x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

When you're the object of abuse, you know how hurtful it is

Finally, it is out there in the open: a raw and honest look at how certain people are treated in our society. In a television advert, a veiled woman shouts in a distinctively Gulf accent: "What are you, stupid?" at an Asian maid in front of a table packed with friends and guests

Finally, it is out there in the open: a raw and honest look at how certain people are treated in our society. In a television advert, a veiled woman shouts in a distinctively Gulf accent: "What are you, stupid?" at an Asian maid in front of a table packed with friends and guests. The camera follows the maid, who looks absolutely miserable as she retreats to the kitchen, where she sits in the middle of the floor.

Shockingly honest, these ads, entitled Rahma (mercy) have been making headlines for their blunt look at how migrant workers can be treated in Gulf countries. The Jeddah-based Full Stop Advertising has created them as part of a charitable campaign urging people to show compassion to others, if they in turn are expecting Allah to show mercy to them. The abuse of maids, drivers, labourers and migrant workers in all kinds of fields has long been one of the core criticisms made by Human Rights Watch and other similar bodies for as long as I can remember. So I was glad to see that the issue is finally being tackled so openly and so professionally on popular Arab satellite TV channels. It has certainly ruffled a few feathers - and no doubt made more than a few people feel ashamed of the way they have treated their servants.

I will never forget how one of my friends, who comes from a wealthy Saudi family, would make her maid wait for her with her bags in the heat of the playground after school finished each day. Sometimes the poor maid would be standing out there for at least an hour as my friend sat and chatted with us inside. "It's OK, she can wait," she would say of the maid, who had been her nanny since she was born. It used to make me so angry that I often got into fights with her.

That was many years ago when we were both 12, and my friend was far from alone in her attitude: so many other people treated their servants with similar lack of compassion that she simply thought it was OK, that it was the norm. But it's not just migrant workers who have to endure this kind of treatment, there are other more subtle abuses endured by those stereotyped into specific social roles. Being a single Arab woman of mixed lineage, I have experienced some of them myself.

Earlier this week, for example, I was struggling to find accommodation, and was shocked at the amount of sexism I met. "Just move in with a family or with your family," was the most common response I got from real estate agents or other figures of authority that I had to deal with. "You're an Arab woman, you should not be on your own," said one of them. Then an hour later, someone from a legal department refused to let me move into a "family complex" cause I am, in his view, a "bachelor".

As a single Arab woman in the Gulf, in public places when there is a division, I am forced to go to the "family" section as the "singles" section is reserved for men. Apparently, if I were a Western woman, then the rules would be different and I wouldn't have heard comments like: "Why are you alone? Why aren't you married? Where is your family?" Such comments are not exactly abuse - and nothing compared to what some migrant workers endure - but nonetheless, they left me feeling uncomfortable and bothered. It is a working world now and - trust me - I didn't choose to be away from my family. Most of us are forced to work for a living and sometimes that takes you away from the family - even to a different country.

I wouldn't dream of being a burden on my family; yes, strictly speaking I know I don't have to work, as I am female and my father is obligated by Islam to take care of me. But I want to do something with my life. It was these constant sniping remarks about me and my life by people who didn't know me but thought they had the right to comment that I found so offensive and tiring. We single Arab women are trying to leave our mark in this fleeting world. That is our business. I don't hear single Arab men being quizzed about why they are single.

Yet there are times when we should all speak up about the behaviour of others. For instance, the other day in one of the malls I saw a little boy screaming at his maid and hitting her as she was trying to wipe his runny nose. There was no sign of the mother and so the child did as it pleased, treating the maid with the greatest disrespect. I spoke to him in Arabic and am glad to say he became quiet and began to behave himself. He even looked ashamed - and all it took was a gentle reminder that the maid is human and someone to be treated with respect and compassion.

rghazal@thenational.ae