Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Problems Do Not Go Away Simply Because We Deny or Ignore Them

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

The Indonesian press is boiling these days about alleged abuse of maids in Saudi Arabia. At the same time, they join the rest of the Muslim world in condemnation of alleged abuse of the Qur’an in US prisons of Guantanamo.

I am troubled by both accounts, since it seems both of us, Americans and Saudis, are in a state of denial. Instead of facing problems head on and dealing with their roots, we preferred the easy way out. Problems do not go away simply because we deny or ignore them. In fact, they get bigger and harder to solve.

Let’s start with our problem. Recent reports published in the Saudi press indicate disturbing trends. Thousands of foreign workers, especially maids, suffer from physical and financial maltreatment. Many work endless hours, don’t get good accommodation and meals and don’t get paid in time, or not at all. Worse is the sexual and physical abuse. It is hard to believe that a Muslim family would deprive an animal, let alone a human being, of sleep, rest and/or food. It is more disgusting to learn that helpless women in our custody are forced into sexual acts. I can’t recognize this, and find it almost impossible to believe. Still, it is happening at an alarming rate, and we should pass the denial mode and do something about it — now. One thing we can’t and shouldn’t is to cover up. Some think it is in the best of our national interest and image to solve problems case by case, in silence. We are under intensive attacks and we shouldn’t give our enemies ammunitions to accuse our religion and culture of brutality and inhumanity, they say.

Whenever a problem is aired, we deny it. If it persists, we turn the table. Instead of admitting guilt, we blame the victim, accuse them of lying and the press of misrepresentation.

Now, I am not saying that is all we do. The Ministry of Labor recently established a new department to deal with expatriates’ complaints and improve their work environment. The head of the Department for the Protection of Foreign Workers, Ahmed Al-Mansour, is given the title of deputy minister. Another, the Department for Speedier Settlement of Labor Disputes was established earlier this year and is credited for solving the cases of the five Indonesian maids who were met in Jakarta airport on their return by the Indonesian president. A safe haven is established to take care of mistreated maids. How much difference this will make? Only time will tell. But good results are already showing.

What I am saying is that we need change in our attitude toward the problem. We must acknowledge first of all that it is catastrophic. This cannot be tolerated in the Land of Islam. With such attitude we could come with effective solutions.

The first thing we should do is to improve our labor system. All expatriates should register with an authority responsible for their welfare. On their arrival, they should be given a leaflet in their own language about their rights and duties, rules and regulations, with a hotline number to call for consultation and emergency. The Department for the Protection of Foreign Workers should make random checking on them to make sure they are well treated and fairly compensated.

In case of maltreatment we should apply a harsher code of justice. Punishment should fit the crime: An eye for eye and a tooth for tooth. When an employer delays or denies his/her employed their dues, they should pay more. First-time offenders must be denied the right to have new workers for say six months. Repeated offenders lose their privilege indefinitely.

When a complaint is filed, like that of the Indonesian maid Nour Miyati, we should allow her access to lawyers and embassy representatives.

Americans should take the same attitude toward human rights issues in Guantanamo and elsewhere. Pretending all is well, fair and legitimate won’t make it so. The whole world, including American war allies, as well as US courts and human right organizations, are protesting the illegal detention and inhumane treatment of hundreds of people in custody without trial or access to lawyers since Afghanistan invasion.

The abuse of the Iraqi and Afghani prisoners show consistent patterns and indicate real problems that need to be fixed in its entirety, not denied, covered up or solved case by case.

If I may suggest solutions I would start, as in our case, with the vital need to change mentality. Approaching these issues should come from sincere recognition and appreciation of problem and serious search for solutions. Concerns about image, prestige and status should take a break. You must be humble enough to fix and correct your mistakes. “I am a Superpower” attitude won’t do.”

Same here, same there. We all need to change ways, or ... shame on us.

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