Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Zero Tolerance for Abusing Maids, No Less!

Where do I stand on maid torture in the Gulf region? I was asked by many Western and non-Arab readers a lot lately.
In answer, I tell you a story. During my doctoral program in the States, I joined a unique class titled “Intercultural Communication.” It was an untraditional class. The professor who won an award for excellence teaching combined psychological therapy, research and workshop tools. We researched, debated, produced home movies, and played. Students met at school, homes, caf├ęs and restaurants.
One night, we sat around a large hall and each of the “methodically and representatively chosen” sixty graduates was given five minutes to advise an imaginary South American government.
The issue was: Should they build a dam benefiting millions but relocating an ancient native tribe?
My advice was: If the project would benefit many and hurt few, then we should build it but generously compensate and relocate the natives in a suitable place of their choice.
A Sri Lankan student angrily protested: “What to expect from this Gulf Arab? They rape maids in Arabia, why not rape an entire village? His people act like ancient landlords toward their workers. Just because God bestowed oil money upon them after ages of poverty, they think they are super people. They forgot that only sixty years ago, they were economic immigrants in India, South Asia, and Africa. Then, we didn’t rape or abuse them. They were given equal opportunities. Some even became maharajas and kings. Our rich spent their retirement money in the Holy Lands, building schools and setting up charities. Look how they are treating us now?”
No rebuttal was allowed, until it was your turn. So I sat still in the class ... and silently cried. I guessed the poor boy must have had a terrible experience, and felt guilty. A French student said it wasn’t fair to generalize and hold me responsible. The class seemed to agree.
When it was my turn, everyone, including the Native American instructor, was expecting a fight. Instead, I apologized.
Here is what I said then, and still believe now: We have millions of guest workers in Saudi Arabia. Many are abused, but not all. Some come to steal, sell sex and drugs and work without permits. Most are good humans, who came to make an honest living, raise kids, take care of parents, and save for a head start on their return.
Those decent, hardworking people deserve our utmost respect, admiration and compassion. They are better people than we are, because in Islam the poorer are the most fortunate in Allah’s grace. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to pray: Oh, Allah, make me live as a “miskeen” (very poor), die as a “miskeen” and judge me among masakeen in the hereafter.
It breaks my heart to read and hear about abuses and mistreatment of guest workers, especially helpless maids. Some expatriates do make mistakes, not necessarily because they mean to, but mostly because of ignorance of Islamic laws and cultural differences.
They deserve a fair punishment, if they did, but also a second chance, understanding and sympathy, because they are “masakeen.”
Is it not enough that they live so far away from home and beloved ones?
In conclusions, I apologized on behalf of every decent Saudi and Gulf Arab. I promised to continue what I already did when I started my career as a journalist and writer: A campaign for more rights, better treatment, tighter laws and harsher justice for the benefit of our guest workers.
Here I am apologizing again, in frustration, anger and shame, as story after story is published about maids’ abuse in Gulf and Arab countries.
What have we done to prevent this shameful human failure? Little, I am afraid. We should do much more.
As media people, we need to shed more light on the issue.
We need journalists, like Samar Almogren of Al-Watan, who passionately and persistently pursued and exposed stories like the Indonesian maid’s ordeal. She didn’t stop until the man who chained the maid in a bathroom for days was himself in prison, waiting trial and, hopefully, swift justice.
The poor woman lost some fingers and sustained many physical injuries. We owe her a lot. But at least, other criminals and would-be criminals will get the message, loud and clear: We will not tolerate mistreatment of guest workers.
We need to do more, much more. For a start, we should set up a dedicated center with a widely advertised hotline. Abuse cases must be quickly and fairly investigated and openly tried, studied and discussed. An awareness and advice public campaign should run in parallel.
We must have no less than a zero-tolerance for abusers. After all, we are supposed to be hospitable Arabs and compassionate Muslims.

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