The Arab World’s Invisible Women

As I’ve mentioned previously, non-Arab white people seem to have a curious tendency to worry about the repression that Arab women face.  Most recently, Mona Eltahawy’s piece, “Why Do They Hate Us,” in the Foreign Policy sex issue (a bit notorious for its own reasons), contributes to this genre, perpetuating broad stereotypes about the brutality of Arab men, the passivity of Arab women, and Arab misogyny as an inevitable result of Arab culture, not any other possible factor.  She’s retelling a story we’ve already heard too many times.

Two months ago, an Ethiopian maid working in a Lebanese household killed herself.  She did so after being beaten by her recruiter while trying to escape. Her name was Alem Dechasa, and she was not the first foreign maid to be exploited and abused with impunity in an Arab country.  But stories like hers are usually untold.  When we tease beneath the surface of the image of monolithic Arab women, differences emerge.  Class is an important one, as the life of a wealthy, urban woman will be very different from the life of a poor rural woman, and they may find that any common challenges they face as women maybe less important than the monumentally different socioeconomic factors shaping their lives.  And if we add the axes of race and nationality, the picture changes entirely.  The sad and disturbing plight of migrant domestic workers emerges, a narrative usually completely absent from discussion of women in the Middle East.

Alem’s death sparked protest in Lebanon calling for legal reform to protect migrant workers.  Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon have an astonishingly high suicide rate – a rate of more than one death a week.  The problem is widespread in the Gulf and the Levant, where desperate women from areas such as South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Ethiopia come to work, with no legislation to protect them from abuse.  In many Gulf countries, migrant workers, male and female, make up much higher percentages of the population than nationals.  Many migrants don’t have information about their rights, and face high debt from recruitment fees.  In common system of employment, sponsorship, the worker is contractually tied to an employer, which often amounts to a form of ownership, preventing her from changing jobs or negotiate for better conditions.

And, as Sara Mourad writes in an article for Jadaliyya, the people who have the power to treat these women inhumanely are most often Arab women:

 As the managing head of the household, the boss, the Arab woman, the madame, is often the one who holds the key to the misery of these vulnerable women whose labor within the domestic sphere makes their plight invisible and much harder to regulate. . . . This is where gender, as a category of analysis, hits its theoretical and practical limit. When we deploy gender as a man-woman binary (indeed, a very modern construction), we fail to account for the diversities within each supposedly uniform gender role. Instead of pitting man against woman, gender can be deployed to pit young woman against older woman, and nuances in the politics of gender oppression will ensue.

Perhaps its because this kind of oppression and abuse is too close to home that this problem is not often discussed, as we are a nation that also relies on female immigrant domestic labor, and these women are also too often invisible.  If we analyze oppression in Arab countries just through the lens of gender, we can attribute their problems to a culture that is foreign and immutable.  If we acknowledge intersections of class, gender, race, and nationality, the challenge becomes greater and more complex.  In the case of migrant domestic labor, it is a challenge that must be addressed through domestic and international labor policy.  Countries that supply and demand migrant labor must take multilateral measures to prevent exploitation and abuse, including decreased recruitment costs, standardized employment contracts, and procedures to endure migrant workers know their rights.


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