News website StepFeed recently published a story about advertisements for maids for sale within some parts of the Arab world. The story rightly caused commotion due to the feelings stirred up as of a result of what was being covered. Human rights deficits were clearly on show, with the listings seeming to hark back to a time when the buying and selling of human lives was commonplace. Using the term “hark back” here is a little misplaced. The uncomfortable truth is that slavery is still alive today, in different forms and to differing degrees.
In 2016, The Global Slavery Index reported that there were 45.8 million men, women and children who are trapped within the shackles of modern slavery. The index is the work of the Australian Walk Free Foundation; they define slavery as “a person (who) cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception, with treatment akin to a farm animal”. Slavery is now illegal in every country worldwide, however the practice continues, with India reported as having the highest number of slaves (18.4million), while North Korea is reported to contain the most slaves per capita (4.4% of its total population).
The online market place OLX was used to list several “maids for sale”. While these posts were removed shortly after they were brought to light, they highlight the particularly troubling practice that exists in some parts of the Middle East. The posts included a price for the “purchase” of maids. While the posters would likely claim they are merely advertising the price of the remaining contracts for which the maids were signed in to (1,400 riyals in one case; or around US$ 3,600), the posts highlight the fact that many domestic workers surrender their human rights in order to find a job. Different recruitment agencies were guilty of such ‘advertising’.
In 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed 99 domestic workers in a Middle Eastern country and found that most reported working long hours, for which they were often not paid, sometimes working as long as 21 hours per day. Of the 99 interviewed, 24 reported experiencing physical or sexual abuse. The International Labour Organization (ILO) reported that just under 30% of the world’s domestic workers worked in countries in which they are completely excluded from the country’s labour laws. Given this lack of judicial protection, it is unsurprising that rates of abuse are so high, with the law rarely intervening to protect the labour or human rights of the victims. Often it takes something extreme, such as abuse being caught on camera and the video going viral, before action is taken, as was the case recently with the Ethiopian maid who was hanging from a seventh-floor window, filmed by her abusive employer. The maid eventually fell but survived her fall, no thanks to her abusive employer who actually filmed the abusive incident, all the while goading the poor victim.
Even more troubling are reports coming out of North Africa, where the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) has described eyewitness testimony of slave markets in operation. As their name suggests, these markets are stocked with human beings, many of who are from West Africa, being sold to buyers for money. Many of these individuals left conflict-ridden countries in the hope of a better life in Europe. Once they arrived at the gates to Europe in North Africa, kidnapping, deception, and coercion led many to end up being sold off into slavery. Sexual exploitation is rife, while death can come by way of murder, starvation or preventable disease. The luckier individuals might find themselves on ill-equipped boats bound for Europe, where thousands perish beneath the waves every year. The IOM reported in 2016 that more than 46,000 people have died during migration since 2000.
Does Islam Have a Problem with Slavery?
The issue of Islam and slavery is too vast and complex for the scope of this article. What can be said with absolute certainty is that the abuse of domestic workers, or the kidnapping and selling of individuals today, is explicitly forbidden. The cases described above all violate numerous principles of Islamic law, from the right to autonomy, to the right not to be harmed. Islamic Scholar Jonathon AC Brown raises perhaps the most critical question in the discussion of Islam and slavery; how do we define the term? He distinguishes American Chattel slavery, with the concept used within Islamic literature. Most of us born within the last century will automatically think of the American Chattel type of servitude when we hear the word slaves; that is, abhorrent conditions, surrender of all human rights, and treatment that is subhuman. Brown discusses the different forms of coerced labour, all of which might be termed slavery, including many employer-employee relationships that exist throughout the world today. Those interested in slavery and Islam would do well to begin by reading Brown’s work.
What is certain is that Islamic law put in place many conditions to improve the conditions of slaves, as well as conditions that would lead to its eradication. On seeing a slave being abused by his master, the Prophet is reported to have said, “Verily, you are a person with ignorance in you. They are your brothers and sisters…whoever has his brother under him should feed him with the same food he eats, clothe him with the same clothes he wears, and not burden him beyond his ability. If you burden him, then help him”. This is certainly not the same phenomenon as that which occurred during the Transatlantic Slave-Trade. Beyond this point, there are many others worthy of mentioning, such as the outlawing of all forms of slavery that has since been sanctioned by Islamic scholars of all schools of thought, as well as the recurring theme within Islamic literature about the virtue and importance of freeing slaves.
Despite Islam’s strong stance against slavery, and inhumane treatment of others as a whole, practices throughout the Middle East highlight the reality that Muslims are not living up to the Islamic standard. Whether it’s the abuse of domestic workers, or the actual selling of human beings, there is a great degree of work that needs to be done to eradicate these atrocious practices. And be wary of engaging in whataboutery; while slavery and the abuse of human beings is by no means a Muslim or Arab-specific phenomenon, and while there are some who instrumentalise these issues to attack Islam, we need to continue having honest conversations about the realities of some practices that are causing ethical decay within the so-called “Muslim World”.