Headlines involving domestic workers in the Gulf often fall into one of two categories: the horrifying or the ‘quirky.’ Reactions to the former – a maid raped, a woman tortured and enslaved – are instantaneous: absolute revulsion. But condemnation of the latter is less apparent, less certain. The absurdity of these stories – for example, an employer complaining about a maid using her cell phone – appears somewhat lighthearted. Wrong, but essentially harmless; perhaps the product of a “funny” law, another oddity of the intersection between the Gulf’s culture and legal system.
In a case involving cash and jewelry theft, the article’s headline reads “Maid Stole her Employer’s Lingerie,” promoting a condescending, farcical image of domestic workers. In another article, two migrants imprisoned after sleeping together in an employer’s house are referred to as “Kuwait’s Romeo & Juliet.” The attention drawn to the ‘humor’ in these cases often mask the seriousness of the situation.
Such severe criminalization of minor “violations” have become normalized, infantilizing domestic workers by denying them even the simplest independent decision making. Every inch of a domestic worker’s life becomes a point for government and employer control; “domestic dictatorships” and the legal systems that support them seek to dictate nearly the entirety of workers’ lives. These attitudes and laws work to mold workers into “robo-maids,” whose sole existence is committed to domestic service (despite salaries incommensurate with 24/7 labor).
This is not to say that domestic workers never commit serious crimes, or that sponsors are at fault when they do. But the severe responses to relatively unremarkable infractions – even if they are not life threatening, even if they do not result in extended jail times – are still attacks against the humanity of non-citizen workers. In a recent case, a maid was sentenced to one month in jail after leaving a sick toddler home alone, even though she called the child’s mother immediately after leaving. The worker was charged with “absconding” despite leaving only to attend her mother’s funeral in time, and only after her sponsors had denied her salary to return home.
These seemingly “minor” acts of legal aggression against domestic workers – in which the charges appear less serious, or the disproportionate punishment comparatively ‘soft’ – function as a part of the larger oppressive social structure by stripping migrants of their dignity and validating further human rights violations against them. The expression of total ownership, control and power over workers’ existence – the psychological enslavement – is the same dehumanization that occurs in more conspicuous cases of abuse.
The coverage of these stories is not necessarily reprehensible – though the intentionally bizarre headlines do contribute to the triviality – as awareness of such preposterous cases is essential to minimizing their occurrences. But we cannot scoff and stop at the headlines – we must recognize that concealed beneath the mirth likely lay another story of abuse and injustice.