Arguably the most notorious of the Gulf countries for exploiting unskilled workers, Saudi Arabia is veritably the land of nightmare for migrant domestic maids. They are compelled to work for back-breaking hours, denied or paid less than their promised wages, beaten and sexually exploited.
Culture of impunity
Should Delhi fail to convince Riyadh on the need to have its diplomat even cooperate with the police, it would imply India accepting the culture of impunity that surrounds the exploitation of female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Evidence of this culture of impunity can be gathered from reports of the media and human rights groups.
In a March 2015 report, the London-based Guardian quoted Rothna Begum, a West Asia women’s rights researcher of Human Rights Watch, saying:
“Of the countries that I have worked on when it comes to domestic workers, Saudi Arabia was one of the highest in terms of abuse cases that would come through, and (in terms of) some of the most horrendous.”
The Guardian report said the Philippines embassy shelter in Saudi’s capital, Riyadh, is “understood to be home, currently, to 200 runaway maids”. Further, Migrante International, a non-profit group based in Manila, told the newspaper that it handles 5,000 cases of Filipino migrant abuse a year, most of them from West Asia, of which approximately 80% occur in Saudi Arabia.
Last year, Nepal was shocked at the repeated sexual abuse of 39-year-old Sumnima Thapa in Saudi Arabia, where she had been sold many times over. In its report on Sumnima, the Kathmandu Post said that between November 2013 and August 2014, the Nepali Embassy in Riyadh had rescued 158 Nepali maids who were subjected to economic and physical exploitation.
In 2004, Human Rights Watch issued a comprehensive report, Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia, which was based on extensive interviews with workers who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia to their villages and towns in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. This methodology was adopted because Riyadh refused permission to HRW researchers to conduct field surveys, allowing them to meet only government officials.
Among the most exploited were domestic workers, particularly women. The HRW report narrates the stories of four maids, in their own voices, who were subjected to sexual harassment and rape.
One of the four was Fatima, a 26-year-old woman from the Philippines, whose employer asked her on two separate occasions to masturbate him. Fatima narrated to HRW one such incident.
“I was mopping the floor… He (employer) came in and asked for water. When I gave it to him, he dropped it on the floor and told me to clean it up. Then he took off his thobe (the Arab gown) and said to me, ‘Take this.’ It was his penis. He told me, ‘It's good, I want to marry you, I love you, I want to support your children.’"
On her refusal, she was punched and beaten.
Fatima escaped from the house. Through a Philippines acquaintance, she had her country’s embassy to intervene. The police were called in: no legal proceedings were initiated against her employer. Instead, her employer was persuaded to buy a one-way ticket to Manila for Fatima.
Call this the Saudi Police’s idea of justice.
Not so lucky was 33-year-old Melda, who was raped twice by her employer. On 2 June 2003, when the wife of her employer, Rashid, wasn’t at home, he walked out of his bedroom, naked. Grabbing her, he pushed to her floor and raped her. “I was shouting and crying. He told me that he would kill me if I said anything to his wife.”
Melda, too, escaped from her employer’s residence and beseeched a Saudi driver to take her to the Philippines embassy. Instead, he called the police. They decided to take her back to Rashid, either because they failed to comprehend the little English she knew or simply decided to ignore her complaint.
A few days later, Rashid raped Melda again. She told HRW, “He pulled down his pants to his ankles. I was fighting him until I felt no more energy." Melda suffered the humiliation in silence, certain neither the police nor anybody else would believe her story.
A fortnight later, for reasons Melda couldn’t guess, Rashid told her he was sending her back to the Philippines. Something perhaps had gone wrong, for he personally accompanied her to the airport. He didn’t pay her the wages for the two months she had worked for him.
None of the stories in the HRW report detailing sexual exploitation of female domestic workers involved Indians. Yet it is possible the fate of Indian women might be no different from that of those the 2004 HRW report featured.
For instance, when it was announced in 2014 that the Saudi government would allow its citizens to hire Indian maids only if they were willing to pay $320 a month or above to them, it wasn’t greeted with cheers. In fact, a website, The Muslim Issue, carried a notice saying: “Please spread information about Saudi enslavement, rape and abuse of maids to prompt poor people from India not to take up maid jobs in Saudi Arabia!”
The website claimed, without proof though, that 80% of foreign maids to Saudi Arabia are regularly beaten, sexually assaulted and abused, some of them even killed. The Muslim Issue website declared, “The Indian government MUST STOP issuing visas for travels to Saudi Arabia.” You might accuse the website of orchestrating a motivated campaign against Saudi Arabia. But these are precisely the allegations human rights groups often level against the kingdom.
Not just Saudi Arabia
The abuse of female migrant domestic workers is not unique to Saudi Arabia. Take the case of United Arab Emirates, whose progressive credentials were tarnished by an HRW report, “I already bought you”, which was released last year. Of the 99 female migrant workers whom HRW interviewed, 22 of them reported sexual and physical abuse. Others bemoaned the workload they were required to shoulder, the wages and medical treatment they were denied, their passports impounded, reducing them to veritable slaves.
There is an army of migrant domestic workers in the UAE – a 2008 government survey counted 236,500, of whom 146,100 were females. The HRW report cautions against making statistical projections on the basis of its findings, besides saying it shouldn’t be presumed that all exploitative employers are Arabs. They could be from the expatriate community as well.
The HRW report narrates six stories of domestic workers who alleged their employers had raped them. For instance, the employer of Arti L., an Indonesian worker, took her to the second house he owned and raped her. She said, “I fight him, I was screaming but there is no one around. He slapped me. When he finished he put on his clothes… I went into the bathroom and cleaned myself.”
Women such as Arti L. are wary of complaining to other members of the household where they work because they are simply disbelieved or fear retribution from their employers. And they don’t go to the police, apprehensive they might be booked for having “illicit relationship” or zina, deemed crime under Islamic Law.
No doubt, under pressure from foreign countries, the Gulf countries have undertaken measures to try fight the menace of exploitation of migrant domestic workers. But this isn’t likely to succeed because the system is designed to control and exploit expatriate workers. For one, they have to contend with the visa sponsorship scheme, known as the kafala, which ties them to the individual employer.
Under the kafala, the employer is entitled to disallow the worker from seeking an alternative job. Revocation of his or her work visa, therefore, means he or she has to take a flight out of the country. It is through the threat of summary termination that the employer silences his or her worker into subjugation.
There is also the market to countenance. Thus, for instance, when countries insist on a minimum wage for their citizens working as maids, prospective employers tend to shift to other countries where labour is cheap. This is why certain countries rescinded orders banning their citizens from working as maids in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf Countries, realising there were other poorer nations eager to grab the space in the job market they had vacated.
No less important is the arrogance of the Arabs arising from their wealth and a sense of racial superiority they have over people from poorer Asian and African countries. There is an informal apartheid system operating out there. The racial superiority acquires the sharp edge of class as it slices into pieces the respect and rights of the poor from South Asian countries or the Philippines and Indonesia.
Obviously, it is imponderable to think the governments of poor Asian countries can bring to justice those who exploit and sexually abuse their citizens in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries, which wallow in wealth. But to not take action against the diplomat accused of raping two Nepali women would imply undermining what India is, regardless of its dependence on Saudi Arabia for its growing energy needs and the $3.5 billion Indians working there remit annually.
No doubt, the Saudi diplomat has the protective sheath of diplomatic immunity. Yet, a way must be found to have him cooperate in the investigation, or to identify the 20 others who allegedly raped the Nepali women at different points of time at his residence.
Indeed, Delhi must tell Riyadh India is no Saudi Arabia, that India can’t tolerate the sexual exploitation of women, whether Indian or foreign, that its government isn’t despotic but accountable to the people who elect it.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.
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