Qatar resident Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, PhD, wrote a novel about compound life in an unnamed Arabian Gulf country that recently became available in paperback. In a blog post announcing the book’s release, she described the process of conducting background research on housemaids.
She draws on that reflection in this opinion piece, by sharing the story of one woman whose experience in Qatar highlights the cracks in the system. She has left out any mention of nationality in this case study to underscore how commonplace these conditions can be, both for maids and their employers.
In March 2014, my book Love Comes Later was banned from distribution in Qatar, the country in which the novel is set. Most of my friends, expat and local, were surprised that love was considered a censor-worthy subject.
This next book, The Dohmestics, makes no mention of Qatar and instead, relies on vague references to an unnamed country in the Arabian Gulf. This is in part so that readers in Doha can get ahold of it, but also because the treatment of maids is so similarly dismal across the Middle East, and even Asia.
Before writing this book, I wanted to conduct research and collect information beyond the did-you-hear-about-the-maid-who urban legends that women exchange at coffee mornings.
But interviewing maids – even those who worked for my friends – was difficult. Even if the employer was willing, often the maid herself was unused to the idea of speaking her mind.
Persisting, and following one introduction to another, led to the underbelly of domestic labor: women who had left their employers because they had no recourse for their mistreatment.
One particular woman, we will call her Padma, had a complicated story that human rights groups would say is not unusual.
Padma was a career housemaid – she had worked in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Dubai. She came to Qatar through an agency and was placed with a sponsor she really liked.
The problem was that on the weekends, her sponsor would send her to homes in the extended family. She did not have much down time, nor did she receive any extra pay.
Additionally, members of the extended family did not get along as well with Padma as her sponsor did. Nor did they feed her if her sponsor was traveling.
Padma spoke with the sponsor. She asked to only work for the original house. The sponsor explained it was awkward for her to say no to her brother, whose house Padma worked in during the weekends.
They called Padma’s manpower agency, but there was nothing anyone could do because the probationary period of three months had expired. Padma and her sponsor were stuck with each other.
She then called her embassy – but again, no offer of help because it had been more than three months.
Running out of options, exhausted, and tired of being fed rotten bread, Padma walked out of the house one day while the rest of the family was upstairs.
She left all her belongings, including her passport, and over the next two years worked for a series of families who didn’t mind employing an undocumented maid.
Twice, she gave considerable amounts of money to middle men who promised they could get her passport back from the sponsor and process a new visa. Neither came through – and she did not get her money back.
Her ailing mother’s health and the pressures of having an unmarried daughter finally convinced Padma to go home. Having overstayed her visa and broken ties with her sponsor, the path to exiting would not be easy.
Ironically, however, she was in some ways better than most others: she owed no money, had no pending court cases and was leaving with a small sum of savings.
Last month, Padma procured an airline ticket – hard to come by at the tune of thousands of riyals – and went with her luggage to her embassy in Doha.
But Padma had a big problem – in the eyes of the law, she was a runaway worker. Yes, for some reason, we use the word “runaway” to describe a grown woman who has no other recourse to end her employment.
So officials at the embassy turned her over to the criminal investigation department. She was then held in a facility with hundreds of other women, some of whom had been there for a month, others for three.
In a call from a borrowed phone, she said all of the women were default fasting because no one was being given food during daylight hours in Ramadan.
And despite being a women’s area, there were no sanitary supplies. Anything you received, you had to get from someone on the outside.
We assembled a care package for her, the contents what you might take your daughter’s college dorm room: peanut butter, bread, jam, Kotex, chocolate, laundry detergent.
“I am not a housemaid,” I said enunciating the vowels for the embassy official who had missed my American dress, accent and husband. “I am here for a friend.”
The agony of not knowing if she would be allowed to leave led to daily anguished phone calls.
When a friend who tried to visit her at the detention facility relayed to us that she was scheduled to leave the next day, everyone held their breath.
We couldn’t verify if this was true and we didn’t want to raise her fragile hopes. She didn’t know she was being released until a few hours before her trip to the airport.
However, Padma was not ignorant of her good fortune: perhaps because of her advocates, she was detained for only a week and a half – a split second compared to many of the others who have been there for months.
Others are much worse off. They are waiting on sponsors to pay fines for having a runaway (that word again), waiting for family to raise money to bring them home or waiting for a miracle to clear their debts.
“That’s the place people take their maids when they want to punish them,” a friend told me. “If they don’t want them any more, they leave them there.”
Qatar has pledged to improve labor conditions for workers in the coming months. But what about domestic help, who are not covered under the law?
In many cases, their stories are worse than fiction.
There are two sides to every story.
very true, but in this case its clear who suffers more.
The whole concept of runaway and absconders hint at one form of slavery. And of course slave owners back in the Deep South would also bemoan how there are 2 sides to every story and how they had to suffer a lot when one of their slaves ran away.
The best thing that can happen to mankind is sharing love among each other and seeing everybody around you as your brother or sister regardless nationality, tribe and skin colour. Individaually, we can work together as one to end any form of slavery torture our brothers and sisters undergo everyday at their various working places and residence.This is the best way we can make the world a better place for everybody.
A beautiful concept, I hope those who wield power over the rest of us agree.
It is the right of every human being on this earth to terminate their employment, and then without cause or reason. In this case the termination did not take the form of a resignation letter, but in desperation to escape abuse and exploitation she ran away. Knowing the difficulties of leaving Qatar she must have been absolutely desperate. It is a stain on Qatar and any similar regime that this desperate act brands her as a criminal. In the free world it operated up to the end of the 19th century and was called “slavery”.
…criminals, in fact, are others!
I think, domestic workers are included / covered in the upcoming new Kafala law. And in Padma’s case, her actions are illegal in Qatar, we are calling these candidates as “frog”. All workers came here for making money, some will gain and some will fail. This is only luck and blessing of God.
What happened to Padma is immoral, unethical and against religion. There can be no excuse or explanation.
Against religion? Religion is one of the root causes of this mistreatment. An inflated sense of self-belief that you and your religion (whichever made-up, misogynistic strain it is) are the only ‘right’ ones, gives people a self-appointed licence to treat those ‘beneath’ you with contempt. It is immoral and unethical for sure, but don’t try and bring religion in as some kind of saving grace…..it is usually part of the problem.
Let’s agree to totally disagree. You do not seem to be understanding and knowing the religion.
Ramadan is a good month to literate yourself about the religion.
I think your thirst and hunger is affecting your clarity of thought……….
Are you sure that you are able to “think”?
Ouch! As the old adage goes,’if you could reason with a religious person, there wouldn’t be any religious people’……you just keep investing time in your delusion and ignoring proper evidence and I’ll laugh and get on with my life……….such a shame really, there’s a whole world of interesting reality out there beyond the fairy tales for you to appreciate and understand, but that does involve investing in reality, I’m afraid.
Indeed, people like you are a bunch of hypocrites who are speaking and writing different words 🙂 This only highlights your weakness and lack of principles.
I will not argue with your ignorance and limited knowledge of religion.
Padma (in Sanskrit, Padmam means flower) is not immoral, unethical or against religion, but against the law of Qatar. Think, if I am entering with you or your company for providing some kinds of services at a fixed price and violating the agreement and providing the same services for some body else for a higher price, what will be your feeling or reaction in my agreement with you and my services ??? I wish, it will never happen to you.
Kindly don’t politicize this case through religion. This is only one of the labor problem among thousands in Qatar. There are hundreds of Male workers are suffering for the same problems in Qatar, can any body hear that ??? No, because they are males
But the Koran permits keeping female slaves as long as they don’t sing. I guess some people just follow their religion.
What so wrong, is this woman wants to go home. At first she asked her sponsor to stick to the original agreement and not loan her out to friends and family. When that reasonable requests was refused what options did she have? She could have gone to the police and they would put her in a detention centre. Why not put the sponsor in a detention centre as well until the case is solved?
I know 2 people in a neighboring country, whose contract ended and they wanted to go home. The employer refused, and when they in turn refused to work beyond their contract, they were arrested and tortured.
The employer forcing them to work was not an issue, their refusal to toe the unfair demand of the sponsor made them liable to arrest and beatings. It is a different mindset, one that most civilized people will not understand.
ohhh! Qatar would not have enough centers then! They should hurry up building a few ones for all abusers!
Please do not make illiterate comments. Please read Quran before offering incorrect references to it.
I have and there are many references to slave owning and even ones if you want to be nice on freeing your slave. It also states only non-Muslims can be taken as slaves, so if someone takes the Koran literally then it can explain their treatment of maids.
Your previous comment has an illiterate statement that “But the Koran permits keeping female slaves as long as they don’t sing.”
Let’s talk facts. Please quote the actual chapter/s.
I think a number of males have been portrayed in media over their sufferings. The problem with your types (which is quite close to how recruitment agents/embassy officials think) is that you consider a wrongdoing by a worker as far worse than that by the employer. The richer and more influential the employer is, the more this is true.
You are ignoring how the employer did not follow the agreement (and loaned her out to other homes) and are focusing on how the candidate is a “frog” for refusing to work under those conditions.
Do you know about this case what we don’t know? Do you mean that Padma did something wrong and deserves punishment?
Even if she misbehaved or violated her contract, the proper way to address it is through court system or through relevant authorities.
Needless to say that the rules should not discriminate based on victim’s gender.
They call them runaways, etc but could the authorities not see the clear picture that most of this poor souls have been duped, cheated, abused, treated in a inhuman manner, etc. by the very persons they are supposed to work for. Most of them choose to runaway as they see no other way to get them out of this bondage and abuse
It is wrong that a worker cannot leave their job if they no longer wish to work for that employer. You may bleat that it is ‘illegal in Qatar’, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it is WRONG. What else do we have other than that self determination? As for ‘luck and blessing o God”- that is nonsense. It is down bad practice by employers and bad law.
“you think your charmed expat life is immortal.” I’m sorry, what?!
This 3 month window smells suspicious. The rights of the employee or employer aren’t that of a new car. Also the fact her Embassy choose to ignore the accusation that she may have been subjected to mishandling and a form of abuse is …….probably in line with “it’s most important to be nice to those who can share the wealth with us rather than protect the interests of our people”,in short, a cop out.
Has anyone noticed how insulted the author felt for being mistaken as a maid? This superficial sympathy just to flog a bored housewife’s book project is equally disgusting.
…………….To the detention facility “That’s the place people take their maids when they want to punish them,” a friend told me. “If they don’t want them any more, they leave them there.”.. How sad that this things can be allowed to happen and why don’t the authorities and the embassies step in and not allow the maids and others in general to be punished on trumped up charges and false accusations. If they are no longer needed just send them home instead of pro longing their agony, abuse and mistreatment
Embassies here are reflections of the politicians they represent ; corrupt, opportunistic, wheelers-dealers !
By the way this goes for the so called “Developed Nations” as well.
Thanks Mohana and Doha News for giving this topic the coverage it deserves! You are giving a voice to those who don’t have one.
how bad to live in a Golden cage and not caring about other people, people who come to work here far away from their families, people who are not rich of course, and just because of them, many think is a good reason to treat them badly.How selfish, how ignorant, what lack of compassion!