Virginia police and U.S. Customs may have exposed a tiny bastion of the Saudi culture of segregation, servitude and control over women and those of meager economic means — right in the posh bedroom community where the Nation’s power players and foreign diplomats retire each day after doing their business in Washington.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed two domestic workers from a diplomatic mansion in the upscale, unincorporated community of McLean, Va., late Tuesday. A preferred residence of Congressmen, diplomats and high-earning government employees, McLean lies just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., offering a fast commute for those whose day jobs take them into the city.
The mansion, owned by the Saudi Armed Forces Office, allegedly held two unidentified workers who agents believe were being held in a condition of domestic servitude that approximated slavery. It’s not known whether those two individuals were women, although Saudi domestic custom would strongly suggest it.
Nowhere on Earth do the medieval and the modern entwine in a single culture so strikingly as in Saudi Arabia. Women cannot drive. They are completely segregated from men. They cannot seek employment, enroll in a university, or make any self-willed foray into the public sphere without first obtaining the permission of a male sponsor.
Yet women in even marginally affluent families have incredible access to great secular entertainments and modern niceties. Comfortably and sufficiently removed from firsthand experience of extremist violence at home, most stable Saudi men and women tend to regard suicide bombings and literal jihad as the endeavors of a fringe few. So long as the men aren’t around, the girls can dance all night in tight party dresses while listening to Nicki Minaj.
But foreigners brought to Saudi Arabia as domestic servants enjoy only the medieval side of that dichotomy. Whether kept in the home or encountered in the service industry, they are regarded as property:
Even though slavery is an ancient, ancient memory in Saudi Arabia (it was abolished way back in 1962), the culture of ownership prevails. The country is a hot spot for the importation of both men and women destined for slave-like domestic service, often through the legally disingenuous skirting of the law known as “contract servitude.” Who knows how frequent are the terrifying anecdotes of foreign female domestic servants who end up living as hostages with married, middle-class rapists and their wives?
Governments in several of the impoverished origin countries that supply the Saudi domestic servitude market have gotten wise, with India and other South Asian countries either banning Saudi recruitment of domestic workers or setting age thresholds for women hopeful that a stint in a Saudi household can enrich their poor finances.
Yet Saudi Arabia is too crucial a Mideast ally for the United States — ostensibly a principled Nation that occasionally rattles its papier-mâché saber at regimes like Syria — to take a second glance at oil-rich and regionally influential King Abdullah’s abysmal abuse of individual rights. Not to mention the Saudi government’s willed blindness when it comes to the country’s de facto favored-nation status among budding Islamic terrorists.
It will be interesting in the days to come to see how much information is released about what was going on in that mansion in McLean — and, if the worst turns out to be true, whether any Saudi national will ever be brought to account.
Representative Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has called for the U.S. State Department to intervene if it’s shown that Saudi diplomats are keeping their “hired” help in forced servitude on U.S. soil. But it’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which the Administration of President Barack Obama would come down hard on nationals of an Islamic nation that, at times, seems to have the White House in its thrall.