Postcard — September 17, 2015, 11:00 am

Bait and Switch

The threat of violence weighs heavy on Qatar’s blue-collar female migrants. 

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Photographs by the author

A few years ago in Doha, Qatar, I woke up to the sound of a stray cat crying. This was nothing unusual. Strays were everywhere in my neighborhood, skinny little things that scrapped for food outside biryani restaurants and slept underneath the parked cars that straddled curbsides. I poked my head out the kitchen window and looked down. It wasn’t a cat that was crying; it was a woman. She was small, neither very old nor very young. Her sobs were ragged and panicked and happening only two floors below my comfortable apartment, where I slept alone in a California King and had three bathrooms for no apparent reason. I asked her what was the matter. From what I could gather as we talked—stiltedly, since her English was poor and my Tagalog even worse—she was a maid and had been locked inside the kitchen for the day by her employer. I went down and tried the outside door of the apartment, which was locked. I pleaded to no avail with the building’s security guards to open it, called the Philippines embassy help line but got no answer. In desperation, I contacted a friend who’d lived in Doha his whole life. Nothing to be done, he told me. I wrote the number of the help line in big block letters on a piece of paper, threw it down to her, and went to work. I never saw her again. I don’t even know if she had a phone.

On any given day, there are dozens of flights from Manila to Doha. The airlines of the Gulf States dominate the route—Emirates, Etihad, Saudia, Qatar Airways—projecting a storybook Arabian Nights aura on travel to the region: gold script logos, oud music in safety videos, stewardesses in pillbox hats and silky veils. Beth, a thirty-year-old from the province of Isabela in the north of the Philippines, would have been awed no matter what when she stepped foot on her Qatar-bound Kuwait Airlines flight in January of 2012. Though she had once dreamed of becoming a stewardess and traveling the world, or at least visiting Boracay and Palawan, resort spots in the southern region of her country, it was her first time on a plane.

In the Philippines, she’d held jobs as a credit investigator for Citibank and a sales rep for a manufacturer, jobs she’d made decent money at, but living expenses were burdensome. Beth, along with the eleven women and three men she was traveling with, had been told she’d be a hotel employee in Doha for $410 a month, plus lodging and the promise of tips and food from a professional kitchen. But she feared the bait and switch: she had heard stories of agencies placing Filipinas as maids in private households once they got off the plane. Those girls didn’t get a day off. And worse. Stories of rape and abuse were a commonplace in news dispatches from the Gulf.

The tension eased upon landing. Beth and the other women were driven to Duhail, a district about twelve miles outside the city center. It’s a middle class neighborhood still on the make, filled with the sort of homes that Beth derisively calls matchboxes—low-slung, beige, concrete duplicates with white Land Cruisers parked out front. The villa where the group was dropped off housed about a hundred women in its three floors. Mostly Filipinas. A couple of Sri Lankans. A single kitchen.

The hotel job never appeared. Beth was assigned to work as an office tea girl—no tips, bad food. The $410 a month promised in the contract she signed in Manila turned out to be $273 a month. Still, Doha is an opportunity, a little desert purgatory she has learned to endure. “Maybe this is the only thing that I can give,” Beth says of her work, of the money that goes back home. “This is like my gift.”

If you squint a bit at a map, the peninsula on which Qatar is situated looks like a hitchhiker’s thumb jutting out from the meaty hand of Saudi Arabia, a behemoth of nearly 30 million people that dominates the Arabian Peninsula. Qatar, by comparison has a population of around 2.3 million people, according to recent estimates, roughly the size of Boston and its inner-ring suburbs—and arguably far more stylish, given the absence of pink Red Sox hats and the raw square footage the country has devoted to Fendi boutiques. According to the United Nations, in the year 2000, 594,000 people lived in Qatar. More recent estimates put the Indian population alone at around 500,000. Indians and Pakistanis combined are thought to make up 36 percent of the country, though official statistics are difficult to come by, demographic figures being the third rail of Qatari political life. The country’s population boom over the past decade has made a lot of locals nervous, and to be fair, Qatar’s demographic lopsidedness is singular. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans, who relied heavily on the foreign labor of conquered lands, were never quite so outnumbered on their home turf. Today, only an estimated 13 percent of those living in Qatar are Qatari. Ninety-Four percent of the country’s workforce is foreign. The recent influx of migrant labor, low skilled and high, can be traced to the professionalization of Qatar’s liquefied natural gas operations—the country sits atop a valuable trove of methane gas that must change phases of matter in order to be transported, and this alchemy requires legions of engineers and support staff. By 2006 Qatar was the world’s leading exporter of the stuff. As a result, Qataris are, to use a technical term, stinking rich. They’re also a bit resentful of their reliance on an imported workforce, emasculated even. It’s this psychology that lies at the heart of the country’s abysmal labor record—this fear of being subsumed or overcome.

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When I’m feeling fuzzily nostalgic about Qatar, my mind’s eye always places me in my car, driving an empty stretch of road with a big Days Inn–logo sunset in the rearview mirror. Twilight softens the desert, makes everything that’s dull, dusty beige look a little bit like rainbow sherbet. The legions of white Pajeros and Porsche Cayennes take on an iridescence and look, for a few fleeting minutes, like seed pearls stringing a black cord of highway, rather than glinting Storm Troopers conquering some parched planet.

Cars are power in Qatar. If you have a big one, you can off-road your way around the city’s hellacious traffic jams; if you’re important, your license plate will telegraph as much to the rest of the world. Having a vehicle at all means a person’s got some semblance of status. Blue-collar migrants are ferried to and from work in hoopty Tata buses, and any other outing requires a cab ride that’s more often than not out of budget. Certain neighborhoods bustle with foot traffic when the sun goes down, as people run errands and loiter outside shops, while West Bay, where the city’s skyscrapers and wealthy Western expats alike plant their roots, seems eerily silent. Much of life in Doha is lived somewhere in between these hermetically sealed, air-conditioned-to-death glass towers and the labor camps at the edge of the city, by people who shop in bodegas filled with groceries from “back home,” and who bunk in crowded flats next door to luxury malls and car dealerships.

Beth and her friends live at a remove from all this—the closest shops are at a mall a little way down the road, and they feel isolated much of the time. When the women take a cab, it’s usually for a special occasion—a birthday meal at KFC or a Filipino restaurant where they can do karaoke while they eat. They always ride in groups for safety—too many stories of girls having been raped by drivers. The threat of physical violence weighs heavy on Qatar’s blue-collar female migrants. Once, in the middle of the night, a man snuck into a bedroom on the ground floor of the villa Beth lives in. He was naked when the women found him. “He was trying to get one of our housemaid colleagues,” Beth says. “He was trying to do some bad things.” Another time, a group of Arab teens broke in. “We feel so unsafe,” Beth says. “We have locks on our doors in our rooms, but the main gate, anyone can enter it.”

Seventy-seven percent of the country’s population is male, statistically upping the amount of leering that takes place on the peninsula. (Qatar might be the most masculine place on earth, though its neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, comes close, with a population that’s sixty-nine percent male.) Still, many companies recruiting highly skilled workers tout Qatar’s safety. Western women often remark on how secure they feel at night—not surprising in a place where the white-man/woman wave works to get past checkpoints at compounds, clubs, and buildings. Non-Western women living without their families are viewed as another species of female altogether: sexual fair game. Filipinas in particular battle a Gulf stereotype of promiscuity. The problem of rape is prevalent enough in Qatar that the Philippines embassy issued a safety advisory last year, followed by a statement from the ambassador that he was “a little bit alarmed” at the rate of assaults on Filipino women.

One Saturday night last fall, a couple of weeks after I’d met them, I went with Beth and her roommates to Puerto Gallera, a place with chickens roasting on an automated spit outside and a slightly wonky sound system. Beth warbled through Olivia Newton John’s “I Honestly Love You” before the entrees arrived, following on the heels of a rousing rendition of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” by her friend Regine, twenty-three, who was wearing the same insignia polo shirt as Beth. (One pink, the other white. They shop together.) Vanessa, thirty-three, talked about her adventures in online dating—she had a boyfriend already, but messaging back and forth is just something to fill the down hours after work. Jerrah, thirty-three and the quietest of the group, said that, in her free time, she liked to watch cartoons on her phone. She has a kid back home.

Beth’s mother left when she was twelve and worked in Malaysia as a maid for much of her early teenage years; Regine’s mother was in Saudi Arabia for a while. Working abroad is something of a rite of passage for many Filipinas. Beth’s family had long asked her to look for work overseas, but she always thought it would be in an “English” country. Australia, maybe. The United States if she were lucky. She didn’t like the idea of the Middle East all that much. And there had been her boyfriend to consider. She and Alex had been together for six years. They were planning a life together. Then, “a third party” entered the mix, as Beth delicately phrases it. Heartbreak makes a person do funny things, sloughs off all the layers of comfort and habit that were holding you to a place. What’s left is something raw that can be puddled and rolled into steely reserve. Some girls cut their hair off. Beth left the country and didn’t tell him until she was 4,500 miles away.

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Of the roughly 200,000 Filipinos living in Qatar, an estimated 30,000 are employed as domestic workers, a category overwhelmingly dominated by women. Most maids and nannies live in the employer’s home. It’s not uncommon to see them trailing behind families in malls, wearing uniforms that look like hospital scrubs. The violence against these workers, sexual and otherwise, is anecdotally rampant—the government has not released statistics on such complaints, but a 2008 study by the Supreme Council of Family Affairs gives insight into the kind of violence that typically occurs in Qatari homes: 28 percent of the married women surveyed had reported they were on the receiving end of abuse. A ninety-two-page Amnesty International report from 2014 outlined the common abuses against domestic workers in the country, from nonpayment of wages and restrictions on women’s movements outside the house to assault and verbal abuse.

Rape victims and runaways are a common sight at the Philippines’ Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). Situated in a neighborhood that looks like the business end of the Sunbelt housing crash—construction fences, hot sand, and unfinished structures—the government office was bustling on the Thursday afternoon when I visited. Filipinos leave their country in droves to find work; 10 percent of the population lives abroad, and remittances make up 12 percent of the GDP. All of which means the government has gotten used to handling the problems that come with mass migration—there are three “comfort rooms” on the premises for women who run away from their employers. Contract disputes are the most common reason workers seek refuge at the office. Jelome Biel, chatty and upbeat, with blue nails, braces, and a sparkling left-hand solitaire, was working as a private nurse for an eighty-five-year-old Qatari woman. The twenty-seven-year-old Filipina had been promised her own room to sleep in and time off once a week if she moved to Qatar. When she arrived though, Biel said she was made to sleep in the same room as her patient, with no privacy and unwelcome visitors. “There are times that at three in the morning I woke up because there was a man standing at the lower part of my bed”—referring to the patient’s eighteen-year-old grandson. “I am afraid, always afraid.” The family’s Indian driver groped her and propositioned her with porn. Only after a month did Biel get her first day off. She headed straight to the OWWA. Biel was excited to head back home to the Philippines, but Qatar—flush with cash—hadn’t lost its appeal. “If given a chance, I would like to come back here again,” she said.

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Ten families live in the skinny three-story house where Regine goes to church. Ten feet past the grease-stained backsplash in the kitchen is a wooden door with a sign that reads, “This Is Holy Ground.” Behind it is the sanctuary of the Assembly of the Lord Christian Church—a living room covered in polyester drape paneling, like the inside of a bargain-basement coffin. There’s a backlit neon cross behind a lectern and two TV screens bolted to the wall, which I found my eyes glued to when I joined her there for a service one early morning. When the worship began, the words to all the songs—of which there are many during the three-hour rite conducted mostly in Tagalog—were projected karaoke-style onto the screens. The all-Filipino congregation can’t afford to rent a room for Friday services at “Church City,” the religious complex built a few years ago at the city’s outermost desert reaches, so they make do here. Regine told me that “only lovers” go to the Catholic mass out there, Doha’s godly, desiccated answer to Sunday brunch.

When there wasn’t singing, there was testifying. One woman got up to tell her story, crescendoing into sobs as she did so, and soon, many of the others joined in weeping. I wondered, alarmed, what had happened to her. Regine leaned over to explain that she was a cashier who never had a day off. Once, she had been sure she wouldn’t be able to push through the interminable hours, but God made it so that she wasn’t tired. Regine leaned back, her eyes fixed on the front of the room once again.

It’s possible some drama of the woman’s tale had been lost in translation, but mostly, I thought as the minutes and the testimonies flew by, this just seemed like a good place for everyone to let go for a while, the polyester drapery soaking up the stories like a living-room-sized handkerchief. It’s hard to be the middle slice of Doha’s other half—things are not so good, but they could be worse. There were egg-salad sandwiches and juice boxes and smiles when it was all over, and we left as we came, through the busy kitchen, where a couple of men were busy gutting fish over the sink for dinner. 

When I last saw them, Beth, Regine, and the other women in the house were unsure of their status in Doha—the company that controlled their work permits had been less than forthcoming about the renewal of the women’s contracts. Western expats who come here usually do so for a couple of years at a time, for work experience and a salary they might not get back home. They travel often and at will, living in big apartments—they are mercenary migrants rather than indentured ones. The women talked a lot about what might come next for them, filling up their downtime with hypotheticals. Beth in particular was at a crossroads. She had a boyfriend in Doha who’d asked her to marry him. But she wanted to work longer before she said yes. Her family is rebuilding their home after a typhoon and needs the money. And perhaps there was something else. Beth seemed wistful at times for Alex, her old boyfriend. They had gone to the same church, knew each other’s families. They just made sense together. I asked her one day if she thought they might still end up together. She shook her head, resigned. “I think that’s very impossible.”

Life goes on, and rarely as we thought it would. Doha has a way of making that point sharply, tinged with a little bit of Icarus’s bad luck—it’s closer to the sun than most places, so the wax melts off people’s wings more quickly here.

The morning I left Qatar I drove in a cab with a familiar Days Inn sunrise at my back. It was a little before six and quiet, and when we idled at a stoplight on the main road by the bay, I found myself staring at man in a thobe languidly smoking a cigarette out the window of his white Benz coupe, the call to prayer coming over the speaker of a nearby minaret. The last thing I saw before we took the left-hand turn into the airport road’s no-man’s-land was a banner, unfurled across the scaffolding of what signs told me would someday be the National Museum of Qatar.

“We will build a better future,” it read. In the right light, it almost seemed possible.

Clare Malone reported from Qatar on a grant from the International Reporting Project, an independent journalism program based in Washington, D.C.

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