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Lama Hajj 17 Mar 2015

A Mother’s Day SMS Reminds Us Just How Racist Lebanon Is

Some days, Lebanon almost feels like a normal and civilized country. We stop at traffic lights, we abide by most laws, our lifestyles are envied, our fashion sense is optimal…. blah, blah, blah, blah. Sometimes all it takes is one incident, or in this case, one text message, to jolt us back to reality.

On Monday, a screenshot of an SMS from an agency called House Maids was making the rounds on social media. The message was advertising a Mother’s Day “special” on Ethiopian and Nigerian housekeepers.

(Screenshot via Stop Cultural Terrorism in Lebanon)

We can easily blame the House Maids agency for being archaic bigots (and for misusing the word “indulge”) but the truth is that this is about so much more than a text message; there is clearly an environment that allows this sort of behavior to manifest. What else can we dub this, but a kind of new-age slavery, one that allows people to “gift” their loved ones a housekeeper as if she is a commodity to be sold or passed around?

Much has been written on the realities of racism in Lebanon when it comes to domestic migrant workers. The sponsorship – or kafala – system is one of the major causes of vulnerability among migrant workers across the Middle East, and Lebanon in particular. The system contributes to exploitation, forced labor and slavery. Under the kafala system, domestic workers cannot resign or terminate their employment contracts without previously obtaining their employer’s formal consent. Many workers have their pay withheld at their employers’ discretion and are forced to work seven days a week.

In addition, many of Lebanon’s private beach clubs maintain entrance policies that won’t allow some domestic workers inside their establishments. Others allow them inside, but won’t allow them to swim in the pool.

Most disturbing is the high rate of unnatural death and suicide noted among domestic workers, with at least one death occurring per week, according to a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch. Lebanon currently has no all-encompassing anti-discrimination law.

Late Monday, the House Maids agency appeared to backtrack and sent a followup message apologizing for the “misunderstanding” caused by the initial SMS. And on Tuesday, it was reported that Labor Minister Sejaan Qazzi ordered the shutdown of the House Maids agency. But the question remains: would this outcome have been achieved if there wasn’t an uproar among concerned citizens about the text message? It’s an important reminder that we each have a role to play. We can all work towards pressuring the government and the public to act against these grave human rights violations, and work together change this outdated mentality.

It’s a good thing House Maids has shut down, because aside from its obvious racism and horrendous marketing, that was perhaps the least creative business name ever. ‘House Maids?’ Really? Since you’re so minimalistic and clearly love getting to the point, we will call you “Racist Dicks” from here on out. So congratulations, Racist Dicks, enjoy your shutdown.

May your humiliation be public and painful; and may someone else “indulge” in your own personal pain someday.