• AM2018-Mattie

    Mattie Burkert, a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow, presented her research at the 2018 ACLS Annual Meeting.

  • AHPMeritKagugo

    African Humanities Program Fellow Merit Kabugo studies the discourse of rural farmers. 

  • Bookcase_new

    Search ACLS fellows' publications online. 


Focus on Research: Pardis Mahdavi F'09 on Human Trafficking Reconsidered


ACLS asked its fellows to describe their research: the knowledge it creates and how this knowledge benefits our understanding of the world. We are pleased to present this response from Pardis Mahdavi, assistant professor of anthropology at Pomona College.

Mahdavis_Pardis_2_lgI will never forget the first time I went to visit Marie at her make-shift home in an overcrowded compound in the northern, less-glitzy part of Dubai known as the Satwa neighborhood. Eight women were cramped into a 300 square foot apartment without a shower or functioning toilet. The room smelled of stale cabbage and nail polish. Four sets of bunk beds lined the cardboard walls that separated their unit from the one next door, which was host to twelve male workers. “But we can hear them, and they can hear us. It’s no privacy,” Marie recalled. She pointed to a combination lock, the kind one might find on gym lockers or in high schools, which she and her friends used “to keep the men out” at night. “But we are the lucky ones living like this,” Marie opined. When I asked her what made her say this, she explained that she and her friends were all domestic or service workers, but that they were lucky because they didn’t have to live in the homes of their employers like so many other domestic workers in Dubai. Recruited and contracted through agencies, Marie and her friends had paid high fees to secure passage from the Philippines and Indonesia to Dubai; fees that many of them had not yet repaid. They felt lucky that they could live with their friends and fellow countrymen, even though it meant substandard housing conditions and no time off.

Marie had decided to leave the Philippines in search of work abroad when she lost her job in Manila and was left to support her two daughters single handedly. When she met her recruiter, he told her she would only work eight hours a day and make $800 (USD) per month. By her calculations, this would allow her to repay her debt to the recruiter in just under four months. She was also told her living costs would be covered. When she arrived, however, she found that the agency she was placed with did not intend to cover her living costs, and instead pointed her toward the compound she was now living in. The costs, she was told, would be taken out of her wages, which were not, in fact, $800 a month but closer to $400 (after the $200 a month for rent was taken out). She was made to work 12 to 15-hour days, sometimes for employers who were abusive toward her.

The international definition of “human trafficking” as outlined in the United Nationas Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines trafficking where instances of force, fraud or coercion occur. By this definition, Marie and many of her friends are, without question, trafficked. However, they are not imagined as such by the discourse on trafficking that focuses hyperscrutiny on the commercial sex industry. Since the year 2000 a “moral panic” (Cohen 1972) has been growing about “sex trafficking.” This anxiety about the movement of bodies across borders has resulted in a series of policies and discourses that actually function to the detriment of migrant workers who experience abuse. The widespread panic about transnational female labor, particularly in the commercial sex industry, has resulted in an elasticity of the term “human trafficking” especially as it is marshaled and deployed in policy and international conventions. Like a rubber band, the term ‘trafficking’ stretches wide enough to encompass all forms of commercial sex work (whether forced, frauded, or coerced or not), but then shrinks to exclude forced labor outside the sex industry. Specifically, the misunderstanding that human trafficking refers only to women who are kidnapped by men and forced into the sex industry has, problematically, become the functional definition of the term in policy, media and discourse. This has altered the way in which trafficking is represented, pursued, and prosecuted. It has been cast within a criminalization framework, packaged as a problem of transnational organized crime, rather than conceptualized as an issue of migrants rights or forced labor


I spent several months in Dubai, living and talking with migrant workers from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. I observed their daily lives, the challenges they were up against, and noted the dramatic disconnect between their lived experiences and the policies written about “trafficked persons.”


In the year 2000, Bill Clinton signed into effect the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which was revised and reauthorized under George W. Bush. This act and its international component, the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), focus the issue further on women in the sex industry. The TIP casts the UAE as a major site of sex trafficking, but does not equally address abuses due to labor violations (which in fact constitute the majority of rights violations given the weakness of labor laws in the UAE). In so doing, the TIP Report silences the many narratives that challenge this narrow conception of human trafficking in the UAE. Policies on trafficking that focus hyperscrutiny on sex work eclipse the instances of forced labor experienced by migrant workers outside the sex industry in Dubai. Addressing human trafficking according to U.S. anti-trafficking standards requires an increase in the numbers of arrests and raids of women in the sex industry. Far from helping these women, raids and arrests feel more abusive to many sex workers in Dubai who noted that the bulk of their abuse comes from untrained law enforcement officials during raid and “rescue” efforts.

The most significant problem with these policies and discourses is that they are often based on rumors and hearsay rather than actual qualitative research or migrants’ narratives. Between 2007 and 2010 I spent several months in Dubai, living and talking with migrant workers from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. I observed their daily lives, the challenges they were up against, and noted the dramatic disconnect between their lived experiences and the policies written about “trafficked persons.”

This qualitative, ethnographic research foregrounds people's stories, ideas, opinions and experiences as a means of analyzing human behavior and global phenomena. It involves long term engagements with the populations of interest, distinguishing it from shorter journalistic visits. It also entails many years of study of the researched group's background, and aims toward a deep understanding of the fieldsite. Qualitative, ethnographic research involves systematic and rigorous observation, sampling, and in-depth interviews allowing interlocutors to narrate their experiences in their own words. Samples range from a few prominent community members, to hundreds of interviewees with experience about an issue of interest.

While quantitative research often is able to capture larger numbers of interviewees in distributing surveys, this type of research (which involves filling out questionnaires and attributing numerical values to experiences), while useful in macro analyses, often necessitates qualitative research to understand what questions to ask, how to ask them in a sensitive manner, and what populations will be of interest and how to reach said populations. Qualitative research is also more useful in studying sensitive topics about which people may be hesitant to fill out surveys as ethnography in particular entails building rapport and gaining the trust of your interlocutors.

After spending several months conducting qualitative ethnographic research on the ground, I returned to the U.S. to spend a year as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. There, I met policy makers responsible for crafting many of these policies. I had the opportunity to speak with them, to challenge them on the reasons behind the disconnections between their policies on trafficking and the realities of forced labor and migration in places like Dubai with very different social and political topographies.

Fortunately, these policy makers were very open to dialogue with academics. They recognized that they did not have the capacity to do in-depth, on the ground research, and were open to hearing about the short-comings of their policies. Together with Denise Brennan, noted trafficking scholar and associate professor of anthropology at Georgetown University, I organized a conference to “re-think human trafficking” and invited policy makers and lobbyists as well as academics and members of think tanks. Through this conference and our continuing conversations, we have been able to influence policy, and have created a space for dialogue about trafficking. We have succeeded in using our qualitative research to convince policy makers that as Denise Brennan notes, “the fight against trafficking is really a fight for migrants’ rights”.

Pardis Mahdavi F'09 received an ACLS Fellowship for her project "Traffic Jam: Gender, Sexuality, Labor, Migration and Trafficking in Dubai." The complete series is available here.


Read More ➤