Mar 01 2007

Somebody turn off my radio!

As much as NPR news can irk a spinster aunt, in some respects it irks less (once you get past the first crushing realization that NPR is as actively patriarchal as any other news outlet, except that dudes yell less) than the rest of the mainstream media. For example, as of this writing NPR is the only internet source for the story of 3 poor (in all respects) Indian nationals who claim that in 2005 they were enslaved in the house of a Kuwaiti diplomat in an affluent D.C. suburb. According to NPR’s Frank Langfitt, the women are now suing the bastard, who apparently illegally trafficked them into the US, confiscated their passports, imprisoned them, beat them with packages of frozen chicken, forced them to work 15-hour days, and paid them jack shit. The women were eventually given refuge by a kindly neighbor dude.

OK, in the first place, what is this, feudal Europe? Who needs three servants?

This story is appalling and unfortunately, like all stories in which poor women are enslaved and abused by wealthy men on American soil, somewhat sensational. As a matter of fact, back in my network TV addiction days I saw this exact plot on “Law & Order: Mutilated Women Unit” about 27 times.

To similarly gratify his overlords, Langfitt does not hesitate to lay it on pretty thick, bathos-wise; among the possessions carried by one fleeing woman were, he notes, “underwear and a Bible” (translation: she’s a brown foreigner, so to generate sympathy she must be sentimentalized as a devout and modest Christian girl, and we’ll throw in some mild lingerie titillation for good measure). But at least he pauses in the middle of his lurid tale for a couple of informative paragraphs on the many thousands of impoverished women who are imported, enslaved, and abused by rich fucks in other parts of the world, “places such as the Persian Gulf and Malaysia.” Yonder, the exploitation of disenfranchised foreign women is apparently a multi-national pastime, to the extent that daily these women mob their embassies, hoping to escape the abuse.

As uncomfortable as I am with the racist subtext one must automatically read into any reportage generated by the government-funded megatheocorporatocracy (“Newsflash! The Middle East is a land of brutal barbarians!”), I don’t doubt for a second that rich Kuwaitis and other elites regularly practice this species of misogynist, racist barbarity. Inhumanity is endemic to patriarchy, and such practices fester globally to one degree or another. White male Americans — even the supposedly liberal progressive ones who are so aghast at indentured servitude — are themselves unable to forego their own barbaric dependence on the cultural normalization of women’s degradation.

But because only rich people can afford slaves to abuse, and there just aren’t that many rich people, it seems the real story here is the abject poverty and institutionalized misogyny that produces so readily exploitable a class of people in the first place.


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  1. The Hedonistic Pleasureseeker

    Just for the record, in certain places in the Middle East the term “Filipino” is code for “That poor Asian girl someone tricked into coming here to work but now is a slave to the man who bought her.”

  2. Betsy

    Truly horrific.

    What would be the step to take? How could we help change the situation? I’m at a loss. The pathways to improvement seem so indirect. (That’s probably a crutch, so that I’ll feel OK if I don’t take action.)

    I had a direct, personal appeal for assistance from a Spanish-speaking woman last year, a stranger that I met on the street. I went as far as I could personally, but the problems she was facing were so institutionalized, I hardly knew how to start solving them.

    It has been bothering me ever since. I feel like I failed her.

  3. erin ambrose

    I really had to stop listening to npr(aka all things middle class)….It just made me edgy with having to deconstruct every fucking little thing and i usually ended up just yelling alot at the radio.
    I stick with amy goodman…altho even she has way too many phd-expert-dudes that go on and on and on…

  4. BubbasNightmare

    erin, there’s not a decent news source left in the media. NPR was one of the last few bastions of objectivity, but that’s obviously long gone. (I haven’t listened to the news–any type–in years. If I want a stiff shot of depression, I can get that in multiple flavors out of a bottle.)

    I wish there was just one source where I could get just the news–no emotionally-charged words (“…underwear and a Bible”), dudely commentary, inane “features”, or worthless opinion.


  5. The Hedonistic Pleasureseeker

    The Daily Show? It’s the only inanity I can take anymore.

    NPR has the BBC on at midnight. I also read The Economist. One day I realized the more succinct a news-bringer, the less bullshit filler to annoy me, so the BBC and the Economist will have to do for now. They also keep me generally informed for those cocktail parties I never go to.

    Other than that, if you can swing the expense I recommend XM radio’s station 64, “The Groove.” All old-school funk, blues and soul, no news no commercials, no yammering at all.

  6. justtesting

    You ‘murcans may not realise, but this month it’s the 200th aniversary of The Slave Trade Abolition Act here in the UK. The media are pitching in with documentaries and so on, but it’s also a chance for modern day anti-slavery campaigners to highlight what is still a huge problem worldwide.

    Some good links here:


  7. Rainbow Girl

    In addition to the portrayal that this kind of abuse happens “in places like Malaysia” when it is clearly also present in North America, there is another component of female trafficking (or economically-forced migration) that really worries me: the use of Philipina women as underpaid servants in North America is often justified as a form of feminism by the “liberated” middle class women that hire them. More media attention is paid to the (prurient details of) the men who hire them, but upper-class women are frequently the employers too.

    Sisterhood, eh? As an international feminist, situations like this really make me doubt the idea of female solidarity across race and class barriers. Women are not liberated by paying someone less privileged than them shit wages to do menial work. Women are liberated by supporting all women and all humans in the quest for equality.

  8. cypress

    The Globe and Mail, Canada’s centreish-leftish national newspaper is a good source of news. Although of course lodged as it is firmly on the upper rungs of the patriarchy, it’s not perfect.

    The CBC Radio OnLine is also a pretty good place to go for almost just.the.news..

  9. M The Pedagogue

    Exactly. I don’t see a goal of feminism as giving white American women equal opportunity as white American men to have ridiculous stockpiles of wealth and power over 90% of the world’s population. So I take issue with anyone who says they’re simply “working within the system.” Not because they’re bad or any stupid reductionist idea like that, but because it’s a false argument. This is the real sting of patriarcapitalism: we’re all indicted, and no amount of voting for women, eating organic or thinking good thoughts will make that *not* the case.

    We become willing to see how fighting back is possible when we’re willing to recognize we might have to give up some comforts. Short of that, history shows that fighting back happens when basic needs are stolen from the people: wasn’t that long ago that the entire working citizenry of Peru staged what labor syndicalists call a “general strike,” in which workers took control of factories and other “means of production.” When the entire economic system collapsed, and everyone quit hoping that leaders would fix it, the people took the power into their own hands. It’s still possible. I contend it’s only our fear of material loss in the way.

  10. anne

    Most of the time I come here for the wisdom and clearly gorgeous writing. Today, I just want to lay my head down. I am so tired of this foolishness, aka patriarchy. I’m tired.

  11. lucizoe

    Did they fail to acknowledge the thousands of women trafficked to the USA for the sex slave trade? Sounds like they treated this like some sort of anamoly. One that would never – no, NEVER – occur in this shining beacon of freedom had not that backwards Kuwaiti man brought it to our shores. Tsk!

  12. Jess2

    Like all other elements of the so-called liberal media, NPR is just less conservative than some other outlets. They do have really good stories sometimes, but sometimes their take is just as inane as anything you’ll see on Fox News. Another outlet that pisses me off is the (again supposedly liberal) New York Times. Liberal? Wha? They just had their restaurant critic review the steak at the Hustler club, for crying out loud. The article’s theme was more or less along the lines of “slightly nerdy food critic is embarrased by all the fembots flinging their naked flesh at him while he samples the (excellently prepared!) cooked flesh on offer. Ha ha, how amusing!

    The worst part of that article, too, was realizing that the chef at the Hustler Club’s restaurant is none other than the propietor of the only half-way decent bbq restaurant in New York City, an establishment which I will, sadly, never be able to patronize again. Want them ribs with a side of misogeny, Missy? Fucking fuckers.

  13. Medbh

    Isn’t it 50,000 girls and women who are brought into the U.S. every year as slaves to work in the sex trade? It’s a huge industry, and if you followed the money, who knows how deep the rabbit hole goes?

    As a newbie immigrant to Canada, I have to say that I trust the daily press here much more than the NYT or anything in the U.S. Check out “The Toronto Star” and “The Globe and Mail.”

    I don’t watch “The Daily Show” much anymore because even though it’s a smart program, it’s an enclave of Ivy League white boys. I don’t think John Stewart gives a fuck about women.

  14. inspiredbycoffee

    Hi Twisty. Not entirely sure where to put this, so here will have to do. I so much enjoyed your posting on that Zoe Williams piece in the Guardian the other day that I thought I’d ask what your opinion was on this one: http://www.guardian.co.uk/gender/story/0,,2023792,00.html

  15. Jezebella

    You guys should give Public Radio in Mississippi (PRM) a try if you think your NPR ain’t liberal enough. Shee-it. It might as well be the “Mississippi Is All Puppy Dogs, Rainbows, and Fluffy Bunny Rabbits” station. It’s definitely the “There Is Nothing Important Outside of Jackson” station.

    I have never heard any PRM news of, say, the hideous treatment of catfish farm workers in the Mississippi Delta, a topic so thoroughly depressing that I never managed to finish that chapter in Molly Ivins’ book, “Bushwhacked.” Those workers are treated like slaves, only there’s nobody who feels obligated to feed or house them once they’re used up, too old or injured to work, and it doesn’t take too long to be completely disabled by repetitive stress injury when you’re cutting up catfish 10 hours a day. Maybe if I wrote an article featuring their christian devotion and fondness of modest white cotton underwear, it would get some attention.

  16. Mandos

    The concept that the Grope and Flail is leftish is hilarious to this Canadian. The Tortured Star is a little bit closer (meaning that Canadian wingnuts consider it to be a commie rag). Let us not even consider the Notional Pest.

    OK, in the first place, what is this, feudal Europe? Who needs three servants?

    Hah! On my recent trip to visit my South Asian relatives in more than one part of the subcontinent, I never slept in a home with less than four.

  17. Twisty

    Thanks, Mandos. Behold the more accurate (Mandosian) version:

    OK, in the first place, what is this, more than one part of the subcontinent?

  18. Mandos

    Well, actually…the affluent West is the exception to the rule. 90% of the planet’s inhabited surface either consists of impoverished stifling tyrannies or anarcho-libertarian Wild Wests, and sometimes both simultaneously. In either case, lots of people have multiple servants, assuming you don’t consider the servants to be human, which most of the people who have servants in an extremely class-stratified society at some level don’t. (Even if they treat them humanely and provide health care, which some do.)

  19. Tpurplesage

    Public radio (true public radio, not NPR) is the only place to get real news. Here in SoCal we have KPFK, but online you can listen to KPFA in Berkeley (www.kpfa.org) and KPFK (www.kpfk.org) and KPFT in Houston (www.kpft.org).

    For News directly I would suggest Free Speech Radio News, hands down the BEST source. You can get them from the archives of any site above, or directly from http://www.fsrn.org

    You get labor reports (not business reports), local reporters around the world and I don’t think any white guys work on it at all.

  20. Medbh

    Well, I never said leftish. My sense of “The Globe and Mail” is that they actually report news. The stories are generally longer and more detailed than the NYT, for example. The “Star” does a good job covering women and immigrant issues in particular.
    But I will keep my eyes open, Mandos. Cheers!

  21. Metal Prophet

    NPR has been fairly far from liberal for quite some time. I generally keep up with the news by listening to Democracy Now! and watching Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

  22. Rob

    I, for one, have been a fan of CBC’s “As It Happens,” which they broadcast on NPR here in Cleveland, ever since I moved here. It’s hosted by women, and that’s something.

  23. jc.

    The first time I traveled to india was in 1972. I was a typical guilt ridden middle class liberal plagued by the injustices and poverty that we (the west)had and were inflicting on indians and pakistanis (among others). My understanding of the universal human capability for unfeeling and self righteous exploitation, oppression and degradation of the poor began as I watched and listened to “upper class” indians, in a condescending weird indian version of upperclass victorian english, abuse kashmiri bearers and servants in terms and manners that would have been considered to be too crude on a slave plantation. If I spoke to my dog that way he´d rip my throat out.
    It was at this point I began to really realise that the human race was truly pretty similiar everywhere. The true brotherhood of man. Diplomatic household slavery is actually fairly common and stories of it in the news usually occur on slow news days, like when Nicole doesn´t die or Britney doesn´t shave.
    Here in sweden we´ve taken a large step redressing the servant problem and will soon have a tax rebate for the employment of people to do “household services” in private homes. This will allow liberated swedish women to pursue satisfying and meaningful corporate careers without the daily drudge of nagging their very important liberated husbands to pick up their own fucking underwear.
    This will also give an opportunity to eastern european women to work legally and meaningfully on their knees in someones home instead of on their knees or whatever in a bordell.
    So now we´ve solved women´s liberation in sweden without men having to do anything!
    Children can be left in daycare, school, freetime centers and healthy freetime activities (sports, sports and sports) almost all day from the age of six months on.
    Now someone else can clean the house.
    All that´s left is to find someone to fuck the lazy bastard, oh wait I don´t think the underage girls from eastern europe are allowed to clean so that´s solved too.
    Brave new world. Onwards and upwards for Swedish overclass
    fullfillment. Praise the lord and pass the calorie free prozac.

  24. Catherine Martell

    I completely agree that the slave trade in the USA is dire. But this particular story isn’t about that; it’s an equally valid story about Middle Eastern slavery, and about diplomats and their sense of entitlement.

    I don’t feel too much sympathy for the “backwards Kuwaiti man” as a victim of ethnic oppression here. The Kuwaiti elite is unfeasibly rich, immensely powerful, and flippant about the conditions of its slave labour. Most of the slaves in the Middle East are from India or other South Asian countries. Men and women alike sell themselves for a period of some years to a slavemaster in Dubai, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia etc. Their passport is confiscated when they arrive. Sometimes they are treated approximately OK and put to work as cooks, drivers, maids etc. Sometimes they are absolutely not treated OK and end up being physically and/or sexually abused with basically no comeback, seeing as they have no passport and have signed away all their legal rights, and the intensely patriarchal system in the countries I’ve mentioned tends to view them as filthy foreign scum who probably deserved a good hiding anyway. This is a different situation to that of human trafficking in the US: it is overt, well-organised, supported and openly used by the governments, and widely publicly accepted.

    I think some of us tend to assume that, because we’re looking at the situation from a liberal, white-majority American/European perspective and we’re probably aware of Edward Said, we have to be careful not to stereotype Arabs as evil, unscrupulous and sex-crazed. Rightly so, and yes, the “underwear and Bible” detail is grim. But, while it’s understandable that many of us would rather talk about human trafficking in somewhere like North America, that is a different story. It’s right to criticise the powerful white patriarchs who run the show here, but please let’s not pretend that there isn’t a massive and terrible problem with the powerful brown patriarchs in other parts of the world.

    Twisty is right, as usual. The issues here are patriarchy and the distribution of wealth. And yes, those are interconnected.

  25. Joolya

    Brown, pink, tan, beige … patriarchy is an equal opportunity oppressor.

  26. teffie-phd

    In Canada there used to be special immigration provisions and temporary work visas to allow women to be brought here to work in the “exotic dancing” trade. So women can come here, dance naked for money and then can be sent back to their home country. They stopped it in 2004, but I suspect there are other provisions since women are still brought here for these purposes.

    Some desparate women pay big bucks to bastard “brokers to come here. They dance a bit and then are forced to work as prostitutes or in body-rub places to pay back these assholes.

    Sexual trafficking/slavery/whatever it’s completely misogynist and no one seems interested in changing the laws because seeing naked chicks is a patriarchal right.

    And we have special temporary permits for immigrant women to be nannies and domestic workers–poor women who have to leave their homes and children to make money caring for other women’s homes and children.

  27. Rainbow Girl

    The issue here is not that the liberally-minded bloggers are turning a blind eye to patriarchal oppression overseas due to their own guilt-the anger I’ve heard in the comments is also about the Western media’s treatment in general.

    When the only source of criticism and activism comes from an integrally racist, islamophobic, and sexist media source within a hegemonic western power framework, how is the ordinary world citizen supposed to find a fair way to voice their opposition to what is a global patriarchal, capitalist problem?

    Furthermore, while I do agree that child and woman trafficking is a concern in most cultures (lived in West Africa next door to a trafficked kid for heaven’s sake!), I do not agree with comments that have minimized North America’s own role on that basis. The fact that Western countries control a disproportionate amount of wealth and power globally worsens the problem of trafficking through sheer economic clout. That may also apply, to some extent, to rich Middle Eastern countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. But Malaysia? Give me a fucking break-there is no comparison.

  28. Catherine Martell

    Rainbow Girl writes: “The issue here is not that the liberally-minded bloggers are turning a blind eye to patriarchal oppression overseas due to their own guilt-the anger I’ve heard in the comments is also about the Western media’s treatment in general.”

    I understand and appreciate that, as well as sharing many of the feelings about the Western media that have been expressed here. But the piece in question is about forced labour slavery, not sex slavery, and it’s about a Kuwaiti diplomat, not an American. Yet the discussion was dragged back so quickly to the more familiar issue of American sex slavery. Yes, that’s a huge problem, but it isn’t the problem described in Twisty’s post, and not *everything* has to be related back to America all the time. This is a separate story deserving of attention on its own demerits.

    As the UNODC report “Trafficking in human beings: Global Patterns” makes clear, forced labour is seriously underreported because “the public media finds sexual exploitation a more appealing topic”. Blaming the patriarchy yet? You can download the report here if you’re interested: http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/trafficking_persons_report_2006-04.html The report specificially acknowledges that human trafficking, especially for forced labour, is underreported outside North America and Western Europe, skewing the statistics. Forced labour, it further points out, is regarded by many countries as not even being a form of human trafficking.

    As I was trying to explain above, this is why it’s a different problem from that in the US: in Kuwait, the practice of indenturing Indian labourers is publicly accepted. In order to combat this type of slavery, it is not a question of fighting organised crime; it is a question of changing an entire cultural outlook.

    If I understand it correctly, your analysis suggests that Western countries are the main body responsible for human trafficking, while “to some extent” rich Middle Eastern countries may be responsible, and Malaysia is too poor to be at fault. Talking about forced and indentured labour slavery rather than sex slavery, this is just not true at all. 90% of the labour force in the UAE are foreign nationals. Most of them have no legal protection whatever and many (no one knows how many) are indentured. The situation in North America or Western Europe is not remotely comparable.

    There is very little good information available on the topic, though if you go and stand in any Indian airport for an hour and watch the groups of half-starved, terrified, low-caste men and women being herded on to planes for Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi you get the idea pretty quickly. There’s a decent article on Dubai’s forced labour here: http://newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2635
    And another here: http://www.aqoul.com/archives/2006/02/foreign_workers_1.php

    I am the last person who would leap up to give the Western megatheocorporatocracy a huge hug. But there is a Middle Eastern megatheocorporatocracy as well, and an Indian one for that matter, and a Malaysian one too. Each of them oppresses in its own special way, and in the case of Kuwaiti megatheocorpocrats enslaving Indians, they’re getting on with their oppression quite happily without it having anything to do with the US or Europe.

  29. Rainbow Girl

    Catherine Martell:

    I agree, those are some excellent points you have made and I am familiar with the frequent use of indentured servants in countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, etc. I place forced slavery, economically-coerced migration, and in some cases general treatment of immigrants on a continuum and so no, I did not limit my discussion to forced sex slavery.

    Some of that comes down to the economic circumstances of that particular country. Oil-rich countries with very high GDP per capita have found that over the past generation, there is so much wealth for everyone that the class of people who would normally accept boring, underpaid work is shrinking. This sounds awfully familiar to me, as a Canadian who has seen every crappy, boring job become dominated by immigrants whose professional qualifications are not recognized here.

    I do not see that as particularly far away from Canada’s or USA’s situation, just as a matter of degree. And yet these issues are so often framed as a “barbaric brown men” problem that happens “places other than here”, and I have to say the United States is particularly guilty of this in their media.

    Using terms like “this happens in places like country X” is objectionable and innaccurate. The data you gave on Kuwait would have been great to mention in an article, because it gives specific information on one country, not “places like Kuwait”, leaving the reader’s imagination open to any backwards, furren country.

    It perhaps seemed to you that I saw the West as more involved in this trafficking than rich, non-Western countries, (because I immediately turned to North America to blame). In fact, I am aware that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries do have a high rate of trafficking, however my problem is with the way that information is presented and the morally comfortable, holier-than-thou feeling the ignorant reader can subsequently feel.

    Even if one country does it more or one country does it less, these are global problems. North Americans, whether they like it or not, are part of the world too. Our semi-literate journalists may one day have to embrace that fact.

  30. Rainbow Girl

    I’m not trying to be antagonistic or anything though; point taken and thank you for the links :)

  31. Catherine Martell

    RainbowGirl: of course – no bad faith assumed. I think this is a pretty safe website on which to debate issues robustly without it becoming, or being taken as, antagonistic. One of the reasons I like it so much.

    I agree with you that Canada (and the US, and Western Europe) have a troublesome attitude towards importing people from the Third World to do our dirty work. You could certainly argue that it is a matter of degree between that and what happens in Kuwait. I think it’s a pretty large degree in this case, but it is a degree.

    In Britain, for instance, there is a huge problem with illegal workers being brought over from Russia, Eastern Europe and China to work in disgraceful conditions under indenture. The deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004 highlighted this issue, though unfortunately the government hasn’t done anything like as much as it should to deal with this.

    The problem in Kuwait and the other countries I mentioned is much more widespread, more extreme, and more official. But yes, you’re quite right that these are global problems – and, as I said above, I also agree that the rapid-fire North American media response of “filthy, degenerate Arabs” is offensive and stupid.

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