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Sexual Prey in the Saudi Jungle

The rescue team that arrived to save Lorena advised her not to jump from the second-floor window. That gave her employer time to sexually assault her again.
 
 
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He was an officer in the Saudi Royal Navy assigned to the strategic Saudi base of Jubail in the Persian Gulf, and he wanted to hire a maid. She was a single mom from Mindanao in the Philippines who saw, like so many others, employment in Saudi Arabia as a route out of poverty. When he picked her up at the Dammam International Airport last June, little did she know she was entering not a brighter chapter of her life but a chamber of horrors from which she would be liberated only after six long months.

The tale of woe recounted by Lorena (not her real name) was one of several stories of rape and sexual abuse shared by domestic workers with members of a fact-finding team of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs of the House of Representatives.of the Philippines. The high incidence of rape and sexual abuse visited on the women we met in the shelters run by the Philippine government for runaway or rescued domestic workers in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Al Khobar most likely reflects a broader trend among Filipina domestics. “Rape is common,” said Fatimah (also an alias) who had been gang-raped in April 2009 by six Saudi teenagers. “The only difference is we escaped to tell our story while they’re still imprisoned in their households.”

The working conditions of many domestics, which include 18-22 hour days and violent beatings, cannot but be described except as virtual slavery. Saudi Arabia abolished slavery by royal decree in 1962, but customs are hard to overcome. Royal and aristocratic households continue to treat domestic workers as slaves, and this behavior is reproduced by those lower in the social hierarchy. Apparently among the items of the “job description” of a domestic slave in Saudi is being forced to minister to the sexual needs of the master of the household. This is the relationship that so many young women from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and other labor-sending Asian countries unwittingly step into when recruitment agencies place them in Saudi homes.

Rape does not, however, take place only in the household. With strict segregation of young Saudi men from young Saudi women, Filipino domestic workers, who usually go about with their faces and heads uncovered, stand a good chance of becoming sexual prey. This is true particularly if they make the mistake of being seen in public alone -- though the company of a friend did not prevent the teenagers from snatching Fatimah. And the threat comes not only from marauding Saudi youth but also from foreign migrant workers, single and married, who are deprived by the rigid sexual segregation imposed by the ever-present Religious Police from normal social intercourse with women during their time in Saudi. Perhaps as a result of the institutionalized repression of Saudi women and their strict subordination to males, Saudi society is suffused with latent sexual violence, much more so than most other societies.

Lorena’s tale

Lorena is in her mid-twenties, lithe, and pretty -- qualities that marked her as prime sexual prey in the Saudi jungle. And indeed, her ordeal began when they arrived at her employer’s residence from the airport. “He forced a kiss on me,” she recalled. Fear seized her, and she pushed him away.

He was not deterred. “One week after I arrived,” she recounted, “he raped me for the first time. He did it while his wife was away. He did it after he commanded me to massage him and I refused, saying that was not what I was hired for. Then in July he raped me two more times. I just had to bear it because I was so scared to run away. I didn’t know anyone.”