By Walden Bello*

He was an officer in the Saudi Royal Navy assigned to the strategic Saudi base of Jubail in the Persian Gulf.    She was a single mom from Mindanao, in the Philippines, who saw, like so many others, employment in Saudi Arabia as a route out of poverty.  When he picked her up at the Dammam International Airport in June, little did she know she was entering, not a brighter chapter of her life but a chamber of horrors from which she would be liberated only after six long months.

The tale of woe recounted by Lorena (not her real name) was one of several stories of rape and sexual abuse that were shared by domestic workers with members of a fact-finding team of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs (COWA) of the Philippines House of Representatives, of which I was a member.  The high incidence of rape and sexual abuse visited on the women we met in Philippine government-run shelters for runaway or rescued domestic workers in Saudi’s key cities of Jeddah, Riyadh, and Al Khobar most likely reflects a broader trend among Filipino domestics.   “Rape is common,” said Fatimah (also an alias) who had been gang-raped in April 2009 by six Saudi teenagers.   “The only difference is we escaped to tell our story while they’re still imprisoned in their households.”

The tragic experience of Filipinas parallels that of women from India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries exporting domestic labor to Saudi Arabia.  But while other governments have begun to take strong steps to protect their nationals, Manila has been paralyzed policy-wise between rising pressure from civil society to do something about the scandalous treatment of domestic workers in Saudi and the overwhelming desire of many impoverished Filipinos to work abroad to escape poverty at home.

Rape: the ever-present specter
The working conditions of many domestics, which include 18 to 22 hour days and violent beatings, cannot but be described except as virtual slavery.   Slavery was abolished by royal decree in 1962, but customs are hard to overcome.  Domestic workers continue to be treated as slaves in royal and aristocratic households, and this behavior is reproduced by those lower in the social hierarchy.  Apparently among the items of the “job description” of a domestic slave in Saudi is being forced to minister to the sexual needs of the master of the household.   This is the relationship that so many other women unwittingly step into when they are placed in Saudi homes by their recruitment agencies.

Rape does not, however, take place only in the household.  With strict segregation of young Saudi men from young Saudi women, Filipino domestic workers, who usually go about with their face and head uncovered, stand a good chance of becoming sexual prey if they make the mistake of being seen in public alone—though the company of a friend did not prevent Fatimah from being snatched by her teenage captors.   And the threat comes not only from marauding Saudi youth but also from foreign migrant workers, single and married, who are deprived by the rigid sexual segregation imposed by the ever-present Religious Police from normal social intercourse with women during their time in Saudi. 

Lorena’s tale
Lorena is in her mid-twenties, lithe, and pretty—qualities that marked her as prime sexual prey in the Saudi jungle.  And indeed, her ordeal began when they arrived at her employer’s residence from the airport.  “He forced a kiss on me,” she recalled.  Fear seized her and she pushed him away.

He was not deterred.  “One week after I arrived,” she recounted, “he raped me for the first time.  He did it while his wife was away.  He did it after he commanded me to massage him and I refused, saying that was not what I was hired for.  Then in July he raped me two more times.  I just had to bear it because I was so scared to run away.   I didn’t know anyone.”

While waiting for her employer and his wife in a shopping mall one day, Lorena came across some Filipino nurses, whom she begged for help.  Upon hearing her story, they gave her a sim card and pitched in to buy her a load.

But the domestic torture continued.  She would be slapped for speaking Arabic since her employer’s wife said she was hired to speak English.  She was given just one piece of bread to eat at mealtime and she had to supplement this with scraps from the family’s plates.  She was loaned to the wife’s mother’s household to clean the place, and her reward for this was her being raped by the wife’s brother; kinship apparently confers the right to rape the servants of relatives.  Also during that month, October, she was raped–for the fourth time–by her employer.

She not only had to contend with sexual aggression but with sheer cruelty.  Once, while cleaning, she fell and cut herself.  With blood gushing from the wound, she pleaded with the employer’s wife to bring her to the hospital.  She refused, and when Lorena asked her to allow her to call her mother in the Philippines, she again said no, telling her this was too expensive.  The employer arrived at that point, but instead of bringing her to the hospital, he said, “You might as well die.”  Lorena had to stanch the wound with her own clothes and treat herself with pills she had brought with her from the Philippines.

Rape amidst rescue
Wildly desperate by now, Lorena finally managed to get in touch with personnel of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Al Khobar.  Arrangements were made to rescue her on December 30.  That morning, the rescue team from POLO and the local police arrived at the residence.  Lorena flagged them frantically from a second story window and told them she wanted to jump, but the team advised her not to because she could get break her leg.  That was a costly decision, since the employer raped her again—for the fifth time–even with the police right outside the residence.  When she dragged herself to her employer’s wife and begged her to keep her husband away from her, she beat her instead, calling her a liar.  “I was screaming and screaming, and the police could hear me, but they did not do anything.”

When the employer realized that he was about to be arrested, he begged Lorena not to tell the police anything because he would lose his job and offered to pay for her ticket home.  “I said I would not tell on him and say that he was a good man, just so that he would just let me go,” Lorena said.  When she was finally rescued moments later, Lorena recounted her ordeal to the POLO team and police, and the employer was arrested.

Released from captivity, Lorena was determined to obtain justice.  However, arduous bureaucratic procedures delayed a medical examination to obtain traces of semen right after her rescue.  When it was finally conducted, she was given an emergency contraceptive pill–an indication, said the POLO officer who led the rescue, that seminal traces had been found in and on her.  Also, the examination revealed contusions all over her body and bite marks on her lips. 

The criminal investigation is still ongoing and the employer, who has been identified as Lt. Commander Majid Al-Juma-in, is still in jail at the Dammam Police Station.  Lorena is worried that the evidence might be tampered with.  “These people are influential,” she said.  “They have a lot of money.  I am only a maid.  They said they could put me in prison.”  Her fear is palpable.  Her greatest wish is to be repatriated but she knows she must stay till he is convicted and sentenced to death.

Saudi society: a sexual pressure cooker
Lorena’s story shows, according to one Embassy official, that rape and cruelty is not confined to the lower class Saudi households.  “This is an officer in the Saudi Navy, somebody that comes from the educated class.” 

The reasons why rape and sexual abuse are endemic provoked an animated discussion among those who heard her.  The strict sexual segregation, one member of the House team speculated, must create tremendous pent-up sexual pressure, so when the opportunity for sexual satisfaction appears, it explodes.  Another said that the sexual abuse of domestics was an extension of the strict subordination to males and institutionalized repression of Saudi women.   Whatever the causes, Saudi society is suffused with latent sexual violence, much more so than most other societies.

Tightening Supply, Growing Demand
Other governments have begun to take drastic steps to protect their citizens in Saudi Arabia.  The Indian government has taken the drastic step of banning the deployment of women over 40 to Saudi Arabia.  After a much-publicized case in which an Indonesia domestic worker suffered internal bleeding and broken bones from a ferocious beating by her employer, who pressed a hot iron on her head and slashed her with scissors, two labor-exporting Indonesian states, West Nusa Tenggara and West Java, banned the recruitment of domestics for employment in Saudi Arabia last December.  Earlier, in October, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Labor backtracked from an agreement arrived at between the Saudi National Recruitment Agency and the Sri Lankan labor federation, asserting that the terms of the agreement was unfavorable to the Sri Lankan domestics and the Sri Lankan economy.  This led the Saudis to indefinitely freeze recruitment from Sri Lanka. 

These moves by other governments have led to greater demand for Filipino domestic workers.  While the informal policy of the Philippine government has been to slow down the recruitment of domestics to Saudi, legal and illegal recruiters, many of them tied to Saudi interests, have been trying to step it up.   The new administration of President Benigno Aquino III may soon reach a critical decision point on the issue of Saudi recruitment since the amended Act on Overseas Workers (Republic Act 10022) requires the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs to certify that a country is taking steps to protect labor rights if workers are to be deployed there.  With its hideous record and its resistance to expanding coverage of its labor code to domestic workers, there is no way Saudi Arabia can be certified.

Shattered lives
For members of the recent Philippine parliamentary mission to Saudi, who were shocked to speechlessness by the torrent of tales of cruelty, domestic repression, and rape, there is a consensus that every effort must be made to prevent Filipino women from going to Saudi to prevent recurrence of tragedies such as those visited on Lorena and Fatimah.   For the many who have already been raped and degraded sexually, however, a move to prevent the deployment of more women to Saudi Arabia comes too late.  Lorena may well secure the conviction of Lt. Commander Majid, but that will not restore her to her former self.  As Fatimah put it in a handwritten note she passed on to the team, although her tormentors had been sentenced to seven years imprisonment and 2500 lashes each, “there’s no equivalent amount for what they’ve done.  They destroyed my life, my future.”

*FPIF columnist Walden Bello of the political party Akbayan is chairman of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs (COWA) of the Philippine House of Representatives.  In this capacity, he recently led a fact-finding mission to Saudi .  He is also a senior analyst with the Bangkok-based institute Focus on the Global South.