Countless Asian and African workers are forced to suffer through a form of modern-day slavery that continues to thrive across the Middle East.
Imagine you’re offered the job of your dreams in Paris through a family friend. Of course you take it! You board the plane, excited for your new future. But when your plane lands in Oman instead of France, you start to panic.
A driver collects you, confiscates your passport and phone, and drives you to a home, where you are enslaved by a man who bought you from human traffickers to clean his family’s home 21 hours a day and be his sex slave.
Tragically, this terrifying nightmare is a reality for countless African and Asian women in the Middle East.
The abusive kafala system of “sponsorship” on the Arabian Peninsula and in the Levant grants private citizens total control over migrants workers’ employment and immigration status. It’s a form of modern day slavery, with no legal recourse for unpaid wages, abuse, and trafficking.
Tens of millions of foreigners from Nigeria, Uganda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, India, and other countries are subject to this unjust system marked by human rights abuses, racism, and gender discrimination.
Slave labour was an integral component of Oman’s economy for centuries. From Oman, enslaved people were sold across the Arabian Peninsula to Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar for pearl diving. Slavery was only legally outlawed in Oman in 1970 – though it continues today through kafala. Most Omanis still refer to black people with the Arabic word for “slave.”
When I was teaching in Oman, my university students told me that their families had former “legal” slaves serve at weddings to show off their family’s “wealth.”
One female American friend, while walking with an Omani friend in his village, looked on with confusion when a dark-skinned woman ran up to him to submissively praise him. “Who was that?” she asked. His answer: “We used to own her.”
The pandemic has exacerbated the hell that many enslaved women today are living through in the Middle East. They are suffering more physical and sexual violence, and have even less of a chance at escaping – if they do, they risk being jailed on absconding charges (there are even fugitive slave ads).
Oman does not treat forced labour as a crime, so they have no legal recourse to escape slavery, get justice, and return home. Many women have no embassy to run to and even if they do, they are of no help, as Tanzanian women in Oman and Ethiopian women in Beirut have found.
Physical beatings, sexual assault, and rape are common for domestic “workers,” who are forced to sleep on counters, cupboards, and balconies like animals.
Kasthuri Munirathinam, an Indian maid in Saudi Arabia, had her right arm chopped off by her employer for trying to flee her abusive work conditions. Ariyawathi, a Sri Lankan domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, had 13 nails and 11 needles hammered into her body by her employers. The body of Joanna Demafelis, a Filipina domestic worker, was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait by a Lebanese man and Syrian woman.
Other domestic workers have been doused with boiling water, had their hair shaved off, burned with irons, blinded with acid, electrocuted, dismembered, and thrown off high rise buildings. Omani women also have been documented choking them, pelting them with used sanitary pads, and stripping them naked to beat them with hangers.
The callous treatment of these women is connected to Oman’s long history of legalised sexual slavery. In addition, over an estimated 80 percent of Omani women have suffered Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), so Omani men often seek “pleasure” from sex workers, child brides in India, and women enslaved in their homes.
An untold number of women trafficked to Oman end up tortured and murdered, like Mariam Nakibuuka, and Kezia Nalwanga. Inconclusive death certificates are often issued to prevent families from seeking justice, such as in the case of Christine Nambeleke and Molly Bukirwa, whose death certificate read: “already dead.”
In addition to poor physical health, those who do return home have to contend with poverty, depression, PTSD, retaliation from human traffickers, and the shame of having been enslaved. Fortunately, some slavery survivors like Sumaiya Nannyanzi and Oyinlola Solanke use the media to warn other African women.
While many measures have been suggested to reform kafala, from better border controls to enactment of protective laws, kafala cannot be reformed, as it is inherently abusive. Kafala must, instead, be abolished.
It was my Lebanese students at the American University of Beirut who first made me aware of kafala by inviting me to the Migrant Worker Parade and to teach English on the Migrant Worker Task Force. Thanks to them, I realised how discussions of mental health are incomplete without including the high number of enslaved African women who jump to their deaths.
I am continually inspired by Omani human rights defenders, persecuted by their government for demanding basic freedoms, who now agitate in exile for migrant workers’ rights. I salute British journalists who publish articles on their government’s complicity in these human rights abuses. I am in awe of brave Ugandan and Nigerian abolitionists who rescue women from slavery in Oman and arrange for their care when they return home.
It was in speaking with young Ugandan women on a “slave ship” flight returning home from Oman that I came face-to-face with these horrors, as I listened to their stories and witnessed one woman in a disturbing state of acute trauma from having just been raped. What would you say to a “slave”? I had no words for the nightmares they had survived – just tears.
Abolition is an ongoing, transnational struggle. It is dangerous, creative, and lifegiving – and it is happening all the time, only we never hear about it – because it’s America’s allies allowing these particular abuses to occur.
Together, we can and we must end this horrendous suffering.
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