• Mexico’s “stolen women” disappear into thin air, kidnapped by that country’s drug cartels. (Flickr)Source: Flickr
Why does sex slavery intrigue us and stoke our outrage when it comes to IS, while Mexico’s stolen women are all but ignored? Perhaps it's because those drugs the Mexicans deal in end up in the West, and nobody wants to connect our own habits to the actions of drug dealers, says Ruby Hamad.
By
Ruby Hamad

24 Feb 2016 - 9:58 AM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2016 - 2:27 PM

When you hear the term “sex slave,” what is the first image that comes into your head?

At this year’s All About Women Festival, I’ll be hosting a conversation with American-Mexican author Jennifer Clement about a group of enslaved women whose plight has been tragically overlooked: Mexico’s “stolen women,” young girls and women who disappear into thin air, kidnapped by that country’s feared and powerful drug cartels.

Clement spent ten years researching her novel Prayers For The Stolen, speaking to women in hiding from the drug gangs, women living in remote parts of Mexico, and women who had ended up in that country’s brutal prison system.

Statistics on how many women have been “stolen” are unavailable and impossible to collate. Clement tells me this is because cases are rarely reported. “One of Mexico’s gravest problems is impunity and this creates a doomed sense of hopelessness,” she says. “Local governments and their police forces are in business with the criminal organisations.”

"One of Mexico’s gravest problems is impunity and this creates a doomed sense of hopelessness."

There are regions in Mexico which are virtually no-go zones. Prayers For The Stolen centres on a remote community of women living in the jungle outside the resort town of Acapulco. In the steamy, scorpion-riddled state of Guerrero, mothers hide their daughters in holes in the ground when they hear the distant, dreaded rumble of a 4WD engine - the drug dealers’ preferred vehicle - approaching. The men have long since left for greener, and safer, pastures.

Of course, it’s not just women who are victims of Mexico’s drug lords. The majority of kidnapped are held for ransom, and murder victims include journalists. The sheer brutality of Mexico’s cartels is so infamous, a US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officer once said, “They make Al-Qaeda look tame”.

However, while I have read many reports on the general sadism of the Mexican drug trade, I had never previously heard of the stolen women. Conversely, sex slavery as practised by another rogue and violent group of men - IS - is a topic that occupies many column inches, often with maximum sensationalism.

Even in Mexico the problem had largely gone unnoticed. There is “very little attention being paid to this both in news and in literature,” Clement says. “My novel created a small storm as many people were unaware of the problem.”

Why does sex slavery intrigue us and stoke our outrage when it comes to IS, while Mexico’s stolen women are all but ignored?

Of course, sex slavery isn’t confined to Mexican drug lords or IS terrorists. Indeed, despite our tendency to speak of human slavery in the past tense, there are more enslaved people on earth today than ever. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world - and has been for at least the last six years.

According to the US State Department, the majority of trafficked people are women and girls bound for sexual servitude; of the estimated 820,000 people trafficked each year, 80 per cent are female

Sexual slavery is prevalent in Australia, and the booming white “sex tourism” in South East Asia ensnares unwilling women and underage girls. Yet the relative lack of attention given to these forms of sex slavery seem to indicate that they are somehow less objectionable than that practiced by IS.

So, why does sex slavery intrigue us and stoke our outrage when it comes to IS, while Mexico’s stolen women are all but ignored?

One simple reason the Australian media pays more attention to IS is, of course, because we are at war with them. As significant players in the Middle East, their actions affect Western interests.

But there is also the underlying issue of how the West sees the Middle East in general. Our concern for IS sex slaves perhaps says more about our perception of, and animosity towards, Muslims and the Middle East than about the victims themselves.

Our concern for IS sex slaves perhaps says more about our perception of, and animosity towards, Muslims and the Middle East than about the victims themselves.

Dr Mehal Krayem, who lectures in sociology at UTS, says it’s important to note that, “Islamophobia or the 'othering' of Muslims (has) been happening for centuries… At the heart of this narrative is the understanding that the Orient is inferior and also dangerous.

“The Arab or Muslim (or both) male has always been seen as a kind of vicious predator.”

IS plays into this otherisation of Muslims, particularly Muslim men, and bolsters our perception that the values of Islam are intrinsically anti-Western. No matter how many Muslims distance themselves from and condemn the actions of IS, there are those in the West who will stubbornly insist that IS are the “true” or “pure” form of Islam.

Since IS attempt to justify themselves through religion, the West remains fascinated and appalled, as a recent New York Times feature, ‘ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape,’ indicates. Repeatedly stressing the connection IS makes between religious scripture and sex slavery, the story gives the last word to an IS member who, in reference to his 12-year-old-slave says, “And having sex with her pleases God”.

Amplifying IS sex slavery in this manner permits the West to reassure itself of its moral superiority to Islam. This recent Polish magazine cover, in which a white woman representing Europe is being mauled by up to six Muslim men, shows how Muslims are today’s ultimate sexually regressive “other.”

“Muslim men have always been (considered) predatory,” says Krayem. “This understanding of the Muslim male as violent and aggressive means we encourage people to continue to support patriarchy in a western context.”

In other words, we continue to hold up white, male masculinity as the benevolent alternative to Muslim barbarity. This means minimising the sexual crimes committed by white men.

“When we discuss sex tourism (by white men) we don’t associate barbarism to it and why would we, when white patriarchy and masculinity is not (considered) a real threat?” asks Krayem.

We continue to hold up white, male masculinity as the benevolent alternative to Muslim barbarity. This means minimising the sexual crimes committed by white men.

So even though the likelihood of a western woman falling prey to IS is marginal, the fear and the threat is amplified because it reinforces our belief in the moral goodness of western society. “The reason IS and the sex slave industry probably gets more heat is because it reinforces the idea that these women (brown and white) need saving from this brown patriarchy,” Krayem argues.

But where do Mexico’s stolen women fit into all this? On the surface, it would appear they are victims neither of “barbaric” Muslims nor the “benevolent” white man. But with many of the trafficked Mexican women ending up in brothels across the United States, the Western world’s role in the Mexican drug trade cannot be denied.

Mexican sex slavery doesn't fit this narrative of Western moral goodness, not least because those drugs the Mexicans deal in end up in the West, and nobody wants to connect our own habits to the actions of drug dealers. 

Mexican sex slavery doesn't fit this narrative of Western moral goodness, not least because those drugs the Mexicans deal in end up in the West, and nobody wants to connect our own habits to the actions of drug dealers.

To put it another way, rhetoric of the clash-of-civilisations between the West and Islam means we are far more likely to single out the brutality of IS, whereas the Mexican cartels are operating under the influence of something far more familiar; capitalism.

“There is ideology, even if it is an ideology that horrifies us, involved in IS or any terror group,” Clement explains.  “The trafficking of girls in Mexico and the drug problem is capitalism at its most amoral.

“[It’s] a business more lucrative than selling drugs. The Mexican cartels had become transnational mafias that also worked in other areas of international crime,” she says.

All of which leaves Clement wondering, “When will the life of a girl be more valuable than a pair of snakeskin boots or a machine gun?” 

 

Join Ruby Hamad and Jennifer Clement at All About Women festival on Sunday 6 March at the Sydney Opera House.

 

Love the story? Follow the author: Twitter @rubyhamad.