Migrant workers and Ramadan: Perspectives from a Muslim Kuwaiti

To Muslims, Ramadan is considered the holiest month of the year. One of the ways in which we expand our spirituality during this period is by reflecting on our privileges, the purpose of which is to strengthen our relationship with God and improve our compassion for others. For many people in our community, we think of compassion as something that solely involves donating money to those who live far away from us, and I believe many of us overlook the importance of practicing compassion everyday starting with those who live in our households. This obviously does not reflect the behaviour of all Muslims or all Arabs in any way, but unfortunately, such attitudes are common in countries that employ migrant workers through the Kafala system.

            I grew up as a privileged Kuwaiti girl surrounded by migrant domestic workers, and unfortunately, I was not raised to show compassion towards them. During Ramadan, my parents would preach about the importance of being grateful for what we have because some other people do not have our privileges, but they did not consider the fact that they violated this ethos while they mistreated and abused the domestic workers who migrated to our country and worked beyond the point of exhaustion to make our lives easier. The only reason many of us even have a meal when we break our fast at sunset is because of the labour of migrant domestic workers, and this labour is a product of deliberate systemic exploitation by the Kafala system.  It seems to me that it is hypocritical to preach the importance of compassion and achieving God-consciousness during Ramadan while we continue to uphold modern slavery, deny migrant workers fair compensation for their labour, and even refuse to treat them as equal human beings who deserve the same rights and dignity that we believe we are entitled to.

There seems to be an assumed superiority over migrant workers in communities that use the Kafala system, which is evident in the fact that we force migrant workers to work in unfair conditions even though we would not accept those working conditions for ourselves. If we – as individuals who benefit from the Kafala system and employ migrant workers through that system – do not accept others to treat us this way, why do we continue to act as though it is okay to mistreat migrant workers in this way?

When our compassion towards others is limited to those who are removed from our lives, we are admitting that we are only interested in caring about or helping others so long as that does not interfere with our privileges. In countries that employ migrant workers through the Kafala system, many nationals who benefit from the Kafala system maintain the belief that employers deserve “ownership” over the lives of migrant workers. As individuals who benefit from the Kafala system, we complain about fasting from dawn to sunset without being mindful of the exhaustion of the domestic workers who live in our households and have to work harder during Ramadan to prepare elaborate meals and serve our extended family members during gatherings, without granting them breaks or any accommodations to their needs. In Kuwait, nationals even complain about racism and Islamophobia from Westerners, while we continue to refuse to allow domestic workers to even eat at the same table as us, regardless of the fact that some domestic workers are Muslim and fasting themselves. These may seem like minor things that we have normalised as a cornerstone of our lifestyle and our culture, but to migrant workers these instances of dehumanisation are a constant reminder that we perceive them to be inferior to us.

While we can freely practice our religion and fast during this holy month, and ahead of Eid celebrations, I invite us to reflect on the fact that we continue to unjustly deprive migrant workers of their religious freedom. Recently in Kuwait, a shop was reported to the Ministry of Commerce for merely having a banner promoting deals for Easter. In many households, including my own, domestic workers and drivers were punished, and in some cases even abused, for asking to go to Church. Of course, the Kafala system permits such deprivations of religious freedom and it shameful to imagine how many migrant workers feel excluded and degraded by our communities as a result of this system.

It should not be controversial to state that migrant workers deserve human rights and dignity, and especially during this holy month, we should reflect on the ways in which we continue to uphold a hierarchy of rights depending on a person’s nationality and practice challenging these systems of oppression to support our migrant worker siblings.