Another web of female labour migrants returned home last month from Saudi Arabia. More than 100 half dead women were sent by Bangladesh embassy in Riyadh. Those women stayed for months in safe homes in Riyadh after traumatic events in their lives. This return is nothing new rather a common events taking place in last few years. They went abroad with aspiration but returned home in empty-handed. Inadequate actions from Bangladesh government in Saudi Arabia acknowledge its irresponsibility to its citizens held abused abroad. Post-repatriation of these returnees remains another social issue of denial in current context.
Bangladesh has started to send a number of male workers in the Middle East since 1980s at a fuller pace with active diplomacy of late President Ziaur Rahman. It flourished over time regime after regime. Martial regimes always tended to have good relations with Islamic countries especially with gulf countries. Oil crisis of 1970s sparked a major shift in overall economy of Middle Eastern region. Huge petrodollar laid a solid foundation for foreign worker recruitment in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman. Bangladesh could successfully send a bulk of semiskilled, unskilled ordinary workers in potential labour markets. Gradually women started to migrate in this region informally. Destination of most of the women is Saudi Arabia as maid, cleaner, cook, and babysitter, etc. Agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2015 created a watershed of female labour migration from Bangladesh. Sources note that almost 2 and half lakh women migrated in Saudi Arabia since 2015. However, gender analysis depicts that aged divorcee are likely to migrate more and more in comparing single or married women. Their visa-processing is also very complex, mainly brokers manage their trip. Undoubtedly various local organizations and activists started portraying this migration as pathway of female empowerment with remittance flow. A number of women were attracted by cheap cost migration process through brokers to eradicate their economic condition. But untold horror was awaitingfor those women migrated in the Middle East, notably in Saudi Arabia.
We bestow our nation being one of the biggest (10th) remittance earners in the world. Unfortunately we tend not to hear the background stories of billion dollars. Female migrants are also a great contributor here. ILO established in 1919 after the First World War. This organization promotes work with dignity, equality and safety. Regrettably Bangladeshi women and men do not get fair share any of their labor rights. Notably women are at worst position in gulf region. Primarily they are recruited in illegal channel that is why their rights are not sorted out properly. Their journey in Saudi Arabia is very ambiguous. Most of the women are forced to surrender their passports and prohibited to use cell phone personally so that communication is curtailed by all means. They find abroad very challenging and unbearable often. Promised salary is not given and almost there is no day off with excessive work load. Most horribly they face undignified things in their lives what a woman does not like to dream in her nightmare. They are frequently both physically and mentally tortured and raped. Several stains can be found on returned women’s body. Even few married women returned home being pregnant! Almost 6 thousand women returned home since 2016 according to BRAC provided data. Mysterious stroke and suicide dead among female migrants in Saudi Arabia is growing. Almost 60 women died since 2016 according to a daily star provided data. To me all these events predate dark (Jahiliat) age of Arabian Peninsula as if Abu Jahels are still dominating Saudi Arabia in the veil of Islam. But what Bangladesh has done to protect its citizens abroad?
Very recently the expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment ministry has admitted various kinds of abuses of Bangladeshi female migrants in Saudi Arabia. Bangladesh government has always denied any kind of abusive things from Saudi people rather victimized Bangladeshis. There may have some reasons behind it since Saudi Arabia is a crucial and best source of Bangladesh foreign remittance. Huge male manpower is employed in Saudi Arabia that is why government has some limitation indeed. But this greed for remittance cannot justify government’s acceptance of injustice. For saying Indonesia banned sending female migrants to Saudi Arabia in 2015 for sentencing two women. Bangladesh government signed treaty in 2015 and filled the position of Indonesia. Bangladesh should have examined Saudi grounds before sending its female citizens. Bangladesh hardly protested deaths of Bangladeshis in Riyadh. Bangladesh opened safe home to take care oppressed women in Saudi Arabia instead of permanent solution. This cannot be an act of a sovereign country. Bangladesh concluded a military pact with Saudi Arabia this year in February as a sign of friendship. We barely know its terms and conditions. Bangladesh governmentshould be bold and assertive to Saudi authority rather than labeling Bangladeshi women as incompetent and fault finder. Bangladesh cannot toady Saudi authority for long. It is shame for Bangladesh to let its citizens to be undignified. We cannot but say that the most allied countries of Bangladesh are the cruelest damagers of Bangladesh interest. Repatriation of these women in their respective societies is another crucial issue to be asked. Organizations like BRAC helping returned women from Saudi Arabia noted that women are not welcomed in their beloved family and society. People have negative conceptions about them. This is very unique and peculiar sense of understanding of Bengalis to victimize oppressed once again. Maybe we inherited this culture from our pre-independence masters. That is why we suspect raped victim women in conceptualizing rape cases. Similarly women going abroad are deemed to be bad women to our society. People also have fascination about Arabians. They do not see any fault in Arabian men and women who are idols to a large group of people in Bangladesh, especially to women. Butknowledgeable people having information about Saudi Arabians can catch up with these events quickly. Regrettably government officials also act like ignorant. At this point, government’s role seems to be very inadequate where civil society and NGOs have a great role to play. Deliberate efforts from media can show the extreme scenario of female labour migrants in the Middle East where dreams turn to nightmare. It is very unlikely to put hope in government’s initiatives that is hungry for remittance.
The author is studying BBA at University of Dhaka.