Minister Roasted Over Egyptians Working in Saudi Arabia as Maids

22 percent (or more) unemployment at home and a protective pact on work conditions are mere facts when the subtext is national honor.

These are not easy times for Aisha Abd al-Hadi. Members of the Egyptian Parliament and opposition press reports accuse Al-Hadi, the labor force and immigration minister, of sending Egyptian women to Saudi Arabia to become prostitutes.

The allegations stem from a memo, signed by Al-Hadi and her Saudi colleague, pertaining to the employment of 12,000 Egyptian women per year, during the next 10 years, as maids for Saudi families. The memo focuses on their rights, details their working conditions and mainly secures measures to protect them from harassment. But opposition members seized this opportunity to once again slam President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Unemployment is rampant in Egypt. Despite official reports of "only" 10.9 percent unemployment, private research institutes and the United States Embassy in Egypt, which recently published a report regarding that nation's financial state, estimate that 22 percent of the potential labor force is unemployed, and that another 700,000 Egyptians join the ranks of the unemployed each year. In May, the Egyptian government published the main points of its sixth five-year plan, which would reduce unemployment by only 5 percent and increase average annual income to 13,000 Egyptian Pounds, the equivalent of $2,280.

Egyptian citizens have seen numerous, similar plans; public trust is minimal. Under these circumstances, an attempt to employ Egyptian women in Saudi Arabia, under fairly regulated conditions, is considered to be little more than a temporary buoy to help the Egyptian government keep its head above raging waters. Yet, Egyptian officials argue that, if there is reason for Saudi Arabia to hire foreign workers, Arab workers, like Egyptians, are preferable to workers from other nations, including non-Arab Muslim nations like Pakistan and Indonesia.

For Abd Al-Hadi, the only female minister in the Egyptian cabinet who wears a veil and the first woman minister of the labor force, the agreement with Saudi Arabia is considered a significant achievement. One might also assume that this will be a blessing for the Egyptian women who will be employed under the terms of the agreement. But opponents disagree. They argue that, while the agreement guarantees a minimum wage of about $120-130 a month, plus medical insurance, traveling expenses and decent housing, Egyptian women will suffer in comparison with their Filipina peers.

Opposition members claim that maids from the Philippines earn nearly double the amount promised in the agreement. That sum is not necessarily accurate: Reports from Persian Gulf states indicate that Filipina and Pakistani maids earn $150 to $200 a month, and that funds are withdrawn from their paychecks to cover rent.

One way or another, the central gripe of opposition members has nothing to do with monthly salary, but with the age of Egyptian women to be employed under the agreement: Less than 30. This contrasts with current conditions in which Egyptian women of up to 50 years of age may seek employment in Saudi Arabia. This age factor caused the opposition to blow its fuse. As one Egyptian pundit wrote, this is considered "an invitation to Saudi harassment of Egyptian women." This claim barely conceals the grave accusation that the labor force minister is sending Egyptian women to Saudi Arabia to become prostitutes.

Egyptian officials were quick to defend the minister and ordered one of Egypt's ambassadors in the Persian Gulf, whose name was withheld, to publicize details of the agreement in the media. An explanatory letter published last week in the London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi stated: "Foreign workers from Asian nations are genetically violent and have a violent reaction to insults. One often sees a maid rush to the kitchen to grab a knife with which to defend herself from the owner of the home, when she is subjected to insults and condescension, for which members of families from Persian Gulf nations, except the United Arab Emirates, are famous. It's common knowledge that many maids of Asian descent burned their employers' homes in retaliation for such insults. Many Asian maids were arrested by police because they engaged in prostitution .... The Philippine maid comes to an agreement with her employer that permits her to spend one night a week outside the house, and there is no reason to waste words on the reason for this arrangement. Asian workers also produce alcoholic beverages in their homes, smuggle drugs and teach youth in Persian Gulf states how to use them."

Even if the ambassador's letter was at least partially fabricated, it portrays prevailing opinion regarding the status and image of foreign female workers in Arab nations. Opponents of the new program strive to spare Egyptian women the negative image that derives from such employment in Saudi Arabia. One article asked Al-Hadi why doesn't the Saudi Arabian government seek foreign, female workers in Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine or Syria? That question suggests that the reputation of Egyptian women has already been sullied; otherwise, Saudi Arabia would not go to these lengths to approve an agreement with Egypt.

Egyptian writer Mohamed Hilmi Hilal used harsher language in an article for Al Dustour: "Take note. Saudia Arabia is only asking for Egypt's illiterates. It does not need physicians or computer engineers, pharmacists or teachers ... they only need servants. And after the ruling party succeeds in turning the Egyptian people into male and female servants, the government signs an agreement on the conditions of torture of Egyptian maids in Saudi villas. All that we ask in this matter is that Egyptian women not be subject to discrimination in comparison with Filipina women. In other words, that they be burned in fire, tied in chains, raped and later starved like their Asian counterparts."

This profound bitterness toward the Saudis pales in comparison to the insult perceived by these critics: Culturally rich Egypt, once a source of development and an exporter of knowledge, has become a nation of servants. Moreover, they believe that only oil wealth turned the nation once considered primitive, fanatic, and condescending into the financial master of the Middle East.

Gender issues also play a role in this critique. This time, the honor of men was trampled. Mohamed Amin wrote in the opposition newspaper Al Wafed that he does not understand why the minister preferred to send women rather than men to Saudi Arabia. "Is unemployment among women greater than that among men, or is this blatant favoritism on behalf of women? Does the minister fail to understand that if she solved the problem of unemployment among men, she would also solve the problems of women? When a man finds work, he immediately marries, thus solving the problem of single women, whose number some claim to be about 9 million. Does the minister believe it is better to turn the single woman into a servant?"

The scathing criticism, which has become the subject of the day in recent weeks, fails to move the minister. When invited to respond to questions on this matter in Parliament last week, she failed to appear. She preferred to clarify her position in the media, where she explained that the agreement was drafted to protect Egyptian women working in Saudi Arabia rather than turn them into sex slaves. As the former-deputy chairwoman of professional associations in Egypt, one of the most powerful positions in that nation, Al-Hadi is familiar with the needs of workers and knows that the employment of 1,000 Egyptians in Saudi Arabia represents 1,000 fewer unemployed Egyptians at home.

She knows that the Egyptian government will not meet its ambitious goal to abolish unemployment. She made a simple calculation: If 120,000 Egyptian women rise above the cycle of unemployment without the Egyptian government investing in their employment, significant financial resources may be diverted to investment in additional occupational infrastructure within the nation.