The Help: Status, Servants and Double Standards in Lebanon
By Jess HillOctober 15, 2012
It was our first week in Lebanon, and my husband and I were driving up the freeway that links the south of the country to Beirut. A hulking 4WD pulled in front of us, with two people sitting in the front. As the boot of the car came into view, my jaw dropped. Sitting on the floor of the car, hugging her knees, was a Sri Lankan woman, dressed in a pastel servant’s uniform. The whole backseat of the car was empty.
When people call Beirut a ‘cosmopolitan’ city, they’re referring to the easy co-mingling of Lebanese and Westerners. Foreigners from Asia and East Africa — the vast majority of whom are here as domestic workers — are outsiders here, widely considered to be lowly by birth. It’s been now three months since we moved here, and I’m still shocked by the way many Lebanese people treat their domestic servants.
About 200,000 domestic workers work in Lebanon (a country of four million people), and come predominantly from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and the Philippines. In a country divided unforgivingly down lines of status, a foreign maid is the status symbol par excellence. On the weekends, restaurants around Lebanon are filled with families and friends enjoying each other’s company, their maids commonly sitting several tables away, staring into space. In Downtown’s central square, Place de l’Étoile, uniformed house slaves drag their feet after little princes, toddlers who have already been trained to ignore the hired help. They’re not just for the super-rich, either — you can get a full-time maid for as little as USD100 per month (USD250 is considered a generous wage).
It’s not unusual to see a family of four being attended to by two maids — one for each child. Why not? They’re as cheap as chips. They don’t even need their own room — in many houses maids are forced to sleep on the living-room floor, under the stairs, and in rooms built for storing brooms. Often these women have no kin or connections in Lebanon, so there are no consequences for people who treat them barbarously. It’s a miserable, lonely version of Downton Abbey, retooled for a post oil-boom Middle East, starring the world’s downtrodden-for-hire.
Last week, I was appalled but unsurprised to read another stomach-turning account of racism here in Lebanon. At Beirut’s international airport, a female employee of Middle East Airlines (MEA), Lebanon’s national carrier, used the intercom repeatedly to instruct Filipinos and Nepalis to “stop talking” as they waited to board a flight. When Abed Shaheen, a Lebanese man based in Dubai, told the woman and her “macho” colleague that this racist behavior was unacceptable, the woman dared him to complain, adding that the airline’s management didn’t want these people on the flight, anyway.
“How would you feel if you ever wanted to travel to Europe, and while queuing for your visa they told you the same thing?” Shaheen repugned. “These people are different,” the MEA employee replied. Then her colleague asked Shaheen to back off from the counter and threatened to void his ticket.
When Shaheen blogged about what he had seen, it made headlines around the world. Lebanese bloggers and tweeters vented their rage at MEA. The female MEA staff member was fired.
But for some Lebanese, the racism exhibited by this woman — though shocking in its brazenness — was simply a reflection of mainstream attitudes in Lebanon. “It is easy to blame or demonise the flight attendants, and it is also easy to miss the real source of the problem. The flight attendants are offering the above “services” because they believe it’s what the customers (i.e. the Lebanese passengers) want,” writes Mustapha Hamoui, who blogs at Beirut Spring.
Commenting on Hamoui’s blog, ‘Dania’ wrote, “It starts at home, when kids see how their parents treat the help like slaves or act in a condescending and mean way to migrant workers at gas stations etc.”
Commenter Suzy Abboud was incensed: “All of you who are talking about Racism [sic] and the bad behavior of one single employee, just tell me honestly how you treat your own maid in your home. Do you allow her to eat with you on the same table. Do you allow her to use your bathroom? Do you allow her to have day off? Do you allow her to get fancy cloth? Do you allow her to go to the beach with you, to swim, not just to sit under the burning sun to watch over your kids? Do you allow her to sleep in a proper room, not on the floor, on the balcony or in the kitchen? You want to talk about MEA? Just start by talking about yourself in your own home before criticising a national and successful company that makes every Lebanese very proud.”
Of course, corporate accountability is vital in these situations, and this woman’s dismissal should at least give other MEA employees pause. The outcry over this incident is also a positive sign. There are activist groups like the Anti-Racism Movement, who work with migrant community leaders to challenge and expose racism, and the government is cracking down on private beach clubs that refuse entry to Asian and African migrants (like the club featured in the video below).
The racism foreign workers experience is so deeply engrained in Lebanese society the term hardly seems sufficient. It’s like a Middle Eastern caste system: these women are considered lowly by birth. Horrific stories circulate about the beatings and sexual abuse they suffer at the hands of their employers, and how almost a third of them live under house arrest. In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that on average, one foreign worker was committing suicide in Lebanon every week. Many die after falling from a balcony while trying to escape.
But amidst these regular stories of brutality, it’s the way that Asian and East African women are reduced to objects of derision that disturbs me the most. One particularly creepy little example from earlier this year came from a bar close to where I live in the Christian area of Gemmayze. In January, Life Bar advertised a special Friday night on its Facebook page, encouraging punters to come dressed in their own maid costume. “Speak Like them and look like a Philippino [sic], Bengladish [sic], Sri Lanka [sic] or any maid you want and definitely win 100$ in cash. They do work all the month to get it. Imitate them and win it in some few comedy moments.” The owner canceled the event after it was howled down online, though she insisted it had been ‘misunderstood’.
The problem of racism in Lebanon is enormous, and can’t be solved merely by reactive spasms. Just like every other domestic problem maligning Lebanon — sectarianism, corruption, pollution — solving the problem of racism would require Lebanese people to work together, and to believe in the notion of a Lebanese society. But as one civil society activist told me recently, “Lebanon isn’t a country — it’s a country club.” People here expect the country to serve them, she said, not the other way around.