Bad reporting on trafficking and different kinds of marriages in the Middle East


{jcomments on}Dr Laura Agustín

Dr Laura Agustín wrote a comment following my publication of an article about bad reporting on trafficking Iraqi women and different kinds of marriages in the Middle East, that directed me to her analysis on the subject. She wrote about the way reporters confuse trafficking, mut’a marriages, sex tourism and migration. I thought her analysis is worthy of sharing with those who are interested in researching this field.


Marriages called human trafficking whether women want them or not: Egypt and the Gulf

What is gained by using the one word, trafficking, to describe a wide variety of social phenomena? Campaigners will say that they want to show that everything they have decided is an improper way for women to live or get by must be named and shamed as violence (whether people went along with or initiatied the activities or not, as we know). So we have seen how surrogate motherhood [3], sex tourism by lgbt [4]people and marriage broking [5] are all glossed as trafficking, with relationships reduced to exploiter and victim. In the article I’m considering here, several kinds of instrumentally motivated marriages are all called trafficking, and I see no benefit in it at all.

When I hear about a phenomenon, I want the details of how it works: who does what and how those involved talk about what they are doing. If some so-called authority with an ngo and an agenda simply tells me here’s another bad thing to condemn and outlaw, give us more support so we can get rid of it I automatically wonder what else is going on. I am not sure the authority-figure is lying, no. But I see the moralising and the personal agenda and want to hear from others, too.

This article uses several terms without defining them (seasonal, transactional and temporary marriages) and also contradicts itself. It is instructive to go through the sequence of ideas; my comments are interspersed:

A summer industry: Egyptian brides for Gulf visitors [6] (24 July 2011, Al-Masry Al-Youm)

As Egypt enters the peak of summer, there is a shadow economy that few dare to discuss: “Seasonal” or “transactional” marriages between Egyptian women and wealthy men from Arab Gulf countries.

Journalism 101 teaches that you need to define such key concepts right away. Do you imagine their meanings are obvious? On the contrary, transactional is associated with a sex-money exchange usually contrasted with marriage. Unless you are alluding to this Christian sort of idea [7] about wives thinking they have to have sex with husbands as part of the contract. And what do you mean by seasonal? Do you just mean summertime?

These marriages, which often involve women below the legal age of 18, are temporary and illegal marriage contracts and one of the most common forms of human trafficking in Egypt. Transactional marriages are considered a form of human trafficking because women are recruited and sold for the purpose of sexual exploitation internally or across borders.

Okay. But

The practice may not necessarily be associated with force, fraud or coercion.

So then in those cases, trafficking isn’t the right word – correct?

. . . “We do have a protection framework, but we need enforcement in reality,” says Azza El-Ashmawy, director general of the National Council for Children and Motherhood (NCCM) and the director of the NCCM’s Anti-Trafficking-in-Children Unit. In 2010, the unit published a survey on child marriages to non-Egyptians, which was based on a sample of 2000 people in different areas of 6th of October Governorate. According to the report, 81 percent of non-Egyptian spouses come from Saudi Arabia, followed by United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Jordan.

You didn’t answer my question. Anyway,  I don’t know how you chose your sample or what your questions said or how you asked them, but I am listening.

Two thirds of respondents said that the rate of child marriage to non-Egyptians was increasing mainly because of large dowries paid by foreign spouses. Poverty and low income are in fact one of the main reasons leading to temporary marriages;

Ah, large dowries. You mean that the families of women who marry pay husbands. How come they are large if the families are so poor, can you explain more?

64 percent of respondents pointed out that such marriage take place with the girl’s consent.

And  you say a large majority of the brides – whatever their age – were willing to get married to those husbands.

The 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, which was released last June by the US Department of State, stressed that the Egyptian government should urgently implement the 2008 child trafficking law and the 2010 anti-trafficking law “to substantially increase law enforcement activity against all forms of trafficking.”

Yes, what the US Department of State says is really important, otherwise you might have aid taken away from you. I mean, I assume you don’t really think that unsophisticated US civil servants have a better moral sense than you do.

The 2008 child trafficking law forbids child marriages, states that “documenting a marriage for couples whose age is less than 18 full calendar years is not permissible,” and prescribes sentences of at least 5 years for violators.

So you are only concerned about the women not yet 18, then, and want to punish anyone facilitating that.

In addition, the 2010 anti-trafficking law forbids all forms of human trafficking, such as child labor, domestic services that involve exploitation, the use of children in begging activities and trade in child organs, in addition to seasonal marriages.

Now you’ve changed the subject again.

The law also prescribes penalties from 3 to 15 years’ imprisonment and fines ranging from US$9,000 to US$36,000. “The government of Egypt does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons,” the report says.

Uh-oh, the State Department is mad at you.

The 2010 anti-trafficking law allows prosecuting cases of sexual exploitation, according to Kristin Dadey, counter-trafficking program manager at the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The IOM works in partnership with the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) and with the Egyptian government to combat human trafficking. “We’ve been working for the last few years with the Ministry of Interior and Justice. With NCCM, we established shelters accessible to foreign female victims of human trafficking in addition to Egyptian victims, as part of the implementation of the 2010 law,” Dadey says.

It’s not fair is it? You’ve put the laws in place that should please them!

At a national level, trafficking in children is defined in Article 291 of the Penal Code. Girl-marriages are forbidden by the amended Child Law 12/1996, which states that ‘documenting a marriage for couples whose age is less than 18 full calendar years is not permissible.” Although child marriage is criminalized under the civil code, it often occurs thanks to the role of brokers, matchmakers and lawyers who certify the marriage even if it is illegal.

Didn’t you already make this point? Under-18 is not allowed and people who facilitate those marriages can be punished.

“Transactional marriages are not coercive most of the time,” Ashmawy says. “I saw more than one underage girl literally running after Arab men hoping to marry them. It’s a cultural and poverty problem.” The parents and the girl-child are often persuaded by presents given by the foreign spouse, and the chance to escape from impoverished conditions.

You already said this – even some women under 18 want these marriages, given their other options.

Mariam, 27, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is currently married to an Egyptian, but maybe not for long. “I have two young kids. My husband doesn’t take care of the family and he doesn’t allow me to work. As a consequence, I can’t divorce because I’m not economically independent,” she says. “If I could divorce, I’d choose a temporary marriage.”

Now you’ve introduced a new term – temporary marriage – Nikāḥ al-Mut‘ah [8]. You previously talked about seasonal and transactional but you never defined either of those, either. What are you talking about, exactly – do you know?

As Abeer Ali, project manager at the Fustat Association, an NGO that cooperates with NCCM, tells Al-Masry Al-Youm: “ If the woman marries a non-Egyptian and the couple lives in Egypt, she is usually obliged to use contraceptives to avoid pregnancy until the husband escapes and travels abroad, abandoning her. In the second case, if the husband goes back to his country with the girl, he takes her kid and abandons her, after exploiting her and making her pregnant.”

Hold on, I thought these were Gulf-state men on holiday in Egypt. Why does he need to escape, then? The villain that abandons the pregnant woman is all-powerful, he just leaves. Interesting that he steals one child but doesn’t wait till the other one’s born so he can steal that one, too, though.

In both cases, this type of marriage is not for the aim of forming a family. The spouse’s reason to marry – sexual pleasure – dooms the marriage from the outset, with the woman frequently falling back on prostitution once the marriage is over.

Even though you said that a lot of the women want these marriages, you’re sure they don’t get any sexual pleasure out of them. Hm. And you say that seeking sexual pleasure dooms marriage – why is that? And aren’t you jumping to conclusions here with the comment about women falling back on prostitution? You need to lose the melodramatic language, by the way, if you want to write for newspapers.

Nevertheless, many girls are still looking for these arrangements, seeing them as a way out of poverty. “Women don’t learn from others’ experience,” Ashmawy explains, “because money makes them eager to do it in spite of all.”

It sounds to me as though the women know what the risks are and decide to take them. Why use the word money as an insult, anyway?

Ashmawy mentions the case of a girl who wanted to marry an Arab man to enhance her social position through the dowry and eventually marry anyone she wished after divorcing.

Oh, wait – now you say they are able to enhance their social position, so it’s not just about money? And you say they can divorce and find another husband afterwards? Sounds like a potentially good deal.

Such mistaken beliefs psychologically devastate the girl, who is exploited and deprived of her kids. She might suffer sexual violence or other forms of physical harm and illegal practices. In addition, if she is abandoned during the pregnancy, the child can’t be registered because of the marriage’s illegality.

Now she’s devastated again – excuse me, but I think you need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what the heck you are writing about!

“We need to combat the factors leading to it, such as illiteracy, poverty, traditions and customs as well as behaviors and attitudes,” Ashmawy says.

Whatever. Always end with pious rhetoric about poverty – good rule.


Laura Agustín – writes as a lifelong migrant and sometime worker in both nongovernmental and academic projects about sex, travel and work. Julian Assange’s legal team recently consulted her on Swedish v. British sexual politics. The BBC invited her to speak on a World Debate as International Expert on Trafficking


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