As part of its massive PR offensive, the House of Saud is trying to convince the world that its treatment of women is improving. But a first-hand witness would see a far different reality: women who are literally locked inside homes, paid little or nothing as domestic servants, worked up to 20 hours per day, and verbally and physically abused. This sad state of affairs exists not just in Saudi Arabia, but in Saudi homes right here in the United States. But there are people who know all about it, and even allow the practice to continue unabated on American soil: the U.S. State Department.
Saudi abuse of domestics occasionally makes news in the Western press—but only when it happens outside of the kingdom. The Saudi princess who pushed her Indonesian maid down a flight of stairs in Orlando achieved some notoriety, but the case fizzled because State refused to give a visa to the victim—she had traveled back to Indonesia to attend her mother’s funeral—who was scheduled to testify in the criminal trial. What didn’t get much coverage: after the prosecutor’s case crumbled without the star witness, the charge dropped as part of a plea bargain was indentured servitude.
Tens of thousands of women are abused in Saudi Arabia each year. According to the Saudi government, some 19,000 domestic servants—almost exclusively foreign women working in the kingdom as maids—escaped from Saudi homes in the twelve months prior to March 2001. (The real figure is likely far higher, because the government statistic counts only those women who go to government-run shelters for “runaway” domestics, which human rights experts view as no more than a PR ploy.) Women who show up at Saudi police stations seeking help are instead locked up and remain jailed until their employers reclaim them.
According to the dozen women with whom this author spoke, conditions in Saudi homes in the U.S. are no better than in the kingdom. One woman, “Jamila”, discovered a cyst in her right breast—but her Saudi employers wouldn’t let her see a doctor. It wasn’t until the young Filipina escaped the Northern Virginia house more than two years later—when the cyst had grown to four inches—that she was able to seek medical attention. “Maryam,” whose Saudi employers took her to a college town in Illinois, was passed around like mere property to friends and relatives of the employers. Denied a bed, she was forced to sleep on the hard floor in a cramped basement room.
Domestics who work in the United States don’t have access to an underground railroad like the type that exists in Saudi Arabia—women there often hide in the trunks of cars as they are driven to a safe house or a port city—but thankfully many come into contact with Good Samaritans like Cielo, a Filipina woman who helped five different women escape from a single Saudi diplomat’s home during a four-year period. Each time, Cielo—who worked as a maid down the street—persuaded the women that it was both acceptable and possible to flee. After prepping them, Cielo would pull around the cul de sac in her van, stopping in front of the Saudis’ house. The women then darted out to the van—and freedom.
Women abused in Saudi homes on American soil need heroes like Cielo, because they receive no assistance from the State Department—even though officials there know what happens behind closed Saudi doors. Diplomatic Security (DS), State’s law-enforcement arm, has received “many” calls from police stations over the years about Saudi diplomats abusing domestic workers, says a DS officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. But State has yet to provide oversight or inform domestic workers of their rights.
Notes Keith Roderick, president of the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights, who personally helped a woman escape a Saudi home: “When you meet these women and hear their horror stories, it breaks your heart. But after you think about it, it gets you angry, really angry—because State should be doing something about this, but then they turn a cold shoulder to women who want nothing more than to live free.”