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Sex trade fallacies
Even the most deplorable souls deserve a rigorous defense

Amir Ghavi
July 25, 2004

This letter is a terse reply to the recycled article entitled "Sex Slave Jihad" by Donna Hughes, published twice (most recently in reincarnated form as a speech) on [Growing sex trade]

I am tired of polemical articles thinly veiled under the guise of academic discourse. True academic discourse is free, responsive, reviewed, and rigorous. Propaganda is everything real academic discourse is not. Hughes's article is a return to Cold War era threat-construction, where vilifying your enemy was the name of the political game. As a charter member of the Axis of Evil, I think Iran probably qualifies as a target of such rhetoric.

Ms. Hughes's article is rife with logical fallacies, of which I will highlight only the most flagrant violations of principled argument.  At times, it seems that she may have attended the George Bush camp of logical analysis. If so, while in the Madreseh-yeh Crawford, she was certainly sitting at the head of the class with Messieurs Rumsfeld and Cheney.

I understand that she is a professor and as such, needs to spend a good portion of time writing and publishing. However, I take exception to the manner in which she attempts to stay in the academic spotlight -- I'm certain I'm not the only reader for which issues regarding Iran are emotional.  For those fidgeting in their seats, this is certainly no apology for the Iranian regime, but in the spirit of the American legal tradition, even the most deplorable souls deserve a rigorous defense.

Hughes opens by insinuating that the Mullahs stone only women to death. This is true neither in law, nor practice. Article 83 of the Iranian Penal Code (Law of Hodoud) sanctions stoning as a gender-neutral penalty for adultery. Perhaps the difference she alludes to is that the men must be buried to their waist, women to above their chest. For those who still haven't figured it out, I suggest consulting a high school biology text or your local beach for an answer as to why the law is drafted as such.

Her next assertion is that the "fundamentalists" sell women and run prostitution rings. Typically, in the United States, we refer to such perpetrators as organized criminals instead of identifying them by an ideology or ethnic typography. Move the stage to the Middle East and they are no longer criminals, instead they are "fundamentalists" or "Islamicists." With Martha Stewart behind bars, "criminal" just doesn't have the same ring, does it? Second, most social scientists, including the celebrated feminist author Catherine MacKinnon ascribe prostitution to the economic realities of a society, not to religiosity.

Ms. Hughes may be surprised to know that between 45,000-50,000 women and children are trafficked into the US annually for the sex industry according to the CIA's briefing on Global Trafficking of Women and Children in April 1999. This is not an Iranian or Islamic problem, but a global phenomenon affecting all major religions and societies. Let us keep in mind that in order to export anything, Adam Smith and his contemporaries preach there must be a demand, otherwise the market will disappear. Ms. Hughes is notably silent regarding demand side of the equation in her condemnation and gross categorization of Iranian officials as wholesale exporters of flesh.

Next, she claims that governmental officials themselves sell women as sex slaves. Hughes points to what seems to be three separate incidents of this behavior. Perusing her citation list reveals that all are derived from the same singular set of facts, massaged to seem like three individual incidents. After hunting through her list (which is missing pinpoint citations), I found the one AFP article of 172 words reporting an Iranian judge in Karaj was found guilty of molesting girls. Just to give you an idea of how short that is, the preceding sentence was 31 words long.

Pedophilia is a disease that is not unique to Iran (see Catholic Church scandals of the past 30 years) and certainly civil servants are not immune, but to imply by use of imprecise language that government officials are actively involved in the sex trade as a class is simply not supported by any verifiable or credible data.

Hearsay from opposition political groups will turn out to be about as reliable as Ahmed Chalabi's claims of WMD in Iraq; where there is self interest and loads of money at stake, a healthy skepticism towards wild claims does not hurt. History tells us that would be a wise policy to follow, and those who have spent any time in the region would affirm it. Iranians exaggerate. Iranians with an agenda can exaggerate a lot.

Hughes next claims that because the sex trafficking is open and notorious, that it must be governmentally supported. This logical fallacy begs the question, and is also an appeal to common practice; just because something exists does not necessarily imply it is supported by the governing body. 

The author commits another fallacy when she relays the story of one woman, who alleged she was forced into having sex with a judge so that he would grant her a divorce, as typical judicial practice in Iran. This is an exercise in the fallacy of composition. Recall the recent case of a female teacher in Florida alleged to have had sex with her middle school student. Using the Hughes formula, it is permissible to assert that in order to graduate from 8th grade in the United States, one must have sex with their teacher. I do not doubt the authenticity of the poor victim's claim, but I am suspicious of casting such a wide net over all judges in Iran.

Another "red flag" is that much of her research seems to take aim at the institution of sigheh, which is certainly beyond the scope of this reply. However one wishes to categorize sigheh, it is naïve to think it is simply interchangeable with prostitution. In parts of Europe and the West, calls to regulate prostitution by the state or the use of unions are called progressive moves by some academics and feminists, yet Ms. Hughes mocks a similar solution set forth by an Iranian bureaucrat. It is a pipe-dream to think that the fall of the IRI will tear the chains of sexual repression on women. The roo-sari will be traded in for ultra-low rise jeans (and with it the push to look like Brittney Spears in them) and loosely enforced laws on make-up will give way to carefully air-brushed photo sets of models.

Misogyny is not unique to an Islamic society. A look to posh private universities across the US will reveal how a privileged American upbringing fosters women to hate their bodies, resulting in a myriad of eating disorders among young women.

Claiming that "Selling women…is just the dehumanizing complement to forcing women and girls to cover their bodies and hair…" is an absurd and reductionist view of our culture. I too disagree with the hejab and even take aim at its religious genealogy, but to equivocate compulsory hejab with pimping is a poor appeal to emotion (yet another logical fallacy). 

I'm not convinced that democratic societies fare much better. The misogynists and women-haters mask their money-centric, exploitative and pornographic agendas behind the disgenuine First Amendment claims in order to line their own pockets. Democracy failed for the Native Americans, African slaves and their lineage, and women for the first 200 years of our model democracy. Without the arguably extra-democratic parachute of the judiciary, conservatives in this country would have succeeded in using perfectly legitimate democratic processes to bar homosexuals from equal treatment and protection under the law – Bush still promises they will succeed.  

Autocracies are easy to blame for rights violations because the power, benevolent or otherwise, is visible. Power is more fluid in a democracy, distributed within the system itself. Rights violations are justified under the doctrine of a representative democracy, because you are allowed to "vote." This system makes the minority the definitional and inevitable loser, but the loser can no longer point to the tyrannical despot as the villain; the power dissipates and you're left with a ballot to punch.  

Hughes ends by espousing free speech in America. True, speech is generally well protected in the US by the courts, but this is under fire by neo-conservatives (they become fundamentalists when you cross Europe). Hughes must have meant free as long as you agree and don't read the wrong books at your local library. A country that can turn your summer reading list into an indefinite vacation on a Caribbean Island with a complimentary bathing suit (sorry, only comes in bright orange) does not seem too far away from the secretive and unjust Iran Hughes seeks to disparage.

So to Donna Hughes (since you won't reply to my emails addressed directly to you, but you've managed to put me on your email list and won't remove me) stop with your polemics, please. I understand you want to export this great experiment, but not all of us are buyers through and through. I refuse to stand for your laser-guided rhetoric, that too exacts much collateral damage.

Amir Ghavi is a law student at Cornell University, New York.

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