It has become a regular newspaper item: another Bangladeshi woman (and just as often, women) being abused by a Saudi household patron, fleeing through a labyrinthine, unnecessarily expensive escape route, created by a network for just her type of a migrating client, and a helpless embassy/consular office where nothing more than a report and humiliating, penniless return journey to Bangladesh is arranged. This 'badly treated' reference is not just domestic irregularities: it begins with snatching her passport from the moment of her entry (unless that has already been done by some shameless recruiting agency or passport official), continues with scolding and scalding outbursts, then ending inevitably with sexual molestation or outright rape, not just once, but repeatedly. Any of the 'networks' implicit in 'taking' her there, or involved in her 'escape' is most likely beyond reproach: either it is not Bangladeshi; and if it is Saudi, we kind of fear to inquire any further when all across the world agencies like this are hunted and haunted until some punishment is meted out. Most sickening is when nothing happens: the same kind of story runs one day, another example returns another day, and the cycle continues nauseatingly ad nauseam. Just as bad: this is Saudi Arabia, Islam's Custodian Country, and against which no other Sunni Muslim country says a word.
Blaming women in Muslim countries is becoming pointless: they are at fault even before any criminal action occurs. Disturbingly, this Custodian Islamic Country is where we must go for our pilgrimage, pay our respect and offer prayers for our Prophet (pbh), and everything He preached, and a country we end up rallying behind when summoned for a holy cause, as, for example, building a military force against 'terrorists', particularly those acting in the name of Islam (and often subsidised by Saudi sources). May be many Muslim countries, scrounging as they typically do for more funds, have a hidden agenda in keeping quiet. For example, a feeling that every contact with a Saudi, no matter how warm or grotesque, inevitably means more cash back home, either through remittances or funding of one kind of project or another, if not outright Islamic largesse from the wealthiest of Islamic countries. Or maybe we just do not have the spunk to stand up and tell any Saudi: this is wrong by common law or even etiquette; it flies in the face of Islamic duties, expectations, and reverence; and that, no matter how wealthy or powerful you are, until you acknowledge or correct your mistake, we would like to slow down the relationship, and eventually drag you into a court of law.
Women are not all that is worrisome in this relationship. Men or anyone with a Bangladeshi-type of a passport gets treated like filth in routine Saudi life. If the usually classless embrace and peaceful exchanges that dot the pilgrimage season spoke for year-round Saudi temperament, grace, and hospitality, all of which are so deeply ingrained in our religion, Saudi Arabia could easily stand out as the most popular country worldwide. There are accolades there for the taking only if the country wants to grab them that no other country stands close enough to matching, whether it is Islamic, western, or anywhere else in the world. Nationalism intervenes, to say the least, racism, to say the most.
Instead, the Bangladeshi gets treated largely as scum: if they go as household staff, they still receive treatment as scum from their oil-revenue-reaping, ostensibly cultured landlords; or even if the landlords are not well-to-do, at least against Bangladeshis (and, broadly, all foreign workers with darker skin colour), the maltreatment could worsen. Saudi Arabia's international political behavioural styles obscure the nature of political exchanges within the typical Saudi community, or even family, but when attention shifts to treatment of foreigners, politics and political mindsets play deterministic roles. It often feels like the presence of 'scum' provides Saudis an outlet for their domestic wrath in addition to racism.
Saudi Arabia's pecking-order of foreign friends explicitly carries this racist, western tone, almost to the point of a subservience that Saudi Arabia expects of all the darker people inside Saudi Arabia. It may be good for Saudi Arabia in cultivating international deals with Pareto outcomes, particularly since 'western' customers transact on a bigger financial scale: more oil imports and heavy-spending visitors, for instance. Yet, it is absolutely insulting in cultivating social and Islamic relations. Islam's essence of submission to some other than Allah gets diluted if Bangladeshis and the darker racers have to submit to Saudi Arabians only because the country is the Islamic Custodian country, or top global oil-producer.
Saudi Arabian duplicitous behaviour is for Saudis to iron out. For us, it is imperative we behave the way the Holy Quran taught us to: point out the mistakes and wait for their amendments. We would clearly like to see our workers and Saudi visitors get the respect the the Holy Quran has informed us we should get from others 'in the Book'. Exploiting the poverty and illiteracy of our women, in particular, but every Bangladeshi passport-holder in general, flies in the face of our faith: it is repugnant and rejected by almost all standing faiths, if not all. It is also repugnant to common courtesy and etiquettes that align with human rights, and which, if violated by deep-pocketed, quick-rich Saudis, show a character poverty far deeper than any poverty of any dark-skinned foreign worker in Saudi Arabia.
With the growth of democratic expectations, transparency, and human-rights respect, Saudi Arabia can only be a stone's throw away from a cataclysmic collision. Its cause and participants may be unknown, but with so many aggrieved groups, one can only hope Saudi Arabia mends its socio-cultural and political ways.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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