In traditionally and still pervasively male-dominated Araby, a young Kuwaiti beauty influencer named Sondos Al Qattan is an outlier of sorts. She has 2.3 million followers on Instagram. In today’s interconnected world, that is power, even by Nefertiti’s standards.
So, when she brought this power to bear on her own government, the world noticed. Too bad for women empowerment in this bellwether region, it was for all the wrong reasons.
In an Arabic video post translated into English by an Istanbul-based news outfit, she fulminated, in so many words, against the Kuwait government’s new policy to let Filipino domestic workers keep their passports. And, worst, to enjoy a weekly day-off.
"If they ran away and went back to their country, who'll refund me? Honestly, I disagree with this law. I don't want a Filipino maid anymore," she said.
Having served time in the Middle East, including Kuwait, handling all sorts of cases involving Overseas Filipino Workers, I find her views patently twisted. I have seen many cases of abuse and ill-treatment of migrants and the most profoundly horrifying were those committed by people with enabling ideas that make the abuses seem right, or justified.
This is not much different from the case of the European colonizers centuries ago who believed in the idea that the pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas were less than humans and could treated as chattel. This enabled the enslavement of the native populations of an entire continent, as has happened.
HUMAN BEING, A SOCIAL BEING
A human being is essentially a social being. In the context of migration for work, the need to respect the right of migrants to socialize outside the work place, especially with their own kind , becomes more acute. This is most especially so in the case of domestic workers who, by the nature their work, are among the most isolated. To believe in the idea that they should not get free rest days is to view them as socially dead.
And comes now Sondos defiant, using her massive social media pulpit to preach that a person can sign away in a contract an essential element of her humanity.
"If they ran away and went back to their country, who'll refund me?
Indeed, who shall refund her? Completely lost is the fact that her domestic worker risked so much to travel thousands of miles to work in a foreign land, so she can support her family back home. She is not likely to run away from her unless for very, very compelling reasons.
The crass commercialism of it all simply astounds. Her pathetic attempt to give it a patina of morality to justify a deprivation of a basic human right astounds even more. It’s all slippery slope from here to justify large-scale human misery.
In the face of near universal condemnation, Sondos hits back that the “foreign media campaign” against her is “an attack against Islam, the hijab and Kuwait.”
This is crossing the divide from the simple to the bizarre non sequitur.
How can the protest against her remarks be against Kuwait when it is supportive of reforms the Kuwait government itself, to its credit, is undertaking to provide better protection to migrant workers? She is the one loudly complaining against it.
And how can it be against Islam when the very ideas she espouses, as her fellow Muslims are now coming out to remind her, are anathema to Islam.
As to the hijab, a reference to devout Muslim women, the most biting riposte came from another accomplished fellow hijabi, Shelina Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World.
In a “Dear Sondos” open letter, she pointedly told her not to hide behind the hijab, that her achievements in “breaking barriers” ’as a Muslim hijabi influencer can only mean something if it is for everyone and, not made “at the expense of other women.”
Her accusations that she is being singled out despite more serious humanitarian crisis in Syria and elsewhere, also invited another caustic retort from Janmohamed: the “demand for a refund in exchange for a human being is a humanitarian crisis.”
To be fair to Sondos, as awkward as it may seem, to say the least, her opinions are not really new. She doesn’t deserve even a backhanded compliment for originality.
The idea that some people have more, and better rights than others as human beings, has not completely ceased to persist not just in practice but in our mental reflexes long after slavery has been outlawed formally all over the world.
We don’t need to recite the entire history of slavery, and its various transformations, from serfdom and debt peonage to voluntary bonded labor and, finally, to contract labor ala Sondos, to raise this point.
Saudi Arabia was perhaps the last to formally abolish it in 1962, well-nigh two decades after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed and has since evolved into international law outlawing slavery and all its vestiges forever. But vestiges die hard.
KASAMBAHAYS IN PHIILPPINES
Even in the Philippines, our own sense of priorities in addressing the plight of our domestics does not provide much by way of inspiration.
Republic Act 10361, or Domestic Workers Act, was signed into law only in 2013. The law, for the first time, extended to domestic workers benefits long enjoyed in the formal sector.
But it languished as a bill in Congress for 16 years before it was finally enacted. Before this, the last piece of legislation that specifically treats of domestics was Republic Act 7655, increasing their minimum wage. It was signed 1993. It took us almost twenty years to adjust for inflation.
While we were accusing other countries of not having enough protective laws for our hundreds of thousands overseas, an estimated 1.9 million working as househelpers in our own country were no better off. Except for the conveniences of being on home soil, I am not sure they are better off working here than overseas, even today. There are simply too many who prefer the latter.
It is just perverse comfort that the rest of the civilized world is not doing any, or much, better. Since ILO Convention No. 189, or the Decent Work for Domestic Helpers Convention, was passed in June 2011, less than 20 percent of ILO members saw it fit to be ratified, until now.
The one thing we can do no worst in this sordid Sondos affair is to start ascribing slavery and all its surviving vestiges to specific religions or races and entertain stereotypes. The fact is that all the major civilizations, including those that develop out of Abrahamic traditions which encompasses Jewry, Christianity and Islam, are all historically complicit.
After all, Thomas Jefferson, who famously coined the phrase “all men are created equal,” and Abraham, not Lincoln but the Biblical patriarch of all nations, shared one thing in common: they owned slaves. For a long, long time, the personal morality preached by religions was not incompatible not just with fact but the idea of slavery as well.
However vehemently we disagree with her, we may yet have to thank Sondos her rant. Unwittingly, perhaps, she has reminded us that we still have far to go before the notion of equality that we so assiduously protest to believe in ceases to be less aspirational and more real. We needed this reminder.
In the end, people like Sondos Al Qattan deserve more pity than condemnation. She is as much a slave of her ideas as she is trying to enslave others with them. And that is the worst form of slavery.
I just hope no Filipino works for her.
(Editor's note: Atty. Angelo 'Jijil' Jimenez, is an expert on Philippine labor issues and foreign relations. He served with distinction in the Department of Labor and Employment and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. He received 2 presidential citations for his efforts in safeguarding overseas Filipino workers or OFWs in Middle East flashpoints, including Kuwait and Iraq. He has also served as labor attaché in Japan. He is currently a UP Regent, the highest governing body of the UP system. Jijil now writes a regular column/blog for news.abs-cbn.com)
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.