Monday, November 19, 2007

"What is the Nationality of your Srilanki"?...

By Bachir Habib

Picture from:

“What is the nationality of your Srilanki?... My Srilanki is from the Philippines”. This catchy phrase made many people laugh in the mid-nineties when it featured in a play in Beirut. ‘Srilanki’ and ‘maid’ were being used interchangeably due to the numbers of citizens from Srilanka working as domestic cleaners in Lebanese households.
For many years the Lebanese operated as if racism was an alien concept to their generally welcoming and friendly culture. Stereotyping a whole racial group was mainstream behaviour transmitted down the generations. In many cases the behaviour did not stop there and turned into psychological and physical abuse under the acquiescing eye of the state.

The problem recently took a different dimension. When a journalist visiting Lebanon filmed a report for French television followed by an article in the very respectable Le Monde newspaper on how foreign maids were being treated, many Lebanese were scandalized. Why! Some thought, they were shown as monsters? Others turned suddenly very patriotic. They felt it gave a very bad image of the country, which has already enough problems and working very hard to attract investments and tourists. Very few Lebanese people felt unthreatened even when they treated their maids with respect and sometimes even as a member of the family.

The polemic returned again a few days ago, when the International organization Human Rights Watch issued a report on the abuse of domestic workers in the Middle East, generously mentioning Lebanon. This report was widely disseminated, and the Lebanese public insisted again that this matter was unnecessarily ruining the reputation of their already martyred country.

But some solid facts from both reports cannot be rebutted and these are:

- Passports of foreign domestic workers are being held by their employers.
- Maids are working more than 12 hours a day.
- The Privacy of domestic workers in most cases is not respected.
- Cases of physical abuse exist on a large scale, and it is not as some claim very limited.
- Laws on improving the conditions of domestic workers are far from being a reality.
- Domestic workers appear in most cases to have obligations but no rights.

We highlight complaints from Arabs suffering racism in the West but wrap ourselves in denial when we are accused of subhuman and degrading treatment of other nationalities and races. So well done France 2, Le Monde and HRW for bringing these cases to our attention. Maybe now that it is out in the open, every Lebanese “Madam” will think twice before slapping her “Srilanki” maid in the face to teach her a lesson. And hopefully it will put some pressure on our governments to finally reform laws concerning foreign domestic workers.

Wishful thinking anyone!?...

Useful links:,,-7079447,00.html


Anonymous said...

The Human Right Watch, New York Times, and every nice and impressive sounding media outlet can continue to make embarrassing reports on the abuse of domestic workers in Lebanon; however, if the Lebanese government is unwilling to address this problem and issue arrests and warrants against perpetrators no matter who they are, the physical, mental, and sexual abuse of foreign workers will continue to be left unaccountable and common practice in Lebanon and the Arab World.

See, everyone is a little racist. Little being relative here and dependant on how clueless and/or lawless a country is.


Anonymous said...

Of course it is the task of the government to address the problem. but unfortunately, when it comes to such subjects, our governments only act after a policy of the stick and the carrot is used against them from the kind: if you will not make an effort in this field, our economic ties will suffer. And here, i think media has a role in taking a problem out of the closed the box and expose it widely, it will then be the task of the international organizations and powerful governments to include questions of human rights on their political agendas when dealing with countries unrespectful for human rights. But sadly again, western governments are practicing in most cases a double standards policy when it comes to human rights!

Arab Democracy said...

The government will only act under pressure whether international or at a national level.

Local charities, womens and youth groups, civil movement organisations need to get their act together on this issue.

If we do not want to be told off by others lets take the initiative


Anonymous said...

I think once you start issuing warrants and arrests against those that perpetrate physical violence, only then people will learn and change.

I also think if the Lebanese - very posh - media addresses issues and puts names and faces on those foreign workers that were abused, maybe then, people's sensitivities will be touched.

It also amazes me how unwilling we are to critizes ourselves (in the media and what not) in Lebanon and throughout the Arab World. Something on the other hand, Israelis excelled at doing.