Arab Slavery

Kale Mohammed, American University

A few months ago, we watched horrified as African migrants were sold as slaves in their own continent. I don’t know about you, but I cried as I watched my brothers and sisters tied, beaten and dehumanized as commodities to be bought, sold and discarded. For a few weeks, the story was the headline of CNN, BBC and even Al Jazeera as western journalists fumbled to grasp the concept of an Arab slave trade. Contrary to popular western belief, the mistreatment and abuse of Africans by the hands of Arabs is not new. In fact, the reports are only a testimony to the widespread anti-blackness that is part of the Arab World. The cultural legacy of colonialism and its gruesome exploitation of the colonized, also known as postcolonialism, fails miserably to explain and deconstruct the effect of Arab slavery and the Arab conquest in Africa. Hence, Arab racism and the aftermaths of Arab colonialism is generally ignored.

In many aspects, it was quite frustrating to witness the shock that took over the media after CNN published a video of the slave auction. My frustration does not neglect the atrocities of the crisis, but instead centralizes on the ignorance surrounding Arab racism and colonization. This is not news and it is nothing out of the ordinary for Libya or any other Arab nation. Did we forget that mobs hunted down Sub-Saharan Africans to murder on the streets of Tripoli after the fall of Qadaffi? On the contrary, the outrage that followed that gruesome videotape should have arisen decades ago. It is quite ironic that we tend to ignore the slaves that are trapped behind the walls of households in the Gulf, Lebanon and Jordan– the domestic workers and maids of the Middle East.

Although slavery was abolished in many Gulf states and the Middle East, it seems to have taken a new form through the Kafala system. The seemingly archaic and chaotic system fails miserably to protect domestic workers from physical, verbal and sexual abuses. Most of these women, and some men, are forced out of their homelands in Africa to tend to houses in a foreign land and raise the children of strangers through paid sponsorships. The visa-sponsorship system ties the employer with the employee, restricting the workers from leaving an abusive household. The system inevitably enables the exploitation and abuse of these workers. It is nothing short of modern-day slavery. The so-called “sponsors” confiscate the maids’ passports and immigration documents at the moment of their arrival in the airports. The countless stories told by survivors trace the years of solitude spent locked behind closed doors. Horrifying accusations of sexual, verbal and physical abuse are left unpunished and lives are destroyed without a glimpse of hope.

It is important to recognize many domestic workers (maids) are sponsored from Africa. More specifically, these maids come from East Africa as the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) attempts to avoid the bans that have been recently placed by Asian countries restricting migration. Evidently, the unlimited supply of cheap labor leads to the abuse and mistreatment of the migrant workers with the rapid growth and expansion of the Kafala ( sponsorship) system. The crisis is also the perfect display of racial hierarchy in the Arab World. To understand the role of race relations and hierarchy in the Kafala system, we must be cognizant of the historical dehumanization of African bodies by Arabs. Although the remnants of Western Colonization have a role in the construction of the racial hierarchy of the Arab World, I would argue that racism was not introduced to the Arab world by the West. Arab civilizations have their own long history of ransacking Africa and the abuse of African bodies. The legacies of the Arab slave trade are as prominent as the legacies of the Atlantic slave trade. Not to mention the Arab slave trade lasted twice as long. Furthermore, the Arab World refuses to discuss or even recognize the consequences of Arab slavery. Where most people in the region are able to recognize and fight against Western imperialism, racism, and orientalism, the same people fail to acknowledge their own racism towards Africans and the mistreatment of migrant workers.  

The term abid, slave, has been and is still used to describe those of African descent. So, the world and those of us who entertain the theories of postcolonialism should not be surprised by the on-going enslavement of Africans, whether it is in the coast of Libya or in the households of the Gulf. Racism in the Middle East may operate and follow different social norms than the Western racism we are familiar with, but that does not excuse the atrocities it causes and the lives it destroys. The time has come for the Arab world to admit their racism that has brought so much pain and suffering to my land and my people, and it is time to abolish the Kafala system.