Ramadan TV: Only in Racist Comedies Can Migrants Be Visible

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Aug 16 2014

Ramadan soap operas are a popular tradition across the MENA region, especially with the rise of Satellite TV and private channels. Migrant-rights.org recently featured a video examining domestic workers’ absence from many shows. This post examines the shows that do feature migrant workers but only in caricature, reflecting prevailing social narratives that justify their exploitation.

The Secret World of Domestic Workers

One of the most popular shows featuring domestic workers this past Ramadan was the Saudi comedy "Driver and Maid" which aired on the Rotana Khaliji TV channel.  The show was publicized, on the channel's official page and in other media, as "revealing the secret world of domestic workers." One article considered the the show a docudrama, accurate in its depiction of  how domestic workers “control our lives and impose their dominance over us” by engaging in “anti-Sharia practices such as witchcraft, poisoning, killing children, and influencing girls’ behavior.” The article reflects a paranoia so strong it emerges in the latest drafts of the GCC unified contract, claiming that workers know “our private secrets” while “creating a siege around their secret sect.” (This is despite the fact that most domestic workers are restricted to the home for the duration of their employment and do not generally have enough access to other workers to either share private secrets or form a secret sect).

Another piece in Saudi’s al-Madina newspaper suggests the show “aims to deliver a message to society about the need to be careful with migrant workers” discussing issues like “maids’ invasion of private family life, home surveillance cameras, and marriages between sponsors and maids.” The same paper published another article claiming the show "reveals the criminal world of domestic workers" who conspire against their employer "despite his good deeds with them."  This uncritical coverage reflects – and reinforces – backwards (yet common) perception of employer victimization that the show itself encapsulates.

The show naturally dedicated an episode to witchcraft, a practice ‘African’ migrant workers are frequently accused of – and for which domestic workers are even jailed and sentences to death. Allegations of sorcery belong to wider narratives that broadly link workers “cultures” with criminal proclivity.

The show, which can be watched here, almost seems a satirical critique of society’s perceptions and treatment of domestic workers, but is actually just crude humor at the expense of migrant workers. The show portrays migrants as clownish, conniving, one-dimensional caricatures burdening their generous sponsors.  For example, one character is a good-looking Indian domestic worker who refuses to work, having believed she would work in a rich house and marry her sponsor. Her (female) Saudi sponsor is insulted by the worker's attitude, telling her "you are my maid, and you will work even if I have to force you to." The show obscures the reality that domestic workers are often intentionally misinformed of their prospective duties and also vulnerable (not welcoming) to sexual abuse by their sponsors -  instead choosing to amplify the growing fears of ‘sultry’ workers eclipsing the rank of Gulf women.

The female sponsor also tells the housemaid: "If we cannot get married, how would you?" and "do not compare yourself to me, I am an employer," reflecting a popular belief held by sponsors (and reinforced by domestic worker policies) - that workers are their indentured servants, rather than reciprocal participants of a real labor relationship.

Another issue the show insensitively distorts is the prevalence of suicide among domestic workers. In the first episodes, a Filipina woman commits suicide in the main house and is only discovered when a new driver arrives the next day. The Saudi family is unaffected by the tragic suicide, accusing the driver of killing her before going to the police station. At the police station, no one is questioned about the suicide or held accountable – this at least this is a fairly accurate representation of what happens when a domestic worker commits suicide. The sponsor asks the driver to sleep in the bedroom of the deceased worker, countering to his objections by stating "suicide is a common culture among housemaids in the Gulf."

The show features several more stories that demonize domestic workers and minimize the accountability of employers.

Evil Recruiters

Gulf regimes frequently displace criticism against migrants rights’ violations to recruitment agencies, obscuring their own failure to regulate or penalize unscrupulous agencies. Authorities are reluctant to clash with an industry that provides significant income generation for their citizens, which renders the regulation of domestic workers’ few rights nearly impossible.

A Bahraini cartoon entitled “Abu Jlai’a’s Diaries” depicts the escapades of a Bahraini recruitment agent. In one episode, the agency's owner jokes about one domestic worker, suggesting he had sexual relations with her in his office. He ignores the complaint of her new sponsor, saying he should wait longer for her to adapt. The worker escapes and the sponsor complains to the agency: "didn't you tell me to follow the rules and give her a cellphone and let her talk to the embassy!" viewing workers' rights to communication and access to embassy's help as things that motivate them to escape. Both recruiter and employer ridicule the few laws that protect domestic workers essential rights. Depressing music plays as the sponsor complaints about "losing recruitment fees." The recruiter himself, exploits the domestic worker by forcing her to babysitting and clean for a large family, and threatens her with deportation or wage deductions if she complains.

Joking about Murderers!

“Jokes” and rumors about domestic workers killing children are prevalent across the Gulf, mounting into a very real paranoia over the past two years in particular. These invented or dramatized stories are not limited to TV shows, newspapers, op-eds, and harmful official commentary, but extend into popular culture as well; this image that was created and is still fueled by the elite of local media, including social media and messaging apps,  is becoming more dangerous as it encourages people to further oppress and mistreat domestic workers as potential threats. In one Kuwaiti soap opera this year, the wife jokes with her mother-in-law to treat the domestic worker well or otherwise "she would run away, or murder you." The main actor in the same show, Abdulhussain Abdulredha, gave an interview a couple of months ago in which he stated "migrants have made our country dirty," specifically singling out Asian migrant workers.

Last year, the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department attempted to raise awareness against the mistreatment of domestic workers by airing a short video. Unfortunately, the video fanned paranoia about domestic workers, depicted a worker poisoning a child in response to constant abuse.  In a critique of the video,  MR cautioned officials that the "the depiction of the worker is crude and dehumanizing in several ways as she appears mentally imbalanced, making strange movements and exhibiting an overall a bewildering demeanor. She is purposefully portrayed as unsightly and sinister through her expressions and appearance; she bares a black tooth and villain-like eyebrows, cementing her physical and social subordination to the Emirati family. The maid is a caricature, not a human being with rights and thoughts and feelings. The employers treat her as a handicapped, alien other, patronizing her with fake kindness at the end of the video."

This year, the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department produced a slightly less problematic PSA; the ad sought to raise awareness about the importance of paying wages on time to avoid conflict with employees. The video notes that construction workers are not paid for months, though attempts  to minimize employers’ culpability by depicting their behavior as unintentional, the result of unforeseen financial troubles rather than systematically exploitative practices.  (Ironically, the government of Abu Dhabi itself is not paying migrant workers - exploiting them in the construction of Saadiyat Island, arresting and deporting those who tried to object or strike.)

Unfortunately, Ramadan shows reproduce the same problematic discourse espoused by news media and authorities; migrants themselves are criminalized while accountability for exploitation Is displaced from the state and citizens. In keeping with the predominant social paradigm, employers are portrayed as the actual victims.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East