Mona, an Egyptian woman in her thirties, received a job offer she could not refuse. The pay was beyond anything she could dream of; it would allow her family to have a new, well-equipped
and well furnished home, send her children to good schools, secure all the necessities of modern life, and even help her elderly parents financially and offer gifts to her brothers and sisters. What a difference from the destitute life she and her family currently led.
The only problem was that that new job was that of a nanny for a family in Riyadh, which meant she would have to leave her family here in Cairo for a prolonged period of time. But she thought, as did her husband, that they would somehow manage, since the pay she was promised more than made up for her absence.
Once she was in Riyadh, however, it did not take much time for Mona’s dream to vanish into thin air. The work was pure drudgery, and went far beyond babysitting. She was asked to do whatever was needed around the house. When she objected, she was insulted and taunted that she would not have been there in the first place had she had been able to make a decent living in her own country. The women treated her abominably, and the male family members behaved as though she were fair game for harassment. More than once, she was raped. She wept through the nights; what would the folks at home say if they knew what was happening to her?
As to that dream pay she had been promised, she saw none of it. And worse, her passport was with her employer; he had taken it from her once they landed in the airport. She could not even think of going home.
But Mona was luckier than other ‘maids’ whom she met in Riyadh, who were threatened with being thrown in prison if they dared rebel. By a twist of fate her Saudi hosts had to go on a surprise visit to Cairo, and there she fled to the safety of her home.
Mona’s was not an isolated experience. The recent decision by Minister of Labour Kaheld al-Azhari to allow Egyptian women to travel abroad to work as maids in Gulf Arab states has been branded by women and rights activists as another in a long line of violations of Egyptian women’s rights, a slap in the face of women and an offence to Egypt.
The ministry denied issuing such a decision, but the Egyptian community in Saudi Arabia indicated on the official Facebook page of Egyptians abroad that Hisham Qandil’s government had allowed Egyptian women to return to banned jobs in the Gulf States.
The issue of Egyptian women working in Arab Gulf States, however, is not new.
In 2008 Aisha Abdel-Hady, the then Minister of Labour Force and Immigration, was criticised when she issued a ministerial decision to allow Egyptian women to work as domestic workers, children’s nannies and hairdressers in the Gulf. The decision drew fire from Egypt’s activists, since it was no secret that such jobs were used as cover for the exploitation of women in demeaning jobs or in outright illegal activity such as forced prostitution. Activists cited the Egyptian Constitution and international treaties that preserve women’s dignity, and of which Egypt was signatory. Ms Abdel-Hady then withdrew her decision and Egyptian women were banned by law from travelling abroad to work in some 16 shadowy professions.
The 2008 decision came in response to several complaints of abuse of Egyptian women in Gulf countries. It was said that they were being threatened, terrorised and forced into household labour without fair pay—or with none. Most of them were subdued, harassed or even raped.
No legal umbrella
Egyptian women who agree to work in domestic positions are usually poorly educated and unskilled. In Egypt they are well paid, since because of the social stigma attached to such work there is a shortage of women willing to work as maids. Yet they retain their dignity no matter what, if only because they are in their home country and can leave a job whenever they like. In some cases, albeit infrequently, university graduates who come from the poorer classes and who wish to make good money may even prefer domestic work to a low-paying office job.
Abdu Abul-Ela, director of the Shehab Institution for Promotion and Comprehensive Development—the first Egyptian NGO for defending female domestic workers and their families—believes that the absence of a legal umbrella for these workers leaves them exposed to abusive violations.
“If this is the case at home in Egypt, how much worse can we expect it to be outside Egypt?” Mr Abul-Ela says.
Mr Abul-Ela said the NGO was working to secure the rights of domestic workers in Egypt through empowering them to insist on their rights and to found a syndicate to represent them.
No one to turn to for protection
In cases of job offers for domestic work outside Egypt, it is understandably very difficult for women in straightened circumstances to refuse what looks like a lucrative career in the Gulf, especially given that job offers are made so that the job appears attractive, well-paid and risk-free. Once in the host country, however, they are under the thumb of their employers. It is standard practice for an employer to seize the worker’s passport so that she cannot go home unless he decides she might. As a foreign worker she has no legal rights; she is only there in her capacity as a worker for her employer, who legally represents her before the authorities of his country. If, under very exceptional conditions, she manages to escape and file a complaint against her employer with the authorities, her employer more often than not accuses her of some crime such as theft, which lands her in prison. To sum up the situation, the Egyptian domestic worker who is abused, molested, or forced into prostitution in a Gulf country has practically no rights and no one to turn to.
There are, of course, cases where Egyptian women are treated well and the terms of the agreement made with them in Egypt are honoured but, regrettably, the cases where women in Gulf countries are abused are too many to call off the ban on their working there.
Opening the door wide for women to work as domestic help in Gulf countries has drawn sharp criticism from rights activists.
Saïd Abdel-Hafez, head of the association of dialogue for development and human rights, describes the decision by the Labour Minister as tantamount to endorsing human trafficking, a crime that is defined by international law.
“Facilitating the work of Egyptian women as maids abroad without providing any kind of legal protection is nothing short of human trafficking,” he says.
Mr Hafez commented on the ministry’s denial that it had issued that decision as nothing new for the State run by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
“Since the MB came to power they have issued decisions and withdrawn them, only for these decisions to go into force again; they do not honour promises or pledges,” he said.
The activist, writer and poet Fatma Naout strongly denounced the decision by Hisham Qandil’s government that allows Egyptian women to work in professions and under conditions which were prohibited under Mubarak. She wrote on Twitter: “Mursi’s State agrees to Egyptians working as maids for Gulf people! Mubarak refused to insult Egyptian women, but Mursi welcomes and approves it.”
“We are not opposed to any respectable work for women, but we reject the type of work that robs them of their dignity,” Safaa’ Ali Hassan, general manager of the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDAW), said. Ms Hassan said that CEDAW had appealed to the Shura Council to issue legislation that would protect Egyptian employees abroad and guarantee their rights according to the Egyptian Constitution. Accordingly, she demanded that the minister should reverse his decision.
Sally al-Gabbas, head of the Seiza Nabrawi centre for legal and women’s rights, brands the recent decision as a setback in Egyptian women’s rights. “It is the utmost insult to Egyptian women because of the violations and torture more often than not inflicted upon them, physically and psychologically. They are treated worse than animals, just because of their need for money,” Ms Gabbas says.
“The decision reflects the failure of the current ruling regime in Egypt,” she says. “It is a flagrant legalisation of human trafficking, and it erodes the dignity of Egypt’s women and girls.”
Ms Gabbas stressed the importance of consolidating efforts to fight a regime that belittles women and violates their dignity.
“Do Islamists believe that women working as maids in a foreigner’s house is something to be approved of? While they criminalise women’s work as lawyers, doctors, journalists or activists, demanding that women should go back to the confines of their homes and be just housewives and mothers?”
26 May 2013