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What the “They Hate Us” debate ignores

9 May

By Dalila Mahdawi

This article was originally published on the Common Ground News Service website.

London- Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy unleashed a veritable media storm on Arab gender relations with her recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, provocatively titled, “Why Do They Hate Us?” referring to male attitudes towards women.

Amid the controversy, however, important questions risk being overlooked. Instead of dwelling on whether Arab men really do hate women, our attention might be better focused on formulating strategies to achieve gender equality.

Eltahawy may be doing gender relations a great service by raising awareness about the need for supporting women’s rights, but her tone is controversial. The article, illustrated with photographs of a naked woman covered in black body paint suggestive of a niqab, is an impassioned diatribe against the poor condition of women’s rights in the Arab world. The author lists a catalogue of abuses women suffer, including her own beating and sexual assault at a protest in Cairo last year, attributing such attitudes to “a toxic mix of culture and religion”. The crux of her argument is that Arab women live as second-class citizens because they are “hated” by men. “Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought – social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms”, she writes.

Her critique immediately led to a crescendo of emotionally charged responses, with some lauding the Egyptian writer for her bravery. Her detractors have been more vocal, accusing her of promoting simplistic views that pander to Western stereotypes of Arab women as victims in need of rescuing from a misogynistic Islam.

Eltahawy certainly did not start the debate on women’s rights in the Arab world, but she has helped popularise it. On social media websites and in cafes, Arabs of different economic and religious backgrounds are busy contemplating the status of the region’s women.

But ignored in the debate is the existence of many Arab men working in solidarity and partnership with women to exorcise the scourge of gender inequality from their communities. A sizeable number of men are equally or increasingly involved in family duties traditionally seen as women’s work, such as child-raising, cooking and housework. We would do well to consider ways to further improve men’s involvement in the struggle for gender parity.

More and more Arab men are joining in women’s struggle for greater freedoms, accompanying them on demonstrations and viewing gender equality as integral to their vision of a better society. Some, like the Egyptian writer Ahmed Kadry, have taken to the blogosphere to call for an end to sexual harassment of women. Indeed, Arab feminism has found supporters among men throughout its long history- men who realise that they are equally held captive by strict interpretations of gender expectations.

Loaded language about hate has the advantage of drawing attention to an issue, but risks alienating the very audience that needs to be engaged with. Viewing men as hateful does little to promote the end goal of all gender activists, which is greater freedom and dignity for women. Instead, initiatives that increase men’s involvement in and sense of ownership of gender equality must be fostered. Grassroots projects to rehabilitate male perpetrators of gender-based violence, such as those run by the Lebanese organisations KAFA (Enough), an organisation working to end violence and exploitation, and the ABAAD Resource Center for Gender Equality, are doing just that, helping transform misogynistic attitudes towards women.

As Arab women and men, we must harness the angry indictments of inequality that Eltahawy has rightfully brought to our attention into proactive action. Rather than laying the blame for women’s disempowerment at the doorstep of “men” or “culture”, we should use peaceful and inclusive dialogue to reinforce the idea that women’s rights are everyone’s concern.

To paraphrase the physicist Albert Einstein, one cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it. Finger-pointing and blame games will only create further antagonism. Until women and men unite to throw off the chains of strictly dichotomous gender roles and identities, we are all culpable in perpetuating the disempowerment of our societies as a whole. The so-called Arab Spring may have disappointed many, but it is not over yet. These tumultuous times present an important opportunity for the region, and indeed the world, to engage in an inclusive and peaceful battle for greater freedoms for all.

Let Eltahawy’s article be a rallying cry to improve the communication lines between women and men. Their lives, as the United Nations Population Fund has noted, “are interdependent and … the empowerment of women benefits everyone.”

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Posh women’s rights in the Arab World

2 Dec

The New Arab Woman Forum is an elitist club for ladies who lunch. It desperately needs to become more diverse

Dalila Mahdawiguardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 December 2010

Today, hundreds of women will gather in Beirut for the fourth annual New Arab Woman Forum (Nawf).

Bringing together prominent personalities for two days of “analysis of the changing position and role of women in Arab society, politics, and economic life,” Nawf claims to be the region’s “leading and most relevant women’s event”. If that’s true, then the Arab women’s movement is in serious trouble.

When I attended Nawf as a journalist last year, I was given a luxury leather notebook-holder as a welcoming present. Sadly, the notebook-holder was pretty much the only thing of substance to emerge from the proceedings. The file’s fashionable pink and brown colour scheme represents all that is wrong with Nawf, which seems to be more a gruesome parade of plastic surgery operations and couture outfits on the relatives of male political leaders than anything remotely to do with women’s empowerment.

For many involved in the struggle for gender equality, Nawf is as genuine a women’s event as many of the noses of its attendees. Last year’s session on political quotas, arguably one of the most important debates for women in the Arab world, for example, was butchered down to about 20 minutes so as to ensure it didn’t run into the obviously invaluable lunch break.

Besides a struggle with priorities, one of the biggest obstacles to the forum’s legitimacy is its outrageous price tag: it costs $300 (plus 10% VAT – more than £200) a person to attend, with no discounts for non-governmental or other community-based organisations. Why organisers have repeatedly chosen to host the event at the InterContinental Phoenicia hotel, the ultimate symbol of opulent excess, is another mind-boggler.  Perhaps Nawf didn’t get the memo that it is women who make up the bulk of the Arab world’s illiterate and impoverished citizens. If the organisers switched to a free or cheaper venue, it would automatically open up the event to a more diverse community of women.

Activists have also complained that Nawf denies invitations and speaking opportunities to important grassroots groups in favour of big names. Nawf could learn a lot from those it excludes, including those on its own doorstep in Beirut, such as the feminist collective Nasawiya, who recently invited the prominent gender studies professor Lila Abu-Lughoud to deliver a free public lecture. Instead, Mohammad Rahhal, Lebanon’s male environment minister, is delivering a speech.

The gilded hotel doors are firmly shut on precisely the women who should be listened to but wide open to those who have no real involvement in improving the lives of Arab women.

Another particularly irksome feature of Nawf is that organisers have stubbornly insisted on holding it in Beirut for a third time. The choice of location has repeatedly been justified with the old cliche that Lebanon is the most open society in the Arab world. But just because some women in Lebanon can wear a miniskirt doesn’t mean they enjoy substantive equality. Far from it: the Lebanese government considers women as juveniles in many aspects of the law, forbids them from passing on nationality to their children, and does not protect them from domestic violence, including marital rape. Until recently, Lebanese women were not even permitted to open bank accounts for their children.

Lebanon also has one of the lowest regional figures for women in politics, standing at a mere 3.1%, compared with Iraq’s 25.2%, Tunisia’s 27.6% and Syria’s 12.4%. As recently as 10 November, Lebanon balked at UN recommendations to improve women’s rights. Nawf’s real motivation to host its event in Beirut, therefore, seems to revolve around the idea that the allure of a trip to Beirut, with all its glamorous boutiques and restaurants, will entice more participants to cough up the hefty attendance fee. After all, there’s nothing like a vague two-day conference to take away the guilt of spending thousands of dollars on yourself.

No doubt the organisers had the best intentions when they envisioned Nawf. Any efforts to initiate discussion on the problems facing Arab women are to be commended, but if Nawf wishes to be taken seriously as a platform for all Arab women, it must make immediate and serious changes to become more inclusive of those whom it claims to speak on behalf of. Until then, the conference will remain an elitist club for ladies who lunch and a source of dismay to the real, anonymous women fighting for equality in the region. They might not have designer handbags but surely their ideas and experiences deserve just as much recognition.

Podcasts tell humanizing stories from the Arab world

26 Feb

Beirut-based NGO hopes to transform the West’s negative stereotypes of region
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, February 26, 2010

BEIRUT: A podcast can’t change the world, but it can help change perceptions. Stories of Our City is a new non-governmental organization in Beirut hoping to transform stereotypes about the Arab world, one podcast at a time.

Stories of Our City was started up by American citizens Katy Gilbert and Bart Cochran in an effort to contribute to peace and provide a better understanding of the troubled Middle East. The idea took hold when Gilbert realized many of her fellow Americans had distorted views of the Arab world. “People were amazed that I lived there,” said Gilbert, who before relocating to Lebanon, lived in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. “When I would say that Jordan was safer than any major city in the US, people would just be floored.”

To shake off the persistent stereotype that all Arabs are Muslim terrorists, Stories of Our City every Monday uploads a podcast telling the story of an ordinary Arab individual, hoping to nurture a sense of community and common ground with American audiences. The stories are told through ad-hoc conversation, touching on all sorts of subjects from dreams or memories, to fears and hopes.

One woman recounts her childhood at an orphanage in southern Lebanon and her first meeting with her biological mother as a 16-year-old. Another man talks about his work in a tattoo parlor. The idea is for Americans “to think better of the people here in the Middle East,” Gilbert said.

“That they’re normal people with faces and who are not so different that we can’t relate to them.” Better understanding of the “other” as human beings will help rally support for less violent policy making, she added. “A lot of studies have shown that when you place distance between yourself and others, it’s easier to disregard them and rationalize violence.”

Most of the podcasts currently available are about Lebanese, Jordanians or Emiratis, although there are plans to collect stories from across the Arab world. “There are hard stories here but we’re trying to share points of hope as well.” People are more than happy to contribute to the project once they know it’s aimed at transforming popular American opinion about Arabs, Gilbert added.

Listeners not familiar with the Lebanon’s long history of migration may be surprised to hear the varied accents of some of the speakers. European, American, and Arab-accented Lebanese recount stories about childhood memories of washing the dishes or moving, dreams of being artists and of change in society. “My father’s Muslim, my mother’s Christian, and we just don’t know what’s going on,” laughed one storyteller. “We celebrate everything. We have no issues with religion, we’re open to everything.”

In one podcast, Beirut resident Ronnie recalled a conversation he overheard between two boys playing football. “One of them said, ‘you remember during the war when we were playing football?’ The other one asks him, ‘which war?’ That tells you how many wars have happened in this child’s life,” Ronnie said. “We shouldn’t even have any wars, period.”

With over 5,000 downloads since June, the podcasts have met with great success. “We’ve had a great response from the US, it’s been really encouraging,” Gilbert said. She hopes audiences will continue to listen to the podcasts over time to get a better picture of the lives of their contemporaries across the Arab world.

Eventually, Stories of the City hopes to tell the stories of people all over the world, not just in conflict zones. The organization is also encouraging listeners to get involved, either through submitting their own story or by collecting other people’s testimonies.

To download a podcast or submit a story, visit http://www.storiesofourcity.wordpress.com

Robert Fisk: Western media fails to report ‘real horrors of war’

14 Jan

Journalist’s lecture slams bias in American journalism
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

BEIRUT: Veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, as he notes in one of his books, has lived a “charmed but dangerous life.” He has been a resident of the Beirut seafront for 34 years, covering the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War and its numerous atrocities, most memorably the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militias and their Israeli Army allies. The British-born journalist has reported on 10 other wars, several insurgencies, Iran’s bloody 2009 elections, and has interviewed Osama bin Laden no less than three times.

Over the years, Fisk has provoked as much anger as admiration, enduring two kidnap attempts and a beating by a group of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. His critics dismiss his writing as lies and embellishments, and his numerous awards and books, which have sold millions of copies around the world, are a source of some jealously for other correspondents in the region. No one in the world of journalism, it seems, is quite as divisive as Robert Fisk.
Kicking off a series of “Distinguished Journalists” lectures at the Lebanese American University of Beirut on Tuesday, however, he was firmly among friends and admirers.
Speaking to hundreds of journalism students, Fisk was quick to condemn “the lethal way in which [Western] reporters support war,” manipulating language to change meaning and historical context. Editors were also to be criticized for avoiding shocking photographs of war victims, an act which he said sterilized and hid the consequences of conflict.
One example of this was a newspaper that published a photograph of an Iraqi father carrying his supposedly injured daughter. The girl, Fisk said, was in fact already dead and her feet, which had been blown off in an explosion, had been tidily cut out of the photograph. “I’m against all violence, but because we protect our own readers from it, we produce a clean war,” he said. “For all the criticisms I have of the Arab press … at least your pictures in your newspaper … tend to show the real horrors of war.”
“A lot of journalists do not see their job as a vocation,” he continued. “Many journalists regard their job as the same as working in a bank, driving a truck or becoming a lawyer  … But I think journalism should have responsibilities over and above just earning a salary to pay off the mortgage.”
His strongest criticism was reserved for the American media, where there was an “osmotic parasitic relationship between journalism and power.” Since the Bush administration, for example, Fisk observed US newspapers had followed on from Washington’s example in referring to the occupied Palestinian territories as the “disputed territories” or “the so-called occupied territories.”
Such glaring bias and half-truths have led, Fisk argued, to the “normalization of war” among Westerners. An additional reason for this was journalist’s obsession with reporting “50/50” from all sides of a story. “But the Middle East is not a football match, it’s a bloody tragedy,” Fisk said, adding journalists had a “duty to be unbiased and neutral on the side of those who suffer.”
Though he is best known for his reporting on Arab countries, Fisk avoided discussing the problems faced by the region’s journalists or the political woes of the Middle East, dedicating only a few closing lines to the subject.
But does Fisk, with over three decades of experience in the region tucked under his belt, see any prospect for peace? “I have no optimism about the Middle East. The chances of a Palestinian state are less by the day,” he said. And as for Lebanon, where Fisk calls home, it is a “Rolls Royce with square wheels” that won’t be a modern state until it has secular governance.

Women worked to death in Lebanon

11 Nov

Dalila Mahdawi guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 10 November 2009 21.00 GMT
They mop floors, take out the rubbish, walk the dog, buy groceries and care for the children, the elderly or disabled. Many a well-to-do and lower middle class Lebanese family relies on migrant domestic workers to take care of their household, but when it comes to providing for these women, not all return the favour.

Migrant domestic workers – women who work as live-in or freelance housekeepers, cooks, and nannies – form a vital presence in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, where women’s increased participation in the workforce has not been accompanied by state-backed social or childcare services.

There are thought to be about 200,000 women, mostly from the Philippines, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, in Lebanon alone. But although they are becoming an intrinsic part of the country’s social fabric, their contribution is often overlooked. While many Lebanese people are careful to ensure their housekeepers are well treated, a significant number abuse them. In extreme cases, migrant domestic workers are killed or kill themselves.

The spate of suicides has become so bad in recent weeks it prompted Lebanese blogger Wissam to launch the grimly named Ethiopian Suicides blog. The website is dedicated to monitoring media reports on the deaths of foreign migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. “I have a dream,” Wissam says. “That migrant domestic workers will be treated humanely in Lebanon and will stop trying to commit or commit[ting] suicide.”

In the last three weeks alone, Wissam notes, four Ethiopian women have died. Lebanese police say the deaths of Kassaye Atsegenet, 24, Saneet Mariam, 30, Matente Kebede Zeditu, 26, Tezeta Yalmiya, 26 were probably suicides. But as human rights activists here will testify, the truth about what happened to them may never be known because police usually only take into account the employer’s testimony. Migrants who survive abuse or suicide attempts are not usually provided with a translator, meaning their version of events often does not get registered with officials.

Sadly, violations against such workers occur throughout the region and in some cases the women end up in slave-like conditions.

Reflecting the concern of sender countries for the wellbeing of their citizens, Ethiopia and the Philippines have placed bans on working in Lebanon and Jordan, but this has not stemmed the flow of illegal migrants smuggled in through third countries. Without the necessary work papers and embassy support, migrant women become even more vulnerable to human rights abuses.

One reason the women are driven to the edge is that, in Lebanon at least, they are not given protection under the country’s labour law. Such exclusion means that those who withhold salaries, confiscate passports, confine their employees to the house or otherwise abuse them, can literally get away with murder. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that five months after parliamentary elections, a Lebanese government is only now being formed.

The campaign to grant migrant domestic workers greater rights in the region has been led by Human Rights Watch. This summer, it contacted Lebanese beach resorts and found that 17 out of 27 private facilities practised some form of discrimination against such women by prohibiting them from swimming in the pool or even the Mediterranean sea.

A study conducted by the organisation last year found that more than one migrant domestic worker was dying in Lebanon each week – mostly from suspected suicide or by falling off a balcony while trying to escape abusive employers. The numbers sent ripples throughout the rights community and resulted in far more sustained local media coverage on the issue of domestic migrant workers. Judging by Wissam’s recent statistics, however, this does not appear to have persuaded the authorities to take sufficient measures to protect their rights.

The embassies of countries that supply migrant workers have a duty to protect their citizens. They could start by offering amnesty and assistance to all illegal workers, increasing their legal protection capabilities and properly informing women at home of their rights and responsibilities while working abroad. Many countries, such as Nepal or Madagascar, which are sending women to the Middle East in increasing numbers, would do well to increase their diplomatic representation from consular level to embassies.

Many migrant workers come to the Middle East seeking a better life for the families they left behind. The Lebanese themselves have a long history of migration and hardship, and should know first-hand the difficulties of living and working in a foreign country. Just as many Lebanese abroad work hard with the hopes of eventually returning home, the Lebanese should ensure that these women get to go back to their countries – alive and well, not in body bags.

NOTE: Since this article was published, the death toll of migrant workers women has risen to eight, according to Human Rights Watch.

New signs remind revelers that people live in Gemmayzeh, too

22 Nov

New signs remind revelers that people live in Gemmayzeh, too
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Thursday, November 20, 2008

New signs remind revelers that people live in Gemmayzeh, too
 

BEIRUT: Blue signposts declaring that “Gemmayzeh is a residential area” sprouted up all along the popular nightspot’s main road, Gouraud Street earlier this week. The metal signs follow months of growing friction between the area’s residents and bar owners over noise levels, the lack of police presence and access to parking places.

Every weekend, thousands of cars cruise down Gemmayzeh’s narrow roads in search of parking spaces, causing heavy congestion. By midnight, Gouraud Street, a mere 730 meters long and home to dozens of bars and clubs, is positively throbbing with life, and the sound of drunken party-goers, car horns, music and over-enthusiastic valets fill the air. With a serious lack of parking spaces available, people park their cars wherever they find a space, often illegally, or in nearby neighborhoods.

Aida Azouri, a resident of Tabaris, south of Gemmayzeh, said party-goers were transforming her area into a parking lot on a nightly basis. “It would be better for everyone if they pedestrianized” Gouraud Street, she said, “or at least banned cars there after 9 p.m.”

Following a sit-in by disgruntled residents in March over what they dubbed the “hijacking” of local parking spaces and unbearable noise, Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis shut down over 20 bars said to be operating without licenses and imposed a curfew on the remaining establishments.

On April 14, those curfews were officially dropped, and although agreements were drawn up between the government and Gemmayzeh establishments to ensure the neighborhood was kept quiet for its sleep-deprived residents, the long-standing dispute soon resurfaced.

“We love Gemmayzeh, but we’d also love it to be a bit quieter after midnight,” said Huguette Sfeir, who has lived next to Gouraud Street’s busiest cluster of bars since 1983. “Thursdays to Saturdays, it is very noisy until 2 a.m.,” said Sfeir, who admitted she used to throw eggs and water at raucous pedestrians. “I would like those people making noise to come to my house so they can hear what I hear.”

But while Sfeir wanted a quieter neighborhood, she had reservations about how effective the signs were. “I thank the Beirut Municipality for putting up the signs, but actually I think they’ve wasted their money,” she said.

What is needed in Gemmayzeh is a police presence, added Sfeir. “Two weeks ago, there were two women fighting late at night, beating each other up and shouting. Last week, there were people with pocket knives fighting.” During both incidents, the police were nowhere to be seen.

Makram Zene is president of the Committee for the Development of Gemmayzeh, which comprises Gemmayzeh bar owners and residents, and owns a number of the area’s bars and restaurants. Echoing Sfeir’s sentiments, he said that while the signs were put up “to make people aware” of the area’s residents, “people will not really respect what the signs mean unless they are enforced by the police.”

For things to improve in Gemmayzeh, said Zene, immediate action on two vital points had to be taken. “The Municipality [of Beirut] has to open the Charles Helou parking lot as soon as possible, and traffic police have to be present in the area … We need the police here to regulate traffic and maintain security.”

The Charles Helou car park, an unsightly three-story building at the edge of Gemmayzeh, was built in the 1980s to serve the Beirut Port and the nearby areas of Saifi, Medawwar and Martyrs Square. But it has since stood derelict, with only the structure’s facade functioning as an unofficial bus terminal. Rerouting parking from Gemmayzeh to Charles Helou “would bring money to the municipality,” which owns the lot, said Zene. “The [acting] governor [Nassif Kalloush] is working on it and we ask him kindly to hasten the procedures because we are sure it will solve 50 to 60 percent of the area’s problems.”

When contacted on Wednesday by The Daily Star, the head of Beirut Municipality Michel Assaf said that “Gemmayzeh was of course a residential area not intended for pubs and restaurants,” but declined to comment on future Municipality policies in the area or the Charles Helou parking lot.

Meanwhile, as the bickering between residents and entrepreneurs continues, Beirut’s Hamra district, rapidly growing as a rival to Gemmayzeh, looks set to benefit. Most recently, Molly Malone’s, a bar that had been long-entrenched on Gouraud Street, moved to Hamra, leaving behind at it’s former premises only an angry banner complaining that annual rent had jumped from $30,000 to $130,000. With demand for property in Gemmayzeh at an all-time high, rent has sky rocketed.

Another resident sit-in is slated for 23 January, said Sfeir. The priority is to push for a solution to Gemmayzeh’s parking problems. “We are going to block the road to push for Gemmayzeh’s parking spaces to be only for the use of its residents. Rules must be made,” she said.

Domestic Workers Risking Death to Flee Employers

1 Sep

Domestic workers risking death to flee employers
Rights group: Isolation drove dozens of live-in maids to suicide, deadly escape attempts
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

 

Domestic workers risking death to flee employers
 

 

BEIRUT: Leading human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) spoke on Tuesday of “the urgent need” to improve the working and living conditions of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, saying that “at least” 95 women had died between January 1, 2007 and August 15, 2008.

“Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week,” said senior HRW researcher Nadim Houry of the epidemic in an official press release. According to HRW data compiled from the records of the Sri Lankan, Ethiopian and Filipino embassies, media reports, and a select number of available police reports, 40 of the 95 deaths were “classified by the embassies of the migrants as suicide.”

Twenty-four deaths were caused by workers “falling from high buildings, often while trying to escape their employers,” and two were murders. However, the figures were not exhaustive “as certain consulates and embassies of migrants did not share their information” with the group, said the press release. HWR also had evidence of eight domestic workers that had survived falls. A labor attache in an unidentified embassy told HRW “Most deaths resulting from a building fall are failed attempts to escape,” added the press release.

Speaking to The Daily Star, Houry said that since the list had been compiled, an additional death had occurred. Nepalese worker Kesradivi Yerepa Mart “hung herself in Dawhet Aramoun in her employer’s house” over the weekend, he said. “What is clear from the figures is that isolation is driving many of these [workers] to suicide,” Khoury added.

The HRW statement quoted a former ambassador as saying, “Don’t call this an embassy. We have become a funeral parlor. People die. Natural deaths, accidents, suicide. When they try to run away, accidents happen.”

Investigations into the deaths of migrant workers were often limited, added the press release. “Police do not always investigate whether the employer mistreated the employee, and when they do, they limit themselves to general questions and accept the employer’s testimony without cross-checking” their information with other concerned parties, such as neighbors or the employee’s family. “In cases where the domestic worker survives a fall, police often interview her without the presence of a translator and generally ignore the motives that led her to escape,” the HRW statement said.

“All those involved – from the Lebanese authorities, to the workers’ embassies, to the employment agencies, to the employers – need to ask themselves what is driving these women to kill themselves or risk their lives trying to escape from high buildings,” said Houry. “It’s unacceptable to have such a high unnatural death rate, and it’s also preventable,” he added.

There are thought to be some 200,000 domestic workers, mostly from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and the Philippines, working in Lebanon. A great number of these work as live-in maids and are often forced to work long hours without a weekly break or sufficient food. A 2006 survey conducted in Lebanon by Dr. Ray Jureidini of 600 migrant domestic workers found that 56 percent worked more than 12 hours a day and 34 percent were not allowed regular time off.

According to a 2005 survey by the non-governmental organization Caritas Lebanon, 90 percent of employers retained the passports and other legal documents of their employees, seriously limiting their freedom of movement. Many workers are also forcibly confined to the house and denied regular, if any, payment of their salaries.

On top of all that, Lebanese labor laws do not protect domestic workers, making them vulnerable to exploitation and human rights abuses.

“The Lebanese are often defensive when talking about the treatment of domestic workers,” Houri said in a telephone interview. “We should move beyond this defensiveness and really think about these high [death] figures and come up with a strategy to improve” the experiences of migrant workers in Lebanon.

“While police reports usually classify cases where domestic workers fall from balconies as suicide, this classification is highly suspect,” said the HWR press release, citing testimonials from survivors who said they were fleeing abuse.

Lebanon is a signatory to the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but has not yet signed the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

In early 2006, an official steering committee was established to ease the problems of domestic workers. Roland Tawk, a lawyer who often takes on pro-bono cases of incarcerated migrants and a member of the committee, said it had three main goals; 1) to create standardized employment contracts in Arabic, English, French and the native language of the worker; 2) to publish a booklet detailing the rights and obligations of employers and employees, to be distributed at airports, ministries and recruitment agencies, and 3) to formulate a new law for migrant workers.

But according to Houry, “to date” the committee “has failed to deliver any concrete reforms … it’s time for the Lebanese government to show real leadership and actually deliver” these promises, he said.