Abuse of domestic workers has long been a problem in the Arab world under the “kafala” system, which excludes foreigners from labor laws and makes their residency — and fate — subject to their employer’s whims.
But the global uproar over racism, prompted by the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, has contributed to heightened dismay over the treatment of these often darker-skinned migrant workers from Africa and Asia and sparked wider debate among Arabs about racism in their own societies.
“This crisis coinciding with Black Lives Matter forced society to face the systemic racism inherent in the kafala system and in the way we treat migrant workers,” said Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch. “People started to understand that the abuse against migrant domestic workers was not caused by ‘a few bad employers,’ but rather by a system that enables and even encourages society to treat these women as second-class humans.”
U.S. protests in recent weeks have been cheered by many in the Arab world, even as they have turned a spotlight on deeply entrenched racism in the region.
Abeer Sinder, a black Saudi model and beauty video blogger, has used her online platform for years to discuss racism in the Arab world. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests, she recently posted some of the offensive things people say to her, including: “This is your husband??!!” (referring to her lighter-skinned spouse), “How did you get this job?” and “It’s true you’re black but you’re pretty, bless Allah.”
In June, dark-skinned Egyptian actor Mohamed Ramadan posted a photo of himself with his son on Facebook and received hateful comments about their skin color. “Black like his father,” one said. “The disaster is that no one from his family has the beauty of their mother nor her color.”
“I am proud of my color and the color of my father and my children, whom God created,” Ramadan responded. “And I am happy that my children are going to grow up to be against racism, especially that their mother and father are of different colors.”
In the Arab world, people often use derogatory words to refer to black people; President Barack Obama was frequently called “al-abd,” or “the slave.”
The same word is used in the name of a traditional homemade Syrian dessert, made from date balls covered in coconut flakes and called “ras al-abd,” or “head of the slave.” That name had also long been given to a Lebanese chocolate and marshmallow treat, until the manufacturer changed it 10 years ago to Tarboosh, the Arabic word for fez.
In one of her Instagram posts, Sinder recounted being called a slave when she was 6 years old by another child, who had repeated what she’d heard from her parents. “And this is how racist words become natural and normal for some,” Sinder wrote. “Be better.”
Two Arab celebrities, who say they were trying to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement, recently posted online photographs of themselves in blackface. One, a Moroccan actress, later took her photo down after facing criticism. The other, a Lebanese singer who posted a photoshopped picture of herself with darker skin and an Afro, wrote, “All my life I dreamed of being black.” She defended the photo as an act of solidarity.
Multinational companies such as Unilever and Johnson & Johnson have long marketed skin-lightening creams in the Middle East and India, reinforcing the idea that light skin is better in a region where dark skin is predominant. Following a backlash last month, Johnson & Johnson announced it would halt sales of its Clean & Clear Fairness line of products. Within days, Unilever said it would be changing its products and removing words such as “whitening” and “fair” from labels.
But it is through the kafala employment system that racism in the Arab world is often most viciously felt, taking its toll not only on domestic workers from Ethiopia, Ghana and other African countries but also on darker-skinned Asians from Indonesia and the Philippines.
These employees at times suffer physical, psychological and sexual abuse with little recourse. They are frequently locked up inside homes and stripped of their identification papers. Former Lebanese labor minister Camille Abousleiman likened kafala to “modern-day slavery.”
In late June, an Ethiopian housekeeper named Hawwa ran away after, she said, her Lebanese employer’s beatings grew so violent that she feared for her life. She said she had not been paid in a year. “They would have killed me,” she said stone-faced in an interview.
A Beirut cabdriver, seeing her bleeding heavily from the nose and face, had offered to take her to the hospital at no charge, but she insisted on going to the Ethiopian Consulate.
She was among a dozen Ethiopian women languishing outside the consulate on a recent day. Most said their employers had not returned their passports or phones.
Women like Hawwa and Tigist traditionally send dollars back to their families in Ethiopia. But amid Lebanon’s worsening economic crisis, particularly after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, many families no longer have the currency to pay their employees, and some have decided to abandon them on the curb.
“So now that there is corona, and there’s no money, you just throw me out?” Hawwa said bitterly.
Grass-roots activists have been providing the abandoned women with clothes, food and shelter. Some Ghanaian women were recently flown home.
Majzoub said the sudden rash of workers being dumped on Beirut roadsides is “the natural culmination of the kafala system that treats these workers as less than human.” But, she said, “the outrage that has been generated by these horrific scenes that we’ve been seeing has created a lot of momentum to finally start reforming the system.”
The kafala system is prevalent not only in Lebanon but also across the Gulf Arab countries and in Syria before its war. Many videos showing abuses have surfaced over the years. A video recently circulated on social media showing a man from the Persian Gulf yelling at his African housekeeper to pour water over a soiled menstrual pad and then drink it. A woman in the background egged him on.
“Definitely, there is an element of racism in kafala,” Majzoub said, “and in viewing these workers as if they were servants, as if they didn’t have their own personal lives and their own hopes and dreams and aspirations.”
Tigist recounted how she had requested to be paid what she was owed. Her employer hit her, at his wife’s repeated urging, to make Tigist stop asking.
“She can do what she wants, but Allah is watching,” Tigist said, her voice shaking with anger and her eyes brimming with tears.
Kareem Fahim in Washington contributed to this report.