Inside the World of Gulf State Slavery

People around the world were shocked by a video of a Saudi man assaulting his maid. Sadly, it’s all too common.

Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

La, Baba,” a young woman, pleads in Arabic, as she stands in a tidy kitchen trying to escape the attention of her cajoling Saudi boss, seconds before he gropes and sexually molests her. “No, father. It is nothing.”

The heart-breaking scene, filmed secretly as part of a grainy half-minute clip, shot around the world this week after a courageous—and angry—wife apparently posted it to the Internet from Saudi Arabia, shocking viewers and inspiring a social media campaign, #SaudiWomanCatchesHusbandCheating. The case, which the government of Indonesia says it is investigating and trying to confirm, became even more outrageous when media accounts reported the wife faces jail time for allegedly “defaming her husband in line with the law on information technology crimes.”

But the clip of the Saudi man stalking and sexually harassing his family’s “maid servant” is more than just an Internet meme. It is emblematic of the de facto slave subculture that thrives in modern day Saudi Arabia, supported by fatwas from Saudi clerics from the country’s dogmatic Wahhabi and Salafi schools of Islam, which argue that the Quran gives owners—most usually men—rights over “those whom your right hand possess,” or, in Arabic, “mā malakat aymānukum“ (4:3, 4:24, 4:24, 16:71, 23:5-6, 24:33, 24:58, 33:50).

One verse reads: “And if you fear that you will not be fair to the orphans, then marry whomever you like from the women, two or three, or four but if you fear that you won’t be fair to them, then marry only one or the slaves that your right hands possess. That is the closest way to prevent injustice.” (Quran, Surat Al-Nisa, “The Women,” 4:3)

For sure, abuse of power is global and universal. But to progressive Muslim thinkers, the notion of power over “those whom your right hand possess” is the theological underpinning of a cultural mindset that sanctions acts of brutality, like the media reports this week of a Saudi employer in New Delhi raping two “maids” from Nepal and, then, an employer in Saudi Arabia cutting off the arm of a woman worker from India, after she filed a complaint of torture. The government of Saudi Arabia did not return a request for comment.

It is time for the Saudi establishment, to reject and condemn this regressive, inhumane and, importantly, illegal interpretation of Islam.

We are wrestling with laws created in the name of Islam by men, specifically eight men. The Muslim world of the 21st century is largely defined by eight madhhab, or Islamic schools of jurisprudence, with narrow rulings on everything from criminal law to family law. But the first centuries of Islam’s 1,400-year history were quite different—characterized by scores of schools of jurisprudence, many progressive and women-friendly. It is not Islam that requires women to wear a headscarf, but rather the scholars in the contemporary schools.

The leaders of the lslamic State, or ISIS, exploit the Quranic language of “whom the right hand possess” to justify their brutal sexual captivity of women, including hostages from the Yazidi ethnicity, prompting honest headlines, like “ISIS enshrines a theology of rape,” by New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi.

On popular modern-day websites, written like “Dear Abby” advice columns, scholars of the Wahhabi and Salafi schools of Islam use the language of “whom the right hand possess,” or a “slave woman,” to divinely bless sexual concubines in the 21st century. On, Muhammad Al-Munajjid, a revered Saudi-educated Salafi scholar who has been the imam of a mosque in Saudi Arabia, writes, “Praise be to Allah, Islam allows a man to have intercourse with his slave woman, whether he has a wife or wives or if he is not married. A slave woman with whom a man has intercourse is known as a sariyyah (concubine) from the word sir, which means marriage.”

According to this scholar’s playbook, it is blasphemy for anyone, like us, to declare sexual concubines haram, or illegal. “The scholars are unanimously agreed on that and it is not permissible for anyone to regard it as haraam or to forbid it. Whoever regards that as haraam is a sinner who is going against the consensus of the scholars.” Al-Munajjid didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Salafi scholar cites as a precedent the story of Abraham, or Ibrahim in Islam, who had sex with Hagar, or Hajar, who then gave birth to baby Ishmael. They also cite the sunnah, or tradition, of the prophet Muhammad, who had sex with women who “the right hand possess.”

On the grainy half-minute clip that went around the world, the wife wrote as a caption: “the minimum punishment for this husband is to scandalize him.”

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In the film, the stocky middle-aged man stands in the kitchen, in a long white thawb, or gown, dragging onto the floor, and a red-tinged keffiyeh, or headdress, flowing over his shoulders. He seems to be kissing the young woman, who wears a dark headscarf over a long tunic and loose pants, both colored a matching lavender. She pulls away and scurries to a counter, swathed in a flood of sunlight streaming into the room through a large window.

The man follows her, almost waddling, suddenly behind her, the sound of a loud smacking kiss breaking the quiet, as the woman protests. She tries to go about her business, picking something up.

And then another clips begins, the man studying the woman’s hand, as she readies to take a serving plate of food out of the kitchen, and he asks: “What is this?”

La, Baba,” she says. “No, father. It is nothing.”

He follows her and says, "No. It’s not nothing. It looks like blood.”

Trying to shake him off, she insists. “No. It is nothing, ya baba.” Referring to the serving plate, she says, “I’ll take it.”

He hands her the plate, turns away, but then in a split second returns and gropes her in either the rear or the genital area and says. “Go on, take it there.”

She yelps. And then exclaims, “Wadhee!” “Let me take it!

He feigns her yelp.

As he continues to finger her, her knees seem to buckle slightly.

He draws closer to her, his hand dropping to between her legs, groping her, as she doubles over slightly, squirming, saying, “La! La!” “No! No!” She lets out a muffled groan, moving into a fetal position, turning away from him, her back arched, as he finally pulls away, saying “Yallah. Wadhee! Wadhee!

“OK. Take it there! Take it there!"

As we watched this film, we were left with one thought: Yes, “Baba,” this is something. It is despicable. It is disgusting. And it is, criminally, all too common.

The kind of predatory behavior revealed by the video speaks to a universal and timeless piranha mindset that makes some people dehumanize others to the point of horrifying exploitation and degradation. It challenges all of us, no matter what culture, or faith we are born into, to contemplate and meditate deeply upon treating others with humility, compassion and respect.

The video is shocking and repulsive, in part, because the film captures the ugly manifestation of sex, power and entitlement in ordinary life. Turning the tables on the wife—making her the shameful criminal instead of her husband—is a reflection of the twisted expression of human rights, honor, and face-saving that has been exercised for far too long in traditional societies, where patriarchy, sexism, and entitlement make cultures more like men’s club, where the working-class “poor” have little wasta, the Arabic word for “connections” and “clout.” This is particularly damning in the kafala, or “sponsorship” industry in Saudi Arabia, in which foreigners are so often bought, sold, and traded.

What’s happened in recent years is that, just as phone videos have been used in the U.S. to capture controversial police arrests and shootings, phone videos are being used today in a sort of wasta revolution, in which witnesses are shooting secret footage of abuse of power over maids, “servants,” children, and ordinary folks.

The wasta revolution flips the traditional notion of honor and frames behavior, like the Saudi man’s sexual harassment, as dishonorable and, in the courtroom of public opinion, it is the oppressed who have wasta, not the oppressor.

In Pakistan, someone shared a video last month of a family dining out with their “servant” girl, sitting at the same table, but not allowed to eat. Another clip, shared not long ago, showed another family dining out with their servants told to sit with their backs to the table. This past December, the video of a Filipino “household maid” in distress went viral. “Please help us,” she said. “I beg you.”

Men are very often not the only aggressors, either, and abuse exists beyond the boundaries of Saudi Arabia. Born in India and Egypt, we both grew up witnessing shockingly brutal violence against “servants” by women for whom dominance over “servants” was one of their few expressions of “power.” Such social abuse has become so normative that, very often, we look at such infractions through a lens of moral and cultural relativism, but doing so fails humanity.

Human Rights Watch estimates tens of millions of women and girls are employed as household “domestic workers,” and it estimates that millions of poor women from countries, including Bangladesh, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, work as “household maids” in the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Men and boys are hired too for menial tasks too often exploited inhumanely.

Years ago, the Economist outlined the injustices workers face, challenging governments of the workers to protect their citizens, in a piece, headlined, “Beheading the Golden Goose,” after Saudi Arabia beheaded an Indonesian “household maid.”

Human Rights Watch has documented the abuses against “domestic workers” in in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in reports titled “I Already Bought You” and “As If I Am Not Human,” noting “sexual violence” against workers, including “male employers” and their “teenage or adult sons” engaging in “inappropriate touching, hugging, and kissing” and “repeated rape.”

In a report in Der Spiegel, the investigative German magazine, two German ambulance workers who worked in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, testified to the abuses they had seen, chronicling one raped maid who was almost unable to walk due to the pain and others who get pregnant, babies usually abandoned, including at a local garbage dump.

The issue of the treatment and conduct of “domestic workers” in Saudi Arabia has led to heated diplomatic exchanges with countries from Ethiopia to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Two years ago, Annette Vlieger, a researcher who went undercover in South Asia and the Gulf to investigate the issue, published a book, Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates: A Socio-Legal Study on Conflict, telling Voice of America that “people are aware that the sexual abuse of domestic workers in the Middle East is pretty bad.” When she posed as a potential employer in the Middle East, she said, “…I was very much in shock—mostly in Saudi Arabia, where they simply told me, ‘She will be your slave for two years.’”

Workdays are ones of drudgery up to 20 hours, she said, and many were “abused, either physically or mentally” and “many women” were sexually abused as well.

Just like the young woman chronicled in the video, dodging the man’s groping but acquiescing to his presence, the researcher noted, “The women themselves simply believe in fate.” She said that poor rural families will often send one daughter to the Middle East “sort of like a sacrifice.” “Very often, girls know that that is their reason for existing,” she said.

A few years ago, the Saudi Gazette reported that “expat women commit suicide,” chronicling an “Indonesian housemaid” who hanged herself in her sponsor’s home in the city of eastern Asi, and an “Ethiopian housemaid” in her 20s who committed suicide inside “her sponsor’s home” in the holy city of Mecca. When she didn’t open her door, the story said, the family broke the door down and found “her body hanging from the ceiling.”

In 1962, the leader of Saudi Arabia, “King” Faisal, abolished slavery in Saudi Arabia by royal decree. But he largely neglected to amend Saudi labor laws to provide protection for workers in the kingdom because the culture of servitude is very intricately woven into its national fabric. The Saudi version of Romeo and Juliet is Qays Wa Layla, about the impossible love between the daughter of a high-born Saudi and her cousin, born to a slave mother.

The attitude of servitude extends toward “housemaids” in the modern day. In a book, Saudi Arabia Exposed, John R. Bradley, a British journalist who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for many years, detailed how these maids make between $150 and $200 a month, working around the clock without any benefits or medical insurance. Bradley explains how these maids are seen as lesser humans who should be grateful for the opportunity to serve. They are cut off from contact with their communities and kept as prisoners in the house.

This past March, Saudi Arabia executed two “household maids,” accused of killing family members from the family of their “sponsor,” amid protests from human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

Outside Saudi Arabia, we’ve seen glimpses of this abuse. In December 2001, a Saudi princess was arrested at a luxury Orlando resort, charged with beating her Indonesian servant and pushing her down a flight of stairs.

In July 2013, a Kenyan woman working for a Saudi princess escaped in Irvine, California, and complained that she and four other Filipino women were held against their will and mistreated.

Just weeks ago, a member of the Saudi ruling family was arrested in Los Angeles for allegedly forcing women workers to give him oral sex in his palatial Los Angeles mansion, with one woman attempting to scale a fence to escape the “prince,” traumatized and bloodied.

With sexual assault on campuses a universal problem, the issue got a cultural dimension last week with the arrest of four Saudi national students at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, for the alleged rape and sexual assault of two 18-year-old freshman women.

This week’s viral video emerged at a time of backlash to the Saudi regime for the tragedy of deaths at the hajj pilgrimage, its assaults in Syria and Yemen, and its export of the Wahhabi and Salafi ideology that fuels militant groups like the Islamic State. For example, we support a boycott of the hajj and the government of Saudi Arabia.

“It’s a little odd that the matter is being treated as a husband-wife scandal,” says Stanley Heller, a leader in a new Coalition to End the U.S.-Saudi Alliance, which supports a boycott. “The maid at minimum was sexually harassed and the act shown to the general public online. That’s a double crime against her.” The defamation law is being used to “intimidate the public from making justified criticism of public officials and the monarch,” he says.

Fortunately, from the Philippines to Nepal, citizens are rallying to protect their own against the tyranny of abuse of power. Last year, a new Facebook page, called “Filipino Domestic Worker Abuse in Saudi Arabia,” was created to facilitate a sort of “underground railroad” to help women from the Philippines escape servitude and abuse in Saudi Arabia, posting the email addresses and phone numbers for Philippines Embassy officials, as well as horror stories of the “OFW,” or “Overseas Filipino Worker.”

“…help is just a Text away,” read an early message.

The administrator of the website is a northern California former accountant, Karl Anderson, who became an accidental activist when a Facebook friend from the Philippines asked for help. Today, he helps about 10 women a month escape abuse to go to one of the little-discussed shelters in Saudi Arabia established for “household maids.”

“It is slavery,” Anderson tells us. “Every day, I see the face of slavery.”

“There is a woman who was forced to eat a child’s feces out of a diaper because she didn’t clean the diaper soon enough,” he says. “Women are raped, tortured, denied food, denied water, made to work 20 hours a day, seven days a week. One woman was only allowed to eat the food that her sponsor family left on their plates. They are treated like dogs.”

We as, a global society, need to answer the cry of some of the world’s most vulnerable, sanction the governments of Saudi Arabia and other countries that allow the abuse of “housemaids,” and promote a theology of Islam and global ethics that affirms that “the right hand” does not “possess” anyone and ordains us, based on a humanist ethos, to coexist with a sense of respect, compassion and dignity for all.