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human trafficking

The Crisis Powerful Militaries Can’t Combat

Human trafficking can’t be defeated by militaries but can be by justice feminism.

Words: Pardis Mahdavi and Mi-Ai Parrish
Pictures: Clem Onojeghuo

When the US Trafficking in Persons report for 2021 is published next month, expect it to reaffirm what past reports have: that the war on human trafficking is like the war on terrorism — and is endless. Also like the war on terror, the war on trafficking originated twenty years ago with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2001.

The war on trafficking is the feminized antidote to the war on terror. Twenty years in means that it is a good time to explore a new strategy for defeating these wars — and that strategy is justice feminism.


When an American state department official arrives in let’s say Doha, Qatar, the first thing they do is walk into an embassy to talk to other officials about their views on the trafficking situation in-country. But on their way to let’s say the Philippine embassy, they likely walked past a group of Filipina domestic workers sitting on the grass seemingly sharing a meal.

Want to know how to end the endless war on trafficking? Talk to the Filipina domestic workers. After two decades of studying human trafficking in the Middle East, we can tell you, that that group of women sitting innocuously on the grass have done more to fight human trafficking in the Gulf than any government officials.

In 2011, Overseas Filipina Workers (OFWs) organized underground to assist domestic workers throughout the Gulf who were facing abuse at the hands of their employers. They worked with the local churches in places like Dubai, Doha, and Kuwait City, to create safe houses for survivors of trafficking, and secured safe passage home for thousands of women. Their advocacy resulted in the passage of the Philippines Household Service Reform Act in 2011 that set out parameters for the rights of Filipino domestic workers abroad.

And they are not alone.

For generations, transnational feminist movements have been waging a ground war against injustice. As the modern justice warriors gain steam and hashtags, everything from #MeToo to #BringBackOurGirls give hope to the premise that these movements can save the world.

Imagine a world where justice is at the heart of all we do. Or put another way, that all policies have justice at the heart of all they do. That’s the vision of a fully scaled transnational feminist movement.


Justice feminism is rooted in a uniting call to bring justice-centered movements — like climate justice, health justice, reproductive justice, and racial justice — together through an intersectional lens. While previous generations of feminism were focused on career feminism (whether and how women should work outside the home) or care feminism (movements to highlight women’s care labor as work), this is a new feminism that defines our current moment.

Can transnational women’s movements save the world? In a nutshell, yes, but we have to provide the ecosystem where this change can take root. Feminist movements have been working underground to push for the social transformation our world so desperately needs. They are the tillers of the soil. But as they sow these seeds of revolution, they need sunlight for their seeds to blossom into movements. That sunlight comes in the form of recognizing and supporting their efforts.

With the United States joining countries like Sweden, Canada and Mexico in pledging a feminist foreign policy, transnational feminist movements — from #MeToo to #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria — are having “a moment” now after many years of organizing. They are starting to reap the fruits of their labor by urging for the passage of more laws to ensure the rights of women worldwide.

Women from across generations and across borders and boundaries are coming together to push back against enemies that even some of the most powerful militaries can’t combat.

Justice feminism brings with it a perspective shift that will enable us to see the injustices in the world in new, interconnected ways, and allow us to create a movement that will keep all boats afloat. Justice feminism is rooted in transnational feminist movements that aren’t limited to women-centric issues, like reproductive rights or representation in workplaces. For example, Black Lives Matter was founded by three Black women in response to police violence against Black men. This movement has spread globally in over forty countries with organizers pushing for rights of underrepresented individuals worldwide. Or take feminist groups in Iran who have pushed back against an Islamist regime that has devastated the nation. It was Iranian feminists who led the way during Iran’s Green Movement, where people filled the streets to protest the results of the presidential election and called for reform. It was Iranian feminists who helped Iran’s more progressive moderate leaders, such as Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani be elected, and these same groups helped to change various patriarchal laws, such as mandatory veiling laws and a law that had prohibited women from attending soccer games in stadiums.

Women from across generations and across borders and boundaries are coming together to push back against enemies that even some of the most powerful militaries can’t combat. Feminist movements in Tunisia inspired the Arab Spring, bringing about the most significant change the country has seen since the revolution. And a Kurdish women-led army has been quietly but successfully defeating ISIS throughout Syria for the last ten years, ensuring the safety of their communities — an enemy that no national military has managed to successfully take on.

Today, through the power of social media and mobile networks, different undergrounds are starting to unite to create larger change. As an example, #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria was able to bring worldwide attention to the fates of 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists. In particular, the trending hashtag resonated across borders to the point where Michelle Obama tweeted it out, leading a global tsunami-like wave to call for the return of the kidnapped girls. Less in the spotlight, but no less impactful, have been campaigns to counter human trafficking organized by groups of domestic and sex workers from places like the Philippines as described above, Madagascar, South Africa, and Ethiopia.

In 20 years of conducting research with underground feminist groups who work on human trafficking, one example stands out: Kuwait’s imprisonment of over 300 domestic workers from Madagascar — half of them with their babies. A feminist network that works with the Presbyterian Ministry activated from Kuwait to Switzerland to South Africa, to not only set these women free from prison, but to then change citizenship laws — allowing citizenship to pass not just from the father (who is often not disclosed in the case of rape) but also from the Malagasy mother, in order to allow them to return home to Madagascar with their babies.

The epilogue of this story was equally important; these same women were able to change the policies in their home countries to make migration safer for other women. Specifically, they changed migration laws to allow women to migrate safely to places like the Middle East through official labor and migration ministries who would oversee their rights and success in the host country. As an example, Madagascar committed to implementing the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families, a major step forward.

Success begets success and feminists are watching movements around the world and borrowing strategies from one another. In two decades of doing fieldwork in Dubai, where Pardis Mahdavi has interviewed hundreds of trafficking survivors, traffickers, and underground feminist organizers, Mahdavi has been heartened by seeing feminists — women and men — come together to share strategies of how to combat injustice everywhere in the world.


A common thread in justice feminism brings that ground-game and collaboration, but also a focus on fighting for marginalized and dehumanized populations. Ongoing coverage of the murder spree at three Asian spas in Atlanta has storylines tightly aligned with justice feminism. Among the eight victims are six women of Asian descent in an industry that has consistently been relegated to a shadowy underground where women of color who engage in this work are dehumanized.

But these women have also been at the forefront of organizing a truly intersectional, intergenerational movement against hate, against racism, and a fight for justice. But we need to shine a light on this work or it will die in the hated space of darkness. Justice feminism, the ground war that can bring much-needed social transformation is about driving out darkness with light. And we need to spotlight this drive.

Pardis Mahdavi is the dean of social sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a professor in Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. For more information, please visit 

Mi-Ai Parrish is the Sue Clark-Johnson Professor in Media Innovation and Leadership at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. She also is the CEO and President of MAP Strategies Group, based in Phoenix, Arizona.

Pardis Mahdavi and Mi-Ai Parrish

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