Something decidedly medieval is in the air in Saudi Arabia. Fears of black magic and curses cast by Indonesian domestic helpers have spread across the country, and Saudi employers increasingly feel the need to hire private investigators to check their domestic workers for suspicious behavior and evidence for witchcraft.
Investigators, mostly foreign women from neighboring countries, are paid to search for photographs, hair, or clothes belonging to the employers before the domestic helpers are repatriated, reports Arab News. The employers do not do this themselves because they feel it is immoral and something Islam prevents them to do.
This is a strange story, worthy of trashy tabloids and supernatural fiction. But clearly, superstition is a habit that dies hard, often with dire consequences. There is no mention in the report about the rampant abuse of migrant domestic workers by Saudi employers, but I assume that that is the long running back story that needs no introduction. Abuse of domestic workers ranges from emotional and physical abuse to rape, slavery, and even murder. There is very little sense or a trace of rationality to fear domestic workers for practicing black magic unless one’s judgment is clouded by xenophobia and the normalization of the dehumanization of working-class foreigners. Even the Saudi religious police, the mutawa, have become self-styled witch-hunters, lacking only a burning stake in the middle of a city square to complete the image in a country where witchcraft is illegal and punishable by death.
But stories of black magic do not just arise out of thin air. They are a byproduct of a larger economic and political structure that renders migrant workers vulnerable to xenophobic and racist attacks. The U.N. research institute for social development has identified three aspects attributable to the heightened xenophobia in the Middle East. First, a preference for a temporary contract labor. Second, discriminatory employment practices and the special “allocation” for menial jobs for migrant workers; and finally, a culture of disdain towards those who are visibly different.
Abuse of every despicable kind is by no means limited to Saudi households, but is also widespread in where I come from, Malaysia. High-profile cases involving horrific abuse of domestic helpers grabbing international attention in the last ten years have hardly left a dent on the conscience of many Malaysians. Having been brought up for a number of years with a domestic helper at home while both my parents went to work, it is an accepted way of life for a significant proportion of Malaysians. Domestic helpers provide huge relief for double income families, and many became part of the family, joining in on holidays and included in family portraits. Muslim Indonesian maids are preferred in most Muslim households for a variety of reasons, food preparation and religious sensitivity among them, but they are also some of the most badly treated.
Filipino workers, who majority are Christians on the other hand, suffer lower rates of abuse because arguably, they are better protected: thanks to government lobbying, Filipino migrant workers are paid better than their Indonesian counterparts, and in places like Jordan, bans have been imposed on potential employers to receive Filipino domestic helpers due to reports of abuse. They are also a smaller group compared to Indonesian female migrant workers. Most Filipino maids are older than Indonesian workers, better educated and skilled. But this is not about numbers–cases of abuse no matter how high or isolated deserves the attention and effective action.
It’s difficult to piece together the macro structures such as the economy, world poverty, and immigration policies with attitudes of ordinary families toward domestic helpers to fully understand what brings people to commit inhuman acts on other human beings. I often wonder if whether having a person contracted to live under one’s roof has anything to do with it. Bringing in someone to cook, clean your clothes, look after the children and/or elderly relatives must involve a tricky negotiation over privacy and other practical matters included in having another person under the same roof.
Perhaps there’s very little in terms of a middle way between welcoming a domestic helper as a new member of the family or simply as a stranger in the home. If the case is the latter, then life at home must be uncomfortable not just for the employers and their family, but particularly for the domestic workers who’ve travelled far from home to find a better life. Is this an effect of our changing values vis-a-vis a rapidly changing urban landscape where increased contact with “the outside world” through immigration and migration has become inevitable and unsettling for many?