The Rahma Campaign: Have Mercy

There is an interesting new public service announcement campaign being produced in Saudi Arabia and shown across the Middle East, drawing attention to the abuse that many migrant domestic workers face, and emphasising Islamic traditions of mercy in calling for a change of attitude. (Okay, it’s not that new anymore, but we haven’t covered it yet!)

Esra’a from Mideast Youth writes that:

Domestic housemaids number in the millions in the region and most are in the Gulf. Many are reportedly abused, and far too little is being done about it.

These ads try to target (and hopefully change) the mentality around domestic workers and how they should be treated, since abusing or disrespecting them has become common and socially accepted. The tagline is roughly translated to “no mercy upon the merciless” and the aim of the Rahma campaign is to humanize these workers, after decades of them being collectively dehumanized.

Her article also kindly provides the translations for two of the TV ads.

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Translation: “You’re not done yet?! You’re not sleeping until the house is crystal clean, understood?”

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Translation: “Put it. Don’t you understand me? Put the rice! DAMNIT! Go, get out of my face.”
“What’s wrong with her, doesn’t she understand?”
“She’s abnormal.”

Each one also ends with a reference to Islamic teachings on mercy (or “Rahma,” which is also the name of the ad campaign), quoting that “The one who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.” I like the references here, and I particularly appreciate that the campaign is calling for the development of such an important personal quality, rather than simply claiming that “it’s haram to abuse your domestic worker.” As an editorial in Gulf News writes:

The Saudi campaign is significant. Coming from a country where the judicial system is based on Sharia rules, it reminds people that their religion prohibits them from abusing others. “Have mercy on those on earth and the Lord of the heavens will have mercy on you.” The Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) said this 1,400 years ago. Let us all remember that.

An Arab News article quotes Kaswara Al-Khatib from Full Stop Advertising, which created the campaign:

“The Rahma campaign is an initiative to publicly address the abuse of domestic and migrant workers in Saudi society,” said Al-Khatib. “We sometimes forget that those who we deal with as helpers are actually human beings. We are obliged to treat them well. Why ask them to do things that we can’t bear ourselves? If we have mercy on them, then Allah will have mercy on us,” he added.

It seems like this kind of campaign is sorely needed. The article from Arab News goes on to describe the situation of foreign domestic workers in Saudi Arabia:

Human Rights Watch issued a report in July 2008, entitled “As If I Am Not Human,” about the abuse of Asian domestic workers in the Kingdom.

The report stated that while many domestic workers enjoy decent work conditions, others endure a range of abuses, including nonpayment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workload, and instances of severe psychological, physical and sexual abuse. Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases where the combination of these conditions amounted to forced labor, trafficking, or slavery- like conditions.

The Human Rights Watch report referred to in the article can be accessed here.

The response to these ads seems enormously positive. They are powerfully done, and make a very important point. In fact, given the potential for domestic workers, especially workers who have migrated, to be abused all over the world, it would be nice to see this campaign expand beyond the Middle East.

I do, however, have a couple of concerns. I worry that the ads are done in a way that excludes these workers from their audiences. Rather than saying “Let us stand in solidarity,” they say, “We should be more merciful towards them.” “We” are asked to remember that “they” are still human, but how will the same message be received by someone who is one of “them,” and who already knows full well that they are human? Abuse is clearly exposed as wrong, but without an alternative presentation of what an appropriate relationship between worker and employer should look like, the workers continue to be silenced and shown only as victims, as the ones that mercy needs to be bestowed upon. It would have been nice to see some concepts of justice and anti-oppression thrown in with that mercy (as much as mercy remains a very important element in this conversation.)

This issue is especially stark in the print ads that accompany the ones on television. If you are interested, you can view them here, but I was uncomfortable posting them here. These print versions make the point about dehumanisation of domestic workers even more graphically; two different ones portray women being treated like pets (both have food bowls, and one also includes a leash and a doghouse), and another shows a man driving a car, attached to reins that his employer holds as if he were a horse. They do make powerful statements, but I worry that these statements – while very well-intentioned – might not be entirely respectful of the people whose lives they wish to portray. It makes me wonder if any domestic workers were themselves consulted in the creation of the campaign.

The issue of gender is also very interesting. Female domestic workers are shown in all of the television ads (one has a male worker as well), and in two of the three print ads. The point about women being especially vulnerable to abuse is made clearly. However, in two of the three television ads, and two of the three print ads, the employer (i.e., the abuser) is also female. I’m curious how (or whether) this issue gets talked about; are women seen as primarily responsible for this mistreatment, or is it simply understood that in many households, women are more likely to interact with the domestic workers than men are? I would also be interested in a larger social analysis of this fact: does the social and familial pressure that many women face to keep their households in perfect shape then translate into pressure that they place on those they hire within their house? Either way, the reality that women are represented on both sides of this issue is important to consider.

Despite my concerns, I appreciate the work that has been devoted towards drawing attention to this issue. For any readers in the Middle East (especially in the Gulf region), I’m interested in hearing if you’ve seen these ads in many places, and what kind of effect they might be having.

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  • Kawthar

    Great article, but to address your first concern, namely that it excludes migrant workers, Kaswara has pointed out that the campaign will be in 3 phases. I think that starting with ads that remind viewers of the humanity of migrant workers is a good start.

    I would say that these ads effectively address opinions many here in the gulf hold on migrant workers – that they are lesser beings, that they are commodities that can be easily replaced, and that the meagre wages they are paid entitles employers to abuse them.

    I hadn’t noticed the prevalence of females until you pointed it out, but it probably escaped me as domestic workers were being focussed on. Women are not the only perpetrators of abuse, but it’s regarded as a given that they are more likely to interact with domestic workers at home.

    If the Rahma campaign (hopefully) expands its scope and includes labourers and construction workers who are forced to live and work in squalid conditions, and the inhumane process employed by recruitment companies, men would feature more prominently in the ads.

  • Orientalista

    This is also an issue in Lebanon – though as far as I know there is no campaign nor much awareness. Nearly weekly there is a case of a foreign maid dying “accidently” or “suicide” – falling off a balcony or found hanged. The police don’t even investigate the majority of these cases. Ethiopia has barred women from going to Lebanon to become maids after so many died, and the Enthiopian embassy in Lebanon reports women sleeping under cars, having no other place to go after fleeing mistreatment.

  • s.c.

    Excellent job Krista!, I’ve been trying to find out where I could learn more about this campaign, thanks :)

    I’m not from the middle east or the gulf, but I think that your point about language is very important, the “they” “them” references to guest workers I think, also reflects a state of citizenship, or citizenship status of these workers. Many of these guest workers have been in those countries for a very long time and will never be eligible for citizenship. They’re assumed to be “temporary” but I suppose that depends on what temporary means.

    I have never been there, but as a South Asian, I know many many people who have come to Canada after living there, there’s a lot of resentment, and a lot of hurt, especially with the younger generation that went there with their families. A friend of mine, originally from India (but born in the gulf) once told me how that experience has made her feel as though she doesn’t belong anywhere, even though she’s ethnically Indian, she’s never had a chance to connect with India. I asked her how it was any different from me being of Indian origin in Canada and she explained that it is different than being Indian in Canada, where you can claim full legal citizenship and become an Indo-Canadian (but there is still debate in Canada over the idea of a multicultural hyphenated citizenship).

    I don’t know if this reflects some idea that there is an authentic Muslim, but many South Asians who are Muslim also talk of being viewed as “crypto-Hindu’s” (i.e. – idol worshipers in a place where the worship of physical symbols of the divine is really looked down upon; I can’t imagine what it’s like for those that are really Hindu) because of their very “Hindu” culture (A relative of mine, not a guest worker though, wore a sari and a decorative bindi to a fancy dinner party hosted by a local family and was asked why she was dressed as a Hindu and then told that she should dress more like a Muslim, never mind that Muslim women in South Asia have been wearing sari’s for hundreds and hundreds of years now), and therefore, less authentically Muslim than the local population of the gulf states. If this is true (and again, my information is all anecdotal), references to proper religious etiquette might not really make a difference.

    I find the Rahma part particularly appealing, I’m glad a campaign like this is coming out, and I hope that it does have a positive effect :)

  • Rayhana

    I note one thing about these ads. “Mercy” is an act performed by the powerful, superior, and justified for the weak, inferior, and erroneous. It is the considered and gracious withholding of a rightful punishment.

    It’s quite telling that the campaign trying to persuade wealthy Muslims against the rape and cruel physical abuse of their employees should focus upon “mercy,” as if to an animal, rather than “justice,” as to another human equal in the eyes of God and the law.

  • fattractive

    Very interesting article. As an Egyptian, I can tell you that the mentality towards maids needs a lot of work. In rich families, maids are usually girls with little education from rural villages, who come to the village for the first time. They are paid little money, work little hours, and get little time off. And that’s if they’re treated well.

  • fattractive

    sorry, who come to the city for the frst time.

  • laila

    @ Rayhana

    I thought the same thing! This is not about showing Mercy, it’s about Justice; the rights a human being is Entitled too. Justice would be a better determent of discouraging somebody from abusing another human being. Rayhana you nailed it Mercy is like compassion and forgiveness in particularly to somebody a person has power over. So… are the employers forgiving the labours for asking to be treated with dignity and respect. “I’m going to show you mercy because your Beneath me or poor, or incompetent etc” . Your right Krista this excludes them.

    WTF???, what if we used this campaign of Mercy in North America with our minorities (African-American, Natives, Latinos etc.), how would it sound? Show mercy to the black man or the Latino.

    You do not have to show me Mercy but I am entitled to justice

    I understand why they use the Campaign of “Mercy”, because the labourers are at the mercy of employers, the labourers are completely unprotected against the many abuses they face (verbal, sexual, physical abuses). The INSTITUTIONS have failed to protect them.

    I beg to ask Krista, what happened to emphasizing the Islamic traditions of Justice?

  • Rchoud

    Assalamu alaikum,

    It’s good to hear about this campaign finally taking root. It’s so shameful to see Muslims behaving this way towards those socioeconomically lower than them, be they other Muslims or nonMuslims. Alot of these terrible attitudes stem from the scourge of (Arab) nationalism and racism, in which a distorted view of history makes Arabs think they are the “best” Muslims, their culture is special, their countries are rich, blah blah blah. Many of them are either ignorant of or choose to ignore the Rasuls (SAW) famous Farewell speech, in which he proclaimed that “a non-Arab is not better than an Arab nor an Arab better than a non-Arab. Likewise a black is not better than a white nor a white better than a black”. I get infuriated when such people try to use Islam to justify their jahili behavior. Shame on them and on those who condone them.

  • forsoothsayer

    i agree wholeheartedly with rayhana and laila. while i applaud the sentiment, it’s so condescending.
    also, u have to ask yourself: public service announcement? since when do we have these on satellite tv? some organization or company is buying this ad time, and it doesn’t tell you who, and to what end.
    also, i’m not sure it IS an ad campaign focusing entirely on domestic workers: in the one i remember best some khaleejy dude is basicallygoing around town behaving like an asshole, yelling at his children and wife, random (but of course racially inferior by khaleejy standards) guy in the street, and so on. i figured it was a general “behave better” ad. and a long time coming, too. I lived in kuwait for 16 years and there is some bad behaviour going on there.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]

  • Krista

    Thanks everyone for the comments, sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to them.

    @ Kawthar: Thanks for the reminder that this is only the first stage of the ads. It will be interesting to see what comes from the next stages.

    I’m still skeptical though about whether these ads really do “remind viewers of the humanity of migrant workers.” I think they do a good job of showing people that it’s wrong to mistreat the workers, but the campaign still portrays them as victims and doesn’t give them much voice.

    @ s.c.: Thanks for sharing those stories. I think you’re right that hierarchies of citizenship and belonging also factor heavily into the treatment that these workers receive (and we can ask questions about whether the framing done by this campaign does much to disrupt those hierarchies, even while it does at least call on people to stop the abuse.)

    @ Rayhana and laila: Yeah, I would have liked to see something about justice in there too. I wouldn’t say that the word “mercy” has no place at all, but I would rather see it framed as an urge to show compassion because we’re all human and equal, rather than a supposedly gracious act performed by the more powerful, which, as you pointed out, is what we’re seeing in these ads.

    @ forsoothsayer: From what I’ve read, the intention of the campaign *is* to focus on domestic workers. I’ve also seen the ad that you’re talking about, but from my understanding from the descriptions that I’ve read, the woman in the beginning was someone who worked in his house (not his wife), and the guy he yells at on the street is also supposed to be understood as a migrant worker (although there is nothing that explicitly identifies him as such aside from his skin colour, which is kind of disturbing – the ad is using racialised markers to indicate that someone is a foreign worker.) And yeah, it would be nice if the ads promoted general better behaviour!

    But all the other ads (print and television) from this campaign portray very specific situations involving domestic workers, and the campaign itself is talked about as focusing directly on that issue.

    I’ve seen public service announcements on various kinds of TV stations in Canada (public and private) – I’m guessing that from what you said, this is unusual on the stations where it is being broadcast? Did you have your own speculations on the motivations behind it?

  • Rayhana

    I’m wondering if this story is relevant to the problems prompting the Rahma campaign :

    Why are these issues of slavery, proto-slavery, and abuse so consistent and so predictable? What’s going on?

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