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Gulf's domestic workers unfairly represented in media

On December 18, 2011

Recently, Gulf newspapers have exploded with headlines decrying the dangers of maids. Every few days, a new headline surfaces reprimanding maids for their sexual exploits, their untrustworthiness, and their violent tendencies. The cumulative effect inflames an already disparaging image of foreign domestic workers in Gulf societies.

Some columns repeatedly fixate on maids’ sexual affairs, some of which violate employer contracts but are not so extraordinary that they require constant spotlight. The Gulf’s conservative society may in part explain the high frequency of such reports, but the pieces often highlight the hidden, unsanctioned nature of these exploits as the source of contention. Sexual activity may be one of the few acts maids attempt to pursue without the approval of employers, some of whom refuse to acknowledge the existence of domestic workers beyond their “utility.”

Other features actively promote the suspicion of domestic workers; the recent piece “Five signs to spot a maid about to abscond” criminalizes any act falling outside the employer’s omnipotent control. Repeated declarations of such approaches to foreign employees not only normalize but endorse “domestic dictatorships.” The failure of this particular article to mention the root cause behind absconding - the motivation for an individual who has traveled thousands of miles and overcome invasive bureaucratic obstacles to leave their only legal job - is an inconspicuous oversight. MideastYouth has published a spoof of the article that begins with satire and concludes with the sobering reality facing the Gulf’s domestic workers.

The most distorted articles report violence committed by maids with little, if any, mention of the conditions empowering a maid to undertake such measures in a legal system that routinely discriminates against foreign workers. Some domestic workers do commit crimes. But the tone, content, and frequency of these articles do not approach crime as isolated offenses committed by individuals, but as a pattern of behavior that results from maids in particular. Yet discordantly, they exclude the one link that may in fact connect these crimes - the regular abuse and mistreatment of domestic workers by both their sponsors and society at large. Instead, esoteric warnings cast maids as devious and untrustworthy. The overwhelming rush of articles recently published without reference to employer abuse - which overtime, can psychologically trigger violent reactions - depict maids as savagely unpredictable. Failing to contextualize these reactions, and consequently refusing to acknowledge the conceptual and legal changes that must occur relative to employers and the nation at large, endures the asymmetrical cycle of violence.

It is, however, telling that almost every instance of a maid’s misconduct is reported, while employer abuse only frequents headlines sporadically. Perhaps the daily accounts of employer abuse are recognized as the norm, while maids retaliating against abuse comprise an oddity that begs a headline feature. But the average person who comes across several reports of maid instigated violence - with scant allusion to employer violence - is unlikely to realize the wider storyline. The media cannot be reproached for reporting crimes, but they can be faulted for failing to put them into perspective.