Do sex taboos contribute to sex trafficking?

As much as we’d like to deny it, sex trafficking and forced prostitution of women and children is rampant in the Muslim world – in large part because Muslim men demand these services. The fear of discussing sexual relationships openly and constructively may explain the unwillingness to rout out these evils. What will break the silence?

During my final year in law school, I represented a young woman from the Islamic Republic of Mauritania who was seeking asylum. She was born in Mauritania to a slave mother, separated from her family at a young age and sold and then re-sold to owners who tortured and raped her. She was ultimately forced into prostitution and then trafficked to several other African countries before entering the United States. She was Muslim.

As I began doing research for her case, I discovered that sexual abuse of women and children is rampant in the Muslim world. Muslim women and children are trafficked and sold into prostitution in countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Every day, approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders, which does not include millions trafficked within their own countries, and approximately 80 percent of the transnational victims are female and up to 50 percent are minors.

Sex trafficking has a devastating impact on its victims, who suffer repeated rape, physical and emotional abuse, threats against self and family, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, and even death. The victims of sex trafficking are routinely either lured away from their families with promises of non-existent jobs or marriages, sold by family members, or are kidnapped outright. They are often drugged, imprisoned and tortured if they attempt to escape, and many who do manage to return to their families are turned away because of the stigma attached to sex trafficking and prostitution.

As I worked further on my Mauritanian client’s case and read and thought more about sex trafficking in the Muslim world, I also realized that there is a deafening silence in the Muslim world with regards to this issue. This is both tragic and puzzling. After all, isn’t every core principle of Islam violated by sex trafficking? Islam provides that sexual relations should only exist within the confines of a legitimate marriage, and has laid out strict penalties for adultery and fornication. Furthermore, Islam mandates the freedom, dignity, and rights of women and children. Muslims are commanded to stand up against injustice: “O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both.” (4:135).

It is hard to imagine a greater injustice than sex trafficking and forced prostitution, and it stands to reason that Muslims in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran should be outraged that such crimes exists within their communities. After all, if Muslims can get angry enough to cause blood-shed over Danish cartoons and teddy bears named Muhammad, they should be completely enraged by the selling of Muslim (and non-Muslim) women and children into sexual slavery and prostitution.

Unfortunately, such is not the case. In the U.S. Department of State’s 2008 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” not a single Muslim country is included in Tier 1, which includes the countries that comply with minimal standards for the elimination of trafficking. Muslim governments are often part of the problem. In Pakistan, for example, prostitution is illegal, but police generally ignore the activity if they receive bribes. In Saudi Arabia, women from Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, and other countries are routinely trafficked for sexual exploitation, and others are kidnapped and forced into prostitution after running away from abusive employers. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia lacks adequate anti-trafficking laws, does not criminally prosecute the traffickers or customers, and takes no steps to provide victims of sex trafficking with protection. Women in Iran are trafficked internally for forced prostitution and forced marriages to settle debts, and also trafficked to neighboring Muslim countries for sexual exploitation. Iranian authorities purportedly punish victims of trafficking with beatings, imprisonment, and execution. Clearly, there is no shortage of the atrocities being committed against these Muslim women, and the governments of Muslim countries are either ignoring the issue or complicit in the trafficking.

What explains the Muslim world’s unwillingness to rout out the evil of sex trafficking and forced prostitution? There are many reasons – apathy, fear of acknowledging that the ideal framework created for governing sexual behavior is not so ideal in practice, antipathy towards the victims of these crimes, and denial. I think one of the biggest reasons for this silence is the modern Muslim world’s fear of discussing sexual relationships openly and constructively. The subject of sex trafficking and forced prostitution is particularly taboo. Try to think of the last time you sat in a room full of older Muslim relatives or friends and brought up the topic of prostitution. Have trouble imagining the conversation? So do I.

This collective repression regarding discussion of topics related to sexual relationships is not rooted in Islamic tradition. Numerous hadith document that the Prophet and his companions were very comfortable discussing both sex and sexual problems within the community. Both men and women reportedly approached the Prophet to discuss the details of their physical and intimate problems, and he readily provided advice regarding these issues. The modern-day Muslim prudishness is therefore more culturally rooted, and likely a by-product of colonial rule and left-over vestiges of Victorian sensibilities.

While it is neither desirable nor necessary to discuss the details of a couple’s intimate life publicly, it is problematic when this unwillingness extends also to discussions of family planning issues, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual abuse, among others. Notwithstanding our community’s treatment of these topics as being shameful and embarrassing, the fact remains that sex is a basic human need. When it becomes something to hide, it naturally leads towards the potential of deviance and abuse. Prostitution and sex trafficking only exist in Muslim countries because Muslim men demand these services.

This social ban on discussions related to sexual relationships particularly extends to sex trafficking and prostitution. Because such things are so shocking and terrible and surrounded by an aura of illicitness, it seems we have decided the best course is to remain silent about them. To discuss them has become taboo, and the victims of these crimes have been relegated to invisibility. This very taboo, this invisibility, is a key driver in allowing sex trafficking and prostitution to thrive in Muslim countries. We need to break this silence and speak seriously and urgently about these problems, so that the men responsible for these crimes stop benefiting from our repression, and so the victims can finally gain a voice.

(This article is part of an Altmuslimah series on sex trafficking in the Muslim world. Photo: Nick Rain via flickr under a Creative Commons license.)
Uzma Mariam Ahmed is an attorney in Chicago and works at a large national law firm, where she focuses her practice primarily on securities and commodities regulation. Mariam has helped many clients seek asylum and other immigration relief under the Violence Against Women Act on a pro bono basis. She graduated from Northwestern University’s School of Law in 2005.

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