There was plenty outrage going around these past few weeks among Saudis over news reports that Saudi women were working as housemaids in Qatar.
The gist of this outrage goes something like this: Being a maid is an “honorable” profession, but it’s a “great shame” for Saudi women to work at this honorable profession. Sometimes I wonder whether we as a nation will ever get over ourselves.
The outrage followed a report by a Saudi Arabic-language newspaper in January that 30 Saudi women were employed as housemaids in Qatar. Over a six-week period news reached scandalous proportions where any Saudi with access to a computer registered alarm and disgust that Saudi housemaids were earning $400 a month, just slightly above the prevailing wage of Indonesian housemaids.
A great many Saudis employ housemaids, so they went to great lengths to point out that maid work is honorable. There’s no reason to go out of our way to insult the people we employ. But apparently what is honorable for an Indonesian or Filipina is not honorable for a Saudi.
By voicing outrage and complaining of the great shame of Saudi women working as maids, Saudis undercut their own argument that maid work is honorable. In fact, the last thing these hypocrites are thinking is that maid work is honorable. If cleaning houses was a good profession, then it should be suitable for Saudi daughters and wives.
Much to the relief of the Saudi press, the news report was apparently inaccurate. Qatar does not permit Gulf women to be employed as housemaids and all maids must have a sponsor. Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility that Saudi women are working illegally as maids in Qatar.
Unfortunately, after the story broke a good many Saudis displayed their true colors about how they view some professions and about the people they employ. I’ll be the first to admit that my family would be horrified if a female family member took a job as a housemaid. There would be plenty of shouting, shared misery and recriminations about how a poor girl was led down this wanton path.
Oh, but how soon we forget our past. It wasn’t uncommon in my mother’s generation to have Saudi housemaids. As a girl, I recall an aunt who managed a busy household, the farmland surrounding her home, and had employed Saudi housemaids. That all seems pretty honorable to me.
Saudis were a practical lot a generation ago. Work had to be done to support the family. The honor was in the labor and the food that was put on the table was a result of that labor. Your neighbors judged you, sure, but they judged you as a provider not whether you swept floors and did laundry.
Somehow the practicalities of daily living of my generation have been replaced by an exaggerated sense pride. It’s no longer enough that you put in a day’s hard work to provide for your family, but what kind of work you are doing.
Today’s reality is that Saudi Arabia is churning out a record number of female university graduates. More than half of all university graduates are women, yet less than 12 percent of Saudi jobs go to women. More and more Saudi women are looking for jobs abroad. While the Ministry of Labor has made efforts to expand the job market for women, employers continue to resist change. As a society we continue to limit job opportunities for women, yet we express outrage when a woman seeks work we consider taboo.
We also are forgetting that not all Saudi women are university or even high school graduates. There is a significant class of Saudis working near or at the poverty level who need their daughters and wives to work to feed their families. To deny these women the opportunity work aboard as housemaids is cruel.
If a poll was taken of Saudi families of what kind of employees that would want in their homes, the universal answer would be Muslim employees. Most Saudis respect their non-Muslim workers’ right to practice their religion. But Saudis also want an employee who understands their religion, customs and traditions. And whether it’s
rational or not, they want to be relieved of their underlying fears that that their employees are teaching their children religious values not consistent with Islam. Once Saudis got over their initial prejudices, the idea of a Saudi housemaid could be appealing.
I sense a shift in the attitudes of young Saudis today. The definition of what is acceptable and what is not is changing, especially among young women. If it doesn’t bother a young Saudi woman to do laundry for a family in Qatar, or for that matter in Saudi Arabia, why should it bother anybody else?