Gulf maids in slavery to a reign of terror in Gulf homes

Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, details the rape, torture and contempt suffered by foreign servants at the hands of their employers

A glance through the archives of the Gulf newspapers is enough to show you what Filipina and Sri Lankan maids suffer at the hands of their Arab employers - quite apart from the judicial lashings so many receive from ''Islamic'' courts.

Beaten, burnt and sexually assaulted, they turn up in their dozens each year at their embassies in Riyadh, Kuwait City and Abu Dhabi to plead for sanctuary from their tormentors and a free passage home. One Arab Gulf state had to charter airliners to take home Indian and Filipina maids after they complained of rape and beatings by their employers.

Many employers defend their treatment by contending that the maids - generally hired for speaking English and accepting low wages - steal, torment children, commit ''immoral'' activities, or desert their jobs.

Last June, a Filipina maid, Nelfa Baltar, secured the conviction of her Egyptian employers in Abu Dhabi after she had been burned with cigarettes on her hands and face and with a lighted match below her eyes. The police arrested her sponsor, Ayman Mansour, when he tried to deport her through the airport in the emirate of Sharjah; immigration officers found that the girl's face had been beaten so badly that they could not recognise her in her passport photograph.

In March 1994, Felixberta Pasco, a 32-year-old Filipina housemaid, fled to her embassy in Abu Dhabi after her employer beat her on her back and face, and cut her arms. Two months later, a 28-year-old Asian housemaid in Dubai slashed her wrists in a suicide attempt after a local man tried to rape her. A day after that, police in Abu Dhabi used a crane to rescue Nora Saburnido, a 35-year-old housemaid, from an upper window after she was heard screaming in a locked room at her employer's home. They found she had been burned on both arms with an electric iron, knifed in the left arm and beaten on the right eye.

In Saudi Arabia, Western employees have reported to human rights groups the systematic harassment of Asian housemaids by sponsors and by members of the muttawa, the ruthless religious police who are being given ever wider powers to arrest and molest women. One report recounts how in 1993 a Filipina nurse who spoke casually to a male acquaintance in a Riyadh restaurant was arrested by the muttawa, held for two days in prison and then ordered to sign a statement in Arabic which she did not understand. It was a confession of prostitution. In July of the same year, she was taken to a Saudi prison and lashed 40 times by a male prison officer in the presence of laughing muttawa officials.

Inside the Malaz prison in Saudi Arabia, a Western nurse - falsely accused of trying to ''seduce'' US soldiers on the streets of Riyadh - found almost 100 women from the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Their bunks were infested with lice, and the women were sometimes left for hours in total darkness. ''We heard some pitiful stories,'' the nurse wrote to the human rights group which took up her case. ''Many of the prisoners were domestic helpers who were raped or otherwise abused by [Saudi] employers; if they attempted to run away or became pregnant, they were jailed and sometimes lashed.''

These terrible cases have been occurring for at least five years. In November 1992, a Sri Lankan housemaid fled to her embassy in Abu Dhabi after a local housewife had heated a knife on a gas cooker and burned her on the neck, body and arms for breaking a plate. She had been whipped by the husband of the family when she demanded to leave, punched in the chest by the wife for lapses in her work and fed scraps from the kitchen. In the same month, a Muslim Filipina maid complained that she was raped by her employer while his wife was having a baby, then slapped and beaten by the wife for allegedly seducing the husband. In the last six months of 1992, four maids tried to commit suicide in the United Arab Emirates alone.

Why do so many Filipinas and Sri Lankans suffer so dreadfully at the hands of Gulf Arab employers? One need only read what the Gulf Arabs think of them. Take, for example, last year's study by the Dubai Police Research and Studies Centre which accused foreign housemaids of theft, torture of children, immorality and desertion. Referring to maids as ''walking time bombs'', the report claimed that 39.2 per cent were thieves, 35.3 per cent were cruel to children and 22.5 per cent ''committed immoral activities''.

Sixty-six out of 120 local housewives were the victims of crime by the maids, the report concluded. It stated that one maid had set fire to a two-year-old child, that another had put a baby in a refrigerator to stop it crying, that a third had put a baby in a washing machine in an attempt to kill it.

''You shouldn't take such a Christian - such a Western - point of view about these women,'' a friend of an Islamic court judge told me in Sharjah. ''These maids will get fair treatment if journalists don't exaggerate the trials - if you don't make this into a political circus.'' And then, in a lower voice and with a venom that destroyed everything he had said, the man explained himself. ''Filipinos as a people are very emotional, they are big liars. They try to extract pity. They are never to be trusted. When it comes to crime - 70 per cent of them are guilty.''

So why, I wondered, do the Gulf Arabs employ well over one and a half million Filipinos? ''Because they are clean and because they speak English and can educate Gulf children,'' he replied matter-of-factly. What he did not choose to address were the hundreds - thousands, in the view of human rights groups - of housemaids who are raped and sexually abused in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

What is one to make, for instance, of the Sri Lankan maid who had been sexually molested by her Saudi employer six months ago and, put on board an aircraft home at Dubai airport, spent the journey cringeing in her seat and weeping?

Or the even more dreadful case of the housemaid who had been so badly raped by a Saudi that, boarding the Emirates Airlines plane home at Dubai, she cowered beneath one of the aircraft seats and screamed every time she saw a male passenger?

The European air crew decided she was too mentally disturbed to fly and, with great reluctance, off-boarded her before the plane took off.

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