Two days before our second son was born, April 12th, the New York Times published a piece about “Indentured Servitude in the Persian Gulf.” The piece was categorized as news analysis. For those of us living in the Arabian Gulf (since Persia, or Iran, is a known competitor with the GCC), Richard Morin’s piece might as well have been published thirty years ago. After all there was little in the way of news or analysis.
Qataris, he stated, are known to under pay and often abuse their domestic help. Qatar is very wealthy. People are brought to work here under false promises and then have difficulty returning home.
All of this you’d know in the first four weeks of living here.
What I wish Morin had taken time to discuss is all the areas of grey. These areas of mistreatment, racism, and classism have danced around my mind as a South Asian American who has made her home in Doha since 2005. As a wife in a racially mixed marriage and the mother of two boys of multicultural background, I can’t escape the nuances of the layers of race, gender, and class in everyday life in Qatar.
Nuances that are missing from Morin’s piece but which are the chief subject of my third novel, The Dohmestics, about housemaids in an unnamed Arab emirate. Not only the housemaids, however, the
book examines their employers. This is where the NYT could have asked for more in-depth reporting. Because as both the novel and lived experience show, Qataris, are not the only ones guilty of superior attitudes or abuse when it comes to the help.
The startling truth is anyone can beat a housemaid.
You can be a Western expat who works for an oil company, upset that your windows are not washed correctly at 2 a.m. and hit your much smaller in stature and status worker.
You can be an Indian national, outraged that the cleaner you have been paying 25 QR an hour for part time work, has actually found a family who wants to give her a contract with benefits, and shout at her for being selfish.
You can be a researcher in migrant affairs who doesn’t pay your house help when you decide to leave for the summer.
The list goes on and on and on – and painfully – on.
Our nanny requested to take two months vacation on the eve of the arrival of our second child. We were dismayed at her request because no family was able to attend the birth. We mulled it over. After all, we ourselves, as white collar professionals, had never had a two month vacation. But how could we deny someone else her right to be with her family?
She traveled and I scrambled to find someone to help with our two year old as I lumbered around, 38 weeks pregnant and still working.
In the search for another short term employee, I spoke to no less than 15 women, all of them with different situations, considerations, and stories. No two were the same. Yet they had all received some kind of mistreatment – whether being asked to share a room and a bed with the ailing grandfather they were taking care of – from low wages, to yelling, to hitting, to that ultimate violation, sexual assault.
We managed to find someone who was shy, full of smiles, and whose antics made us laugh. She cooked steak for dinner, leaving it in the oven for 40 minutes. Needless to say it was more like beef jerky when it came out. Is this what you would shout at someone for?
I went out with her and my two boys one morning, only to discover we had left the diaper bag at home. I thought she had it. She thought I had it. Is that what you would hit someone over?
This same woman was paying half her salary to rent a room from someone for whom she woke up at 4:30 everyday so she could make her landlord’s breakfast, iron her clothing, and anything else she needed. She sent home 100 QR a month to her teenage daughter (the equivalent of $30 USD). No abusing Arabs in sight in this scenario.
The one commonality of the ‘maid’ stories I have heard during my interview project (The Nanny Diaries: Doha Edition) is that the nationality of the perpetrator changed. Sometimes they were Arab. Other times (to my horror) Indian. Occasionally British. Not unusual for a non-real American, or the way someone who has a Western passport but isn’t white is often referred to (my husband and myself included).
The fact is the power structure within the GCC puts everyone on your honor; you only have to be as reasonable as you want. After all who will hold you accountable? Not the law. Not the government. And certainly not the community, who are your co-workers and friends.
What someone is paid, whether she has a day off, how much she gets to eat, all varies from house and house.
Each of us knows only in the quiet of our own hearts whether we really would want to work for someone like us. And that’s regardless of where we come from. That’s an angle the NYT could have used if they really wanted to show the extent of abuse possible for these women who put their lives in our hands and homes.