(De)Constructing Docility at the Destinations

  • Bina FernandezEmail author
Part of the Mobility & Politics book series (MPP)


This chapter examines the agency of Ethiopian migrant women within the context of their employment. I begin by describing the institution of the kafala in the Middle East, the system of migrant-sponsorship designed to manage a large population of migrant workers in these countries by binding migrants’ residency rights to employment. I go on to situate Ethiopian women within the racialised hierarchy of migrant workers that prevails in these countries and to discuss the historical context for their position. At the core of the chapter is the analysis of women’s responses to their working conditions in three types of situations: as domestic workers who ‘live in’ with their employers, as women who ‘run away’ from employers and become irregular, and as ‘freelancers.’ I explore the difficulties these women endure due to constraints on their labour, freedom of movement, free time, and access to personal documents. I show how women exercise agency in these situations despite these constraints, through overt conflict, subversive tactics and other ‘weapons of the weak,’ agentic silence, or by pursuing the ‘exit options’ of leaving the country or running away to become ‘freelancers’ or irregular migrants.


Ethiopian migrant Migrant domestic workers Working conditions Run-away migrant Freelancer Middle East Lebanon Kafala Migrant agency 


  1. Baldwin-Edwards, Martin. 2005. Labour Immigration and Labour Markets in the GCC Countries: National Patterns and Trends. Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States. London: London School of Economics and Political Science.Google Scholar
  2. Beyene, Joyet. 2005. Women, Migration, and Housing: A Case Study of Three Households of Ethiopian and Eritrean Female Migrant Workers in Beirut and Naba’a. Master of Urban Planning dissertation. American University of Beirut.Google Scholar
  3. Busia, A. 1990. Silencing Sycorax: On African Colonial Discourse and the Unvoiced Female. Cultural Critique 14 (Winter): 81–104.Google Scholar
  4. Campbell, Gwyn. 2003. The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. London, New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Chalcraft, J. 2011. Migration and Popular Protest in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf in the 1950s and 1960s. International Labor and Working Class History 79: 28–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chammartin, Gloria Moreno-Fontes. 2004. Women Migrant Workers’ Protection in Arab League States. In Gender and Migration in Arab States: The Case of Domestic Workers, ed. Simel Esim and Monica Smith. Beirut: International Labour Organisation, Regional Office for Arab States.Google Scholar
  7. Chonghaile, Clar Ni. 2012. Alem Dechasa’s Choice: An Impossible Decision and a Lonely Death. The Guardian, 9 April 2012. Accessed December 20, 2018.
  8. Crystal, Jill. 2005. Public Order and Authority: Policing Kuwait. In Monarchies and Nations: Globalization and Identity in the Arab States of the Gulf, ed. Paul Dresch and James P. Piscatori. London: I. B. Tauris.Google Scholar
  9. de Regt, Marina. 2009. Preferences and Prejudices: Employers’ Views on Domestic Workers in the Republic of Yemen. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 34 (3): 559–581.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. ———. 2010. Ways to Come, Ways to Leave: Gender, Mobility and Il/legality Among Ethiopian Domestic Workers in Yemen. Gender and Society 24: 237–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Esim, Simel, and Monica Smith. 2004. Gender & Migration in Arab States: The Case of Domestic Workers. Beirut: International Labour Organization, Regional Office for Arab States.Google Scholar
  12. Gardner, A. 2010. City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hertog, Steffen. 2010. The Sociology of the Gulf Rentier Systems: Societies of Intermediaries. Comparative Studies in Society and History 52 (2): 282–318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hirschman, Albert. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. 2007. Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence. New ed. Berkeley, Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  16. Human Rights Watch. 2008. As If I Am Not Human: Abuses Against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia. New York: Human Rights Watch.Google Scholar
  17. ———. 2010a. Walls at Every Turn: Abuse of Migrant Domestic Workers Through Kuwait’s Sponsorship System. New York: Human Rights Watch.Google Scholar
  18. ———. 2010b. Without Protection: How the Lebanese Justice System Fails Migrant Domestic Workers. New York: Human Rights Watch.Google Scholar
  19. Johnson, Mark. 2012. Freelancing in the Kingdom: Filipino Migrant Domestic Workers Crafting Agency in Saudi Arabia. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 20 (3–4): 459–478.Google Scholar
  20. Jureidini, Ray. 2003. Migrant Workers and Xenophobia in the Middle East. Identities, Conflict and Cohesion Programme Paper Number 2. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.Google Scholar
  21. ———. 2009. In the Shadows of Family Life: Toward a History of Domestic Service in Lebanon. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 5 (3): 74–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kapiszewski, Andrzej. 2001. Nationals and Expatriates: Population and Labour Dilemmas of the Gulf Cooperation Council States. Reading: Ithaca Press.Google Scholar
  23. Longva, Anh Nga. 1997. Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion and Society in Kuwait. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  24. Longva, A.N. 1999. Keeping Migrant Workers in Check: The Kafala System in the Gulf. Middle East Report 211 (Summer): 20–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Moukarbel, Nayla. 2009. Sri Lankan Housemaids in Lebanon: A Case of ‘Symbolic Violence’ and ‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Pande, Amrita. 2013. ‘The Paper that You Have in Your Hand Is My Freedom’: Migrant Domestic Work and the Sponsorship (Kafala) System in Lebanon. International Migration Review 47 (2): 414–441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Papadopoulos, Dimitris, Niamh Stephenson, and Vassilis Tsianos. 2008. Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century. London, Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press.Google Scholar
  28. Parreñas, Rhacel S. 2001. Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration and Domestic Work. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Rollins, Judith. 1985. Between Women: Domestics and Their Employers. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Russell, Sharon Stanton. 1989. Politics and Ideology in Migration Policy Formulation—The Case of Kuwait. International Migration Review 23 (1): 24–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Sabban, Rima. 2002. Migrant Women in the United Arab Emirates: The Case of Female Domestic Workers. GENPROM Working Paper Series on Women and Migration No. 10.Google Scholar
  32. Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Shah, Nasra. 2008. Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely to Be? International Labour Office; ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific; Asian Regional Programme on Governance of Labour Migration, Working Paper No. 8.Google Scholar
  34. Stevenson, Rachel. 2012. Ethiopia Reportedly Seeking Full Investigation into Suicide of Maid Beaten in Beirut. The Guardian, 21 March 2012. Accessed December 20, 2018.
  35. Zilfi, Madeleine. 2010. Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia

Personalised recommendations