Commercial Sex in Postcolonial Egypt: The Paradox of Closed Legal Doors and Expansive Open Markets

Friday, January 4, 2019: 8:30 AM
Grant Park Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Hanan Hammad, Texas Christian University

Following shutting down licensed brothels in Egypt in 1949, the Combating Prostitution and Debauchery Law established the complete criminalization of sex work in 1951. Thus, all sex-workers entered the postcolonial period, following the July 1952 Revolution, as the first generation to work against the legal system and consequently were treated as criminals. Recent scholarship has thoroughly studied the sex trade in colonial Egypt, but left out the postcolonial period. Filling this gap in our historical knowledge, this research paper examines commercial sex in postcolonial Egypt on the backdrop of the rapid socio-economic and political changes in Egypt and its Arab world in the second half of the twentieth century.

The first section of the research illuminates the structural adjustment through which sex workers manoeuvred within the strict legal boundaries, while taking advantage of the expansion of the market due to the oil boom in the Arab world, Arab tourism in Egypt, and the Open Door Policy (Infitah). The second section of the research discusses how the Egyptian sociologists, anthropologists, criminologists, and legal scholars seized the opportunity to study incarcerated individuals charged with commercial sex offenses. I argue that this scholarship, primarily aimed at advising policy makers, achieved contradicting results. On one hand, scholars joined the state authorities in criminalizing sex work and surveyed prostitutes, pimps, and madams as criminals, social deviants, and psychopaths. On the other hand, those scholars documented the actual narratives of prostitutes themselves. This is a remarkable outcome considering that sex-workers’ voices were absolutely absent in the colonial-period studies.

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