From lecture halls to mimbars: The gap in discourses on domestic workers.

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Sep 24 2015

That the Islamic faith is likely to have a significant influence on laws, practices and attitudes of employers’ vis-à-vis domestic workers in Muslim majority countries is acknowledged by academia and activists alike. It’s also widely established that, in spite of the existence of different interpretations of classical Islamic texts, and the absence of an in depth plan for employment relations within the classical Islamic literature, there lies an uncompromising insistence on social justice and on the ethical conduct of employers and employees. Academic and media discussions on the rights and obligations of employers’ over domestic workers often begin or end with reminders from classical Islamic texts, and narratives from the lives of the first generation of Muslims all pointing towards the exemplary treatment of domestic workers, with a call to take inspiration from these narrations.

This discussion rarely extends beyond academic circles, to the audience whose mindset needs to change. 

Migrant workers off start a days work at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE. © Alex Scott |

Migrant workers off start a days work at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE. © Alex Scott |

Taking account of Islamic principles in the lecture hall

At a recent discussion – “Necessary Migrant Labor Reform: Islamic Ethics, Human Rights, or Market Economy?” on the rights of migrant workers in Qatar, an Islamic scholar and the Secretary General of the International Union of Muslim Scholars Sheikh Dr Ali Muhyealdin Al-Quradaghi, called on “Arab and Muslim countries to take care of those who provide long periods of service and participate in the building of these countries.”

He cited the incident from the life of the Omar bin Khattab, where he ordered a Jewish beggar to be paid from state funds because he had not received adequate compensation after 50 years of service, and as a result was reduced to begging. At the same discussion the treatment of migrant domestic workers (MDW’s) were examined in the context of the Hijarah (emigration) of Meccan Muslims to Medina in 622 CE. The treatment the refugees fleeing oppression received from the hosts in Medina were highlighted in a bid to draw attention to the contrast it holds with trends visible in today’s context. The discussion concluded with two references from Islamic history. Lady Fathima had an agreement with her domestic worker, each one of them would attend to domestic chores on alternate days. The second caliph of the Islamic caliphate rode a camel alongside his attendant on his way to Jerusalem from Medina, each one of them taking turns to ride the camel till they reached their destination.  Clearly, the concept of justice which Islam uncompromisingly insists on is what prevents workers’ exploitation.  

In 2010 a popular blog site MuslimMatters called on its readers to “contact the Embassy of Saudi Arabia and express concern for the treatment of migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and to demand justice”. This ‘Action Alert!’ came in the wake of reports of doctors removing 23 nails which had been hammered into the body of a Sri Lankan domestic worker in the Kingdom. Emphasizing the importance of justice in Islam the writer penned, “Most of us are familiar with the famous Hilf al-Fudul, an alliance for justice that the Prophet entered into in Mecca before he received revelation.  That alliance, which was made by decent people who were outraged by the abuse of someone considered weak in the society, without tribal support to defend his rights, not only called for those who joined not to oppress others themselves, but gave them a personal responsibility to defend the rights of the oppressed who had no one else to defend them, regardless of religion or tribe”.

Incidentally, on Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch reported more than a decade ago, “No less than the Kingdom’s highest Muslim religious authority, the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, has already acknowledged that migrants suffer ‘exploitation and oppression.’  His comments … included the observation that ‘Islam does not permit oppressing workers, regardless of religion. He counselled that Islam prohibits ‘blackmailing and threatening [foreign] laborers with deportation if they refuse the employers’ terms [which breach the contract.]”

...there is an urgent need to address this subject from a spiritual perspective; to take this message to the masses whose exposure is confined to halaqaat (Islamic study circles) and Friday sermons.

Moving over to the mimbar

Confining Islamic references to rights reports, and discussions among academia is not helping the movement towards the freedom of migrant domestic workers. Activists at grass root level know only too well the impact – and difficulty – of changing attitudes. And in order to change attitudes we must address employers in the ‘language’ they understand, and speak their ‘dialect’. Effectively to speak to a Muslim employer in the Gulf region, activists must refer to Islamic principles (and cultural practices).

Herein lies the void.

Employers don’t attend working group discussions and the like. The narrations and textual evidences that frequent papers and lectures must be presented to the employers at his/her venue. This is not happening. A quick search on Youtube (home to millions of speeches and programs on Islamic topics) on domestic workers and Islam will reveal one, just one 3-minute video on this subject, (delivered in Malaysia). Now compare this to a quick search on ‘animal rights and Islam’; over 8,200 videos in under a minute.

Clearly, there is an urgent need to address this subject from a spiritual perspective; to take this message to the masses whose exposure is confined to halaqaat (Islamic study circles) and Friday sermons.

Islamic scholars and speakers must be tasked with simplifying Islamic principles of employment ethics to employers. Take for example the hadith of the prophet: “They (servants) are your brothers, and Allah has put them under your command. So the one under whose hand Allah has put his brother, should feed him of what he eats, and give him dresses of what he wears, and should not ask him to do a thing beyond his capacity. And if at all he asks him to do a hard task, he should help him therein."

This hadith leaves much to be clarified from an employer’s perspective. What does this hadith require from the employer? How does this hadith translate into reality in the work space, in today’s context? As the scholar explained “should feed of what he eats” in the you tube video simplistically, “don’t throw [your helpers] leftovers you will not eat yourself, don’t throw remains you have eaten half of, don’t prevent them from eating what they cooked”.

It is this simplified, straightforward message that must be heard by employers.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East