Liat Kozma’s Global Women, Colonial Ports: Prostitution in the Interwar Middle East is an ambitious study of prostitution that gestures toward transnational phenomena such as migration (forced and voluntary) while zeroing in on British and French colonies in the Middle East. As the majority of prostitutes of the day did not leave written records, Kozma approaches the topic by alternating between policy deliberations at the League of Nations; efforts to regulate prostitution in Paris, London, and Cairo; and the cosmopolitan spaces of Mediterranean ports. Throughout, the author draws upon archival sources in Geneva and France and on Arabic newspapers and periodicals. Kozma convincingly portrays the significance of prostitution in relation to shifting international policies, the logics of colonial cooperation and competition, and the activities of feminists and nationalists. For Kozma, the interwar era was unique for its propensity for national problems to become international, and attention to the Middle East elucidates the particularly colonial nature of this process. Her work joins a growing body of scholarship—first, on the intersection of colonialism and humanitarianism in the Middle East, most notably Keith David Watenpaugh’s Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (2015) and more recently Melanie S. Tanielian’s The Charity of War: Famine, Humanitarian Aid, and World War I in the Middle East (2018), and second, critiquing the League’s Eurocentrism. This international perspective shines through in Kozma’s chapter 1, on the League of Nations Advisory Committee on Traffic in Women and Children and the traveling committee that visited ten cities between Tangiers and Istanbul. Fascinating reports by the Advisory Committee demonstrate the colonial production of knowledge about prostitution, as the individual investigators were not conversant in local languages, and while one posed as a procurer in order to conduct interviews (33, 92), he was later dissuaded from that practice and relied instead upon colonial officials. The final reports not only blur the line between traffic and the travel of unaccompanied women, but also reveal more about the continued influence of Orientalist constructions of Muslim women’s sexuality in the investigators perceptions than they offer of an assessment of how colonial realities such as land confiscation and economic marginalization contributed to urbanization, impoverishment, and prostitution. Despite showing genuine concern for the victims of human trafficking (who, in a holdover of late-nineteenth-century anxiety about “white slavery,” were primarily constructed as European), these reports had a limited policy impact, as the League’s action was circumscribed by its mandate not to impede upon national sovereignty. The regulation of prostitution offers a lens onto how the Franco-British colonial rivalry alternated with cooperation in their control over the Middle East. Expressed variously as motivated by concern with public health, urban space, and policing, the demand for access to the bodies of prostitutes fit well with the colonial desire to survey and control. In Kozma’s analysis, colonial officials were particularly interested in prostitution due to the fact that local brothels catered to invading armies and settler populations. The interplay of local governance and colonial control is illustrated through four attempts to regulate prostitution from across the region: Casablanca, Beirut, Haifa, and Tunis. The same technologies that facilitated tourism and communication between metropole and colony, allowing for the peregrination of men, opened new territories for European prostitutes. Vignettes on the cosmopolitanism of Istanbul, Marseille, and Port Said depict these three major Mediterranean hubs for interwar migration as part of one “commercial landscape” (101), complementing earlier works on Europeans in Alexandria and Tunis by Ilham Khuri-Makdisi and Julia A. Clancy-Smith. Kozma then mines the colonial archive for insights on the role of brothel owners and procurers, with the latter sometimes considered dangerous criminals but more often treated as businessmen than subjected to the legislative control that targeted prostitutes. Noting the internationalism of microbes, Kozma surveys shifts in medical knowledge as they corresponded to the European civilizing mission and attempts to win over hearts and minds. It is in her coverage of Egyptian reformers and doctors where she offers tantalizing insights. Excerpts from medical journals indicate that debates over whether to regulate or abolish prostitution were informed by nationalist interests. Nationalist concern for the welfare of the population, as in the case for public health in Algeria and for the care of orphans in Egypt, became a platform from which to articulate national sovereignty. Informed by contemporary debates about sex work and sex tourism, Kozma acknowledges violence, abuse, and the blurriness of the line between coercion and consent, but these are topics that she cannot address. To bring women’s voices more squarely into her narrative, she follows, in the final chapter, the experiences of two British feminists alongside those of their counterparts in Cairo and Beirut, attributing the comparative success of one to the relative independence of Egypt. While this explanation is a bit facile, as it generalizes from one aspect of women’s movements, Kozma otherwise gestures toward the importance of imperial interests, expressing consternation for how one British woman was “dismissive of local actors” (153). Global Women, Colonial Ports offers a broad portrait of a number of important and intersecting phenomena connecting Europe and the Middle East in the early twentieth century. From colonial urbanism in French North Africa to illicit sex and venereal disease, Kozma covers much territory, and while she includes original insights throughout, this breadth of territory covered accounts for the brevity of many of the otherwise fascinating cases. Kozma incorporates the voices of Middle Eastern reformers and medical practitioners into debates otherwise dominated by Europeans. She is sensitive to the racial disparities of colonial medicine and to the limitations of her sources, and she approaches prostitution with a feminist sensibility. As Kozma recognizes (but perhaps unfortunately for a book with “women” in its title) the voices of women in this study are almost entirely absent, and the archival records slant heavily toward European prostitutes. Nonetheless, Kozma’s book is an informative and readable account of how international diplomacy grounded in colonial empires was carried out over the bodies of women across the Middle East. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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