Lebanon may have a liberal reputation, but its domestic workers suffer some of the worst discrimination in the Middle East
Last week, a video surfaced online showing an Ethiopian maid in Lebanon being beaten and dragged. In the distressing footage, the woman is kicked, verbally abused and then dragged into a car, allegedly owned by the man who runs the agency that employed her. Reportedly in a fragile mental state, she had refused deportation back to Ethiopia, but clearly did not want to return to her place of employment. The man orders her to shut up, and while several bystanders urge him to leave her alone, they do not intervene. The video sparked outrage and received widespread attention from human rights organisations within and outside Lebanon. The woman was later admitted to hospital. Two days ago, it was reported that the woman in the video had hanged herself using a bed sheet.
This is not an isolated incident. Domestic servants in Lebanon from the Asian sub-continent and east Africa are not only single women unprotected by kin or friends in an alien environment, they are also at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, and racially, they fall at the bottom of the spectrum. Across the Middle East, sponsorship rules on foreign workers and the stratification of rights based on nationality and skin colour combine to enable to victimisation of these women.
No country in the Arab world is free from racial discrimination. But there is a perception, encouraged by the eagerness with which people in other countries, particularly Gulf ones, devour Beirut’s cultural exports and standards of beauty, that the Lebanese are somehow superior to other Arabs in that they are more liberal, more occidental in inclination and above all else, much lighter-skinned and therefore more “attractive”. The last 20 years has witnessed an invasion by Lebanese music and entertainment. After many painful years of civil war that crippled the country, Beirut emerged, unencumbered by the conservatism of the majority of Middle Eastern countries, more “modern” and “civilised”. But it surprises few in the region that the worst discrimination occurs in Lebanon, and that it is inflicted on only certain races and nationalities.
Stories about the mistreatment of domestic and foreign workers have emerged with regularity. They range from the distressing to the ridiculous. Earlier this year, a Beirut bar had to cancel a fancy-dress event inviting guests to dress as domestic workers and “create your own maid costume, speak like them and look like a Phillipino” [sic]. Last year, the public beating of a group of Sudanese people holding an event in support of a cancer charity was added to the litany of embarrassments.
In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that “domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at the rate of one a week”. The phenomenon became so widespread, particularly among Ethiopians, that a Lebanese blogger set up Ethiopian Suicides, a website dedicate to documenting the deaths and the conditions that led to them. The International Labour Office published a paper on foreign workers in Lebanon and stating that:
“live in and runaway migrant workers are ‘unfree labour’ in the sense that they do not have the right to choose an employer without express permission from the state authorities. Nor do they have the right to withdraw their labour from their sponsor/employer without being rendered illegal and thus liable to arrest, imprisonment, and deportation.”
Against this backdrop of a legal vacuum and racial hierarchy, conditions are ripe for abuse. The irony is that Lebanon does have a political culture that is somewhat more advanced than many Arab countries, in that local groups are lobbying for the rights of migrant workers and putting pressure on the government to reform – something that would be unheard of in Saudi Arabia, for example. Farah Salka from the Lebanese Anti-Racism Movement says that it is time for a redefining of the word “racist” in Lebanon. Hopefully across the region we can also begin to redefine the meaning of “civilised”, making it not only about dress, physical beauty and liberal lifestyle, but empathy with other human beings whatever their race or nationality.
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from Nesrine Malik