Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia by Louise Brown Published by: Virago Press, 2000 ISBN 1 86049 903 1 Pages—276 Price: UK Pounds 7.99

Geetisha Dasgupta

Louise Brown begins this book with a rather shocking narrative style. In the preface, she introduces the thought behind the book. She also says that research in prostitution is not an easy task; the research methodology cannot involve standard research techniques and information about the real trade is difficult to access. She adds that the Asian stereotype of the woman is a myth. Poor Asian women, though exposed to danger of being trafficked to a huge degree, cannot be said to be weak. Their vulnerability does not prove their weakness. The array of chapters is interesting, and signifies how the author views the industry. The book explores facets like “The Market”, “The Commodity”, “The Agents”, “Seasoning”, “The Customers”, “The Management”, “The Law”, “Life and Death”, and “The Shame”. The following paragraphs try to throw some light on these.

Relating minute details of the social behavioral pattern of the Asian commercial sex industry, she speaks of the very basics of the mode on which the flesh trade subsist. She begins with the case of Sahana, a young illiterate Nepali woman, who was violated because of her two most valuable qualities, that of being pretty and that of being young. Her family earned a good fifty pounds for her face. She ceased to be in the trade after a while because she contracted HIV and rapidly lost her physical beauty that was the key to her survival in the market. In the first chapter, the author talks about the sexual attitudes of the Asian men and counter poses it to that of the western men. Notions that mark the understanding are hypocrisy and contempt for women, fidelity and virtue, abhorrence for and fear of divorce, etc. Prostitution for these women is not a forced occupation always. The link between poverty, prostitution and trafficking is a pretty confused one. Often, money earned out of prostitution enables one to earn the respect of the family, and in turn, it is the family itself that expects a pretty daughter to join prostitution if that is a standard mode of income in the society in reference.

Though the Asian sex industry underwent considerable changes following the Second World War, the essential social mores were never altered, nor was the attitude towards the women. Brideprice and dowry are both ways that convert a woman into a non-person. In case of the failure of families, it is the women who are more vulnerable. Social hierarchies are confirmed in terms of access to and control over the women. This is in a way manifested in the exchange of women in marriages. Rape is often an entry ticket to flesh trade and the perpetrator in this case, becomes the trafficker as well as the pimp. The author explores the concept of Devadasi in Hindu religion and says, it is a kind of religious prostitution where, girls are sold pre puberty and on the occasion of reaching physical adulthood, sold off to the highest bidder. Thus restricted to the profession for life and her daughters also follow suit. Hinduism makes space for prostitute castes, like the Badis in Nepal. Islam, though equal to women in religious terms, creates huge levels of gender power differences in the social realm and therefore perpetuates violence. Brown analyses the Purdah as a social tool to harness the women whom the men seek to control. This notion, when violated, would inflict consequences like honour killings. Newspapers in Sindh have reported 66 honour killings in the province in 1996 alone. Prostitution in such societies, are never overt. Often, the uninitiated customer would not realize where to approach in search of “free women”. In countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, Philippines, there would be covert concubines, which, would not be recognized from outside. Globalization and liberalization pushed more and more women to flesh trade. They are being increasingly commodified, and often the buyer would sort through an array of choices made available to him by the agent. In Thailand, two million young children and women from Burma have become sex slaves in the past few years.

In traditional societies, where illegitimate sexual experience is a great no-no, there have to be agents who usher the women into the trade. Agents function in almost all kinds of ways that one might imagine. More often than not, the daughter is culled out from the family through lucrative offers of a better life through a sanitized job in a big city. Many a time, romantic liaisons are fabricated. In countries like Bangladesh for example, marriage, rather than employment is a better avenue towards flesh trade. The story of Rupchand, a rickshaw puller from Dhaka, is a case in point. He had three daughters to marry off. When he married one of them to an unseen Indian man through a known Indian woman, the daughter vanished forever. Rupchand died and his widow has suspicious of what had happened to Fatema, the daughter. But there were never any way to find out. Some sex workers in Asia however, make a conscious choice to enter the market, though such women are very few in number. Girls are recruited at an early age. There are even pick up vans that assist them for the travel.

In the rest of the chapters, the author speaks of the ‘qualities’ that are sought in a prostitute by a potential buyer and how the trade which is increasing by leaps and bounds is ‘managed’. Every industry has its laws, and so does the commercial sex industry. The author points out the significant dissimilarities that the Asian market has, when compared to the west. The book is marked by an on your face narrative style that often takes aback the uninitiated, but also would create more interest to the reader who wants to begin in this particular study area. This summarizes the reason for using not too much figures, but more field experiences, stories and descriptions.

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