Professor contributes to social justice book, puts focus on sex trafficking

Sholeh Shahrokhi can now add “author” to her résumé.

The assistant professor of anthropology has written a chapter titled “Beyond Tragedy: A Cultural Critique of “Sex Trafficking of Young Iranian Women” for the book Sex Trafficking, Human Rights, and Social Justice.

Shahrokhi said this chapter is an exploration of transnational sex work from an anthropological perspective.

“As the title suggests, in this piece I focused on young women from a particular region in the world who have made for an upsurge in sex trafficking movement from southern Iran to the underground markets in the [United Arab Emirates],” Shahrokhi said.

Shahrokhi lived in Tehran, Iran from 2000 to 2005, where she “carried out her dissertation research on teenage runaways in the city.”

“It became quickly clear to me that both the public and the government was particularly anxious about the growing number of runaway girls, as these girls were assumed to be fallen in prostitution circles either in the city or exported abroad,” Shahrokhi said.

That’s when she decided to follow up on the Tehran sex route to Dubai, United Arab Emirates as side work to her research. To get a closer look, Shahrokhi sought out her connections in Tehran, traveled to several Iranian towns and cities on the coast of the Persian Gulf and visited Dubai for about 10 days.

Publication in the social sciences is a prolonged process. The information Shahrokhi gathered was among related research gathered during her dissertation work.

She presented the first draft of this writing in 2007 at the American Anthropological Association meeting.

“I was then offered to publish my work in SUNY University’s Gender Studies journal called Wagadu,  which eventually transformed into another offer to publish a revised version of the work in the book as you find today,” Shahrokhi said.

With this chapter, Shahrokhi said she tried to write a more layered narrative about sex work and sex trafficking, so to get away from old traditions of “saving the victim” or blaming the usual suspects.

This chapter acknowledges the importance of political-economy and the allure of money for the sex worker, but it also wants us to think of these women not just as silenced victims of poor economics.

Shahrokhi said she followed the route from families who have sold their daughters, often under the cloak of marriage to a wealthier family in bordering Pakistan. She spoke with men and women who make a living in sex trafficking and was even granted a look into the underground sex market where many of these women end up.

“I also spend a great deal of my time doing archival research on local and historical literature that I believe has contributed to a particular view of the woman and her body,” Shahrokhi said. “It was based on all of these different forms of explorations that I argued that a sustainable foundational change in sex trafficking in that area cannot be achieved without improving socioeconomics of the families, changing our educational programs, not just about sex but about human worth, and keep pressing against those attitudes that perpetuate women as inferior to men, sex as idealized commodity and a sex worker as a ‘diseased’ body.”

Finally, she argued that the parallel changes in views and policies must be made from within and not imported as the rescue and liberation missions that the United States government was preaching to do in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time.

“Sex work, either in exchange for money or access to food, shelter and positions of power, is said to be as old as any form of exchange among human populations,” Shahrokhi said. “So it is not shocking to hear of bodies being sold or bartered in the same way we might be astounded by many other forms of social problems in our world.

“In my view, too often the discussion of sex trafficking falls flat on conventional routes of broken economies and corruption.”