Decolonizing Research Methods in Studying Sex Work in Egypt

By: Rawan Abbas

Decolonizing has been a widely debated topic in academia. The idea emerges from the advocacy of the Global South towards not only decolonizing what is materialistic, here the territories, but also decolonizing what is intangible such as knowledge.[1] One of the attempts to decolonize research has been done by John Law in his book After Methods: Mess in the Social Science Research where he outlines the complexity of social phenomena and the intractability of studying such phenomena using the Euro-American (colonial) research methods also known as behavioral or positivist schools of thought. According to John Law, these schools aim at creating singular, fixed, coherent, clear and simplifying realities. For instance, any pattern that contradicts the already used methods or seems to be ambivalent, Euro-American methods either try to force the phenomenon into clarity or ignore these patterns as a whole and focus on the already comforting patterns that proves already existing realities. For Law, social phenomena are multiple, fluid, incoherent, ambiguous, ambivalent, indefinite and complex realities. Therefore, they are mostly hard to grasp in one singular repeated pattern contrary to the common belief. This does not disregard quantitative tools in the social sciences but in fact it is a call to expand our horizon in order to incorporate these tools in grasping the complexity of the social phenomena under study. Law suggests that the goal is to use Aboriginal methods (decolonized methods) which are a decolonized form of research methodology inspired by the indigenous peoples of Australia which takes ethnography and cultural reflexivity as its main pillars in approaching social phenomena.[2] Aboriginal methods can be achieved through both quantitative and qualitative methods in approaching the research process from the beginning (research question) till the end (methodology) instead of restraining it only to the end. The question is then, How does this brief introduction relate to studying sex work in Egypt?

Sex work is a social phenomenon similar to other social phenomena that Law cited. It is also the societal product of socio-economic and political systems and the by-product of the continuous interactions between these systems and those who live in that society. Therefore, studying sex work, as other social phenomena, is influenced by the prevalent Euro-American methods. In the following sections I will use different produced materials that study sex work in Egypt in order to dismantle the usage of the Euro-American methods and to try and reimagine how studying sex work would be if we decolonized these methods and instead used the Aboriginal method suggested by Law.  

Existing Research

From the existing research, we can deduce that the research methods used in studying sex work can be clustered into seven categories: 1) Spatial analysis (rural vs the city, structuring Cairo) 2) Historical and political context ( World War One and Two, the British occupation, the French occupation, the Ottoman Empire, independence and rising of national sentiments) 3) Racial and economic dynamics (socio-economic status and European sex workers vis-a-vis Egyptian sex workers) 4) Social hierarchy of the practice and the integrated patriarchal systems 5) international and domestic laws as social constructs and products as well as law as sentences and arrests 6) Language, conceptions, terms and definitions, 7) Religious schemes. These seven categories had been deduced from different books and articles that attempted to study sex work, however, the methods used were Euro American whether quantitative or qualitative while some tried to deviate from it, but they have failed.

This is apparent in Abdelwahab Bakr’s book Cairo’s Secret Society where he used the spatial history of Cairo to study the prevalence and legalization of sex work from 1900 til 1951. His methodology of spatial history revolves around studying places that witnessed the legalized practice of sex work such as Al Berka, Al Azbakya, Ghet Al Nobi, Al Mouski, Bab Al Shaarya (where brothels, whether kiosks or houses, existed) and Al Hood Al Marsood (where medical checkups were conducted on those practicing this profession). In his analysis, Bakr depended on police reports, tax reports, arrests, sentences, laws, governmental decisions and military orders. He calculated the number of unregistered sex workers by comparing the number of arrests with the number of sex workers registered with the government for tax reports and medical checkups. Additionally, he used the number of registered and unregistered sex workers to study the spread of STDs in Cairo. Moreover, he made a correlation between international and domestic political events with legalizing and criminalizing sex work in Egypt through observing its prevalence before and after domestic political events such as the British Occupation, the Ottoman Empire, independence and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and international political events such as World War One and World War Two. [3]

Shimaa Abdeltawab in her article Prostitution The Country’s Permissible Income From the Mamluk era until the Mohammed Ali reign did something similar but by going further back in time and taking Ancient Egypt as her starting point till the Ottoman Empire. Nonetheless, instead of depending on reports, decisions, laws and arrests (societal level of analysis) she approached it through the acts and personalities of the rulers (individual level of analysis). In other words, she analyzed whether or not they were themselves engaged in what she described as “illicit” and “immoral” affairs.[4] Bakr followed a similar path through analyzing the conducted studies at that time on whether women practicing sex work drink, do drugs, what is their marital status, whether or not they are close to their parents and lastly whether or not one or both of their parents were deceased or absent.[5]

Another methodological aspect of their studies was racial dynamics, social hierarchy and religion. In terms of racial dynamics, the prices, demands, number of arrests and medical checkups of European sex workers were compared in a table with that of Egyptian sex workers. The findings illustrated that European women were more expensive and could manipulate the existing laws through foreign privileges to avoid being arrested or evade weekly checkups. In terms of social hierarchy, the social structure, which Bakr argued is similar to the structure of organized crime, governing sex work in Egypt constists of four degrees. Starting from the top are pimps, followed by those who run the brothels, followed by recruiters or Sahabyyn (those who recruit new women) and then sex workers at the bottom. Lastly in terms of religion, they reached the conclusion that engaging in sex work is negatively correlated with being religious. In other words, sex work is directly correlated with other “immoral” actions and practices.[6] 

How To Decolonize the Study of Sex Work

Here we pose two questions: why do these previously explained methodologies classify as Euro-American or in other words, colonial? Moreover, how can we as researchers of the social sciences decolonize the study of sex work in Egypt?

First, these studies depended on pre-existing negative emotional connections such as shame and contempt. These emotional connections made them concentrate on one form of sex work whilst deliberately ignoring the others. Borrowing the concept of shift shaping and name changing from Law’s Aboriginal method, some would argue that legal and permitted sex work exists but in other names and forms. For instance, the idea of Melek Al Yamin[7] in Islam allows men to pay other men (here can be equivalent to pimps) for women to be their mistresses. Here sex work is not prohibited nor is it sinful. This raises the need for social scientists to explore such discrepancies.

Second, these methodologies follow a top-down analysis which means that they depended on exploring the relationship between figures and systems of authorities on sex work through police reports, arrests, governmental orders, the rulers’ personalities and research produced. They failed, however, to explore the link which the whole system depends on: sex workers. Exploring here means interviewing current workers and analyzing non-conventional produced knowledge, such as anecdotes, movies, personal diaries and letters. For example, in his book All the Pasha’s Men, Khaled Fahmy illustrates how history can be tackled from below by exploring how individuals felt and interacted with Muhammad Ali’s dream of building a modernized military. His research discovered that, contrary to common belief, Egyptians were coerced into being part of that military and that the Ottoman Empire was the sole beneficiary not the Egyptians.[8]

Khaled Fahmy’s research pushed a silenced othered, here Egyptians who were forced to achieve the Ottoman Empire military aspirations, to visibility so they can tell the story themselves instead of a figure of authority telling the story on their behalf. Similarly, sex workers should be approached with a bottom-up (Aboriginal) ethnographic methodology. In order to achieve that, Sara Abed interviewed some sex workers who perceived sex work as any other work deserving of being socially and legally protected while others despised their work and wanted to find other jobs. Some were forced into it while others chose it. Some were religious and veiled while others were not. This kind of ambivalence rules out the definiteness, previously stated, that all sex workers want to leave their profession, that all are exploited, that all practice other “immoral” acts or that all are victimized. In her research, Abed was able to put her participants in control of their stories.[9]

How Should We Change Our Research Approach to the Study of Sex Work?

To conclude, the bottom-up methodology first needs to get rid of shame, victimization, contempt and condescending presumptions. It should also allow sex workers to be ambivalent, indefinite and unclear instead of adhering to assumed realities. Put another way, sex workers as participants in research production should be the ones framing the questions in the sense that the researcher would allow themselves to be part of the reality they observe. The importance of ethnography is that it gives a sense of ownership to the interlocutors as well as trust in the knowledge being produced. After using ethnography as a base, quantitative tools can be used to look for patterns and repetitions while highlighting the outliers.


[1] Vivetha Thambinathan and Elizabeth Anne Kinsella, “Decolonizing Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Creating Spaces for Transformative Praxis,” International Journal of Qualitative Methods 20 (May 4, 2021),

[2] John Law, “Imagination and Narrative,” in After Method: Mess in Social Science Research (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 137-139.

[3] Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Wahhāb Bakr, “Chapter 2,” in Mujtamaʻ Al-Qāhirah Al-Sirrī, 1900-1951 (al-Qāhirah: al-ʻArabī, 2001), pp. 25-50.

[4] Shaimaa Abdel Tawab Sayed Abdel Majeed, “Prostitution the Country’s Permissible Income from the MAMULEK Era until the Mohammed Ali Reign,” Middle East Research Journal 4, no. 51 (September 2019): pp. 1-36,

[5] Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Wahhāb Bakr, “Chapter 4,” in Mujtamaʻ Al-Qāhirah Al-Sirrī, 1900-1951 (al-Qāhirah: al-ʻArabī, 2001), pp. 65-93.

[6] Ibid,pp. 95-97.

[7] سماحة الدكتور نوح علي سلمان، ما المقصود بملك اليمين في قوله تعالى: (…أو ما ملكت أيمانهم فإنهم غير ملومين)، دار الإفتاء المصرية، أغسطس ٢٠١٢،

[8] Khaled Fahmy, All the Pasha’s Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army and the Making of Modern Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

[9] Sara Abed, “How Do Sex Workers Perceive Their Working Identity? Case Studies in Egypt,” Kohl: A Journal for Body and Gender Research 2, no. Winter (2016): pp. 245-261,