Human Trafficking and Terror: Questioning the Construction of a Global Social Problem


On March 27th, 2018, Dr. Pardis Mahdavi visited her alma mater, Occidental College, and lectured at the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs about Human Trafficking and Terror: Questioning the Construction of a Global Social Problem. She discussed her third book called Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai where she discusses the narratives around sex work and the problematization of gender and sex work.

In her lecture, Dr. Mahdavi discussed the brief history of sex trafficking and methods for combating the issue, such as President Bush’s Reauthorized Trafficking Victim Act of 2001. Dr. Mahdavi argued that with this Act, the year 2001 became the year that the war on trafficking began.

Dr. Mahdavi explained the connections with trafficking and terrorism. She asks "why is Iran on tip 3?" In other words, why does Iran has a moderately high ranking in regards to trafficking? The answer is that there is a belief that Iran is associated with terrorism. Dr. Mahdavi claims that war on trafficking is an antidote to war on terror. There is a common belief that states that fund terrorist networks also fund trafficking networks. However, there is no proof or data to show this.

The theme of Dr. Mahdavi’s lecture was that as a society, we have an image of trafficking that has been influenced by politics and hollywood. She recognizes "dark skinned men with Middle Eastern accents deal in the flesh of white girls." There is a "gendering" of Muslim men associated with the war on terror and there is hypermasculinity in their treatment of women. This is what trafficking appears to be like. Human trafficking is racialized.

In reality, people who get trafficked are often underrepresented people who are marginalized and sex work is the best option for them. The paradigm creates a bad guy image. Muslim men are now looked to be the problem, when the women are the ones who often willingly participate as it provides for their families. The lived realities of migration and trafficking are typically different from the ideas. Women appear to be duped, rather than people who were trying to make best of situation.

Men and women are being trafficked today. There are large numbers of south asian men who work in the construction industry. They are forced into labor and practically work in chains. How can the trafficking of both genders be stopped? Policy.

There is a lack of good trafficking policy. The policies in place have created more harm than good. For example in the UAE, a doubling of police forces doubled the rapes in the country. Dr. Mahdavi argues that there must be better policy than just adding more police. There needs to be policy that prevents the need to be trafficked. Dr. Mahdavi understands that as a society, we often get stuck on the micro, and we need to focus on the broader scale. There needs to be policy that can help those likely to be trafficked to find stable employment. Policy like this will help minimize trafficking.

By: Henry Butenschoen