- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

Instead of waiting for the House of Saud to submit a report to the United Nations on its treatment of women, the bureaucrats in Brussels could do some field work and witness women who are locked inside homes, paid little or nothing as domestic servants, worked up to 20 hours per day, and verbally and physically abused. They could see this sad state of affairs not just in Saudi Arabia, but in Saudi homes right here in the United States. Or U.N. officials could simply ask the people who know all about it, and even allow the practice to continue unabated on American soil: the U.S. State Department.
Saudi abuse of domestics occasionally makes news in the Western press but only when it happens outside of the kingdom. The Saudi princess who pushed her Indonesian maid down a flight of stairs in Orlando achieved some notoriety, but the case fizzled because State refused to give a visa to the victim who had traveled back to Indonesia to attend her mother's funeral who was scheduled to testify in the criminal trial. What most people didn't know was that after the prosecutor's case crumbled without the star witness the charge that was dropped as part of a plea bargain: indentured servitude.
Tens of thousands of women are abused in Saudi Arabia each year. According to the Saudi government, some 19,000 domestic servants almost exclusively foreign women working in Saudi Arabia as maids escaped from Saudi homes in the 12 months prior to March 2001. The real figure is likely far higher, because the government statistic counts only those women who go to government-run shelters for "runaway" domestics, which human rights experts view as no more than a PR ploy. Women who show up at Saudi police stations seeking help are instead locked up and remain jailed until their employers reclaim them.
Women who worked in Saudi Arabia first thought conditions would improve in the United States. In each case, that didn't happen. One woman, "Jamila," discovered a cyst in her right breast but her Saudi employers wouldn't let her see a doctor. It wasn't until the young Filipina escaped the Northern Virginia house more than two years later when the cyst had grown to four inches that she was able to seek medical attention. "Maryam," whose Saudi employers took her to a college town in Illinois, was passed around like mere property to friends and relatives of the employers. Denied a bed, she was forced to sleep on the hard floor in a cramped room in the basement. But at least Maryam was lucky; she was not raped like "Saida," who was unconscious and covered in blood when the man who raped her carried her into a hospital emergency room in Northern Virginia just outside the capital of the free world.
Domestics who work in the United States don't have access to an underground railroad like the type that exists in Saudi Arabia women there often hide in the trunks of cars as they are driven to a safe house or a port city but thankfully many come into contact with Good Samaritans like Cielo, a Filipina who helped five different women escape from a single Saudi diplomat's home during a four-year period. Each time, Cielo who worked as a maid down the street persuaded the women that it was both acceptable and possible to flee. After prepping them, Cielo would pull around the cul de sac in her van in the middle of the night stopping in front of the Saudis' house. The women then darted out to the van and freedom.
Women abused in Saudi homes on American soil need heroes like Cielo, because they receive no assistance from the State Department even though officials there know what happens behind closed Saudi doors. Diplomatic Security (DS), State's law-enforcement arm, has received "many" calls from police stations over the years about Saudi diplomats abusing domestic workers, says a DS officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. State has yet to implement policies to provide oversight or inform domestic workers of their rights. In fact, when two officials in State's anti-fraud unit tried to combat trafficking in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere their superiors "rewarded" them by shuttling them to toothless positions writing reports.
Notes Keith Roderick, president of the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights, who personally helped a woman escape a Saudi home: "When you meet these women and hear their horror stories, it breaks your heart. But after you think about it, it gets you angry, really angry because State should be doing something about this, and then they turn a cold shoulder to women who want nothing more than to live free."

Joel Mowbray is a reporter for National Review. Adapted from the Feb. 24 issue. E-mail: jdmowbra@erols.com.

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