Ladyboys in the Gulf

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

By , a journalist based between Beirut and New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @SulomeAnderson.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

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.

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."

Sulome Anderson is a journalist based between Beirut and New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @SulomeAnderson.

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