By Dan Moshenberg

If you’ve followed the news from the Lebanon over the last few years, you’ve read quite a bit about the difficult to desperate situation of domestic workers. Maids, child care providers, housekeepers face unrelenting abuse. They are assaulted, cheated out of their pay, imprisoned by their employers and trapped by visa conditionalities.

Trapped by visa conditionalities means that the vast majority of domestic workers in the Middle East are transnational or migrant workers. Not immigrant, because they are not allowed to stay, not allowed to become actual residents. Not quite like one of the family, domestic workers are more like part of the scenery. Think of them as furniture, without, of course, the occasionally high price tag or admired design feature.

For years, the vast majority of these workers came from South East and South Asia, especially the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. But recently, Africa has provided much of this commerce in women’s bodies, in particular Kenya and Ethiopia.

Western media and human rights advocates, as well as many from South East and South Asia and from the involved African countries, have told the story of the violence and super-exploitation of these workers. In the past year, for example, the press in the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Kenya have described the plight of imprisoned and abused domestic workers as attacks on their respective national integrity. And to a large extent they are.

When it comes to domestic workers, the advocacy story always relies on pathos. Those poor women. Those pathetic, hopeless, desperate women. They are the “new slaves” whose tragic and frantic screams pierce the early morning skies. They are women without protection, and so best described by morbidity and mortality rates: every week they die, often at their own hands. Even when the domestic workers are described as “starting to fight back”, the framework of their struggle is that they are “abused, humiliated and deprived of the most basic rights.”

Except that’s not the story the women tell.

Rahel Zageye is an Ethiopian woman working as a domestic worker in Lebanon. She has been there for a while. And she has made a film, entitled Beirut. Zageye acknowledges that the treatment of “Ethiopian girls … working as housemaids” in Lebanon is dreadful, and must be exposed as such.

But, Zageye also insists, that’s not the whole story. Those women are not defined by abuse and exploitation alone. Rahel Zageye is not defined by abuse and exploitation alone. Nor is her sister Hiwot, who has also worked as a domestic worker in Lebanon. In fact, no one’s story is simple: “My main aim with the film was to show a different perspective on the lives of Ethiopian workers in Lebanon. We often hear stories of abuse and bad treatment of Lebanese employers towards their foreign domestic workers (maids). Most media and organizations working to help migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Lebanon portray the worker as a helpless victim, her fate ruled by evil agencies and bad madams. Although this often does happen and is definitely an issue that needs attention, reality is much more complicated.”

Reality is indeed much more complicated. Reducing people’s lives to a single story line turns them into pieces of furniture. Without, of course, the occasionally high price tag or admired design feature. “Even” Ethiopian women domestic workers in Lebanon lead their own complex lives. Who knew?

Further Reading

A private city

Eko Atlantic in Lagos, like Tatu City in Nairobi, Kenya; Hope City in Accra, Ghana; and Cité le Fleuve in Kinshasa, DRC, point to the rise of private cities. What does it mean for the rest of us?

What she wore

The exhibition, ‘Men Lebsa Neber,’ features a staggering collection of the clothes and stories of rape survivors across Ethiopia.