Monday, July 11, 2011

Housemaids, villains or victims?

Housemaids In Saudi-Arabia have been making many headlines lately. Indonesian and Philippino housemaids are among the most numerous in Saudi-Arabia and both nationalities have been accused of crimes against their employers and vice versa. Following the execution of an Indonesian housemaid that had murdered her employer, the Philippines and Indonesia have now banned maids from going to Saudi-Arabia for employment. These countries are demanding more strict regulations on working hours, salaries and general treatment of the maids.

When it comes to having housemaids in Saudi-Arabia I see five major problems. Number one is overall bad treatment of maids and the neglect of their rights. Second, in an otherwise totally gender segregated country, maids living with unrelated males creates many issues. Problem number three is runaway maids and the subsequent black market and prostitution. Fourth issue is the increasing laziness, sense of superiority and sedentary lifestyle that having a maid inevitably brings. And lastly, it results in children that are basically brought up by uneducated third world women from a totally different background and culture.

Currently the maids coming into the country for employment are pretty much playing a russian roulette when it comes to what kind of family they will end up in. They might get really lucky or on the other hand end up in a bad situation comparable to slavery. Some maids however are coming to the country with the sole intention of "running away" from their employers house and starting work on the black market or as prostitutes. They already have contacts and some might even have family members living illegally in the country. A freelancer Philippino maid makes more money than her educated nurse kabayan (countryman). It's a risky business but many take their chances.

On the other hand, it takes the sponsor family months and thousands of riyals to obtain the visa and permits for the maid to come to KSA. Saudis are aware of the risk of the maids leaving and some resort to keeping them "locked up" or not allowing them to leave the house on their own. In a way this is understandable, but could be avoided by imposing strict employment laws on Saudi families wanting to hire maids.

We´ve all heard of the stories rape, abuse and overworking. For sure this happens, but how common is it really? What about the other side of the coin?

I have heard surprisingly many negative stories of the behavior of maids. Some people treat their maids like family members, showering them with kindness and respect. Yet they have found themselves in a situation where the maid has left without a trace. Little things have started to disappear from the house, or the children have started to act in strange ways. Maids have been found to hit and abuse children. It's not uncommon for the maid to be caught lying or hold grudges against their employers. Some maids have deliberately tried to seduce the male members of the family. And the list goes on.

Working as a nurse on a busy hospital ward I encountered countless Saudi families with housemaids. Some of them would become the sitters of the patients, thus changing their job descriptions dramatically but also allowing me to observe more closely and talk to them. From what I perceived after many years of working in such close proximity with Saudi families from a wide spectrum, I would say most housemaids live in a pretty decent situation. Almost all of the maids were satisfied and did not want to leave, although they might have complained about the employers.
The picture that is portayed by the media I find is often a very different one, labelling all Saudi families as abusive and disrespectful. But the good stories wouldn´t make headlines or sell papers.

That said I did stumble upon cases of abused housemaids or ones that where held against their will, maids that had not been paid on time or had to work very long hours.

Living with a stranger in your house will naturally cause countless problems both for the stranger and the host family.There will be communication problems and conflicts caused by the different cultures. Perhaps this clashing of cultures is what creates most of the problems Saudi families living with maids face.

So which one is it? Are maids in Saudi-Arabia the innocent victims of maltreatment, subject to abuse, rape and slavery-type conditions? Or are they devious and cold-hearted toward their host families, greedy and not to be trusted? I think the answer might just be neither of the above or a little bit of both.


Blue Pearl said...

Controversial and sensitive topic - there is a fair amount of maids who are mistreated themselves and some who mistreat too, like the case of murdering the employer. It's sad really.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why women who don't work have housemaids...?
And as a muslim, the pic above is very weird to me. Drink a coffee with the husband and a woman who is not even a relative...

Anonymous said...

" At lastly it results in children who are basically brought up by uneducated third world women from a totally different background and culture"....Wow what a condescending and degrading statement.I guess this sums up your feelings of what you consider 'lowly' people. Isn't saudia a third world too anyway.

Anonymous said...

I found for myself best way, just hire coming maid, who comes couple times per week, while husband at work, clean house and go. I like my privacy and dont want strange woman live in my house, also people can hire baby sitter for couple hours per day. Same here in UAE, ppl go out at friday evening, sit in Corniche watching stars, while they maid stand 5 meter away from them... this is soooooooooooooo not normal!!!

Layla said...

Aisha- I don't know I guess its considered a luxury. Saudis tend to live in large apartments or villas and and have many kids so having extra help for cleaning is understandable.

Anonymous-it would be nice if you used a nickname to identify your comments from others as I have requested above.
I dont see what part of my comment you found as condescending and degrading? You are the one mentioning "lowly" people.

The truth is these maids are uneducated. I didnt say "stupid" or anything like that. Uneducated women are unfortunately very common in third world countries, I dont think that there´s any secret there.
Also just a plain fact is, the culture is different in Indonesia and Philippines and Saudi-Arabia. People bring up their children in very different ways. For example: The maids might not have the same concept of hygiene or they´re not able to read to the children in english let alone arabic, the maid might not even speak arabic or english well, they have their own culture specific ways of doing things..All this the child learns. But he/she should be learning from their parents. That is my main point here, the parents should be the ones who spend the most time with their children!
Go to any kids amusement park, play area or park and all you will see is Saudi children and foreign maids running after them.

I hope this clarified the issue.

P.S A dear friend of mine is an Indonesian housemaid and I would never call her "lowly" in any way. I will write her story later on.

Layla said...

to the other anonymous commenter, that is what I have opted to do also, just have someone come to help clean the house once a week.
I could never live with a stranger in my house and also like my privacy. Even when she comes for those few hours I feel awkward and help her clean :)

Alisa said...

Thank you Sister Laylah for commenting and writing about this very sensitive issue. I pray that the Almighty opens the hearts of the ones that mistreats (employers) the maids. I hope some
good journalist(s) would tell the stories of happy maids.
Blessings to you Laylah and to your family,

your sister Alisa from Finland

Desert Housewife A. (The Canadian in Jubail) said...

Maybe some day, when I have the courage and can get over how I was treated by the maids in my own home, I will tell my thoughts & feelings about the maid issue...

Layla said...

thank you Alisa, I am not a journalist but I can tell the story of that Indonesian housemaid and friend of mine :)

Aalia I am sorry to hear you have had such a negative experience!Hopefully you could also share with us!

Anonymous said...

I guess it depends on who you ask. I think it's a little bit of both. I personally prefer the route of having someone to come a few times per week to help. It is nearly impossible to keep a clean house to Saudi standards and have a job, so it is a necessity here. But I've witnessed too many occasions of maids sneaking men into the house, stealing and one even trying to seduce my husband.
I also agree with the child rearing issue. I always wondered as a teacher why some of my students were so slow in developing speech skills, and it's because they are taught by someone who doesn't really know the language. And seriously, I could NEVER allow a stranger to change the diaper of my baby or give my child a bath. NEVER.

Layla said...

undertheabaya-I agree, I would never let any other than close family to change my childs diaper or give them a bath. Some Saudi women on the other hand would NEVER change a diaper themselves lol!

Anonymous said...

filipina maids r maltreated in your country. Sorry wer n0t uneducated 3rd world people. Be careful laylah

Layla said...

Be careful of what actually? What's wrong with saying uneducated people exist? Why must you bury your head in the ground and deny anything negative exists in Saudia?
Filipina maids are not held sex slaves by the thousands in Finland. Filipina maids are not killed and raped everyday in Finland, they have minimum wages and we have laws protecting the rights of the employees. We also don't hold their passports and keep them locked up in the houses.

Sus said...

Laylah, thank you for yet another interesting read. While I agree with what you wrote, I can't help but wonder why these problems are happening the most in Saudi compared to other GCC and Arab countries?! I mean the other GCC and Arab countries have also cultural differences.

Layla said...

Sus- it might have something to do with the unique sponsor system here which makes it very easy for the employers to exploit the system and there seems to be nobody who controls and follows up these issues..

Anonymous said...


All these issues ARE happening in all the other Arabic countries, just with poor women of that country who are working with maids. One reason people are having maids is that it's a class issue. Where I live, one sign you've arrived in the middle class is to go right out and hire a maid (even lower middle class hire uneducated maids from the countryside).

Lynne Diligent

ross said...

I agree with the 2nd anonymous. Uneducated is degrading. Uneducated is not the right word. Those hired i think would have at least some education, elementary and mostly high school. some even went to college. I am a Filipino and I'm saying that we're very good in English compared to some First world like Japan. It's because our curriculum is in English except for our own Filipino subject. Let's not base on the economy of a country.

Anyhoo, my answer will be both. We all know regarding the gender issue in saudi. They maybe are just desperate.

Layla said...

Hi ROss, well have to disagree because from my experience and those with maids around me, their maids have little if no school at all finished, that's unfortunately one of the reasons these poor women have to seek these jobs in the firdst place! If women were educated higher or at least through elementary and high school in countries such as Sri Lanka, India or Bangaldesh for example, they would know their their rights, and these societies would do much better overall..
I think you're disagreeing or offended (not sure) because you're from the Philippines and you were thinking that I was calling all Filipinos 'uneducated', which is not true..

Anyways I agree that the answer is both, and the unfortunate thing is we can never know exactly which one will end up with!

MarG said...

I don't think Laylah was trying to insult or sound condescending at all when she wrote the word uneducated. Truth of the matter is that many of the people who go to other countries to work as maids are uneducated. Being uneducated does not make anyone "lowly" or less of a person. Being uneducated sometimes means you have less opportunities than those who have more education. I think if someone is getting offended by the word, it is because you have a negative connotation to the word, as most have been socialized to do. This is a great opportunity to identify a bias that you may not even know you have. Great article Laylah!!