Kuwaiti Instagram vigilantism: Hunting for runaway domestic workers

20th Jun 2014

[A cartoon depicting a maid chained to a woman happily chatting on her telephone was posted to Mn7asha’s Instagram. Mn7asha was started to hunt down runaway migrant workers in Kuwait. (Source: Instagram)]

Yazan al-Saadi

Al-Akhbar: On June 7, a Kuwaiti Instagram account called Mn7asha (loosely translated as “Runaways”) was launched. The purpose of the account is to provide a platform that allows Kuwaiti citizens to upload pictures and IDs of domestic workers who had run away so others can hunt them down.

An illustrated caricature of a sad, tired domestic worker washing dishes was placed as the profile image for the account. The domestic worker has a chain around one of her legs that snakes all the way to a woman – likely her employer – who is sitting in the living room, conversing happily on the phone.

In one of the first posts, the account’s administrator states:

Brothers and sisters, the goal of this account is that servants run away and work in other houses without the people being aware and I do not think any of us would allow runaway servants to enter our houses, God willing we will try and help anyone from this phenomenon and if anyone has a runaway servant do not hesitate to send their picture.

This particular post was liked by 53 individuals, complimented by comments of support to the idea behind the Instagram account.

Another post recommends, through a lawyer, that citizens should not report cases to the recruitment office, but rather the police station, the courts, and the migration directorate, so the servant “cannot leave the country through her embassy or the detention center and the sponsor will not have to cover any travel expenses.”

Since its launch, the account has uploaded more than 70 pictures of domestic workers sent in by the public, either through private messages on Instagram or to a WhatsApp number.

While the Instagram account may be considered small in terms of its followers – marked at 2,557 at the time of this writing – it is reflective of the xenophobic narratives that linger within Kuwaiti society towards domestic workers, and expats in general.

The account is rife with examples of explicit and implicit derogatory statements, by both the account’s administrator and those who comment on the various posts.

Generally, images of domestic workers are categorized by their nationality, rarely by name, in addition to when they had run away.

In one post, the admin ‘recommended’ that the public send in an image of the domestic worker’s ID because “some of the expats look alike,” while in another post regarding a runaway domestic worker, a commenter – alzain_q8ti – wrote: “She looks like a shitty shemale.”

There are plenty of other disturbing, blatant xenophobic comments sprinkled throughout the account.

Not all Kuwaitis are supportive of the Instagram account, and its existence is but a symptom of the larger issue of Kuwaiti citizens’ treatment of expat workers and the sponsorship system.

As noted by Migrant Rights, a website established by Gulf residents and citizens with the aim of advancing the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East, in regards to Mn7asha:

Though limited in its reach, the account is sparking some discussion between citizens. The few critical commentaries do succeed in receiving responses from the account administrator; most of these critiques argue that domestic workers would not have escaped in the first place if they were treated well. Such perspectives were largely absent from public discourse just a few years ago, but recently civil organizing has helped produce a space for these critical voices. Yet, practices that involve ‘naming and shaming’ workers, like this account, are widely perceived as a necessary reaction to ‘illegal’ activity – a perception that is unfortunately sustained by Kuwaiti sponsorship laws, that do criminalize absconded domestic workers. Workers caught by authorities can be forcibly returned to sponsors or deported. Kuwait is also seeking to take legal action against embassies sheltering absconded workers.

Interestingly enough, the account’s launch relatively coincides with the release of a report by the Kuwait Society for Human Right (KSHR) that assesses the state of human rights in the country.

Within the report, the KSHR called for the removal of the sponsorship law, initiate protective measures for all workers, and an end to the administrative deportations that seek to lower the large number of foreign workers in the country.

In terms of domestic workers, the report notes that they represent around 600,000 of the total migrant work force in the country and experience many violations that include: “torture, humiliation, and rape sometimes.”

It recommends the government “pass a law regulating labor relations with employers, and protect the interests, the issues, the economic and social rights.”

Ultimately, the driving factor behind the account’s existence, and the government’s policy against expat workers is a widely held belief in the Gulf region – and indeed, throughout many Arab countries including Lebanon – that allowing and welcoming expat workers into the country is a privilege that is actively abused and exploited by the workers. It is worth noting, these same countries heavily rely on these workers as cheap labor to develop and sustain the economy.

As a Human Rights Watch report in 2012 noted, migrant workers in Kuwait “comprise 80 percent of the country’s workforce.”

The author of the Migrant Rights article noted above perfectly captures this problematic narrative:

This account epitomizes the ever-present reverse victimization narratives that frequent Gulf op-eds; abusive conditions that lend to absconding are recurrently obscured by paranoid, racist discourse that serve to justify employer’s nearly unchecked power over domestic workers. Maids are regularly portrayed as dangerous, crazy, greedy, and sinister – as though their actions are inherent characteristics of their ethnicity or class, rather than a result of their employment and living conditions. These narratives minimize the systematic conditions endured by workers, including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, invasions of privacy, overwork, and underpayment. They maintain that maids collude with recruitment agencies or with each other to rip off employers, that it is employers who require more adequate legal protection of their rights; that it is employers who are somehow systematically exploited by the most marginalized, least protected individuals in the country.

There needs to be more of an effort to combat these xenophobic outbursts and narratives, which are inescapably tied to the larger issues tainting many nations in the region. They range from insecurity of what is perceived to be the encroachment of “pure” national identities by the existence of other communities within such states, or governments’ subtle support of scapegoating vulnerable communities in order to detract from their own failures, to plain-old classism.

All these factors are heavily in play in Kuwait’s particular case, and will only be a continual fact of life as long as there is a lack of significant public pressure by Kuwaitis themselves to alter their relationship with expat workers, and set the foundation of a system that truly protects the rights of all those who reside within the country’s borders.



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