The recent case of Mishael al-Bayan, wife of a Saudi prince allegedly abusing her Kenyan maid in Orange County, has brought to light once again the issue of the maid culture in Saudi Arabia.
One wonders why such a culture exists at all. Apparently, after the first oil boom in 1973, wealthy Saudis began to import maids from Arab countries, and later from Africa and Asia to help out with household chores. Maids became a symbol of social standing among the rising middle classes whose newly educated women decided to take up jobs as well.
However, the Saudi society revolved around the family and age old customs of hospitality which still form an intrinsic part of this country’s rich heritage. Therefore, it became imperative for working women to have someone take care of the home while they were away. As Saudi Arabia’s fortunes changed for the better, the maid culture flourished and it has become a veritable feature of Saudi society today.
However, several cases of maid abuse in and outside the Kingdom have emerged over the past few years bringing a lot of negative publicity to the country. Maids have run away, committed suicide by leaping from the tall buildings which house them, been accused of witchcraft and sorcery, tortured and even murdered.
In revenge, perhaps, maids have vented their anger on the wards under their care. There have been instances of shaking a six-month old so badly that she had to be admitted to intensive care; cases of banging children’s heads and even killing them. In some cases, children’s parents have also been assaulted.
Maids have been found in all sorts of places and conditions: cooped up in the back of cars like goats; carrying heavy cooking gas cylinders up the stairs; monitoring spoilt brats and sometimes even children with special needs (maids are generally not trained to deal with the latter) while their own children languish back home.
And then there are those whose decomposing bodies have been discovered in forgotten attics, or dropped off at hospitals by their sponsors, with festering sores, abandoned and helpless. They have been tied up in bathrooms and starved. Sometimes, they have been bound up so tightly that their limbs have developed gangrene and have had to be amputated. Many a maid has lost not only her dignity but also the ability to lead a normal life. She leaves the Kingdom sans money, respect and possibly sans a future at home.
But the Kingdom’s flourishing economy continues to attract maids from Asian and African countries. There is a lucrative trade in women and children being brought to the Middle East from these continents and there are fears that some never reach their sponsors but are instead being employed in the heinous crime of trafficking.
Their governments, too, encourage the migration of maids for the foreign remittances they send home. Often, abused maids do not have access to justice or any court of appeal except, perhaps their embassies, which in most cases do not take a tough stand on these issues.
Owing to the bad press that the kingdom has received in the past few years, the Saudi government has taken several steps to review and reconsider its laws for hiring maids and introduced new, more stringent laws and rules to protect the rights of foreign domestic workers.
In June this year, the Philippines said that it had signed a landmark agreement with Saudi Arabia that would prevent the exploitation of thousands of Filipina maids. More than 2 million domestic servants, mostly from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Africa, work in Saudi Arabia alone.
Mishael al-Bayan was able to bail herself out of the scandal in the US. But the stark fact remains that as long as the maid culture persists, the kingdom will find itself under the media glare and invite unwelcome attention. After all, everything comes at a price; and there are some things money simply cannot buy.
- Ozma Siddiqui teaches English and is an Indian writer and social critic based in Saudi Arabia.