Gulf Media: Where Racism and Classism Meet

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Feb 8 2012

Op-ed by Esra'a Al Shafei

There's been a series of articles popping up left and right about the inconveniences of having a "demanding" or "expensive" maid. The most recent set of such articles were published by Emirates 24/7, based in the UAE, a country which has one of the worst records for migrant rights violations. To be fair, the paper has published several articles revolving around maid abuse or suicides (mostly cases outside of the UAE) but none seem to be accompanied by a serious piece discussing the frequency of the abuse, providing thorough and consistent coverage concerning the suicide rates amongst maids in the UAE/Gulf, and offering possible solutions for this ongoing problem or demanding changes in the legal system (such as abolishing the sponsorship law) that would make some of these issues preventable. Instead, they report each tragic case in a cold summary and move on. Yet the articles that provide racist drivel are lengthier, get much healthier traffic and are featured more prominently on the website. How come? It's something to be concerned about.

I'm not saying we should provide a one-sided view about maids in the Gulf. Complaints will exist and some are legitimate. However, journalists, columnists, bloggers and editors need to be extremely alert and cautious about how they are framing these issues. Maids lack a lot of legal rights in our countries, thanks in part to the sponsorship system which leaves them completely vulnerable to abuse, but they also suffer from a considerable amount of racist discrimination throughout our societies. Look no further than an average mall or an airport anywhere from Doha to Manama to witness the despicable treatment of South Asian workers. It's common enough that it's impossible to deny.

We need to highlight our outrage to these editors who don't know any better than to publish this propaganda that seemingly encourage racism and normalizes classism. Why push for the idea that maids are "pampered" when they have incredibly demanding jobs under little to no protection? Why complain about the expenses involved in hiring a maid when they get the least amount of compensation which amount to nothing in comparison to the average salary in the Gulf? And more importantly, why amplify these self-absorbed voices instead of the voices of victims and their families that are barely recognized? Thousands of families are still demanding justice for their siblings, mothers, fathers, sons or daughters who have disappeared without trace upon arriving to our countries. They are forgotten and dismissed.

In a previous article I took similar issue with one of the other pieces published by this same paper. Sadly other local papers appear to have been inspired to be following a similar trend. This is a grave problem.

For a publication called Emirates 24/7 the editors should consider creating a section to discuss the "24/7 workers" who work insane hours on a daily basis to provide for complete strangers, sometimes under deplorable conditions. They spend years doing this. Some don't come out of it alive. Some take their own lives. Some patiently go through each day despite not having their salaries paid on time or in full. Some get beaten to death. Some get raped.

This isn't to generalize and claim that all domestic workers go through these issues, but they do happen in such frequency that we should be alarmed and informed enough to take action. We should never dismiss these as the "few" cases - there's enough of these cases that makes this OUR problem. Every single week for an entire year there's one story after another about these incidents and yet the outcry remains largely invisible particularly in these media outlets, who instead publish these horrid stories about maids being "pampered."

So I have a few questions for Shuchita Kapur, one of the authors of such offensive and unnecessary op-ed pieces. You think it's tough having to "pamper" a maid? Having to provide for her the way she gave up years of her life to provide for you? Having to grant this individual who catered to your every need a decent request? Go through one day as a maid and I assure you, you will never complain again. I'm confident it will change the tone of your stories when you realize the challenges and physical/psychological pressures involved in the job. When you are turned away from public spaces, mocked, dismissed, and harassed because the entire community around you deems you so pitiful to the point of worthlessness. When the idea of reuniting with your family is a distant dream that may or may never happen depending on nothing but pure "luck" because your protection is never guaranteed.

Shuchita, I doubt you have the strength required to endure this pain.

It might appear from the influx of tragic stories that these maids are weak and helpless. Make no mistake in assuming that. Most have the inspiring courage, determination, and patience necessary to survive decades of abuse, imprisoned in a household where they are taken advantage of, mistreated and never appreciated, all the while missing out on watching their own families grow. How many of us can go through that?

It's time for us to urgently take a stance against trivializing abuse of migrant workers in the media.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East