Ladyboys in the Gulf

The riches of the United Arab Emirates hold promise for transgender sex workers, but also danger and unspeakable cruelty.

Mya makes no bones about what she does for a living. Her website is frank about the services she offers as a transgender sex worker; they range from the "girlfriend experience" to the "VIP treatment" and everything in between.

"We are not criminals," she says adamantly in a Skype interview from San Francisco, where she is currently working. "When people come to see me, I take the appointment seriously. I do my best to make them happy. We're all legal adults; my customers are not bad people. Sometimes they're having trouble with their marriages; sometimes they just want more spice in their lives."

Unfortunately for Mya, prostitution is illegal in the United States -- though not in Canada, where her website is registered. Because she is so easily found online, her name has been changed to protect her identity.

Slim and full-lipped, Mya is Thai-Chinese, though she was raised in Java and speaks English with an Indonesian accent. She says she travels across the globe for her profession, and it was on one of these trips that she decided to go to Dubai, where she knew she could make a lot of money in the transgender sex trade.

"The men there love me," she says. "I don't know why. Religiously speaking, it's forbidden. But culturally, it's among them.… When I walk in the street or in the mall, boys are all over me."

Although there is very little data regarding this phenomenon, activists and lawyers who work with transgender sex workers say that the thriving sex trade in the Middle East, especially in Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, and Bahrain, is attracting hundreds of transgender sex workers, mostly from South Asia and the Pacific Islands. All these Gulf countries abide by strict Islamic law, outlaw homosexuality, and forbid gay foreigners from entering the country.

Transgender individuals in particular have a difficult time traveling and residing in Gulf countries -- if they are caught with documents identifying them as members of the opposite sex, they're immediately detained and deported. If they are arrested for sex work, they could be jailed for even longer periods before they are allowed to leave the country.

This is one of the more extreme challenges faced by the Arab Gulf countries as they struggle to adapt to the changing cultural norms brought on by globalization. With the discovery of oil, these countries have been catapulted to the forefront of the world economy -- but massive wealth has brought huge social changes as well, as foreigners have brought their own cultures with them, sometimes shocking the deeply conservative populations. This is most evident in emirates such as Dubai, where migrants make up 90 percent of the population. These communities have long grappled with the sale of alcohol and foreigners' scanty clothing -- but the presence of transgender sex workers is dealt with not through compromise, but brute repression.

According to activists, while awaiting deportation in Gulf countries, many migrant transgender women are subject to all manner of abuse and degradation, including beatings, public floggings, and sexual violence. There have been instances of transgender migrants murdered in the Middle East, most famously when Sally Camatoy, who was featured in the Israeli indie film Paper Dolls, was found bludgeoned to death in Dubai.

In a January report, Human Rights Watch documented abuses committed against transgender people in Kuwait. In addition to extensive physical abuse, the report stated that every one of the 40 transgender women interviewed "suffered some form of sexual abuse at the hands of police, most of them unreported due to fear of reprisal."

Mya says that on April 28, 2010, the second time she went to Dubai to work, she was caught by undercover police who pretended to be clients. According to Mya, she was released in August, after spending three months in solitary confinement at Al Awir, a men's prison in Dubai.

"They really treated me like a dog or an animal," she says. "There are a lot of big criminals -- drug dealers, things like that. Those big criminals were allowed to pay to come to my cell. The guard would open the gate and let them enter my cell and rape me whenever they wanted."

Her tone is matter-of-fact, as if she were discussing what she had for breakfast.

"The harder I fought, the tougher it was for me," she says. "The first one was the hardest. I fought like crazy. But after the second month, I realized I couldn't do it anymore, so I tried to be nice and cooperative."

Officials at Al Awir prison said they couldn't confirm that she was held there and refused to comment on her accusations, but because Mya is a Canadian citizen, she says she made a complaint to the Canadian Consulate in Dubai while she was imprisoned. Although an official at the consulate couldn't provide details because of Canadian privacy laws, she did confirm that they had a case matching this description during the time period that Mya reports being jailed.

Mya says that after she decided to cooperate with the prison guards, they eventually released and deported her. "They just let me go," she says. "When they decided I had suffered enough, they released me, just like that. No court, no nothing."

Diana, a Filipina transgender woman, says she was also arrested for sex work in Dubai. In a telephone conversation, Diana says she went to Dubai to be with her boyfriend, but after they broke up, she turned to sex work.

"I found it very enticing as a way to generate income, because the men there love transsexuals," she says. "The ratio of money you can make is times 10, if you are able to maintain just one regular client. If you have a working relationship with a guy, you can practically become a millionaire."

After working in Dubai for two years, using a fake visa and female passport she bought on the black market, Diana says she was arrested in a sting operation similar to the one Mya describes.

"There were five Filipina ladyboy escorts, one American and one Malaysian, with me," she says. "We were all captured together. We were invited to go to a hotel by some men who turned out to be undercover police, and when we went, we were all arrested."

When asked about what happened after she was arrested, Diana's voice takes on a slightly frantic edge.

"I said, 'Don't rape me, please,'" she says quickly, in a whisper. "They raped me.… Some things are too bad to remember." Later in the conversation, she goes into more detail.

"The head of the police took me into another room," she says. "That's where it happened. Then all of us were put in a room together and forced to get naked, and they took pictures. There was terrible verbal abuse.… I think that was worse than the rape thing."

According to Diana, she was only detained for three days, while the others she was arrested with were jailed for one to three months.

"In exchange for my freedom, I was asked to give them the names of other ladyboys who were coming over," she says. "I gave them the names. You can't blame me."

LGBT activists from the Middle East and South Asia say what happened to Mya and Diana is a common occurrence.

"The reports that we're getting from transgender women who successfully make it home to the Philippines from the Middle East say that they have been very inhumanely treated when they are apprehended by the police," says Bemz Benedito, a transgender woman and leader of Ladlad Partylist, an LGBT political party in the Philippines.

Why do these transgender women risk their lives to work in the Middle East? The simple answer is money. Mya says she was making thousands of dollars in just a few days of work. But Johnny Tohme, a member of Helem, an LGBT rights organization based in Lebanon, says that it's more complicated than that.

"Getting a good job for transgenders is hard because of discrimination," he says. "Most of them begin to experience the hardest conflict related to their gender and sex during puberty, so pursuing a solid education wouldn't be a priority. Therefore, by the time they become adults, it gets hard for them to pursue a career. Another option presents itself, which is sex work, and what might facilitate that is the fact that sex work in the region pays a lot. There are a lot of clients, so it sounds like the next best option."

Migrant transgender sex workers are particularly attracted to the large, cosmopolitan cities of the United Arab Emirates such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where rich businessmen of all nationalities mingle.

"Dubai is considered the Las Vegas of the Middle East because of the night life and partying," says Abdulla, a leader of the group LGBT Rights in the UAE who would only agree to have his first name published. "It is more open than Saudi Arabia or places like that, so it's a haven for the sex industry. There is a high demand for transgender sex workers."

The comment thread on a transgender Filipina's blog entry about traveling to Dubai provides some information about the clientele these transgender sex workers attract.

"i like ladyboys .. i live in dubai alone any ladyboy wanna frenship wid me in a secret way add me," writes one of the commenters, including an email address. Email requests for comment sent to this and other email addresses of those looking for transgender escorts were not answered.

"Most of my customers are Westerners, but Emiratis pay more money," says Abdullah, an Emirati transgender sex worker who lives in Dubai. The clients are rarely punished if they are caught, according to Abdullah, and if they are, they usually just have to pay a fine.

Pardis Mahdavi, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College and author of the book Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai, says there's a thriving market for sex workers of all types in the UAE. "There's a sort of hierarchy of demand, and it tends to be very correlated with race," she says. "Iranian women, Moroccan women, Russian women -- they're sort of at the top of the food chain there. They get paid the most.… Then you have the darker-skinned women, Indian, Pakistanis, and Southeast Asians, who form the middle class of sex workers. The lower classes tend to be from sub-Saharan Africa."

Mahdavi says that Emirati officials are doing their best to cope with a great deal of change in a short period of time.

"There are so many competing discourses in Dubai, but I think that compared to other Arab countries, they are actually pretty progressive," she says. "Emiratis have set up shelters, so if women have been abused, they can go there. If one of these individuals wants to go home, there's a method for them to get there."

By all accounts, however, LGBT individuals in the region have to cope with a great deal of discrimination and abuse. "I had to seek asylum in Canada because my family discovered that I'm gay and wanted me to go through forced hormone treatment," says Abdulla of LGBT Rights in the UAE. "When they arrest LGBT people, they think that if they force them to go through testosterone treatment, it will fix them and stop them from being gay. When my family found out, they wanted me to do that. Of course, it doesn't fix you."

Transgender sex workers also face a strict law concerning foreigners who contract HIV in most Gulf countries. Fouzia Janahi, a lawyer who represents many transgender clients in Bahrain, says that these laws often cause many migrant transgender women to avoid seeking medical care.

"They immediately get deported if they have HIV or some other contagious disease," she says. "Bahrainis have health care and clinics, but foreigners are immediately deported. Before every foreigner is given the card to stay in Bahrain, they have to be examined."

In August, Panida Somao, an official from the Thai Embassy in Oman, told Bangkok's the Nation that the embassy has seen cases of transgender women arriving at its doors desperately sick and in need of medical care. Ignorance of the danger they face as transgender sex workers in the region could be another reason so many of these individuals make their way to the Middle East. According to Janahi, many transgender foreigners fail to understand the severity of the laws against them in the Gulf.

"They come to the Middle East and think that it's as free as where they come from," Janahi says. "In Asia or in Europe, they can walk dressed as women and carry male identification. They come here thinking they can do that. Once they get here, they realize that it's really a very closed society.… Sometimes they can be very disrespectful of our traditions."

Mya cautions other transgender women against traveling to the Gulf as sex workers -- but says if they do, they must be as discreet as possible.

"In Dubai, they can catch us in the middle of the mall," she says. "The mistake that girls make is that they dress to catch the eyes of men when they go out. I would never do that. Wearing high heels, short skirts -- that's not appropriate at all. It just calls attention to you."

After leaving Dubai, Mya says she recovered from the experience at her sister's house in Indonesia and then traveled to Canada before embarking on her trip to the United States.

According to Mya, all the money she made in Dubai wasn't worth the way she was made to feel by the guards and other prisoners after she was arrested.

"They would throw hot water on me from outside of the cell," she says. "They would spit on me. It was awful and degrading. They didn't even look at me as a human being.… They call us haram, which is something really bad or forbidden. That's what they call animals that they think are dirty. They saw me like I was a pig or a snake."

She says the guards placed a hanging rope in her cell to torment her.

"If I wanted to, I could just hang myself," she says. "Nobody would care. But I told myself I never would. My life is too beautiful and too exciting to die in a jail cell."

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

National Security

The 9 Most Important Lessons From the Cuban Missile Crisis

Announcing the award-winning insights from our nation's closest brush with nuclear war.

What can we learn from the Cuban missile crisis 50 years after the fact? From the realities of containment to the need for a strong Navy to the role of multilateralism in a crisis, these nine insights get at the heart of what America can learn today from its closest brush with nuclear war. 

For the 50th anniversary of what historians agree was the most dangerous moments in human history, Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Foreign Policy magazine sponsored a contest for scholars and citizens to reflect on the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and its lessons for challenges the U.S. faces today.  Today, we're happy to announce our three winners: Zachary Elias, Reid Pauly, and Eden Rose Niles. Their challenge was to present the most persuasive, original lesson flowing from the confrontation that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war over 13 days in October 1962. Below, we've collected the top three finalists in three categories -- the general public, scholars, and students -- and presented their insight into the crisis.

Category #1: General Public

Winner: Zachary Elias, Dartmouth College, undergraduate, Hanover, NH 

Lesson: The Cuban missile crisis taught the United States what containment feels like.

The lesson from the crisis is the extent to which containment is terrifying for the country being contained. Because the U.S. had been a global military superpower since the end of World War II, it had never faced an existential threat close to its borders. At the time, U.S. nuclear missiles were stationed in range of Soviet cities as a means of containment -- but, for U.S. policymakers, it was unthinkable that the U.S. could end up in a similar position. So, when the USSR decided to raise the stakes by placing its own nuclear missiles in range of American cities, U.S. policymakers were inclined to compromise with the Russians on containment policy -- trading nuclear warheads in Turkey for those in Cuba -- to lessen the direct military threat posed to each nation by one another.

This is a lesson to keep in mind when deliberating the best means of dealing with rising powers. When making policy concerning the rise of China, for example, one would do well to remember that military containment and antagonism makes the contained country feel threatened, which in turn makes aggression more likely in response to U.S. provocations. It took trust, diplomacy, and compromise to resolve a crisis that was precipitated by military buildup, as dictated by standard realist power calculus. While it is unlikely that China will be able to challenge U.S. power as the USSR did during the Cold War, one should remain cognizant of the fact that surrounding another state with military threats is less likely to spur long-term trust and cooperation -- which, in an era of cooperative globalization, is more important than ever.

Robert Walsh, global financial crime officer, AXA Group, New York, NY

Lesson: In a democracy, the need for broad public support to engage in a dangerous confrontation can have lasting unintended foreign policy consequences. One example is foreign policy tunnel vision that can last for generations because of "accepted truths" trumpeted to justify the confrontation.

Since 1962 U.S. foreign policy stewards have been hamstrung on Cuba, because so much patriotic capital was invested in villainizing Soviet Cuba and Fidel Castro. The martyrdom of JFK compounded this by making it unholy to question his taking us to the brink. It remains near-treasonous to suggest negotiations with Fidel Castro. Two comparisons help make this argument: Vietnam and Japan. While the Vietnam War traded on American patriotism in a similar way to the Missile Crisis, the success of that rallying cry was mixed, and petered out feebly at the end. Yet that enabled, in only 40 years, the U.S. to make friends with the same regime in Vietnam as was in power at the end of that war. Contrast that with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. patriotism necessarily invoked at that time, and since, has rendered it verboten in polite company to ask if perhaps the U.S. should not have dropped those bombs. It is not politically astute to disagree with the notion that the use of such bombs "is justified in the right circumstances." Today the U.S. enjoys tremendous solidarity with the EU, the U.N. and other countries on international embargo programs regarding Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Sudan -- but the U.S. stands alone on Cuba. Not even our closest allies agree with the U.S. sanctions on Cuba. In 1962, in priming its population for a dangerous confrontation, the U.S. painted itself into a corner with respect to future dealings with Cuba and Fidel Castro.

Jacob Schroeder, advertising copyeditor, Chicago, IL

Lesson: As a conflict develops, minor actors play the biggest roles. A man who made one of the most remarkable decisions during the Cuban missile crisis did not have the famed name of John Kennedy or Nikita Khruschev, but rather the unremarkable name of Vasili Arkhipov. As deputy commander of a Soviet submarine in need of oxygen and perilously encircled by the U.S. Navy, he urged his superior to take the vessel to the surface for air instead of engaging American warships with its armed nuclear torpedo in an attempt to flee. What if Arkhipov had chose to say nothing? That alternative outcome is easy, yet horrific, to imagine. It is true, a single man smoking a cigarette can burn an entire parched forest and likewise, during crisis, one minor actor can effect major sequences. While world leaders command in crises, they do not sail the ships or pull the triggers. Thus, it is imperative that statesmen be aware of minor actors in the background or better yet, in military terms, the minor actors on the ground -- be it generals or privates, diplomats or secretaries, or in today's interconnected world galvanized by social media, a single citizen -- and the roles that they play. Inevitably, they are bigger than one would surmise. Unfortunately, however, the name of an actor like Arkhipov will always live in obscurity under the shadow of actors named Kennedy or Khruschev.

Category #2: Scholars/Practitioners

Winner: Reid Pauly, research assistant to Scott Sagan at Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, Stanford, CA

Lesson: Multilateralism is key. One rarely hears scholars or policymakers cite the CMC as a success of multilateralism, but we would be wise to reflect on its importance during October 1962. While hindsight can tell us that a naval blockade of Cuba was a good decision, recall that blockades constitute acts of war. The ExComm thus made two important decisions on October 22, 1962 regarding the blockade: (1) they softened the label to "quarantine" (also the term "blockade" brought back memories of 1948 Berlin); (2) they sought legal justification of the quarantine through the Organization of American States. Of course, the U.S. could have imposed a blockade without approval, but instead it aligned its decision with international norms by invoking the OAS charter's right to take collective action in the face of an "armed attack or...an act of aggression that is not an armed attack" in the hemisphere. These nuanced decisions made it difficult for Khrushchev to justifiably interpret American actions as escalatory acts of war. Furthermore, Adlai Stevenson's presentation of photographic evidence to the U.N. Security Council legitimized American military mobilization by framing the crisis as an act of Soviet aggression in front of, as Stevenson said, "the court of world opinion." The U.S. then made good use of U.N. channels to facilitate clear communication of messages to the Soviets, like specifications for the size of the quarantine zone. These decisions, while minimized in the retelling of such a dramatic tale, were crucial to the successful receding of tensions.  Multilateralism provides added benefits, such as creating a marketplace of policy ideas, testing the morality of alternatives, and the legitimating of threats and the use of force. While there are many important lessons to learn from the dark days of October 1962, one we often ignore is that multilateralism is key.

Lieutenant Douglas Gates, Instructor, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD

Lesson: A flexible and varied military force, including a strong navy, gives policymakers a wide range of response options. 

A few years before the Cuban missile crisis, the military underwent a significant debate to determine its post-war future. Would the advent of new technologies, specifically strategic bombers and nuclear weapons, make other weapons obsolete, or would there continue to be a role for the infantry and warships?

The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated that continuing to equip the nation's military with a vast array of capabilities and warfare specialties was still valuable because it gave the president several options with which to respond to the situation. While the Air Force immediately demanded offensive air strikes and the Army suggested a ground invasion, the Navy provided a scaled response that sent an effective signal without the use of violence. A naval option kept Americans off of Cuban soil and out of immediate danger, and yet showed enough American resolve to convince the Soviets that the battle wasn't worth fighting. Because the American response was offshore and out of sight of the Cubans, it deescalated tensions while simultaneously applying pressure on Soviet leadership."

Dr. Christopher Bright, staffer on Armed Services Committee, House of Representatives, Oakton, VA

Lesson: Crisis management may require upending long-established military doctrine, plans, and policies.

By the time of the Cuban missile crisis, thousands of nuclear antiaircraft weapons were deployed around dozens of cities and defense sites in the United States. These surface-to-air missiles and air-to-air arms existed because the large and lethal aerial blast they produced offered the greatest chance of destroying nuclear-laden attacking Soviet bombers. The military had the authority to use these weapons without presidential consultation if commanders believed an attack was underway. For five years, the widespread and ready expenditure of defensive nuclear arms to counter a nuclear air raid had been the basis upon which air defense units had been trained, equipped, and operated.

The crisis spurred military leaders to make changes. The discovery of IL-28 bombers (erroneously believed to be conventionally armed) in Cuba induced quick preparations to guard against a non-nuclear strike on the southeastern U.S. Existing arrangements, with the possibility of defensive nuclear expenditure, dangerously raised the risk of escalation. This was so, especially if nuclear use resulted from a lower-level decision, and even if it occurred over the United States.

Therefore, despite objections from the North American Air Defense Command, air defense forces protecting Florida were prohibited from using nuclear arms. Unlike units at permanent emplacements in other states, the Army antiaircraft battery hurriedly established near Miami was equipped only with conventional missiles. Similarly, Air Force fighters flown to Florida did not carry nuclear weapons like those fitted to the balance of the interceptor force. These actions required overcoming many challenges, including instituting new directives and obtaining sufficient munitions.

The new arrangements contravened long-standing procedures. However, leaders thought they were necessary. Rather than being rigidly devoted to existing plans, officials acutely perceived their limitations and deftly ensured that alternatives were properly developed and implemented.

Category #3: Grades 6-12

Winner: Eden Rose Niles, Colorado Academy High School, Denver, CO

Lesson: During a crisis, when military action is viable as a first response, the morality of using weapons to reach a resolution must be considered in order to prevent a catalyst for greater conflict and subsequent death.

RFK initially believed an air strike was the only option. However, after considering the morality of a strike, RFK recognized that it could turn crisis into global conflict. Consequently, his decision to oppose the strike allowed for a patient approach and consideration of the broader moral issue. This provided time for Kennedy's administration to weigh non-lethal options, eventually culminating in the quarantine, and more importantly allowing for international diplomacy to be the source of resolution. My lesson draws from how missiles and other modern weapons do not require tedious preparations but rather can be deployed at the push of a button. Accordingly, leaders must consider morality carefully before choosing military action as a first response. This ensures that empathy for fellow humans remains in our actions. Due to the empathy cultivated through the moral question, Kennedy knew violent actions would receive violent reactions. Deciding to refrain from weapons and working with the Soviets diplomatically resolved tensions without losing lives.

In today's crises, weapons evolve to allow even less connection between those who employ violence and those who receive its consequence. Maintaining the question of morality is increasingly important to ensure that military action does not abandon the human element and thus inspire new enemies. This is especially true when there is seemingly less time to consider non-lethal options before media and politics drown out sober and patient approaches to resolution.

Marija Trajanoska, NOVA International School, Skopje, Macedonia

Lesson: Avoidance of nuclear confrontation has no alternatives and therefore alternatives to nuclear confrontation should be sought; forethought leaders know that some decisions may as well be -- final.

My lesson from the crisis is reduced to a universal truth that the world just cannot afford to resort to nuclear confrontation. All other lessons are secondary: no subsequent lesson holds any worth if reckless decisions lead to self-destruction. 

Fifty years since the Cuban missile crisis, however, this universal truth is still not universal enough as the world continues to be terrified from the power of weapons for mass destruction. In 1962, key players took their time to think about the alternatives, see through what was not obvious, and respond with foresight and leadership. Back then, people seemed to have gone back to their senses. 

Today, 50 years of high technology and innovation in between, statesmen can still choose to appeal to their own reason to decide what decisions they make. Today, more than ever, leaders should be reminded that some decisions can only be made once and for all. Evidently, some human species-generated decisions may as well turn out to be truly and finitely -- final.  

So, statesmen should remember to seek creative solutions to the peace and war challenges of today, while honoring the lessons from the Cuban missile crisis and keeping consequences in perspective. A sense of urgency is due, of course, before we all face one nuclear crisis too many.  

Oliver Xie, Newton South High School, Newton, MA

Lesson: Have a nuke to grind? Think again...

My lesson from The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is that valuing pride and zero-sum mentality will only result in apocalyptical events. The engine that choo-choo'ed the Cold War to the Missile Crisis was pride. As Russia and the United States fought their zero-sum game of proxy wars that would later devastate Pakistan and create Al Qaeda, they were blinded by nationalism and pride. Had Russia and America come to cooperate earlier, hegemony and psychological, soft power would no longer be the current day criterion for success.

As such, American statesmen of today should learn that cooperation is the only path to a brighter tomorrow. Today's Congress shows what happens when the quest for pride supersedes cooperation. The recent political deadlock is caused by statesmen who reject or pass bills before even reading them because they simply have no intention in letting the opposing party gain power. This zero-sum mentality cannot sustain itself over long periods of time without bipartisanship.

The scope of such a lesson should be further extended into foreign policy. Whether it be the conflicts with our frenemy, China, or the Middle East, statesmen must always recognize that countries can mutually benefit from diplomacy. During the Cuban missile crisis, the effective negotiations between RFK and Dobrynin were possible because they valued common ground, allowing them to set aside win-loss mentality and nationalistic pride for a desperate yet effective solution.

The Cuban missile crisis was not an issue of good versus evil. It stands now as a test of how far Humans would go before abandoning zero-sum mentality and pride. However, it shouldn't take risking millions of lives before coming to an agreement. Find the common ground right from the beginning.

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