The foreign housemaids employed by countless families throughout the Middle East exist in a sort of social and sexual limbo. They are expected to work for years on end with little opportunity for leisure or the pleasures of the flesh. Often they are treated as asexual beings, though some households view them warily as a possible source of temptation for husbands and teenage sons.
A lot of employers are reluctant to give domestic staff adequate leisure time for fear of how they may spend it, Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch told me when I was researching my book,What's Really Wrong with the Middle East.
"When you talk to them about guaranteeing a day off where migrant workers can go and do whatever they would like to do – a real day off, not a day off where they basically accompany their employer to the restaurant to take care of the kids, the reaction is: 'You want them to go out and have sex and come back pregnant?' " he said.
"I was at a meeting with an official from the [Lebanese] ministry of labour and he kept pushing this point and I said: 'You expect someone to stay in Lebanon and live for eight or nine years – you don’t think at some point they will have a desire to have sex?'
"It brings back some of the images of racism in the States that we saw in the 1950s and 1960s – the idea that you deny someone’s sexuality because you don’t really recognise that they might have desires, while at the same time [imagining] that if you somehow let them loose, if you release your control, they are these uber-sexual beings that are going to go and whore the entire Sunday afternoon."
I was reminded of this by the case of a 26-year-old Filipina maid (identified only by the initials MM) who is accused, along with her lover, of having illicit sex in Dubai.
According to a report in The National, MM used to wait until the family were asleep, then sneak out of the house and head off to a nightclub. She met a 25-year-old Pakistani man (identified by the initials GE) and they had sex several times in the sea, where they hoped they would not be caught.
Their affair came to light when MM was found to be pregnant and her sponsor reported her to the police. The court hearing has been adjourned until next week.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 July 2011. Comment.
Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan was arrested on Wednesday for allegedly defaming President Michel Suleiman in a song. If convicted, he could be jailed for up to two years.
Most Arab countries have laws against insulting – or, in some cases, merely criticising – the head of state. In Egypt, for example, an amateur poet was jailed two years ago for writing verses which were said to have insulted President Mubarak but such cases have generally been rare in Lebanon. In the region's new political climate Hamdan's arrest is being widely viewed as an attack on freedom of speech, and a worrying sign.
Last year, three people were detained in Lebanon for using allegedly slandering the president on Facebook, AFP says, though they were released without charge after 11 days.
According to AFP, Lebanese law requires the general prosecutor to take action over any case of defamation against the president or any "sister state" regardless of whether anyone complains.
Writing in the Daily Star, Emma Gatten says the case was instigated by interior minister Marwan Charbel "after Lebanon's General Security viewed the video of the song ... and determined that it caused offence to the president".
Hamdan was reported to have been released on Wednesday evening and it is unclear if the case will be pursued through the courts.
The song itself (see video above), which has been on YouTube for about 18 months, complains about militias, warlords and corruption but does not appear to insult President Suleiman. It thanks him for his efforts but ends by telling him to "go home".
in an interview last year, Handan said:
"I'm not attacking General Sleiman in particular, on the contrary, at the time I wrote the song, he represented real political neutrality. The only sarcastic thing I suggested in my song is about his effective role, a way of saying 'thank you, you did the job, you can go home now'. He was praised by all when they needed him and today he is attacked, like in the song."
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 July 2011.