Survival Sex

Gaiutra Bahadur

Hundreds of women of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria have turned to prostitution. But advocates understand it for what it really is - "survival sex."

Sajida can’t talk openly
about what war and displacement
have forced her to do.
She banters with male customers at
the café where she works in
Damascus, Syria. But the men want
more from this 43-year-old divorced
mother of two, a refugee from Iraq.
And she can’t refuse; her boss has
seized her passport.

"I am a slave in his hands," Sajida
says. She arrived in Syria penniless in
2006, after the Mahdi Army, a Shiite
militia, raped her in front of her son
and evicted her from Baghdad because
she is Sunni. She sewed clothes
in a Syrian factory for $4 a day, from
7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then she cleaned
homes. Neither job paid enough to
cover her expenses: $220 a month for
utilities, food and rent in the Iraqi enclave
of Jaramana. With two sons to
support and only a middle-school education,
she submitted to the café. "I
have no other solutions," she says.

Iman, a 41-year-old widow from
Basra, solicits clients at a bar filled
with men and smoke from water
pipes, her 9-year-old daughter at her
side, coughing. "How else," Iman asks, "can I get money?"

Hundreds of the 1.5 million Iraqi
refugees in Syria have turned to prostitution,
in a region where loss of a
woman’s "honor" can lead to loss of
her life. Many of their visas have expired.
New visas are hard to come by,
and they forbid Iraqis from working
anyway. Most women subsist on vanishing
savings and occasional checks
from relatives abroad. Others are
forced into an underground economy
that sells sex.

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"We don’t call it prostitution," says
Sybella Wilkes, a Damascus-based
spokeswoman for UNHCR, the
United Nations refugee agency. "We
call it ‘survival sex.’"

Women have been widowed, divorced
or separated from husbands
by the war, and now women-headed
households account for almost a
quarter of Iraqi refugee households
registered with UNHCR, which sees
new rape and prostitution victims
every week. UNHCR has a safe
house in Damascus and gives widows
priority for a $100 monthly stipend
reserved for 7,000 refugees. But even
families with able-bodied adult men
are coercing their daughters into the
sex trade. Some are as young as 12,
says Youmen Abu al-Husain, board
member for a nonprofit running a juvenile prison that counts nine Iraqi
girls suspected of being prostitutes
among its 44 detainees.

Prostitution here includes the practice
of muta’a – temporary "pleasure
marriages," to which some Shiite clerics
bestow Islamic-law legitimacy.
UNHCR notes the contested practice
is rising among both Sunni and Shiite
refugees, with fake sheikhs in the Iraqi
hub of Sayyida Zeinab doing a brisk
business in these so-called marriages
and Arab Gulf businessmen paying
well for such transactions, which can
last as little as a day.

Iraqis have also replaced Eastern
Europeans as "dancers" who go with
clients for $100 a night in nightclubs
catering to tourists and businessmen
seeking sex. At Al-Capitan, on the outskirts
of Damascus, Iraqi mothers in
black abayas line the balcony, overseeing
their daughters dancing below in
tight, low-cut gowns. Yasmeen and
Hiba — sisters from Mosul, ages 23
and 16, support their mother and five
brothers through Al-Capitan "dancing."
"I feel shame," says Yasmeen,
who wears the hijab everywhere but
in the nightclub. "I can’t tell people
where I work."

The consequences of such work
can be fatal. Relatives of a widowed
mother of three in Sayyida Zeinab
strangled her to death, one of two
"honor killings" of prostituted Iraqi
women reported to UNHCR last autumn.
No one knows how many such
deaths go unreported.

This article was originally published in the Summer issue of Ms. magazine, available on
newsstands or by joining the Ms. community at

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