Human Trafficking and “Red-Carpet Feminism”

Billed as a gathering of three hundred of the world’s most powerful women, the Tina Brown/Daily Beast inaugural Women in the World summit has come and gone, but I’m still trying to make sense of the event. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi, and CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour hobnobbed and discussed the collateral damage left by the Bush administration’s foreign policy, the impact of women peacemakers, and rape as a weapon of war. But despite the summit’s clear commitment to sharing women’s stories and developing potential solutions, I was left with a mixed assessment—that the summit displayed both the best and the worst of red-carpet feminism.

The human-trafficking panel provides one prime example. The Daily Beast’s webpage on the panel puts an unfortunate emphasis on sex slavery, even though the majority of the panelists, including Luis CdeBaca, the Obama-appointed ambassador charged with combating human trafficking, spoke at length about the more prevalent problem of labor trafficking, which received short shrift from the Bush administration, focused as it was on ideological battles against all prostitution.

Similarly, trafficking survivor Dao Tuyet Lien was initially misidentified on the webpage as a sex-slavery victim, although the page has since been corrected to detail her past trafficking experience in a factory in Samoa. More problematic was the way in which she was ushered on stage, allowed to say only a few words, and then summarily dismissed, so non-survivors could speak at length what trafficking victims need—a familiar scenario in the counter-trafficking world, where survivors have been too infrequently included in the conversation about policies that affect them. And a familiar scene in too many global feminist partnerships, where ‘sisters’ from the developing world are often granted only a limited number of roles—to cry or give thanks for their supper, or to act out a tired redemptive myth of suffering (usually grotesquely detailed) and eventual empowerment.

Many trafficking survivors have gone through this cycle, of course, but in their real, genuine, and unique ways. But they’ve rarely been allowed to detail their mundane successes and failures, the process of putting together new lives, or the way that they have worked in true partnership with authorities to better counter-trafficking policies and techniques.

But the concept of partnership is where the human-trafficking panel displayed its strength—in the panelists’ advocacy for corporations to work as collaborators against trafficking, not just by hiring trafficking survivors, but by investigating every link in its supply chain to make sure that none of its raw materials or products were procured or made by victims of forced labor. (For a fantastic example of a worker-led campaign to call corporations into account, see the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Campaign for Fair Food.)

Dedicated to providing “stories and solutions,” the Women in the World summit provided both—I’d hope that in the future the stories pay respect to hardship and suffering without confining their storytellers to those narratives, and that talk of answers continues to press for critical responsibility, unconventional partnerships and for the involvement of disenfranchised men, women and children in creating solutions meant to support them.

4 Comments

Thanks for putting a name to this, Noy. Frankly, this is something that has always bothered me re: this brand of international "advocacy" efforts to "empower" women. I think this could be put in the camp of well-intentioned but ultimately misguided efforts to help women victims/survivors of violence.

Noy -- Good article. Seems like this event was yet another well-meaning example of "feeling good about feeling bad." It is good that Luis de Baca was there to remind people abut the importance of labor trafficking -- a change for the better from the last administration.

I am reading Daphne Patai's 1998 book Hetrophobia which explains what she calls the Sexual Harassment Industry where many people benefit in many ways from having an issue to attack. We don't hear much about sexual harassment lately but the issue du jour is now sex trafficking. Some of the same professional-do-gooders are probably involved again. Never forget that to create a benefit producing industry around an issue there must be victims worthy of donations. But the vast majority of these sex trafficking victims, if allowed to speak, would not call themselves victims at all. That is why their voice must be controlled and muted. This may sound cynical but no issue is more sensationalized and exaggerated than sex trafficking. No issue is in more in need than this to hear from real sex workers. Sex trafficking laws are being applauded as the tool needed to attack all prostitution but no alternative is being offered up to replace the income that puts food on the family table of hundreds of thousands of (unforced) sex workers around the world. But I always say to much. Noy yours is a great article in a sea of crap.

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