Campaign for Domestic Worker’s Rights in Kuwait

Human Rights Watch has launched Campaign for Domestic Worker’s Rights. The campaign is illustrated with photos of Arab women dressed in the costumes that many of the workers have to wear when on duty – which often is 15 hours per day, 7 days a week. Hopefully this will make people think.

I have repeatedly become surprised over how people’s brains stop working when exposed to something abnormal being normal – Arabs, Europeans, Americans alike – which is what the trafficking situation of poor people from Asia and Africa to the Middle East is today. I won’t dig into the subject of why you can’t clean your own house or raise your own kids, but on how today’s knowledge about human rights for some people seem to have vanished.

When living in Kuwait I had a friend from Eastern Europe who had married an Arab man residing in the country. She was a great girlfriend; caring, funny and smart, and I missed her a lot when moving. Going back to visit a few years later, she and her husband had got their first child and employed a live-in-maid, and suddenly I saw a new side of her. The woman they had employed, let’s call her Maria, was not allowed to call my friend and her husband by their first names, instead ”sir” and “maam”.

“If you let them call you by your name they will disrespect you, you can’t give them too much freedom,” my friend explained.

All house chores had been given to Maria who worked from 6 am to 10 pm without a break. She was not allowed go out on her own or make her own decisions about what to do during the day, had to follow my friend wherever she went, walking a few steps behind with all the bags and the trolley that she pushed the toddler in, when my friend was out with her girlfriends on one of their many shopping tours to the mall.

My friend thought she was nice to Maria. She could eat how much she wanted and slept in a bed in the child’s playroom – “Not on the floor like with the Kuwaiti families”. My friend didn’t seem to reflect on how Maria might feel when my friend called her stupid or criticized her for not doing anything right (I noticed this among many, the constantly criticizing of the domestic staff, as if they get a kick out of putting them down).

Now I happened to like Maria as a person and we spent some time talking. It turned out she had a university degree in her Asian home country and previously had a qualified job that she had lost, why her last way out if keeping her own child in a private school was to go abroad as a domestic worker. The experience had been a shock and she found herself not able to return as she had signed a two year contract and had her passport taken away. I suggested I ask my other friends about jobs in her field of experience and we secretly exchanged numbers. My research didn’t lead to anything but we kept in touch after I left. She often called and texted, feeling so alone and exposed.

Then a few weeks later my friend’s husband emailed me. My friend had taken Maria’s mobile to check on her and had read my messages. She and her husband were furious I had kept in touch with Maria and urged her to get a better job. This is an excerpt from the e-mail:

I would really like to thank you for treating your friends who were soo good, honest, loveable to you and accepted you in their home not as a guest but as a very close person. We are very surprised of the way you cheated us and tried to contact our nanny from our back and tried to help her to leave us and finding a job because you persuaded her that she’s over qualified to be a nanny…  If you think that you are supporting women right by encourage her to do what she did and leave us then let me tell you that you destroyed our lovely family and destroyed her life as well.

He ended the e-mail by telling story I had heard before, on how Maria had felt so empowered by me that she had brought home a man and had sex with him in a room next to where the child had been sleeping. The story is one version of many used to justify what happens if you give your maids “too many rights”; Asians are not only unintelligent, they are also sexually primitive if you fail to control them. Do you know your history? African–Americans were once considered the same way by whites.

My friend blocked me on all social websites we had been in touch through and we never spoke again. I don’t know what happened to Maria – the control must have increased and I assumed it was safer for her not to be in touch with me as I anyways was far away from Kuwait and had no means of helping her.

Human Rights Watch’s campaign is much needed in a time when again human rights doesn’t apply to people of color, and I wish it leads to some sort of change. If I could speak to my friend I would explain to her why I had urged Maria to leave and that I hadn’t mean to hurt my friend – but I wouldn’t say I’m sorry. And if I were in the same situation I would do what I did again, even if it meant losing a close friend. I know some people would say I’m fanatic. I say I’m normal.

Photocredit: Human Rights Watch