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Professor Pardis Mahdavi Authors New Book on Human Trafficking

Cover of Gridlock by Pardis Mahdavi

Pomona College Professor of Anthropology Pardis Mahdavi’s new book, Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai (Stanford University Press; May 2011; $27.95), posits that, contrary to conventional media portrayals, trafficked workers are not all trapped, tricked or used for sexual exploitation. She argues that like anyone else, some make choices in attempts to better their lives, but the risk of ending up in bad situations is high. Many are male and female migrants who find themselves stuck in a variety of abusive employment situations—whether on the street, in a field, at a restaurant or at someone's house. 

While conducting research for her previous book, Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution (2008), Mahdavi met a number of women in the commercial sex industry and upon following them from Iran to Dubai she found many others outside the sex industry who were also deceived and coerced. 

“Interviewing male construction workers and domestic workers from around the world who had made the courageous decision to leave their families behind and migrate in search of work, only to face abuse and hardship, was the most compelling part of my study,” she said.

According to Mahdavi, by focusing so intently on women and sex work, legislators inadvertently neglect the thousands of others globally who are in forced labor. Gridlock explores how migrants' actual experiences in Dubai, typically portrayed as a hotbed of trafficking, contrast with the typical discussions—and global moral panic—about human trafficking.  Mahdavi draws a more complicated and more personal picture of this city filled with migrants, contrasting migrants’ own stories with interviews with U.S. policy makers, revealing the gaping disconnect between policies on human trafficking and the realities of forced labor and migration in the Persian Gulf.

During the research and writing of her book—over the course of three-and-a=half years and four extended trips—Mahdavi brought students to Dubai with her, including Pomona students Chris Sargent ‘10 and Sarah Burgess ’09, who were funded by the College’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). The students assisted with interviews and background research, and Sargent and Mahdavi co-authored two-peer reviewed pieces that will be appearing in major academic journals this year.

Reza Aslan, author of No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism, said of the book: “Pardis Mahdavi provides a valuable service, exposing the contradictions and complexities that so often muddle debates about human trafficking. She makes an impassioned call for a more rational policy for dealing with this scourge, a call that eschews the sometimes simplistic and often melodramatic rhetoric surrounding the problem of international human trafficking.”

Mahdavi has been an American Council of Learned Societies Fellow and a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Fellow. She is the author of Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution (Stanford University Press, 2008). She previously was editor-in-chief for Slant Magazine as well as a consultant for the United Nations Population Fund, and has written for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and The Huffington Post.