Sunday, 29 January 2012

Maid in Lebanon

(no, not as a potential career option)

Last week, a bar in the hip-and-happening neighborhood of Gemmayzeh in Beirut (it’s Gemmayzin’!) attempted to organize a fancy-dress event in which the best costume would receive a 100$ prize. And yes, that is our local currency. 
The event caused so much controversy and online criticism, lead by Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement, that the event was promptly cancelled. Not only that, but the bar’s advert for the event was reposted on facebook status messages and blogs across cyberspace. The reason? Patrons were being asked to dress up as migrant domestic workers.  
For the hilariously and blatantly racist advert along with details of the story click here.
I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of controversy this issue caused. The bar owner defensively assured us that “’It was supposed to be for fun”, and call me cynical, but I assumed that a lot of Lebanese would agree. After all, Lebanese racism against foreign workers has pervaded our culture and  jokes so deeply, that I did not think this would be taken as seriously as it was.
I have countless stories to demonstrate this, but instead I'm just going to link you to this little exerpt form Shankaboot (incidentally the actress is a friend of my brother's!). For non-Arabic speakers, remember to click on captions!

And should it be taken this seriously? Some people argue that in our attempt to eradicate racism, we have become a little over-sensitive. This Halloween, for example, I decided to dress up as a dark elf. For the costume to be really cool the way I could see it in my head, I decided to paint every inch of my exposed skin completely black. I hadn’t thought about it as being controversial at all before one of my friends pointed it out to me. ’Don’t you think that could be perceived as racist?’ I agonized over it briefly, looked up ‘Blackface’ online, and decided that my costume was not racist, and anyone who perceived it as such was being overly sensitive. (Interestingly when I finally showed up at my friend’s Halloween party, someone there was in deliberate Blackface get-up which promptly relieved me of any controversy!)

But in the case of the maid in Lebanon, where racism is only starting to be acknowledged, the situation is so serious and disturbing that blowing things out of proportion might not be such a bad idea. In Lebanon, it is estimated that we have around 200,000 migrant workers, most of them Asian and African. It started with a huge influx of Sri Lankan workers in 1993 (hence 'Sri Lankan' has become eponymous with 'maid' in Lebanon: 'Is your Sri Lankan Ethiopian or Filipino?). Shockingly, it was also reported that between 2007 and 2008, one maid a week committed suicide in Lebanon (although it is unclear what percentage of this was actually at the hand of their employers). With inadequate laws to protect them, and a deeply-entrenched racism cultivated against them among the Lebanese people, foreign maids have always had a tough deal. But perhaps with stories like last week's, and the growing power of social media, all of us can have a little say on whether or not this sort of thing should be acceptable.

For a documentary describing the 'complex relationship between domestic workers and the Lebanese household' click here.


  1. Interestingly, some friends told me this yesterday: The race of your domestic worker is also a sign of prestige. People who employ Fillipinos are considered higher-class than those who hire workers from Bengladesh or Sri Lanka.

    What do you expect from a country that is so childishly obsessed with appearances, that people will spend 100$ a week on clubs, cars, and dinners and sit in the dark because they can't pay their electricity bill.

  2. I didn't realise that! I suppose that's what the wonderful Madame Najem meant when she was considering an upgrade!

    I do find it heartening that this story got so much attention, I'm sure this sort of thing used to happen all the time without any exposure or controversy. Also, much worse happens in other Middle Eastern countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE) without so much as a cringe.

  3. Sadly a condescending behavior managed to seep into our culture to become part of its architecture. Nowadays buildings/apartments are built with an essential requirement for a room for domestic workers, usually small-cornered-sunnless part of the house. I was discussing this with a friend (American living in UK) who was appalled from such thing, she disclosed her disturbance when she encountered similar situation on her visit to Japan. Apparently we are not the only ones that feel superior to other unfortunate people!

  4. You're right, the fact that new houses are being built with special, small, sunless rooms for the maids is quite worrying! It's kind of consolidating their position in our society in a permanent, brick-wall kind of way! Since I've posted I've been hearing about examples of this modern day slavery all around the world, but the Lebanese reaction has been very promising. I think the new generation really sees this for what it is: a serious violation of human rights and dignity.