Pardis Mahdavi(Pictured: Pardis Mahdavi.)

(Cross-posted from Jadaliyya.)

Earlier this month, the US State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, an inventory of the world’s efforts at combating the global trade in people. The 2011 report marks a turning point of sorts for US foreign policy. For the first time ever, the new TIP includes an assessment—if predictably positive—of Washington’s own attempts at battling trafficking at home. More encouraging still, the report reflects the explicit recognition that trafficking is not only about the forced prostitution of women but represents the problem of coerced labor of both women and men around the world. Despite these progressive shifts, however, the new report is not without its critics. Some contend that Washington’s commitment to fighting forced labor remains subordinate to the larger dynamics of American interest and that the discourse driving US policy particularly disadvantages Muslim-majority nation-states.

Understanding how this discourse shapes both policy and the lived experiences of foreign workers in the Gulf region is of central concern in Pardis Mahdavi’s Gridlock, a new book on trafficking and migrant labor in Dubai. In it, Mahdavi interviews sex workers, taxi drivers, construction workers and domestic servants laboring under the Gulf’s kefala sponsorship framework—a legal architecture that largely determines the contours of Dubai’s formal and informal political economy. The portrait that emerges upends conventional understandings of trafficking—which often equate the phenomenon with sex slavery—to reveal a vastly more nuanced, complex, and often messy reality of migrant life in the emirate.

I recently spoke with Mahdavi about some of these issues, her new book more broadly, and the possibility for reinvigorated discourses and policies that privilege labor rights while narrowing the trafficking debate exclusively around instances of “force, fraud, and coercion.”

MB: I was hoping to begin by asking you to unpack the book’s title. What is the “gridlock” in attempting to understanding labor, migration and human trafficking in Dubai?

PM: It’s funny you mention that. The original title of the book was actually “Traffic Jam.” It was basically intended to convey the fact that the issue of trafficking involves the interplay of so many different factors and that the topic involves such a messy intersection between policy, discourse, and lived reality. That’s what I was trying to convey with a title like “Traffic Jam.” I think Gridlock—which was chosen by my editor—similarly conveys this powerful nexus where these issues are gridlocked in any number of ways. At the same time, it also speaks to those who have spent time in the Gulf, or anywhere in the Middle East. The experience of just sitting in gridlock should be familiar, and it says a lot about the field, the title was chosen to invoke the field.

I was struck by your very frank discussion in the book of those aspects of your research that continue to unsettle you: specifically, the questions of how you talk about trafficking without falling into the very traps you identify and criticize and how you talk about sex work without making the experience seem glamorous or worthy of pity. Can you talk a bit more about those challenges, where they come from, and how they affected the approach you adopted to your research as a result?

I think it makes sense to address the second part of the question first. In terms of my approach, I think that any of us who write about trafficking have to be very careful, because it is a very loaded term. Oftentimes, when you use the word “trafficking,” people see red. They think sex, they think sex trafficking. It evokes the images that I’m very critical of in my book, like those coming from movies like Taken and Call and Response. This idea of a thirteen-year-old girl chained to a bed—this is what “trafficking” evokes for people. There are a lot of feelings that debates about trafficking provoke. And sometimes those feelings, those knee-jerk reactions get in the way of having more robust conversations, and honest conversations about what trafficking is and is not. It’s that same impassioned sentiment that undergirds deeply flawed and uncritical and developmentalist efforts, the “rescue efforts” which have been constructed in a knee-jerk way—“let’s rescue these poor women.” We need to recognize what that rhetoric entails, how it can take away agency, and also the ways in which it paints this image of the moral decay of the global south.

Your first book, Passionate Uprisings, looked at the sexual counterculture in Tehran amongst youth there resisting the sociopolitical structures of authoritarian rule in Iran. This new book shares some overlap with its predecessor, but it generally looks to be a distinct break from your previous work. Is this a fair assessment, and if so, how did this new project come about?

That is definitely a fair assessment. The theme that underlies both of the books is that of moral anxiety, moral panic. In the first book, you have the moral panics surrounding young people and sexuality—youth gone astray—and this is what I am critical of in my writing. And in the new book, you have a different type of moral panic. Here it’s an anxiety about the movement of bodies, a panic specifically about gendered bodies, gendered migration. So in both works, there’s a concern with what James Scott has termed “moral economies” or Stanley Cohen’s “moral panics.” That’s the driving theme that links the two books. At the same time, you’re absolutely right to say that Gridlock is somewhat of a departure from the first book. I have a very complicated relationship with that work, as I think many people do with their first project. There was a lot more of me in that first book, and I was much more a part of it, putting myself out there in ways that I don’t really like, in ways I don’t think I would do again.

How so?

Well, I appear in the first book—and this was at the encouragement of several people—much more as a character than I do in Gridlock. And also as an Iranian, as an Iranian-American, my relationship to Iran is very different from my relationship to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And during the writing of the first book, I encountered a lot of problems to the point where I basically can’t go back to Iran. So that right there necessitated a new field site, obviously!

But actually, my interest in this current project came about before all of that. In 2004, I started working with sex workers in Tehran. I started living with, spending time with women who were engaged in the sex industry. They actually don’t appear in the first book, because I couldn’t figure out a way of bringing the issue of sex work into Passionate Uprisings in a way that wouldn’t detract from the main argument that I was making. And so I did a lot of research with sex workers that just didn’t appear at all. But it was through my research with sex workers in Tehran that I became interested in the new project. So much so that I started following women who were in the sex industry in Tehran who would go to Dubai for x-number of months a year, engage in the sex industry there, make a lot of money, and then come back.

From there, I started meeting women who were not sex workers in Iran but who would also go to Dubai, engage in the sex industry, make a lot of money, and come back. And I started to follow them to Dubai, where two things became very obvious to me. Number one, the narratives about these women were scripted by EuroAmerican discourse which considered them “trafficked” because they were going into the sex industry. They themselves would not describe themselves this way at all! They would describe themselves as enterprising agents making money to support their families back home. At the time, I was still a graduate student at Columbia, and one of my advisors, Carol Vance—a prominent scholar on trafficking—influenced my thinking dramatically, as did the conversations she and her colleagues were having. They did a lot of work on trafficking discourses that emanated from the United States and Europe and I had all this in the back of my mind which helped make me aware of this disconnect.

Second, I noticed—and in fact anyone who goes and spends time in Dubai will notice—the hordes of male construction workers and male migrant workers. I started talking with some of these workers and noticed that they had actually undergone experiences of force, fraud or coercion which is the very definition of human trafficking. But when we speak of men, they are often imagined as being outside of the trafficking paradigm which tends to focus disproportionately on the sex industry. What that does, in turn, is eclipse the experiences of abuse suffered outside of the sex industry.

Speaking of male laborers, I was surprised to learn from your book the extent to which the Emirates depend on the importation of law enforcement. Can you talk about why this is, how this produces unique tensions that result from the interface between migrant law enforcement and those migrants laboring in both the formal and informal economies, and what, if any, effects the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report have had on the situation?

The UAE is quite reliant on importing law enforcement and often they are not able to train migrant police at the rate at which they need to. This creates a number of problems. First of all, if they are untrained, this makes it very difficult for them to interface with women that they are ostensibly “rescuing,” who are often held in detention. As I mention in the book, a large number of women are abused at the hands of these imported police officers.

As to the issue of the TIP report, it seems clear that the report has exacerbated the problem. The UAE gets a bit of a bad rap. It gets blamed for everything going wrong which presents it with a tough situation. Before the TIP the UAE was looking into increasing the number of labor inspectors. If you want to stop trafficking, you need to have labor inspectors to actually take a look at what’s going on with the country’s various employees. The TIP report, however, very explicitly says “You need to increase the number of police officers and decrease the practice of prostitution,” which is in line with the TIP’s focus on prostitution and of which many people, including myself, are very critical. That became a very tough situation for the UAE to deal with because unlike Iran, say, or places like North Korea, the UAE really does not want to be on Tier Three [the TIP’s lowest possible ranking] or the Tier Two “Watch List.” The UAE is vested in maintaining a good image, and so here comes this TIP report making these recommendations that aren’t necessarily going to improve the situation because if you increase the number of imported policemen, you’re going to increase the problem itself if they are one of the sources of abuse. Basically, the trafficking issue took away from the focus on migrant rights, which is really at the heart of all this. I think the UAE wanted to get—was on the track towards getting—more labor inspectors and looking at the issue of migrants rights, but the concern over “trafficking” took center stage with the appearance of the TIP report.

Some analysts have registered frustration with what they see as academic hyperscrutiny on the doom and gloom of migrant life in the UAE, when in fact the real story is largely one of success and economic opportunity. You have a very specific agenda in mind in your research that leads you to examine potential pitfalls facing those working within the kefala framework. But I’m curious: do you agree with this assessment, and if, why do you think there’s such an emphasis on the “dark side” of Dubai in studies on migration to the Emirates and less on its positive and transformative impacts?

Another thing I focus on in the book is the presence of Islamaphobia and the post-9/11 rhetoric around the notion of “the backwards Islamic country.” The idea that a country in the Middle East could be making such progress as the UAE has works against this clash of civilizations rhetoric that characterizes the post-9/11 period. I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s a focus on the gloom and doom, why there’s a desire to examine the so-called “dark side” of Dubai of which I’m very critical. I’m really tired, actually, of this focus on the “dark side.” And while I’ve been critical of the kefala system, I’ve also tried to point out ways in which the problems that take place in Dubai also stem from outside discourses. As I said, the Emirates are being put in a really tough position by policies like the TIP report. People try to hold their feet to the fire. I actually think that they are vested in improving their image, they are vested in addressing the issue of migrants rights. But here’s the thing: unilateral policies are not going to work. If the Emirates come up with a policy, it is not going to work unless there is bilateral or multilateral support from both sending and receiving countries. A global policy would be the ideal. I think the UAE wants to join the global dialogue about how to improve the situation. But the challenge they’re up against is this clash of civilizations climate, which makes things difficult.

You outline a number of recommendations in Gridlock’s final chapter for immediate action that could be taken to remedy some of the discursive problems you identify as well as be of help to migrant laborers. Can you briefly outline some of these, and talk about what you see as possible roadblocks getting in the way of their being realized?

Well, my recommendations are all directed at aligning policies more closely with the lived experiences of migrants, at better understanding what migrant workers actually need, and how it is we can best address that. If that means, for example, that there need to be more labor inspectors, then the TIP should recommend more labor inspectors! I mean think about the TVPA, and its focus on prosecution. T visas are only issued if victims agree to testify against their traffickers. This is a very problematic framing of the situation. If you ask someone, “Who is your trafficker?” in many instances the answer is a member of their family. The family sent them over. This idea, this obsession, with prosecution—while I understand where it comes from—is really not serving the needs of migrants. Neither is the obsession with sex trafficking. It serves no one’s interest either. So we really need a reconceptualization of trafficking, and a realignment of policy with the actual experiences of workers.

But I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I recognize that the TIP is a powerful tool. The question is how it can best be used to get migrants what they actually want and need. I think the biggest barriers are discursive, certainly, and the rhetoric around Islamic countries. If we look at a movie, like Taken, for example, the villains are dark-skinned men with Middle Eastern accents. And so it’s no surprise at the end of the movie—spoiler alert!—it’s these wealthy Arab sheiks, living in the Gulf, who are trying to buy and sell these White virgins. And so you have to ask yourself: what does this do to the conversation? I’m up against this sort of thing daily. When I give talks about my work, I constantly get students saying, “But I heard that the price the price for virgins was such-and-such.” This is not a robust conversation.

So some of the challenges are certainly discursive. But others exist at the policy level. The TIP is written by a group of people that don’t have the time to go spend more than a few days in these countries. So we have to ask ourselves about ways in which they can work with academics, how we can use our skills to help reframe the TIP more productively. And then there’s the neoliberal economic world order which produces an oversupply of flexible labor, which is also part of the problem. Specifically, there’s a reliance on it to mitigate the risks of capitalism, where the risks are pushed down onto this pool of flexible labor which in turn creates a situation where force, fraud and coercion can occur.

Finally, the 2011 TIP report was just released a few weeks back. I was hoping you could talk about your reaction to it with reference both specifically to the UAE as well as more generally.

Well, I think it’s a matter of “one step forward, two steps back.” The UAE got a Tier Two ranking this year, which is good. But as one of my interlocutors in the book points out, where the UAE is ranked each year is dependent on how good its trade relations are with the Washington. So it’s probably not a coincidence that as the UAE moved up to Tier Two, trade between it and the United States dramatically increased in the last year. But who knows?

As for more generally, there are some very good things that the latest TIP has done. First of all, the United States is now ranked. This is a good effort compared to earlier reports where the US simply didn’t rank itself, which is obviously problematic. Also, the new TIP is committed to going beyond the sex trafficking framework and looking more at migrant workers, which is a great development.

However, they also took two steps back. The report is still very much an extension of US foreign policy. Again, Muslim majority countries are castigated, the language used to describe them is very problematic. And in Secretary Clinton’s introduction to the report in its opening pages, she talks again about the girls who need to be saved. But there’s also a real slippage of numbers. On the one hand, Secretary Clinton notes that there are twenty-seven million people being trafficked yet when you go and actually look at the chart of numbers of people—worldwide!—identified as having been trafficked last year, the number doesn’t even hit 27,000. And again, there’s also the problem of the opaque nature of the report’s compilation. So, we do have some real improvements in this year’s report—and I think that Luis CdeBaca should be commended for the big steps forward that the TIP has taken—but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.