This week's window on the Middle East - October 8, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Helping the domestic helper

Arab Awakening
8 October 2012
  • Helping the domestic helper
  • Tunisia: a reality check on women‘s rights in an abusive state
  • Whither Turkish democracy?
  • Disappointing outcomes of a student strike at the American University in Cairo
  • Kawakibi: 343 Victims in Syria and 193 Victims in the United Nations
  • Helping the domestic helper

    By Sacha Robehmed

    This September, a young Ethiopian housemaid in Dubai was kicked out of the house by her employers and not paid her last three months wages, so she stood in the street attempting to commit suicide. She was then arrested and subsequently fined 1000Dhs as committing suicide is illegal in the UAE. The appalling story has created outcry in the UAE, and sparked a campaign raising funds for the fine.

    Since then, there have been further suicide attempts by Ethopian housemaids in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah. Attention has been turned once again to the treatment of the thousands of women employed as domestic workers in the country, most of whom come from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Ethiopia.

    One of the university readings I’ve never forgotten is “Maid to Order”, a book by Nicole Constable about domestic workers in Hong Kong. Although inflected with slight differences and Hong Kong particulars, the ethnography struck a cord as I was reading about the familiar in an unfamiliar way. Academic theories on the commodification of care, globalisation and migratory circuits were juxtaposed with my memories and experiences in the UAE, where domestic help is an integral part of daily life.  

    I grew up with a housemaid; pineapple cut expertly by Filipino hands, ramen noodles always kept in stock for lunch, Tagalog gossip when passing other maids in the neighbourhood. On Fridays, she’d rise early to spend the day at church and with friends. Stories of her own children, being cared for by grandparents, the younger sisters she was putting through college. All of my friends and peers also grew up with a housemaid, and some even lived in households with a few domestic staff members.

    While it’s very normal in the UAE, I’m well aware how alien the idea of a ‘housemaid’ is in the developed west. People find it uncomfortable, unsurprisingly given the intimacy of working in someone else’s home, the inequitable power dynamics arising from wealth, class and gender politics on a global level, and not-too-distant histories of slavery and colonialism.

    Domestic workers are of course not unique to the UAE or even the GCC. Lebanon, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa are just a few other places where domestic workers are the norm, not the exception. Thousands of women, each with her own story of kind employers and decent salaries, of homesickness and guilt at being far from their own children - and some of the abuse and nightmarish situations.

    While the UAE has signed up to the International Labour Organisation’s convention and recommendations related to domestic workers, current labour law does not cover domestic workers. As a recent editorial noted, dependency on sponsors makes quitting near impossible, and places housemaids in a vulnerable position. Several high profile cases of abuse in recent years led to disputes at national levels. In 2011, after the death penalty was carried out in Saudi Arabia on an Indonesian maid who’d killed her employer, Indonesia banned its citizens from working in the Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia also responded by banning Indonesians - although an agreement has now been reached. A dispute over wages and hiring guidelines saw Saudi Arabia also banning domestic workers from the Philippines last June. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have now agreed to minimum wages.

    Indonesia and the Philippines are both heavily reliant economically on remittances from migrant workers. But it’s encouraging to see them taking more of a stand, and attempting to offer greater protection to domestic workers through diplomatic agreements and on-the-ground embassy support.

    Tunisia: a reality check on women‘s rights in an abusive state

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    Unwilling to hide and do nothing, Meriem refused to be silenced and spoke out in a shaky but loud voice against her merciless rapists who stripped her of her dignity as a human being.  Fighting back seems to be a costly endeavour in a patriarchal society, as she then underwent what could be described as a second violation at the hands both of Tunisian society and the legal system.

    Early last month, three policemen approached Meriem and her fiancée and pulled them from the car. While two policemen took the woman to a remote place and raped her 3 times, the other policeman took the man to the ATM machine to withdraw some money as a bribe to let them go, as the 27 years old woman declared in several local media outlets.

    The victim filed a complaint against the three police officers only to be charged with “intentional indecent behaviour” based on the testimony of the offenders. If proved guilty the woman and her fiancé may face up to 6 months in jail. Several cases of sexual violence went unreported when Ben Ali was in power, since Tunisians were well aware of the corruption in the judicial system and feared shame in a society that considers virginity a prerequisite to being a morally upright woman.

    When news of the rape incident went viral on social media, the case received nationwide attention. The prosecution of Meriem split public opinion into two camps, supporters who denounced the proceeding online and in a storm of protest on Tuesday outside a Tunisian court where the victim and her companion were interrogated. The other camp blamed the victim of the rape; they deemed her responsible for losing her honour.

    Amnesty international has called the authorities to drop charges against the couple. Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui the deputy Middle East and North Africa programme director at Amnesty International said, “At best, charging the victim of a rape by police officers instead of protecting her from intimidation and stigma highlights the deep flaws of the Tunisian law and criminal justice system." Unfortunately the laws that govern criminal justice in post- revolutionary Tunisia are deeply rooted. The independence of the Judicial Branch still remains a matter of suspicion under the rule of the troika.

    Tunisia was a police state, thus police officers were given a green light to repress citizens in order to maintain the status quo. Tunisian police officers got involved in torture, rape and several ugly practices against the Tunisian populace while being immune from the rule of law. Reform inside the security system seems to be slow and inefficient.  The current leadership have failed to address the problem of police brutality and sexual violence. Rape as a means of repression par excellence is still practiced in the so-called new bastion of democracy. The crackdown on a peaceful protest on April 9 2012, which marks the Day of Martyrs in Tunisia made me feel that Ben Ali was still with us. In September, a man accused of robbery was beaten to death.

    Ironically, women‘s rights in Tunisia have only come to the forefront of debate inside the first democratically elected  Constituent Assembly with the introduction of  an article in the draft of the new constitution that has now been reversed. Had this not taken place, the equality enshrined in our constitution six decades ago would have been replaced by the concept of complementarity between men and women. Women in Tunisia today will not tolerate moving backward, for they have since 1956 enjoyed the Code of Personal status, a legal code that recognizes the position of women as equal partners to men. Unfortunately, the laws of the Code of Personal Status are not fully in practice due to the traditions that favour men over women. Still, women in Tunisia do have more rights than their counterparts in the Middle Eastern region.

    Women in Tunisia are still victims of blatant discriminatory laws that do not recognize for instance marital rape or emotional abuse, and proceedings against the accused are still dropped if he agrees to marry the victim. The attitude of the ministry of interior and the justice ministry suggests that rape and sexual assault will further flourish in our society as long as the victim is humiliated, stigmatized and ashamed for reporting the incident of rape.

    Tunisian president Marzouki had an audience with the rape victim on Thursday and expressed utter sympathy with her upon listening to the details of the case, a move that is somehow reminiscent of the visit Ben Ali paid almost two years ago to Mohammed Bouazizi, the guy who immolated himself to protest against injustice in Tunisia. Once again – it is a cosmetic move by a head of the state lacking any robust plan to tackle the systemic violations of human rights in the new era of Tunisia.

    If there is any hope of alleviating the plight of women victims of sexual assault in Tunisia, the whole society must push for an amendment of the legal system to defend women’ s rights, full humanity and dignity. In a country that witnessed a popular uprising and which claims a transition towards democracy, fundamental change in the status of women is inevitable.

    Whither Turkish democracy?

    By Ali Gokpinar

    Last week, Turkey’s governing party, the AKP, held its 4th general congress and reelected Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan. An excellent orator, Mr. Erdogan addressed many issues regarding the consolidation of Turkish democracy, regional instability, economic and financial issues and gave significant hints regarding whether he will run for the presidency or not.  Local and international media focused on how Mr.Erdogan’s Turkey has become a conservative democratic model for other Muslim nations with its political and economic success. However, few paid attention to Erdogan’s exclusionary language and what alternative policies could be implemented to solve the Kurdish question, Alawite problem, freedom of speech and other shortcomings of his “conservative democracy” model.

    Unchallenged by alternative solid political and economic programmes by opposition parties, the AKP is more concerned about how to maintain its power by renewing its own ranks, sometimes by co-opting promising opposition figures: in their words – recruiting young, eager minds to serve the nation.  All of these changes are as a result of Mr. Erdogan wanting to run for the presidency since he thinks stability is what Turkey needs to be among the major powers and would like to hold the presidential office until 2023. The new constitution is being written but it’s not clear how the Turkish nation will be defined and whether it will become more inclusive by referring to the distinct identities of the various different communities.

    Moreover, there are significant problems regarding freedom of speech and religion, language rights and state repression. Despite progress in certain areas, it seems AKP’s focus is on achieving a stable and growing economy rather than a working democracy, human rights and EU accession. This is not unique to Turkey, the European Union as well as emerging illiberal democracies in the Arab countries  have focused on the economy rather than fulfilling their citizens’ legitimate demands for democratic ideals. Nevertheless, Mr.Erdogan’s bitter language on the Kurdish question - despite his statements that new negotiations with the PKK are in the pipeline - his not inviting Alawites to the congress, his exclusion of some ultra-secular newspapers from that congress – these all add up to evidence of how Turkey is moving away from implementing democratic reforms and becoming a modern, pluralist nation.

    Furthermore, nobody, including major European newspapers has mentioned why Mr.Erdogan did not refer to EU accession and how the government is planning to re-route the EU train. Ironically enough, no EU official attended AKP’s congress whereas the new Egyptian President Morsi, KRG’s President Barzani and Hamas leader Mesal all delivered speeches. This does not necessarily suggest that Turkey is changing its axis but it shows how EU and Turkey are losing faith in their relationship, especially after the economic crisis.

    Unfortunately, as anticipated, the Syrian civil war has somehow spilled over to Turkey. The Turkish parliament’s resolution to allow Turkish army forces to enter other countries’ territories for various reasons should not be considered as a declaration of war, however. Instead, it is designed to show Syria that Turkey is capable of protecting its own territories and that Turkey will not remain indifferent to this conflict if it influences Turkey’s internal security and stability. Nevertheless, the resolution was prepared to renew Turkey’s long-term operations in Northern Iraq against the PKK.  The text does not specify any territory or time limit which means Turkey might launch operations not only against the Assad regime but also against a PYD-controlled potential Kurdish state in Northern Syria.  This might trigger a series of conflicts between different actors in the region, causing a domino effect.

    AKP’s tendency to focus on economic and political stability by ignoring the implementation of democratic reforms cannot be explained only by internal dynamics. Lack of any opposition, coupled with a lack of interest in civil society are significant causes, but at the same time there is growing concern about the implementation of liberal democracy throughout the whole of Europe and Middle East as democratic ideals remain rhetoric rather than practice. Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war is not desired by Turkish civil society, but this it seems is the price you have to pay if you wish to be an economically and politically stable regional power.

    Disappointing outcomes of a student strike at the American University in Cairo

    By Dina El Sharnouby

    The last two weeks have been a roller coaster at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Since the start of the spring semester 2012 the student movement at AUC tried different means to talk to the administration and to raise concerns that have been on the table for almost one year now. One of the student movement demands was demanding a return of the 7% increase in tuition fees to the students involved with an agreement to cap tuition increases for the next three years at 2.3% annually. Some students closed the gates on 20 September and vowed to keep them shut until an agreement was reached between the President and the student movement on 30 Sept 2012, at which point they announced that, “the AUC community is returning now to AUC with mixed feelings”.

    Indeed we are returning with mixed feelings, many faculty and students happy to finally be able to resume normal education after ten days of struggle. From finding online teaching solutions to creative places to meet at, the last weeks have shown the flexibility both of students and staff within a stressful and uncertain environment. Now things are fine! On Tuesday October 2, classes were even cancelled in favour of reconciling the AUC community. Going on Thursday to teach at AUC, the campus seemed as peaceful as it always was and no traces of the struggle can be seen.

    But does this mean that AUC will not face such ruptures again? What did the main slogan of ‘Occupy AUC’ amount to?

    Reflecting on the student movement at AUC since 2011, some serious changes have taken place. What was once a student movement in collaboration with faculty has now turned into a student only movement. Active professors at AUC who were earlier involved with the student movement havenot been treated with respect. It went as far as some faculty members at AUC receiving threatening messages from students. Professor Khaled Fahmy reflects in one Facebook note on the students’ assumption that they have exhausted all means of negotiation when activists like himself were not consulted in any way during the last “strike”. Not only are many faculty members disappointed especially those that have been active within the previous student movement, but also workers, and students are.

    Last year’s student “uprising” was mostly about students supporting better working conditions for employees at AUC. This collective protest for better conditions at AUC achieved significant results for both workers and students. For some unknown reason this student “strike” resolved to use a different approach. In this recent student strike one incident involved a student hitting a worker who was also actively involved, leading to more antagonism not only between faculty and students but also workers. The students have sadly excluded many important sectors of the AUC community, narrowing the movement’s perspective: hence the decision to close the gates over the last ten days.

    In the end the President and the Student Union reached a series of accords which have put an end to the days of turmoil we have all been through. But it is still unclear what lessons the activists of the student movement have learned from this. Professors are raising their concerns that the underlying problems have been left unanswered. Reconciliation and better communication within the AUC community will have to start with reflection on what happened to bring about the exclusion of most of the AUC community over some days from democratic means of freedom of speech, assembly, and learning.

    Kawakibi: 343 Victims in Syria and 193 Victims in the United Nations

    By Salam Al-Kawakibi

    This year's annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly overflowed with superstars that attracted media attention, either for the political suspense they inspired or as new appearances. It can be said that both Barack Obama as well as François Hollande's speeches constituted milestones in this annual diplomatic event. The Syrian issue was the common factor in both presentations with significant differences in their treatment of it as well as their proposals for solutions.

    US President Barack Obama - who in a few weeks will face the elections booths that will hold him accountable in most part for his presidential accomplishments within the US and only marginally for his exterior impact - states that the Syrian regime must come to an end. He is not inventing the wheel in repeating this statement which has become like a tattered rag, so overdeployed is it by the US administration within its different echelons. On the other hand, and in an important electoral gesture, he spoke at length about Iran's nuclear programme and said that it must be considered, if it were ever turned into a weapon, an imminent danger to its Israeli ally, as though that ally constituted a really large banknote, and the surrounding countries merely leftover change. When the US President delivers a speech in front of world leaders, it seems he has no reticence in singling out Israel as if it were the only possible victim of a potential Iranian nuclear weapon. As for existing nuclear weapons in the region, most largely present in the state of Israel, along with their potential victims, these are merely for decorative purposes, nothing more, according to Mr. Obama's electoral convictions. These weapons do not threaten anyone, quite the contrary, they are a civil guarantee of global peace and stability.

    For his part, French president François Hollande, who emerged for his first presentation before an international assembly after only four months had passed since his election as president, reminded the world of what can be called the syndrome of all French presidents, a commitment to humanitarian values. This is surly littel more than a new and old way of creating distance specifically in terms of accountability and responsibility.

    He too addressed the topic of Syria at length, but appended to it the situation in Mali in order to offer his views on the global scene. His speech was more humble, hence his willigness to admit to a global deficiency vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict, which he considered the primary and most urgent concern. Wondering about the number of victims needed to mobilize emotions and actions, he underscored a situation of humanitarian crisis which he said the international community must face. Hollande made an honest request to the Syrian people to form a transitional government and promised swift recognition thereof.

    As for the US side, there was nothing new but rather the reiteration of what it has been repeating for over a year. However, a worrying indicator that denotes a lack of insight and clarity on behalf of the Obama Administration is the resignation of David Hoff, the US Special Adviser for Syria, on the day of the speech.

    Both the American and the French sides believe in the importance of supporting Lakhdar Brahimi's mission, the broad outlines of which he has not yet made clear. Brahimi "reassures" observers that he will need two months to weave his plan. On the other hand, official circles in Syria are mentioning a similar period of time needed to cleanse the country of "gangs"...  And so, world leaders continue to ascend the podium of the United Nations General Assembly to express their humanitarian solidarity, their humanitarian support and their humanitarian impotence. On the same day that Obama and Hollande delivered their speeches, 343 victims died in Syria, and another 193 victims are the United Nations member states.

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