Under cover brothels in the Arab world

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

‘Deep blue brothels’, that exactly what the Syrian and Jordanian under-cover brothels are named, where up to 2010, more than 90,000 Iraqi females had been trapped into prostitution, either by trafficking racket or so-called lovers. According to estimation, Syrian and Jordanian brothel alone house more than 400,000 sex workers, whose main customers are Saudis. Governments are fully aware of such sex rackets, which operate mostly behind the curtain of ‘Family House’ or ‘Boutique Shops’. In Damascus, there are at least two large brothels, which run under the cover of ‘Therapy Center’. Syrian law allows establishment of nightclubs, pubs and bars. In recent years, there had also been mushroom growth of ‘Discos’, which in most cases are cabarets.

On weekends dozens of girls will be seen on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, moving half-heartedly on the dance floor, lit up by flashing disco lights. They are dressed in tight jeans, low-cut tops and knee-high boots, but the girls’ make-up can’t disguise the fact that most are in their mid-teens. It’s a strange sight in a conservative Muslim country, but this is the sex business, and it’s booming as a result of the war in Iraq. At the backstage, the manager sits in his leather chair, doing business. Saudi clients will be seen quoting for the girls. Next door, in a dimly lit room, the next shift of girls arrives, taking off the black all-covering abyss [Burqa] they wear outside and putting on lipstick and mascara. To judge from the cars parked outside, the clients come from all over the Gulf region – many are young Saudi men escaping from an even more conservative moral climate. Ninety-five percent of the sex workers in Syrian brothels are Iraqis. Most are unwilling to talk, but Zahra, an attractive girl with a bare midriff and tattoos, says she’s 16. She has been working in this club since fleeing to Syria from Baghdad after the war. She doesn’t like it, she says, “but what can we do? I hope things get better in Iraq, because I miss it. I want to go back, but I have to look after my sister”. Zahra points to a thin, pubescent girl with long black hair, who seems to be dancing quite happily. Aged 13, Nadia started in the club two months ago. These girls are not just providing the floor show – they have paid to be here, and they need to pick up a client, or they’ll lose money. If successful, they’ll earn about US$100, equivalent to a month’s wages in a factory. There are more than a million Iraqi refugees in Syria; many are women whose husbands or fathers have been killed. Banned from working legally, they have few options outside the sex trade. No one knows how many end up as prostitutes, but Iraqi women’s group named Women’s Will, puts the figure at 90,000.

Saida Zainab is a run-down area with a large Iraqi population. Millions of Shias go there every year, because of the shrine of the granddaughter of the prophet of Islam. In this area, a large number of undeclared or private brothels are operating. It is alleged that Iraqi children are forced into prostitution in these private brothels, which also are known as ‘Deep Blue Brothels’. Bassam al-Kadi of Syrian Women Observatory says: “Some have been sexually abused in Iraq, but others are being prostituted by fathers and uncles who bring them here under the pretext of protecting them. They are virgins, and they are brought here like an investment and exploited in a very ugly way.”

One of such ‘Deep Blue Brothels’ are operated by a Syrian female named Samia. She selected a residential building which was more known for having a cultural center of Iran as well as a Quranic Studies Institute, funded by Kuwait. This house with such good social esteem was a better location for Samia to operate a private brothel. One night, neighbours of Samia were forced to inform the police as a number of male and female in drunken state were creating public nuisance by loudly playing music. Only minutes later, the police patrol arrived and the neighbours were delighted that their suffering caused by Samia and her costumers would now be put to an end. But to their utter surprise, those police officers, instead of taking any action against the brothel owner, simply stayed there for couple of hours, and came out in a joyous mood. It was not difficult for Samia’s neighbours to realize that, such ‘Deep Blue Brothels’ enjoy patronization from influential quarters, where law enforcing agencies even cannot take any action. The spread of the practice of prostitution doesn’t cease to be a frightening matter to everyone and the gravity of the matter lies in the fact that it has reached the extent of public practice, without dreading the responsible authorities. The greatest danger is that it is reaching the fabric of Syrian communities, far from where the cities where prostitution was traditionally found in, arriving in the neighbourhoods Jaramana and else towns.

In Damascus [Syrian capital] or Amman [Jordanian capital], ‘Blue Combo’ is a popular term. It means any foreigner visiting those cities can pick up a brochure available at the airports as well as other public places, which displays names and telephone numbers of girls. These advertisements never claim it to be a brothel; rather the girl pretends to be the owner of a condominium, which she offers to rent on daily, weekly or monthly basis. Rental they ask are reasonably cheaper, which would fit the wallet. When anyone will visit those condominiums, they will immediately realize that, owning and maintaining of such lavishly furnished condo by a girl of 15-18 years, was impossible. It means the girl was actually working as sex workers under the cover of condo owner. Most importantly, if the condo has three beds, then the ‘owner’ would use one for attending her client, while other rooms will be given to her ‘girlfriends’. It is the newest trend in Damascus or Amman – Blue Combos [get the girl and you get a discount off the apartment]. This can indicate two things. Flesh trade is getting very competitive that the brothel owners are offering bundles of deals and also the number of customers are growing fast, as such ‘Blue Condos’ are increasing almost every month. Municipal Corporation of both the cities are not only reluctant in looking into what is happening behind the curtain of ‘Blue Condos’, they also are unable to touch any such establishments, as the girls working in Blue Condos or the rackets are connected to influential people in the society and government. That is why, Blue Condos are openly advertising in brochures and even local newspapers.

At Sednaya, an area in Damascus city the visitors will witness boom of multi-colored lights with neon signs of “Touristic Club & Restaurant”, which actually is unofficial term of “whorehouse”. Under-aged refuges mostly from Iraq and Palestine are crowded in hundred plus “Touristic Club & Restaurant” only in a single area. It will look like a “Las Vegas” in the Arab world, where, mostly Saudi men come in search of fresh flesh of an Iraqi or Palestinian girl. Some of the Iraqi females had been prostitutes under Saddam’s regime, and some are forced to enter Syrian-Lebanese brothels following the very dark, violent, inconceivable cataclysms that the war had brought into their lives.

Iraq is both a source and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and involuntary servitude. Iraqi women and girls, some as young as 11 years old, are trafficked within the country and abroad to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, UAE, Turkey, Iran, and possibly Yemen, for forced prostitution and sexual exploitation within households in these countries. Some victims are sexually exploited in Iraq before being sold to traffickers who take them abroad. In some cases, women are lured into sexual exploitation through false promises of work. The more prevalent means of becoming a victim is through sale or forced marriage. Family members have trafficked girls and women to escape desperate economic circumstances, to pay debts, or resolve disputes between families. Some women and girls are trafficked within Iraq for the purpose of sexual exploitation through the traditional institution of temporary marriages [Muta’a]. Under this arrangement, the family receives a dowry from the husband and the marriage is terminated after a specified period. When trafficked, women can be placed at risk of honor killings if their families learn that they have been raped or forced into prostitution. Anecdotal reports tell of desperate Iraqi families abandoning their children at the Syrian border with the expectation that traffickers on the Syrian side will pick them up and arrange forged documents so the young women and girls can stay in Syria in exchange for working in a nightclub or brothel. Iraqi boys, mostly from poor families of Turkmen and Kurdish origin, are trafficked within Iraq for the purpose of forced labor, such as street begging and sexual exploitation. Iraqi men and boys who migrate abroad for economic reasons may become victims of trafficking. Women from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nepal, and the Philippines are trafficked into the area under the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] for involuntary domestic servitude after being promised different jobs. Over the past year, there was a credible report of women trafficked by the director of a women’s shelter in KRG area; the shelter was subsequently closed. There were also reports that some foreign women recruited for work in beauty salons in the KRG area had debts imposed on them and were coerced into prostitution.

Agony of the Iraqi women and forcing them to prostitution has been harshly brought into criticism by a number of investigative writers in the world, most of whom made United States liable for it. Debra McNutt wrote “Military prostitution has long been seen around U.S. bases in the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and other countries. But since the U.S. has begun to deploy forces to many Muslim countries, it cannot be as open about enabling prostitution for its personnel. U.S. military deployments in the Gulf War, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War have reinvigorated prostitution and the trafficking of women in the Middle East.”

She wrote “During the brief Gulf War, the U.S. military prevented prostitution for its troops in Saudi Arabia, to avoid a backlash from its hosts. But on their return home, the troop ships stopped in Thailand for “R & R.” After the Gulf War, harsh economic sanctions forced many desperate Iraqi women into prostitution. The sex trade grew to such an extent that in 1999 Saddam ordered his paramilitary forces to crack down on it in Baghdad, resulting in the executions of many women. The U.S. invasion of March 2003 brought prostitution back to Iraq within a matter of weeks. The Iraq War has now lasted eight times longer than the Gulf War deployments, and is marked by a huge reliance on private security contractors. A U.S. ban on human trafficking, signed by President Bush in January 2006, has not been applied to these contractors. The rebirth of prostitution has generated fear that permeates all of Iraqi society. Families keep their girls inside, not only to keep them from being assaulted or killed, but to prevent them from being kidnapped by organized prostitution rings. Gangs are also forcing some families to sell their children into sex slavery. The war has created an enormous number of homeless girls and boys who are most vulnerable to the sex trade. It has also created thousands of refugee women who try to escape danger but end up [out of economic desperation] being prostituted in Jordan, Syria, Yemen or the UAE. Our occupation not only attacks women on the outside, but attacks them on the inside, until there is nothing left to destroy.”

Independent journalist David Phinney has documented how a Kuwaiti contract company that imported workers to build the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone—where they were terribly exploited—also smuggled women into the construction site.

McNutt suspects that 180,000 private contractors, who now outnumber U.S. troops by 20,000 and who are not subject to military law, were promoting prostitution of local women or importing women under the guise of cooks, maids or office workers.

The best-known case of private contractors engaging in military prostitution was when DynCorp employees were caught trafficking women in Bosnia in the 1990s. Postings by private contractors on sex websites indicate that prostitution exists around U.S. military bases in Iraq, though it’s increasingly dangerous for Westerners to leave military bases on their own.

Contractors advising each other to do their ‘R & R’ in the safer northern Kurdish region, or the bars and hotels of Dubai, the UAE emirate that has become the most open center of prostitution in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile prostitution rings in Iraq have to go deeper underground to hide from Iraqi militias.

Another casualty of the U.S. occupation not much in the news is that women GIs—one out of 10 U.S. soldiers in Iraq—are reporting rapes and sexual harassment in unprecedented numbers.

Sara Corbett wrote in a March 18 New York Times Magazine article headlined “The Women’s War” that a report financed by the Defense Department showed “nearly a third of a nationwide sample of female veterans seeking health care through the VA said they experienced rape or attempted rape during the service.”

She wrote: “Of those, 37 percent said they were raped multiple times, while 14 percent said they were gang raped. Military prostitution has a long history. Perhaps the most infamous case occurred during World War II when the Japanese military forced 100,000 to 200,000 Korean women to “service” their soldiers. These “comfort women,” now in their eighties, are still demanding reparations for sexual enslavement. Those who oppose U.S. military bases in the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand have long drawn attention to brothels clustered around bases in those countries. The non-profit group Prostitution Research and Education estimates 400,000 prostitutes worked in Thailand in 1974 when GIs went there from Vietnam on furlough.”

As observed by Sarah Mendelson in her 2005 Balkans report Barracks and Brothels, many U.S. government protocols and programs have been implemented to slow human trafficking, but without enforcement they end up merely as public relations exercises. Military officials often turn a blind eye to the exploitation of women by military and contract personnel, because they want to boost their men’s “morale.” The most effective way for the military to prevent a public backlash is to make sure that the embarrassing information is not revealed. It is not necessary to cover up information if it does not come out in the first place.

Most of the Iraqi prostitutes in Syrian and Lebanese brothels are annoyed both on Saddam and United States, as they feel that, both are equally responsible for pushing thousands of Iraqi females into prostitution. It may be mentioned here that, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated in 2006 that more than 2 million people are trafficked in the global sex trade, though it noted the number could be as high as 10 million. Some of the analysts are also commenting that, presence US forces in the Middle East is encouraging growth of private brothels and prostitution.

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is a multi award winning anti militancy journalist and editor of Blitz.

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