Kuwait's Housemaids Need an Arab Lincoln

On October 6th, Human Rights Watch published a report entitled, "Walls at Every Turn, Abuse of Domestic Workers through Kuwait's Sponsorship System", which addresses the disturbing, perennial problem of domestic worker abuse common throughout the Gulf. In Kuwait in particular, the intransigence of abuse is difficult to understand. In democracy, freedom of the press, and women's rights, Kuwait has some bragging rights in the region. But when it comes to the 660,000 people who work behind closed doors in the private homes of the country -- more than half of them women -- it's a different story.

Kuwait is one of the homes of my heart. I lived there for five years between the two Gulf wars, and met people across a wide range of society, from Egyptian handymen to diplomats and members of the Emir's circle. I loved living there. But the rampant, even casual abuse of migrant workers by Kuwaitis and the citizen of the Gulf as a whole, left me wondering -- as I wonder still -- how this Arab society, so rich in culture, noted for its art, language and history, its dignity and warm hospitality, could bear this darker reputation it also fully deserves: as a place where young women from developing countries are routinely beaten, tortured, raped, and murdered -- with impunity.

In Kuwait, there is now one domestic worker for every two Kuwaitis. Every year, hundreds of housemaids flee to their embassies seeking relief from non-payment of wages, long hours, lack of food, captivity, isolation, and violent physical and sexual abuse. Kuwait continues to exclude domestic workers from its labor laws, and fails to enforce the laws already on the books that might give domestic workers some minimal protection.

And things aren't getting better. This summer, horrifying stories of housemaid murder in Kuwait made the news around the world. Even kind-hearted employers there routinely confiscate the documents of domestic workers and restrict their movements, sometimes forbidding them to leave the house unsupervised. Some workers go outside only to wash their employers several cars.

The mansions of Kuwait also play a part in this story. A typical, contemporary villa has two to four stories, including servants' quarters, which are often at the top of the house. Imagine it: You're an eighteen-year-old young woman from Manila, and you're among the unlucky ones, under contract with a harsh employer. You don't speak Arabic. You have a Spartan room on the top floor of a four-story villa inside a walled compound in hot climate, in a suburban neighborhood where you need a car to go anywhere. Your legal connection with Kuwait is your contract. You haven't seen it -- or you've seen it in Arabic only. If you have read it and understood it, you know it doesn't give you much protection, let alone access to legal help. Your employer may or may not abide by its few demands. If he pays you at all, you earn about $200 per month or less. You need your sponsor's permission to change jobs. If he won't give it, if your employer then overworks you, or starves you or beats you or rapes you instead, and you escape the house in desperation, he may report you to the police for 'absconding' and have you detained. You're the law-breaker here.

It's reminiscent of another nouveau riche society of the past: the U.S. before the Civil War. Americans moved with criminal slowness to change the system. The Emancipation Proclamation came only five decades after the British ban on the Atlantic slave trade. Kuwaitis are stalling too. At this moment, apologists still reign. They insist that most employers are admirable people. It's true. But it's also true that there's a shrugging acceptance of the abuse in society. They say that cases of abuse are isolated -- but the embassies packed with runaway maids, the multitudinous testimony of abused workers -- and the mute testimony of corpses -- proves this an absurdity.

There has been public debate on the issue for years in Kuwait, but until it's a topic of open debate in society, between friends and colleagues, in the newspapers, online, at the universities, and around dinner tables -- as Abolition was in the U.S. -- little will change. Until then, silence is acceptance, inaction is the same as collusion, and that makes everyone guilty.