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.

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

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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