find a place in this process if the government is shutting the discussion down altogether?

  • Maria P.

    Pornography frees people, they say. By people, I assume they mean men. Women still aren’t quite people yet in this kind of discourse.

    This sounds like yet another battlefield in the bikini-burqa war. Oh goody, just what the girls and women of Iraq need.

  • MuslimAct

    It’s amazing how many of these debates center around female bodies and the control/freedom of the body itself, from the burka to complete nakedness. The female as a being apart or beyond the physical body almost never seems to factor into popular debates.

  • Naila

    Asssalaamu Alaikum,

    Thank you MuslimAct! That is exactly what I have been thinking :)