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Maid or Slave?

Updated on April 21, 2012

I grew up in a place called Lebanon, and in this place the word ‘Sirlankiye’ which literally mean Sri Lankan is a word that was used when people usually described their live in maids. ‘Oh yes the sirlankiye is doing a wonderful job cleaning. But I’m afraid the little one is beginning to call her Mama.’ I left Lebanon at the age of nine and migrated to Australia where live in maids cost a fortune, are protected by employment laws and at times not even the wealthy are able to afford this luxury. In contrast to most of the west, in the Middle East foreign maids are underpaid, treated as though they are owned and almost any working class family can afford them. So you can imagine the cultural shock when I returned to my beloved land as a grown adult and began to realize the flaws in this so called luxury. And I thought to myself ‘Oh boy, let these people come to Australia a land they only dream of going to for a better life and are they in for a cultural shock when they realize that even the top executives clean their own shit and manage to look after their children. But are they in for an even bigger shock when they see their own brother or sister who once lived a privileged life of being served are now doing the serving for others in restaurants or cleaning houses.’

Having a live in maid in Lebanon is another form of status; yet in practice, it’s another form of slavery. While in many western countries both couple work forty hour jobs, manage to clean their homes, cook a decent meal and raise a couple of kids. In the east it is swamped with middle class kept women. I wouldn’t call them housewives, but more like social wives who spend hours at the hairdressers, shopping and making the rounds to friend’s houses getting high on caffeine. While their live in maids are doing everything domestic, from cleaning their homes to even raising their children. But in practice these maids are treated almost like a slave. Usually locked up seven days a week, twenty four hours a day. Have no independence, cannot go out, eat, shit or sleep without their master lurking around. For the many years the maid has been serving, she has no social life, love life, nor sex life. Not by choice, she is basically not allowed. Still worst off than a dog, whose master takes it out for at least a half an hour daily walk. And this treatment and exploitation of vulnerable maids is what’s taking place right now all over the Middle East. And dare you ever say any of this to one of these kept women, she will defend her right until the end as it may disturb her fragile conscience and threaten to ruin her privileged social time.

But you may assume that the younger generation might have a different outlook towards this form of slavery. You would hope with all the revolutions that are happening around the Middle East, these new age ‘Wanna be Europeans’ may have some empathy for this form of racism that is happening around their country. So a few months ago when I met a young girl from Lebanon, not that young, perhaps Twenty Three, I had no choice but to think again. Okay so Let’s call her Sally. Sally quite educated, modern and stylish who studies Marketing at the American University of Beirut. You may think that a person of her generation would have a more progressive attitude towards human rights. So when I asked her of how she feels about the status of maids in Lebanon. She said quite casually, ‘I cannot see them as my equal. When I think of them I think of ‘abeed’ black slaves.’ Now mind you this girl was a bit tipsy, so otherwise she may have not been so shockingly open. She then went on to complain that years ago their maid was upset from her parents for not taking her out, so in retaliation she hit Sally’s younger brother over the head. I took in all that Sally said and tried my best to contain my aggressive nature, after all she was my cousin’s girlfriend and the last thing I wanted was a family tiff. So in the calmest way I said. ‘With all due respect to your parents, but the fact that the maid hit your brother over the head is their fault. They hired a total stranger to raise their children, who comes from a different culture, world and upbringing. What’s even worst is that your parents hired a women who has no language skills nor the qualifications in childcare to look after their children and did not even bother doing a background check. Why? Because all that she’s worth to raise their children, clean their home and be on their beck and call at all hours of the day in $150 USD per month.' Sally suddenly went silent; she was speechless at having being thrown back by my bluntness about her parents.

So now let talk about statistics. Among a population of only 4 million how is it that there are over 150,000 foreign women who work as housekeepers in Lebanon? This number does not include the illegals. These are women from the likes of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. Once brought from the agency for a fee of a few thousand U.S dollars, these maids enter a vocational prison. Straight away they are stripped of their legal documents and passport in case they attempt to escape and their free will is then handed over to the Madam and Mister of the house. The Human Rights Watch said in a report issued in 2010 that on average, about four live in maids a month commit suicide in Lebanon. This is usually caused by mistreatment from their employers in combination to the mental and physical abuse. I could go further with statistic and stories of beatings, torture and sexual assault, but I think I have said enough and don’t want to embarrass this minority of Lebanese people any further. Some will argue in defence and say, ‘Our maid is so lucky. We buy her new clothes, give her the best food, treat her with respect, talk to her, take her out, let her take many breaks and watch T.V.’ Yes true you may treat her a lot better than most of the other owners of maids. Yet still, what is the most significant need of a human being after food, water and air? That is free will. To be honest, people in prison get the same treatment you are apparently privileging your maid with.

It saddens me that in the west animal activists have done much more for the rights of animals than the Lebanese people have done for these humans who serve them. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country, its unique landscape and beauty moves me. It’s people’s passion, hospitality and generosity is one of a kind. Lebanese people are unique in so many ways; having suffered much humiliation, corruption and war, they continue to dance, laugh and most of all have a thirst for life. I might say put a Lebanese person anywhere in the world and you will notice that they have a strength called success and they flourish in most they set forth to do. And when I speak of this treatment of domestic maids, I’m talking about a status oriented minority who are at times both lazy and ignorant. I’m aware that there are people in Lebanon who are activists, passionate and fight for these people’s rights. But then again, when these people live in a country with a government that continues to exploit them, has no regard for their human rights or voice, then it may make sense that the cruel cycle continues onto those who they govern.

I think that the Lebanese Government should take more action in regards to the mistreatment of live in maids.

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