How Am I Doing?

You want an honest answer? Really?

One of the things I hate about my own American culture is the typical greeting, “How are you?” In truth, most Americans don’t really want the answer. In fact, it is rude to answer honestly if things aren’t going so well. The point is that “how are you?” is really a rhetorical statement. The inflection at the end of the statement is really just a formality. Sometimes it isn’t even there. People say as they pass by, “How are youuuuuuuuu.” voice fading as they speed by. Over the years I’ve had a lot of people ask me how am I doing and then get really annoyed when I tell them the truth. I’ve had friends who call me up and get really annoyed or impatient as I talk about things I’m struggling with. I’ve had close friends who have shared their stories, who I have helped work through issues, who I have sat for hour listening and trying to understand, go off on me or shut down when I share my story. But at least I can write uninterrupted. I don’t have to spin my wheels worrying if my complaints will offend someone’s sensibilities before I can fully articulate what I’m going to say.

To answer your question:

Alhumdulillah…Things have been challenging and frustrating. I’m just coming out from some major upsets. Thins are looking better, but I’m still wondering if it will work out just as planned. Things operate differently here. And there are different levels of shadiness and ineptitude. Overall, it is a mixed bag. I’ve already written about boredom and being judged. I have felt homesick, isolated, disoriented, and lonely. It would be far worse if I lived on my own. I’m grateful for my friend and her family. They basically keep me going. But sometimes I feel intrusive and like a burden. There are times when I felt like packing up everything and going back home. And then I realize, I can’t because I don’t have anywhere to go back to–somebody’s subleasing my room for the year. Plus through the past few years many of my relationships and friendships back home had become strained or distant at best. The nice ones were ephemeral, kind of like “hi-bye good luck on your trip!”

Before I left for this trip, I had no doubt that I had to take this step. But I had trepidations. I felt like I was putting life on hold. But then again, I wonder what life? I have spent the past 6 years focused on getting into graduate school and then trying to survive graduate school. It consumed everything. Even my few diversions and leisure activities (including laundry, foot soaks, blogging, visiting friends) were just coping mechanisms for graduate school. Even my leave of absence was full of reading, researching, planning, worrying, re-planning, writing proposals, and preparing for graduate school. This whole leave of absence for French and Arabic study took a huge wind out of me.

Cramming a year’s worth of French in six weeks was a piece of cake compared to embarking on this trip. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy many things about being in the Middle East. But is absolutely frightening to know you don’t have a safety net. By safety net, I mean family members who will send you funds if you get ripped off or stuck in a jam. I know a Muslim woman who was actually stuck, really stuck, in some Gulf country. All our affluent friends did nothing to help her out in her jam. I suppose those car notes and bargain shopping had ran up the bills. There was even one brother all into tasawwuf with a site about sacred knowledge who treated this sister poorly. He ran into her at the house of some people who might have helped her and her children find a safe place to live until she could get a ticket back to the states. But this well known brother sent her packing and told her never visit those people again. I guess he wanted to protect wealthy Muslims from helpless and homeless American Muslim women who are stranded abroad. After a harrowing story full of drama, she finally made it out and eventually made it back home. You can have your passport lost, credit card stolen and personal items stolen, put in jail, or become really sick. I’ve known people who have gone through some tribulations and trials abroad. Some of their accounts speak to my worst fears.

I’m still working on my fears and insecurities. I still get embarrassed speaking Fushah in public. I still don’t understand Kuwaiti Arabic and there are some days when your confidence in your language abilities gets knocked right out of you. I try to motivate and work harder despite the most recent setbacks. I try to think about the overall purpose. Learning Arabic has been a dream for 15 years. Going abroad wasn’t just important for my academic career, but my spiritual well-being. Maybe it was about letting go of some control–even though I finally had taken the reigns of my own life following my divorce. 5 years ago as I prepared for graduate school my adviser David Pinault said that graduate life was monastic. It entails poverty, lonely long hours, etc. He assured me that it was a good kind of poverty. You don’t starve, it is just a modest living. After a few years in graduate school I wasn’t in debt (except for those deferred student loans), I could pay my bills, I was even saving some money. I found history to be isolating. That was just part of the field, the long hours in archives, the long late nights writing, the time in the field. I knew that going abroad for graduate work was looming in my future. And it felt like a destabilizing force.

Two years ago I asked for guidance and support about graduate school and my requisite year in the field. One imam’s wife told me to look at graduate school like it was a prison–I was just doing my time. There are some mind trips about this training and the constant insecurity of graduate school. Academia is medieval in its structure, from the apprenticeship approach to developing your own masterpiece after demonstrating your worthiness to be in the guild of scholars. I haven’t even begun to think about the publish or perish world of tenure. My African American peers in graduate school tell me to keep up the fight. We’re so few, 3% of the graduate population at my university. With more African American men in prison than in dorms, I have to keep trying to make a difference. There are people who don’t want us there. There are people who don’t think I can do it. Jan Barker said that if we felt like we’ve been through a hazing in graduate school, it is because we have. Through the hazing process, my Muslim friends often tell me about having patience and faith. Keep going–it is a test. So, that’s how I’m doing. I’m in the middle of another test. I’m not sure if I’m passing. But I’m doing the best I can.

Why you all in my grill?

07_10_2006_1842.jpg
The majority of women wear hijab in Kuwait. And there is a significant portion of women who wear the face veil. I am often dazzled by hijab fashions in Kuwait. I try not to stare, but I am intrigued by the whole face veiling. I find that face veil does not preclude sexual attractiveness, since a lot of niqabis wear tons of eye make-up and are dowsed in so much perfume. Some of their abayas are form fitting and attention getting also. I’ve already mentioned the ‘ho shoes. Don’t get me started on designer bags and the cat-walking in the malls. Maybe niqab is not about modesty, but about anonymity.
I think this really hit home today. As we left the Friday Souq two stylishly dressed, and presumably young, niqabi ladies were sitting on a bench. They spotted us and broke their neck to follow us as we made our way out the market. It must have been the English, plus the group of seven brown people running amok. Normally staring people look away when you look back at them. I looked up and stared back at them. Neither one broke their gaze. I said in English, assuming a greater than 50% chance that they’d understand me. “I guess niqab allows you to stare at people.”

I have noticed that niqabis will just stare you down–hard. They had the advantage tonight. They were anonymous and we were not. I noticed that niqabis stare down men too. For me, niqab isn’t something new. I have friends who have worn niqab in the states for years. I’ve even tried it on for kicks. But I have not seen as many niqabis as I see here. Nor have I seen the levels flash that is often associated with khaliji style veiling. In my short stay in Egypt, I saw black enveloped and brightly robed niqabis, alongside the many veiled women. In Morocco, I saw the traditionally dressed women in jallabas, with their veils tucked just under their nose. During my stay in Fes, I came to dread encountering them on the street. No matter how smartly dressed, how neat their jallabas were, they’d hit us up for money. If we didn’t have that, they’d take our cokes, if we didn’t have that, they’d take our water. Nothing like a crowd of niqabis begging harrassing you. After awhile, I scoped out the street before heading down the block I saw a old school niqabi lady chillin on a stoop someqhere, I went to the next block. I’d cross the street sometimes.

As a non-niqabi, when I see a striking person, I tend to lower my gaze. I may look a few times just to gain an imprint in my mind. But as for looking at men, as a I follow the proper decorum. I tend to lower my gaze. One, I’m not trying to catch eye contact. Two, I tend to be kind of shy in public. I’ve never been one to stare down a man. Well, not on the street at least. And I won’t talk about the few times when I did try to those come hither looks. But that’s not going down in the Middle East. I lower my gaze. I know enough Arab men to know that one mistaken look and some random dude on the street may think I have the hots for him. I mean, I could have had something in my eye. Maybe his dishdash was blinded my vision in its crispy whiteness. I could have been trying to identify my surroundings or trying to judge the distance between me and him so I don’t run into a pole or something.

I was walking with a friend who wears niqab. After we passed by two Kuwaiti men, she murmured, “I see you two Kuwaiti men looking at me friend.” I told her I didn’t see them looking because I was staring at the ground. She said something like, “Hey I’m wearing niqab and I can look at them dead up in their face.” Maybe this niqab thing is not so bad after all. You can be a bit bolder in your use of public space. I might try this niqab thing. While donning it I can stare at who I want when I want. All the while I can pretend I’m the most beautiful girl in the world. Ahhhhhhhhh, next purchase Kuwait!!

When Life isn’t Fair…

I don’t think I’ve passed by a single pharmacy or beauty supply section in any corner store or hypermarket without encountering some skin lightening creams, soaps, powders, lotions, or treatments. It makes me acutely aware of one thing in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa—Black is NOT beautiful for many of these communities. There are skin lightening creams in the states, for sure. I remember on my way back from abroad, I stopped by a Queens shop to get my eyebrows threaded and henna. The lady next to me stopped in to get some brightening. She went in the back of the salon and underwent the uncomfortable chemical process. She happily walked out the salon a hint of a shade lighter. Several times I’ve seen flyers featuring skin brightening/whitening treatments at halal stores in the Bay Area. During the year I took a summer class in Berkeley, I discovered an Indian owned spa/salon right on the halfway mark between my dorms and Cal. I grew up with sistas who used to slather on Black and White creame everyday. My family never thought there was anything wrong with being brown. In fact, my mother used to put my sister in the sun when she was a little in hopes that her porcelein white skin would pick up a little tan. It took years before my sister tanned, as opposed to just burn and freckle. Now she has a peachy complexion of a southern California girl. The other day, she said her friend told her she was still to pale. It was funny to have that conversation considering the recent controversy over a skin bleaching product. Normally skin lightening creams have been marketed to women. But it took a campaign designed to appeal to men that finally drew controversy. Shahrukh Khan endorsed “Fair and Handsome,” a bleaching creme designed for men. The BBC reported on the criticism he received in an article titled, Beyond the Pale?

But there are many in blogistan who have written insightful posts about colorism and skin bleaching. Two of my favorite entries are “Ultra Brown” and The Right Shade. In addition to recent coverage of the controversy, I pulled up a few articles about the health risks of skin bleaching. I was suprised to see the prevalence of bleaching creams in Africa’s most populous nation. The article, Whitening Skin Can Be Deadlyreveals:

So, the prevalent medical evidence of high levels of mercury poisoning among women of Saudi, African, Asian and Mexican backgrounds reflects a common and prevailing belief that whiter skin has greater currency and appeal.

The article, African women risk all in quest for lighter skin colour, reports:

In Nigeria, where the use of skin-lightening creams is widespread, an estimated 77 per cent of women use them. In Senegal, the figure is 52 per cent, in South Africa 35 percent and in Mali 25 per cent.

Researchers in South Africa have pointed out that, “Society has a significant impact on the misuse of skin-lightening agents. It is known that during slavery years, light-skinned people were often given preferable treatment…and in modern times, studies have indicated that the majority of black men prefer light-skinned women as partners, girlfriends or wives.”

I walk past those pale women in black abayas who look like they never stepped outside in the sun a day in their lives. They add to their achievement by caking on the finest, whitest face powder.I wonder how they see me. And sometimes I see the disdain in their eyes. Even in societies where you see all sorts of shades, milky moon white to rich mohaganey browns, I find those bleaching creams offend me. They send a not so subtle message, that life is so much better when you’re fair. But you cannot be fair enough. Each time I see those creams, I feel like it is taking a jab at me and the beautiful brown people that I love so much.

Eid Mubarak and Why I still Get Excited about Turkey Day and Christmas

In some ways Ramadan passed by quickly and in other ways it seemed like it would never end (or at least I would not be able to make it to the end). I guess I try to be festive, but I have to make a painful confession as a proud Muslim. My Eids have sucked in comparison to Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family. Don’t get me wrong. My family does not celebrate it for nationalistic reasons or religious. But it is a time when my mom cooks special foods and a time when we eat and catch up. There are lots of Muslims who are against celebrating the Pilgrims getting saved by Native Americans and then turning around decimating Native American populations. But even more than that, many Muslims are against celebrating a holiday that has pagan roots. But believe me, it is not like I’m going around praying to a Christmas tree. I’m just happy to be home and see my family and eat some soul food.

Last year, in my blog entry, Ramadan Around the Corner, I wrote this:

The Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan is by no doubt a relief. But I hate the anti-climatic end to my month long process of food and sleep deprivation. Usually I have to go back to work. Everything goes to normal, nothing changes, no visiting friends and family. It is about as much fanfare as, secretary’s day sometimes. I know, no one in my family celebrates Eid. I think I received an Eid gift maybe once in like 13 years. It is a struggle to feel part of a community during that time. In the large crowds I’m usually grateful to find a familiar face and give quick salaams. My Muslim friends are off doing their family thing. If I go hang out with them, I’m sort of like a fifth wheel. So, I just go home and dream of a time when I could have my own Muslim family and we can make up some traditions of our own.

l think either Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr for single converts can have the same effect as Christmas and Thanksgiving on single people who live far from their family. I remember having a conversation about the loneliness converts experiences with someone who was born into a Muslim family. She stated she doesn’t fit in and has felt lonely sometimes, especially when she went to grad school. But the simple fact is that she now lives near her parents, siblings, and in-laws, has a growing family of her own, and everybody seems pretty close-knit. She has people she can visit during Eid, and they’d be happy to see her, or visiting is an obligation, a duty. I remember a few years ago I asked a Desi friend what did they do after the Eid prayers. They got a little uncomfortable. I wasn’t supposed to know this. Like I didn’t have the secret handshake or password. After some prying they said their families had a function, normally with other Desi families. I don’t recall being invited to one of the Eid parties, or even the hajj welcome back parties. However, I’m invited to weddings and the parties where everyone from the entire Muslim universe is invited. But often I feel awkward as that one weird Black chick that people see around occassionally.

This Eid was better than my previous Eids. I’m not going to go into detail about why my Eids on the East Coast, with my now ex and now former in-laws. But they those three Eids sucked just as much as my miskeena Eids in California.
For years Eid traditions were a mystery. I mean, I know what you’re supposed to do before Eid prayers eat some sweets, (wear perfume if you’re a guy, but not if you’re a woman cause the pleasant odor of a woman will cause disorder and disruption), drive different routes there and back. But every culture has something different that they do in celebration of Eid. They have special sweets, traditions to delight children, clothing, and customs of visiting grandparents and family members. One of my friend noted that even though she would like to experience a Kuwaiti Eid, she has never been invited to a Kuwaiti Eid gathering. Normally they say, “See you after Eid!” So, we still don’t know what Arab, South Asian, or what ther Muslims really do for Eid, outside of what we hear on radio specials. Perhaps the imprenetable nature of the eid private family gathering over the past 14 years represented my outsider status. Many of the international students experience this when they study in the states. So, organizaitons like the ISSU at Stanford organize specially events to bring people to together. They are nice, but I’m like wow after 14 years I am still transient. Every year I feel like that poor undergrad who doesn’t have any money to buy a plane ticket home for Thanksgiving break. You know those undergrads who don’t have anywhere to go off campus, there’s nothing like cafeteria turkey to warm the heart.

I just gave up going to Eid prayer. But I still go to Eid functions with the other long-way-from-home Muslims. I still felt a bit dissapointed one Eid because I signed up for the secret Sheikh/a (kinda like secret Santa). So I was all excited that I’d get an Eid gift for the first time in like 9 years. But my secret Sheikha forgot me. It wasn’t about the gift, but just about the thought. Then, another Eid, I missed a funny presentation because of a 20 minute long argument that I had with an international student who insisted that Black people didn’t give a damn about Darfur and how that was so hypocritical considering what African Americans been through. I mean, Eid Mubarak! Nothing like other Africans in the Diaspora making you feel like crap during Eid. Maybe some of us grad students are so analytical and outraged by injustices we see, that we can’t find a way to be festive. I dunno. I’m trying to not let the festive holidays depress me or let crowded gatherings make me for lonely. I think that’s why I became excited when I found out that I didn’t have to attend Eid prayers as long as there were enough people to fulfill the obligation. But this time in Kuwait, I did want to go to Eid prayer. But I fell asleep late and didn’t wake up in time. I guess I have to catch the sea of black abayas and chadors next during the next Eid (that’s the big Eid al-Adha). There were several kid centric things going on for Eid. But I have always wondered if there were special bazaars, performances, and street food that people eat during Eid. And not all the time is Eid about children. Eids were also the big mixed gatherings that medieval Muslim scholars in Andalusia condemned because the young single people of opposite sexes could see each other. Gosh, the threat of social collapse due to young men and women intermixing and possibly flirting. Watch out now!

Seeing how scandal follows a single Muslim woman like doo doo draws flies, I decided to pass on the kid-centric picnick on an Island on Friday. After the kids came back from picnicking and spending money at an amusement park, they returned home. I sat with them to exchange gifts and unwrap Eid presents. I realized that this was the first time I ever really saw kids excited about Eid and doing Eid-like things. It was one of the more pleasurable moments. Since Thursday morning, several members of the family I’m staying with have come down with some stomach bug. So, no big celebratory feasts. Who has the energy for all that? But in order to alleviate my cabin fever, I I went to an Eid open house at the AWARE Center (Advocacy for Western Arab Relations). I was nice getting out, I ran into some students from Kuwait University. But still, more of an open house than the warm feeling of a holiday. Don’t get me wrong some people have fun during Eid. I think especially when you part of a family or have strong bonds with people who share the day with you, it can be really nice. Eid is less materialistic than Christmas, there is all the stress similar to Christians–the crowds, the rush to buy presents, clothes, and food. It is not the material things about Christmas or the feast of Thanksgiving that draws me to it. But it is the sense that I am sharing precious time with loved one. It is a sense that belong somewhere, as opposed to being a lost person in the crowds of communalism, that makes me want to make my Eids like Christmas.

You Don’t Know Me From Adam–Maids in Kuwait Part 2

This is a continuation of the discussion on maid. In my previous post, I compared live-in maids with other servile positions–specifically slavery. This post is about the motivations that drive the institution and the types of maids.

There are many motivating factors to getting domestic help in Kuwait. One, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to get unskilled labor in Kuwait. Kuwait to get help legally than it is in the states. There are Kuwaiti citizens on top, then Westerners, then Arabs from other countries, and then South Asians on the bottom of the social ladder. Located in the Persian Gulf, Kuwait is relatively close to Africa and South Asia. There are dozens of undeveloped nations in close proximity, making flights relatively cheap in comparison to travel to America or Canada. Cheap labor, and especially cheap domestic labor is predicated upon the economic inequality between oil rich nations and undeveloped nations. With foreigners consisting of 80% of the workforce, Kuwait is a highly stratified society. Kuwait also has a large population of immigrant male workers in skilled and unskilled positions. Maids, janitorial staff, retail clerks, hostesses, and waitresses are some of the few job opportunities that women from poor nations have in Kuwait. Kuwaitis and westerners, on the other hand enjoy a high standard of living. Part of the standard of living includes maids and domestic help.

So what motivates someone to get a live-in maid? Several factors drive the demand for maids. There is a higher premium on the home as a center of socialization in Kuwait. In addition to the burden of housework and child-rearing on women, women play a large part organizing family gatherings and diwaniyyas (gatherings of men who sit in large room and drink tea, coffee, and other manly stuff). Women’s time is often spread thin between child rearing, house-hold errands, social obligations outside the home, religious duties, and receiving guests displaying elaborate hospitality. A social visit can take hours and socializing is not just limited to week-ends. In addition, Ramadan is a month long. For the non-Muslims out there, Ramadan is like 30 days of Thanksgiving (including the hours you don’t eat so you can stuff yourself). A family may not be able to make excuses for not allowing company over or visiting friends during special holidays and special events. The husband may have impromptu guests. In addition, hospitality is very elaborate. While catering can be an option, preparing meals for guests can be overwhelming for a female head of household. This includes various time-consuming dishes, and elaborate deserts and intricate coffee and tea ceremonies. Add room set up, cooking, serving, clean up, to the normal household work and child rearing equals means that one 4 hour event can equal more than two days of preparation.

In addition, childcare for young children is often inside the home under the supervision of the mother. Women are expected to have many children and breast-feeding is encouraged. They often do not have family members living with them to help out. In addition, from what I have seen, children spend less time in front of tv or playing video or computer games. I don’t see too many walkers, playpins, or blockaded areas where infants and toddlers can sit unattended for periods of time. This means children are less zoned out and require more attention. Who watches the children while you cook? This is an especially important question in places where gas stoves explode or there are carbon monoxide leaks.

While there are many hardworking mothers who really need extra support to fulfill all the household work, there is also the laziness factor. Some children are closer to the maids than they are their own mothers. Some women may need maids to clean and babysit while they shop to they drop at one of the high end malls. Maids may take over the messy work of child rearing, feeding the baby, burping the baby, getting the baby throw up all over their maid uniform. That way, the mother can keep her nice rhinestone embellished black abaya looking really sharp. Some people want to be served hand and foot. I have heard of a family that has three children and three maids, one for each child. For some women, live-in maids free them from mundane domestic work, the kind that makes your hands hard or ruins your manicure. There is also a prestige to being able to afford maids, while the servile position is looked down upon.

For the maids not only is there a stigma to being in a servile position, but also domestic work does not offer upward mobility or career growth. What would motivate someone to come to a Kuwait without speaking a lick of Arabic and put themselves at the mercy of an agency and some random family? Women in developing countries have limited opportunities to join the work force in their own communities. This limitation is especially for women without education backgrounds. For numerous women, work in places like Kuwait is an opportunity to send money to support their families and children. There are some maids who are well educated and join a maid placement agency but are really looking for other opportunities. They figure that by getting to Kuwait, they can pursue better opportunities. Rarer cases seem to involve single women hoping that they can find a well-to-do husband in Kuwait. There are cases where maids do get married and become heads of households themselves. I personally don’t have the statistics.

There are live-in maids and part time maids. Part time maids are actually more expensive. Some households require maids to work long hours. The longest I’ve heard shift for a live in maid was from 5 am to 3 am the next day. Others allow their maids the evening off. Some households don’t give their maids a day off. But many give their maids Friday off. Some maids are given separate sleeping quarters or their own rooms outside the home. Other maids are given only a mat to roll out and roll up (later in this article I will talk about why do families not allow separate sleeping quarters or give their maids a day off). From what I know, starting salaries for live-in maids is around 45 Kuwaiti Dinars (KD = 3.5 dollars). But a part time maid is 120 KD. Part time maids come to your home for set shifts and leave by evening. Most of these maids have husbands who are working in Kuwait. One of my friends noted that part time maids are efficient and have professional attitudes and demeanors. Part time maids often have ambitions and demand a certain amount of respect. She pointed out that many of the live-in maids on the other hand, are often not trained and often act slavishly. They often have emotional baggage (suffering from fits, fainting spells, endless crying, weeping when told how to do a job correctly). Part of the baggage comes from the culture shock arriving in Kuwait, or from a negative experience with a former boss. Part time maids may take the job because they can use the extra cash.

Maids can fulfill a range of jobs, from cook, servant, housekeeper, launderer, to babysitter. The jobs can range from labor intensive to relatively light. Some families can have several maids, each with set duties. There may be a maid assigned to cook, a maid who focuses on laundry, and a maid whose only job is to care for children. Some families travel with their maids because they need extra help with children. Despite the multiple duties they fulfill, maids are given little training such as language training, customer service, kitchen safety, janitorial and housekeeping skills, child development, or CPR. I have also heard that some agencies train maids in rudimentary Kuwaiti Arabic and housekeeping skills. These agencies charge a lot more than the ones I have visited so far Maids can range in various levels of efficiency in performing household duties.

People often talk about maids like their countries are brand names. It is not uncommon to go to an agency and say, “I’m looking for an Indian maid.”Formerly, Filipino maids were popular until their country demanded salaries that reached close to a teachers salary. Now Kuwait is boycotting the Philipines. But there are still many Filipino maids whose visa have not expired and want to continue to work in Kuwait. In addition to Filipino maids, there are Indonesian, Indian, Nepalese, and Ethiopian maids. Filipino maids often speak English, so that is a benefit for American families. Often people will argue the merits of the maids from a particular country. Sometimes there are different fads. I have heard that right now, Ethiopian maids are in. Some countries have reputations, for example an Ethiopian maid said that Indonesian maids eat wiiiiiiiiiide (Kuwaiti for a lot). Other countries have reputations for being promiscuous. Filipino maids get that honor. I heard that after getting a few accounts of Filipino maids sneaking men into the house or running off with the KFC delivery guy from Egypt. Basically, maids are essentialized in their ethnic categories.

One of the things that makes it difficult to understand a live-in maid’s human experience is that there is a language barrier. As I stated earlier, there are many maids who cannot speak Arabic or English. Even if they do, few speak it well enough. But some Kuwaiti families prefer their maids to not speak an Arabic. I have heard accounts that say it is best to get a maid who had no previous experience, or worse, a returned maid. One Lebanese family living in Kuwait had an Ethiopian maid who didn’t speak Arabic when she started but within a year she was fluent, plus she learned to cook and clean just like, “madam.” But this is rarely the case. If a multi-lingual woman who has a smidgen of education comes to Kuwait as a maid, it is likely she has higher aspirations.

In the next section I will talk about the ways in which maids are in vulnerable positions and how people have abused maids. I will draw from stories I have heard and from news reports.

You Don’t Know Me from Adam–Maids in Kuwait Pt. 1

Americans are largely unconcerned with problems surrounding domestic workers (maids, nannies, and cooks), outside of scandals involving officials using undocumented workers (illegal immigrants) and sex scandals with the babysitter or nanny. Yet in Western news reports on Middle Eastern countries there are sensational stories about human trafficking, physical abuse, labor without compensation, and forced captivity. Many of us Westerners were horrified to hear of cases where maids were beaten, given little food, or held captive without pay. Some maids are subject to cruel treatment, long grueling hours, and hard labor. Despite the downsides of maid service, thousands of maids come to places like Kuwait for opportunities to work in middle class and affluent Kuwaiti homes. Many American and Western expats in Kuwait rely upon domestic help. From my conversations with American expats and my own personal experiences with maids, I have seen how the intertwined working and living arrangements between well-off families and poor women gives rise to numerous ethical and social problems in kuwait.

Before I begin talking about live-in maids, I wanted to discuss some of the underlying assumptions and cultural attitudes that many of us share about domestic workers. Americans often have a negative view opinion of people who use domestic help. In the States, only affluent families or well off families can afford live-in domestic help. The general public see the women who rely upon nannies as lazy, indulgent mothers. Conservatives who believe that women should be in the home look down upon career women who rely upon nannies and maids to do domestic work. Stay-at-home mothers who hire nannies to help out with children are also viewed negatively. People see them as lazy indulgent mothers who don’t want to spend time with their children. A common view is that they are not caring for their children. While there are less negative views about housekeeping services, the general public generally looks down upon families that rely upon live-in maids. The most common view of domestic workers is that they are vulnerable and exploited by bosses who are too lazy to do things that normal people do for themselves.

As a servile position, the abuse of maid service has been compared to slavery by media and labor activists. While this essay makes no attempt of a thorough analysis of slavery and servile institutions, however it is clear that live-in domestic workers’ toils and tribulations pale in comparison to the historical experiences of chattel slavery in the Atlantic slave system or plantation slavery in Africa (West African [crop] and clove planations in Zanzibar). Maids have a much greater degree of choice and agency. A maid also maintains links with their family and in time can return back home. Slave systems worked because slaves could not go back home. There is no social death from free person to non-free person and their position is temporary (although some contracts can render a maid in greater debt when they leave). Maids have rights over their own children and lineage. A slave had no rights over their own production and biological reproduction.
Maids migrate to developing nations out of their own free will in order to seek better opportunities. The measure of free will depends upon if we can argue that desperate economic conditions still leaves an individual to choose freely. What happens once the maids arrive in a family’s home can differ greatly, depending on laws that protect immigrant workers and domestic help, contract, and temperaments of the family and the worker.

I intend to explore various issues surrounding maids, from the motivations that drive live-in maid service as an institution and the types of maids that live in Kuwait. After looking at some underlying assumptions we might have in the West, I will then consider the ways employers have exploited maids. I will then look at stories about unethical maids. Through anecdotal evidence, I hope to explore complicated issues that move us beyond a simple black and white picture of the difficult relationships between maids and the families that hire them.

Part 2 Motivations and types of Maids
Part 3 Maids as victims
Part 4 Scandals and the Maids who abuse the system
Part 5 Personal experiences, Reflection on the institution, and Conclusion

Death and Dishonor

Our religion says not to kill,” and then after another moment: “But our tradition says to kill.”

Abu Moghaseb, 2007

In a my previous post, Cultural Matters, Bridging Worlds, I wrote, “There are all sorts of ways that culture can play a dynamic role in keeping the tradition alive. Culture is important, it is dynamic… There are many cultures that are disappearing under globalization, but at the same time new ones forming out of hybrid identities and close encounters of the humankind.” This is the upside of tradition. But as with anything there is a shadow to the preservation of traditions. Some traditions are more about power and control. Some traditions are counterproductive to a society. Some traditions contradict the very moral and ethical basis that the society claims to stand on. Clearly, I am not a cultural relativist. I believe there is truth (even if we can only have a limited understanding of it) and that there are such things as right and wrong. I find some tradtitions repugnant and unacceptable. For me, this is especially the case when it condones, reinforces, or encourages violence against a society’s most vulnerable members. I believe one of our duties is to protect those who cannot defend themselves. However, I find that in Muslim communities we are falling short of this.

Years ago I attended a talk by a Jordanian activist who worked towards ending honor killings. She shows statistics that demostrated that few conservative Muslim scholars and lawmakers were willing to impose the mandatory hudud sentence for murder when comes to murdering women. Crimes against women go unpunished. Especially when it comes to “honor killings.” Husbands, brothers, fathers, and even uncles brutally murder their loved ones, all to wash away the shame of a scandal, or even suspicion of unchaste behavior. There have been a few cases reported in the West. Many Muslims in the West try to distance themselves by explaining it is a cultural thing. But as an American Muslim convert, this act was inconceivable. For me it was unthinkable that this could be accepted by any Muslim (Aren’t we supposed to believe in justice and mercy?). I still have a hard time knowing that there are men who are able to kill female family members with impunity.

I was reminded about our sad state affairs in an email discussion group. The New York Times recently published a story, Dishonorable Affiar, which really saddened me. I don’t know how anyone can read this story without crying:

Zahra was most likely still sleeping when her older brother, Fayyez, entered the apartment a short time later, using a stolen key and carrying a dagger. His sister lay on the carpeted floor, on the thin, foam mattress she shared with her husband, so Fayyez must have had to kneel next to Zahra as he raised the dagger and stabbed her five times in the head and back: brutal, tearing thrusts that shattered the base of her skull and nearly severed her spinal column. Leaving the door open, Fayyez walked downstairs and out to the local police station. There, he reportedly turned himself in, telling the officers on duty that he had killed his sister in order to remove the dishonor she had brought on the family by losing her virginity out of wedlock nearly 10 months earlier.

Zahra died from her wounds at the hospital the following morning, one of about 300 girls and women who die each year in Syria in so-called honor killings, according to estimates by women’s rights advocates there. In Syria and other Arab countries, many men are brought up to believe in an idea of personal honor that regards defending the chastity of their sisters, their daughters and other women in the family as a primary social obligation.

….

Yet the notion that Islam condones honor killing is a misconception, according to some lawyers and a few prominent Islamic scholars. Daad Mousa, a Syrian women’s rights advocate and lawyer, told me that though beliefs about cleansing a man’s honor derive from Bedouin tradition, the three Syrian laws used to pardon men who commit honor crimes can be traced back not to Islamic law but to the law codes, based on the Napoleonic code, that were imposed in the Levant during the French mandate. “Article 192 states that if a man commits a crime with an ‘honorable motive,’ he will go free,” Mousa said. “In Western countries this law usually applies in cases where doctors kill their patients accidentally, intending to save them, but here the idea of ‘honorable motive’ is often expanded to include men who are seen as acting in defense of their honor.

“Article 242 refers to crimes of passion,” Mousa continued. “But it’s Article 548 that we’re really up against. Article 548 states precisely that if a man witnesses a female relative in an immoral act and kills her, he will go free.” Judges frequently interpret these laws so loosely that a premeditated killing — like the one Fayyez is accused of — is often judged a “crime of passion”; “witnessing” a female relative’s behavior is sometimes defined as hearing neighborhood gossip about it; and for a woman, merely speaking to a man may be ruled an “immoral act.”

Right now, I’m kind of speechless. I’d rather the stories speak for themselves:Jordan Honor Killing Turns out Daughter was a Virgin
Who killed the Juha sisters? Jordan Charges six over “honor” killings
The Horror of Honor Killings in Turkey.

Just a sidebar note: Muslims are not the only people who do honor killings, as this article indicates. Violence against women is a worldwide phenomena. I address the Muslim world because I am part of that community and if I don’t speak against this particular evil act, then I am complicit in my silence. I think we should all remember the many nameless victims and pray that they receive justice. We should pressure our lawmakers and scholars to condemn these actions.