Essential Readings: Migration and the Gulf by Pardis Mahdavi

When looking at migration in the Middle East, it is important to address questions of how to define “migration” and “labor” and what distinguishes “forced” from “voluntary” migration and labor. Drawing on key ethnographic insights, these authors also challenge the artificial divide between “forced” and “voluntary” labor/migration that has dominated international trafficking policies and debates about gendered migration and coercive labor in Asia.

Trafficking as terror

In 2005, two young men were executed in Mashad, Iran, sealing multiple fates at once. Outside Iran, the execution was labeled an “execution of gay men because they were gay.” Inside Iran, the story was different. Neither of these two young men identified as gay, and their crime was that of raping a young boy. By mislabeling it “yet another case” of a Muslim country’s backward policies on sexuality, the violence of the rape was erased, as were the strengths of movements inside Iran rethinking sex

How #MeToo Became a Global Movement

On October 15, 2017, American actress Alyssa Milano posted a tweet urging women to speak up and out about their experiences with sexual assault or harassment using the phrase “me too.” Overnight, social media erupted, as #MeToo took hold in every corner of the world. By the end of the day, there were similar movements in multiple languages, including Arabic, Farsi, French, Hindi, and Spanish. Today, women in 85 different countries are using the hashtag to bring attention to the violence and hara

Is the #MeToo movement the beginning of a political revolution?

A sexual revolution is underway. Survivors of sexual assault — of which women represent 90 percent — are asserting their control over their own bodies and pushing back against gender inequality in the corporate world. The immediate results have been staggering. Stories detailing sexual abuse and harassment have become regular elements of daily news coverage, leading many perpetrators to issue public apologies and resign or lose their jobs.

Trafficking in Fiction Versus Trafficking Facts

By Pardis Mahdavi (Associate Professor of Anthropology at Pomona College) for the Provocations series, in conjunction with UCI’s “The Future of Truth” conference There is an age-old problem relating to truthfulness that seems to be rearing its head again in troubling ways. During my time conducting fieldwork in Iran, people often ridiculed a sharia-based decree that states that if there is an earthquake and a man from an upstairs apartment “falls into” a woman from a downstairs apartment, and

Stateless and for Sale in the Gulf

Last year, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) handed Semira, 19, a passport for the Comoro Islands, one of the poorest nations on earth, and told her she had 11 months to leave. Although she had been stateless all her life, Semira was born and raised in Dubai and had fully embraced its cosmopolitan culture. She has never stepped foot on the tiny, tropical islands that were to become her homeland, nor did she want to, as she has no roots or family there. She doesn’t have much of a choice, though. Sin

What happened when Saudi Arabia closed its borders to Christian immigrants

Donald Trump has made exclusion a troubling touchpoint of his campaign, through his inflammatory proposal to block Muslim refugees or with the removal of a Muslim woman from one of his rallies. Other Republican presidential hopefuls have also expressed anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiments. Ted Cruz repeatedly refused to criticize Trump’s Muslim ban. Ben Carson called for a registry of all Muslim immigrants to the U.S. Democrats have gotten into the act, too. The new Visa Waiver Reform Bill (

Beyond Victims and Villains: From Ethnography to the Stage

As I sat there listening to yet another male journalist talk about his “rescue of girls” from a life of misery as trafficked victims, a familiar wave of despair washed over me. But maybe not for the reasons you would think. I was worried about the women that this man, who was unabashedly painting himself to be a hero, had “rescued.” I was worried for them because I know, from ten years of on-the-ground fieldwork, that women experience “rescue” as terrifying. Most women don’t want to be “saved,”

The Charitable Industrial Complex: Justice, Not Charity, Is What's Needed

Last month, Somaly Mam, the former director of the U.S.-based foundation that carries her name, stepped down after an in-depth investigation found that she had not only fabricated her own story, but had also coaxed women into lying or performing victimhood in order to raise money for her anti-trafficking foundation. A few days ago, the New York Times ran a story about how Mam's activities were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to deception in Cambodia, pointing to the increasing numbers

Articles on Migrant Labor Abuses in the Gulf Don't Tell the Whole Story

In the past 10 days stories about migrant labor in the Gulf countries of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have made headlines. The New York Times ran a piece entitled "Workers at NYUs Abu Dhabi Site Faced Harsh Conditions" while the New Republic and several other outlets featured articles calling for the removal of the 2022 FIFA World Cup from Qatar. The message from all of these articles was clear: EuroAmerican companies, organizations and universities should steer clear of the Middle East. T

Interrogating the Illicit

"An arms deal is only illegal because someone says it is," says a former arms smuggler turned arms expert in London. "There is a fine line between an intelligence agent and an arms smuggler," he emphasizes, "and that fine line is laws that people produce." Across the pond in Los Angeles, an ex-dining hall worker fired from her post at a liberal arts college in California speaks to the same paradox, "maybe the work was done in an illegal manner because I'm not documented, but I never did anything

Just the 'TIP' of the Iceberg: The 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) Falls Short of Expectations

Last year in Washington D.C. at a one-day conference on human trafficking held at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the new Ambassador to Combat Trafficking in Persons, Lou CdeBaca, spoke about the need to re-conceptualize 'human trafficking.' He emphasized that it is not just an issue rooted in the sex industry, but a larger problem of forced labor and migration worldwide. Many academics and activists lobbying for this reconceptualization for the past decade gave a silent cheer. Ambassador CdeBaca see

When 'Help' is the Problem: Questioning 'Human Trafficking' Policies in the Gulf

Meskerem was living in an abandoned construction site, working odd jobs with very little pay when I met her on the streets of Dubai in 2008. Her story exemplifies the experiences of the numerous migrant men and women who make up the majority of Dubai's work force. Meskerem's father had passed away and left her family in high debt in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. She decided to migrate in search of employment as a domestic worker in the Gulf, but was told by her Ministry of Labor that she coul