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Domestic workers in the Middle East

Friday 24 February 2012, by siawi3

African Writers’ Corner

Defenseless, exploited, abused, and ignored

Elyas Mulu Kiros

- Source: 2012-02-22, Issue 571


Am a maid, a disempowered servant. Or call me a slave, a modern slave; more often am nothing but that!

Am one of those unlucky maids who end up with cruel masters,
their cruel sons and their cruel wives. The lucky ones meet decent families
who fear Allah’s watchful eyes
and are neither immoral nor racists.

I left my home to improve my life, to work, to sweat, but not to grieve. And here I am a Hyena’s feast: Defenseless victim of abuse and immoral act.

I wake up at four, I clean the house, and all the dirt;
I wash clothes, and take care of kids,
but all I get is hurtful insults and brutal punches.
I cook their food, and I barely eat,
and if I eat, perhaps once a day,
depending on madam’s moods. There are days I wouldn’t taste tiny crumbs. Even back in my land, I was not ill-fed,
but here I am so malnourished!

In one of those horrible days,
the husband crosses his boundaries
to humiliate and to disgust
every part of my existence.
My dignity, my pride
means nothing for this bulldog of the house.

It can get worse: in some cases,
am a chess board for the father and the sons.
Add to the mix, the jealous and barbaric wife
who would whip, kick, slap, torture my fatless meat;

Burn or boil my soft skin, insult my kin,
and throw me out of her windowpane.
Not to mention, the police force,
and the shadowless cruel stalkers
that satisfy their male egos
by treating me like animals.

I came here dreaming of good,
but I now go home paralyzed,
my flesh raped and my spirit dead. A nightmare I never dreamed!

I am ashamed of being a human!

NOTE TO THE READER (especially to those who are from the Middle East): In every society there are good and bad people, people who are fair and people who are unfair, people who treat others with dignity and people who mistreat others and stomp on their dignity, people who are moral and people who are immoral. And I wrote this poem in reaction to those who are cruel to their fellow human beings. I wrote it because I am disgusted by what happens to foreign domestic workers in the Middle East. Women from Ethiopia, Nepal, Philippines, and many other third world countries are exploited, raped, and abused by their employers and by others left and right.

And there is no law in most of the Middle Eastern countries (such as Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) to guarantee their human rights are protected. As foreign workers they get no legal protection from the host governments. And I am not making this up. You can read this Human Rights Watch report.

Just recently, on 7 February 2012, it was reported that a maid was snatched by two men and raped in Kuwait. In the same country, on February 1, 2011, the same news channel reported that a policeman raped a female inmate in front of her inmates. On 2 September 2012, the Economist magazine portrayed this grave situation in the Middle East as something ‘a little better than slavery’. I believe the magazine acted quite generously because for some of the women what happens to them is nothing but pure slavery.

According to the Human Rights Watch, as quoted in the Economist article, ‘at least one domestic worker died every week in Lebanon between January 2007 and August 2008.’ I find the cruelty disgraceful and heartbreaking.

You can read many other horrendous stories, which often are ignored and fall on deaf ears. There is little pressure put on those countries that resist protecting the human rights of domestic workers. And the countries where these women come from have done little to guarantee the safety of their citizens. My country doesn’t even have diplomatic offices in some of the countries. And government officials are mainly concerned about attracting Middle Eastern investors who can lease and develop land cheaply.

Most of the women are misinformed about the benefits they get and the money they make when they go to the destination countries as domestic workers. Often they leave their countries illegally, dreaming of a better life, only to witness their dreams becoming nightmares.

So I wrote the poem out of frustration, and disappointment. I used raw, plain language on purpose. I do not believe in sugarcoating the truth. Some of you may find it unpleasant, you may be offended, but I am not here to apologise. In fact, my intention is to prick your consciousness, to shame the people who mistreat, abuse, and humiliate these helpless women - an immoral act that completely contradicts the teachings of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.

If you are from the Middle East, and truly a believer in Allah or God, I wholeheartedly challenge you to please do something for the maids, whatever you can, either individually or organised as an advocacy group for the sake of your consciousness. You have a moral duty to demand your governments enact laws that protect the rights of foreign workers. Obviously, advocacy groups from outside can only have a small impact on your governments.

You may think I am acting too emotionally or am biased, but the reports and facts on the ground can speak for themselves.

I must acknowledge again that not all domestic workers are mistreated. There are God-fearing families who treat their domestic workers with respect and dignity, paying them fair wages as per the contracts they have signed. For example, when I was in Ethiopia, I had heard stories about employers who often covered airfare tickets for their domestic workers so they could go home and visit their families during holidays, giving them extra money to buy gifts for their siblings and/or parents. In my small town, there are many girls who have traveled to places like UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. Some were lucky to find decent families and to live successfully, but others were unlucky to come back home paralyzed for life.

- In short, all I want to say is this: stop exploiting, abusing, and ignoring domestic workers.
- I would like to add that the unfair mistreatment of maids also exists in Ethiopia though the brutality is not comparable to what happens in the Middle East. Most girls and women who work as maids in Ethiopian households hail from rural areas and from small towns, usually running away from early marriage proposals, domestic violence, or tough economic conditions that also push many of the city girls to leave the country for places like the Middle East.

These maids encounter unfair employers who exploit and abuse them. Often times, women employers (especially hotel owners) and terrible housewives happen to be the vicious ones who mistreat them as house slaves (depressing and ironic to see women abusing other women). Some of the privileged women don’t even need maids; they mostly decide to have one as a status symbol, to show off to their friends and foes that they have a servant, which I believe is a result of ignorance and a superiority complex, and a reminder of how humans can be callous when they have power regardless of their gender, racial or cultural background; certainly racism makes such experiences worse since for the racist mind the other is nothing but a subhuman. And, of course, here too, there is the bulldog that crosses his boundaries to humiliate these vulnerable women. One of my readers wrote me, ‘sadly, I have heard of domestic workers in Ethiopia also being exploited by their employers - getting pregnant from the young men or the father in the house and being cast out,’ which I completely agree with and it has always broken my heart. However, today, there are local NGOs that more or less deal with such cases and most of the women who suffer under their employers are not left ignored - at the very least, they can sue their employers. But in general there is still a lot of work that has to be done to protect the human rights of maids (not to mention the human rights of all Ethiopians who oppose those in power, who advocate for social change, and who demand greater freedom in the country).