Saudi Arabia: How women migrant workers defy ‘social control’ with everyday resistance

Women migrant workers face extreme forms of social control in Saudi Arabia. One Sri Lankan woman shares her story of everyday resistance despite serious constraints.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Stephen Downes/Flickr. Creative Commons. (CC BY-NC 2.0). Some rights reserved.

“I couldn’t even speak with anyone else at that house! They wouldn’t let us!” said Lasanthi*, in Sinhala, the most-widely spoken language in Sri Lanka.

The migrant labourer used to talk to another domestic worker, through a window, while doing laundry for employers in Saudi Arabia. She told me that they “would be looking to see who I was talking to! They don’t let you speak to anyone and they hit you if you do!”

Despite this, Lasanthi continued to communicate secretly with her neighbour, who was also from Sri Lanka. She would “write a little note on a small piece of paper and scrunch it up and throw it over the wall to her house. And then she would write her note and throw it back over onto the roof!”

“They don’t let you speak to anyone and they hit you if you do!”

“We would ask each other: ‘How are you?’ and so on…. They wouldn’t let us talk normally so this was the only way!” said Lasanthi, who described having “to wait till Madam went into the bathroom to throw it over. If not they would be watching me.”

“That’s how much they watched me always… When we finished talking I would put [the papers] in the bin so no one would find them,” she said.

Lasanthi got her first job abroad in 1986, in Kuwait, through a friend who was also working in the small Gulf state. The family she worked for treated her well, and she was fond of them. She cooked and cared for their child, and moved with them from Kuwait to Egypt to the US.

In 1993, Lasanthi returned to Sri Lanka to be with her children, whom she had left in the care of her mother. They pleaded with her to stay, and she obliged. Once they had grown up, in the early 2000s, she decided to travel abroad for work again.

Again, a friend helped her find a job. But this time, it was with a family in Saudi Arabia, where she found harsh conditions and strict, verbally abusive employers.

Lasanthi told me that she was not allowed to speak with anyone outside the home, leave the premises alone, or make phone calls. She was not given enough food to eat. There was so much cooking and cleaning to do that she sometimes had only 2 hours of sleep.

‘She was not given enough food to eat. There was so much cooking and cleaning to do that she sometimes had only 2 hours of sleep.’

Her story reflects forms of social control and restrictions faced by Sri Lankan migrant women working as domestic labourers in the Middle East, as well as some of the everyday forms of resistance used to overcome these.

Lasanthi described how everyday friendship and acts of resistance enabled her to survive her two-year contract in Saudi Arabia.

She looked forward to talks with the domestic worker next door. When her employers discovered this, she was told to stop. But she persisted, via secret notes.

The two women continued to share their thoughts and feelings about daily happenings, and their hopes and fears for the future. They provided each other with emotional support at a time when Lasanthi says she had no one else to confide in.

Clothes drying on a line.
Clothes drying on a line. Photo: Chiot’s Run/Flickr. Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Some rights reserved.According to 2013 data from Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Employment, 94% of the country’s female citizens working abroad are domestic workers in the Middle East, often occupied with ‘housework’ including cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and the elderly.

Most workers who migrate to Gulf countries do so under the kefala sponsorship system, which ties their legal residency to their employer. Qatar and Bahrain claim to have abolished this system and other Gulf countries say they have implemented some reforms. But for the most part hugely imbalanced power structures remain in place.

Workers usually live with their employers and may also be isolated within their homes. Migrant women in this system are dependent on their employers for residence, wages and access to essential services including healthcare. Their work, lives and livelihoods are inextricably linked.

‘Migrant women in this system are dependent on their employers for residence, wages and access to essential services including healthcare.’

Such forms of live-in employment have been described by sociologists Rhacel Parrenas and Eileen Boris as ‘intimate labour’, involving the sharing of personal space and interaction. Such work is often transnational and it is often precarious, unregulated, and unstructured.

The living experience of domestic workers abroad usually depends on the nature of their employers, with limited or no support from job agencies that find them work, or from public institutions and laws.

A female migrant worker.
Many female migrant workers face exploitation and abuse. Photo: Anna Dubuis/DFID/Flickr. Creative Commons. (CC BY-NC 2.0). Some rights reserved.

Along with augmented surveillance and isolation of the worker, precarious, intimate labour can also systematically obstruct their mobility.

Anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi coined the term “intimate im/mobility” to reflect and emphasise “the ways in which the intimate lives of migrants enforce and challenge their mutually constitutive mobility and immobility.”

A migrant women may choose to remain in hostile working conditions (social/economic/physical immobility), for example, in order to create more opportunities for herself and her family (socio-economic mobility).

It must be remembered: a migrant woman may choose a form of immobility (not necessarily physical) in order to create another for herself or others she cares about. Such decisions are no doubt difficult to take.

Workers in intimate spaces must learn to read social dynamics closely and tread carefully in their workplaces, which may be dangerous. Their ability to do this and to survive in this system is in itself an important form of resistance.

In Lasanthi’s story I see a cycle of im/mobility: how she used secret communication with another domestic worker to create mobility for herself (in the form of company from a friend) within a living and working situation that rendered her physically and socially immobile in every other way.

The bond between the two women helped Lasanthi to get through two tough years in Saudi Arabia. Such everyday, creative and resourceful acts pose an important challenge to dominant discourses on power and resistance. This is the exercise of women’s agency despite serious constraints.

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

Kimaya de Silva is a young anthropologist, writer and researcher, interested in intersectional feminist thought, intimate labour, migration and reproductive health.




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