Since the end of the civil war, Lebanon has become a key Middle Eastern destination in the global network of migrant domestic labor. Young women from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Kenya and Nepal, among others, have traveled to the country with promises of well-paid jobs only to find themselves working in conditions widely denounced as “modern-day slavery.” Recently, as Lebanese families’ purchasing power has radically declined amid the economic catastrophe, many domestic workers have been kicked out of homes where they have worked for years and left on the streets to fend for themselves, often under false promises of being sent home and without the wages they were due. In response, dozens of migrant women and their Lebanese allies have rallied together to provide food, shelter and medical assistance as well as to pressure embassies to assist in repatriation. Over 1,000 individuals have been sent home thanks to these efforts, but activists continue to document the heightened vulnerabilities of women at risk of eviction, lacking access to basic necessities and excluded from Lebanon’s national vaccination plan.
What makes it possible for a domestic worker to be treated as expendable in a moment of crisis, even after years of proximity in the shared and intimate space of the household? To understand why migrant women have so quickly been targeted as national outsiders requires placing recent events in the larger context of foreign labor in Lebanon. Lebanon’s system of migrant domestic labor produces a set of local social hierarchies that cannot be reduced singularly to questions of race, gender, labor or nationality. Rather, these hierarchies are fully intersectional and uniquely characterized by common experiences of violence at the hands of both society and state.
The Kafala System and Its Abuses
Migrant labor in most of the Gulf countries, Jordan and Lebanon is governed by the kafala or sponsorship system, which binds foreign workers to a sponsor-citizen or proxy (such as a business) in the country where they wish to work for a contractual period. The high levels of abuse associated with the kafala system are facilitated by this dependency—wherein workers cannot enter or exit a country at will, nor freely transition between one place of employment to the next and passports are frequently illegally withheld by the sponsors. Images of South Asian male construction workers in places like Dubai have dominated global coverage of this abuse, with thousands working long days under the desert sun to build the luxury cityscapes of the Gulf while housed in labor camps notorious for their horrid conditions. But the experiences of female domestic workers also feature regularly in regional headlines. Spectacular instances of torture at the hands of family sponsors have made countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait case studies in the dangers of the transnational domestic service sector.
Together, popular accounts of the kafala system focus on exploitative labor practices and often rely on the language of human rights. More recently, however, both academics and activists have pointed to the kafala system as a paradigmatic example of anti-Blackness in the Middle East. This accusation comes amid a growing conversation about race and racism within the region, one that seeks to respond to the challenges of the political moment and the global movement in defense of Black lives. Any analysis of the kafala system must therefore engage both the lessons of feminist intersectionality and contemporary calls within Middle East Studies to contend with legacies of anti-Blackness.
In Lebanon, the kafala system technically governs both African and Asian migrant workers (primarily male) and migrant domestic workers (primarily female) and has sometimes included Syrians under certain parts of its regulations. But the large populations of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the country, as well as smaller numbers of Iraqi and Sudanese refugees, do not generally fall under the kafala system, although certain practices and forms of discrimination are shared. In addition, despite the visible presence of male migrants (specifically South Asians in the country’s sanitation and janitorial sectors), the majority of African and Asian migrants in Lebanon are female domestic workers.
Prior to 2019, it was estimated that one in four Lebanese families employed a full time, live-in migrant domestic worker. Adding the many part-time workers pushes that number even higher. Historian Fawwaz Traboulsi has described this practice as a “minimum status requirement” of belonging to the Lebanese middle classes, secondary to owning an apartment and sending children to private school, but of equal importance as access to the internet, a mobile phone and a credit card. Of course, this demographic has itself been radically altered amid the current crisis, with some proclaiming the recent “death of Lebanon’s middle class.” But the extensive reach of migrant domestic labor beyond the country’s elite and into other sectors of the population crossing class, sect and region reveals the centrality of the kafala system in Lebanon as a social institution writ large. And what stands out in particular is not only the breadth of its reach, but the scale of its abuse.
According to available studies, less than 50 percent of Lebanese employers give the domestic worker her contractually entitled day of rest each week. Of these, a further half forbid her from leaving the house alone on this day. One out of five employers lock the worker inside the house at all times. Over 93 percent of employers confiscate her passport upon her arrival. Forty percent refuse to pay the woman’s salary in full at the end of every month, instead paying irregularly, upon request, after termination of the contract or not at all. Women frequently report being forced to work ten, 12 or even 18 hours a day, with few breaks, for years on end. One-third of employers are said to beat their domestic workers. And according to reports in 2017, two domestic workers died each week in Lebanon as a result of either suicide, failed attempt at escape or murder.
In 1999, Reem Haddad wrote in this magazine that the experience of Sri Lankan women in Lebanon “can be termed a modern-day slave trade.” Two decades later, the same refrain can be found on placards made by African and Asian women for the annual May Day demonstration in support of migrant rights: “Workers Not Slaves!” This comparative language of slavery accurately draws attention to the racial hierarchies, gendered violence and lack of freedoms that characterize domestic worker experiences in the country. But the unnamed referent for this comparison is often the transatlantic slave trade, a consequence of globalized English language media, the work of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the circulation of images produced by Hollywood. Despite its popular appeal, the comparison is often unhelpful as it overlooks the specific conditions of transatlantic slavery. Moreover, even the abstract category of slavery does not capture the more mundane of kafala’s practices.
Can the description “modern-day slavery” account for the many stereotypes about how different domestic workers speak Arabic, or the scenes of women refused permission to swim in the Mediterranean Sea at beach clubs, or the experience of the woman who was found leaving Rafic Hariri International Airport with a set of electricity bills that she had been promised were receipts of wages transferred into her bank account? Where, in the broad strokes of slavery, is there room for the layered encounters of today’s Lebanon, where many undocumented Filipina women date undocumented Syrian men, or young Bangladeshis shop for imported vegetables in the Sunday market of a Palestinian refugee camp? The large body of scholarship on what have been termed slave societies reveals the many nuances that are submerged under the term “slavery.” Yet, the structural differences between legal enslavement and domestic servitude, as well as the social and historical specificities of the modern Middle East, make an alternate framework necessary for comprehending today’s kafala system.
It is important to note that the question of enslavement does not refer only to a history external to the Middle East. There are long legacies of slavery within the region as well. The archives of Ottoman history contain numerous instances of domestic slavery, complete with their own hierarchies based on phenotype and origin. And alongside the formal slave trade under the Ottoman Empire (which declined in the early twentieth century), domestic servitude has its own history in the modern Levant, primarily taking the form of poorer young girls from within the region sent to work in the homes of wealthier families. But the kafala system is a very recent arrival to the area, one that emerges specifically out of the Lebanese civil war. As Syrians and Palestinians were either expelled from areas overtaken by warring factions or met with increasing hostility by their employers, Asian and African labor became an attractive alternative, particularly in a climate of minimal state oversight. Lebanese who migrated to the Gulf during the war were introduced to the sponsorship model of kafala, a system that itself originated in British colonial practices for managing foreigners in the Trucial States. In turn, despite the histories of racialization and servitude that may be traced to Ottoman or French mandate-era Lebanon (many of which historians have yet to fully explore), the introduction of a large scale dependence on Asian and African domestic labor was the beginning of something new in postwar Lebanese society.
In contemporary Lebanon, kafala does not refer to a legal structure (in fact, the word does not appear in Lebanese law), but rather to a social phenomenon. It describes the outsourcing of a certain kind of work, referred to by Marxist feminists as “reproductive labor”—including cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly—to groups of foreign women. These women come from countries whose names have become inextricable from Lebanese life, rolling off tongues with both familiarity and disdain: Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh. The actual list of countries of origin is much longer, but one rarely hears migrant domestic workers referred to with specificity—what is emphasized is not their geographic origin as much as their distinctive foreignness.
Not all domestic workers are simply thought of as being the same, however. Internal hierarchies do prize women of certain nationalities above others—a fact that often results in different wages (with women from the Philippines frequently paid the most and women from Bangladesh the least). But organizations documenting domestic worker mistreatment have shown no marked difference in experiences of abuse. In fact, women from all countries of origin have been subject to the practices of incarceration, deprivation and exploitation that have become global hallmarks of the kafala system. Regardless of culturally specific stereotypes about their level of education, physical features or civilizational traits, all migrant domestic workers in Lebanon may be deprived of food, water, rest, mobility, communication, privacy or wages, with what amounts to total impunity. This dire situation is simply what it means to be a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon today. At the center of this story, then, is not a society neatly divided between masters and slaves so much as a society in which certain kinds of people are understood to exist only to do certain kinds of work.
The New Hierarchies of the Kafala System
Scholarship on race has argued against any natural basis for the forms of difference the term describes. Instead, social scientists have drawn attention to processes of racialization, or the social construction of what Cedric Robinson has termed “hierarchies of human worth.” The kafala system produces one such process whereby Lebanese society has been rearranged according to new hierarchies. These hierarchies are not simply racial but fully intersectional: They are simultaneously marked by gender, linguistic and cultural difference and socioeconomic status. For example, local and transnational migration networks ensure that while American passport holders frequently visit Lebanon as tourists or can be found working in elite professional contexts, other nationalities are often restricted to menial labor. To describe someone in Lebanon using the word “Sri Lankan” or “Ethiopian,” on the other hand, is not to draw attention to their national difference, but rather to describe their place in a common social hierarchy: at the very bottom. That the very recent introduction of the kafala system has come to dominate even the everyday usage of language indicates both the extent of this transformation and the depths of its social significance.
There is no doubt that racism permeates Lebanese attitudes toward migrant workers. The kafala system in Lebanon has made it possible for women marked as Black and Brown to be confined to attics and kitchen pantries, for fridges to be locked, for pieces of bread to be counted, for hands to be tied with electric cables. And these very same women are asked to cook the meals, change the bedsheets and bathe the children or elderly parents of those who are marked as having lighter skin. Explaining these practices through racism as a set of attitudes or collectively held stereotypes rooted in parochialism, however, is to ignore the role of the kafala system in producing these hierarchies in the first place.
To understand the specific situation of migrant domestic workers in today’s Lebanon requires acknowledging the centrality of the kafala system to the hierarchies of human worth that permeate every aspect of Lebanese society, from popular culture to gender norms, from what it means to host a family dinner to the very architecture of residential buildings. Although the kafala system exists alongside multiple other languages of difference—including sectarian divisions, and those that mark Syrians or Palestinians as different than Lebanese—it is unique in how it consolidates gender, race and class in the figure of the migrant domestic worker.
Foregrounding the question of race and racism is a necessary step for scholarship on the Middle East to expand its political imagination of who constitute the assumed subjects of regional study. And yet, when it comes to describing the kafala system as an example of anti-Blackness, it is important to resist the temptation to stabilize “Blackness” in the name of anti-racism. “The moment the signifier ‘black’ is torn from its historical, cultural, and political embedding, and lodged in a biologically constituted racial category,” writes Stuart Hall, “we fix that signifier outside of change, outside of representation, and outside of political intervention.” In the same way, the kafala system is not simply a place where light-skinned Madames and Misters exploit their darker-skinned servants. Instead, it is a system that produces the Lebanese citizen in proximity to “whiteness” as a form of social power, at the same time as it produces the African or Asian migrant in proximity to “Blackness” as a form of social marginalization. The additional hierarchies—that divide citizens from foreigners, native speakers of (Lebanese) Arabic from non-native speakers or the wealthy from those who serve them—work to produce the everyday nature of racialization in Lebanon alongside the formal terms of migrant worker sponsorship. The first step to end this system of racism, however, is to abolish the kafala system.
[Sumayya Kassamali is assistant professor in anthropology and the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto.]
 “Poverty in Lebanon: Impact of Multiple Shocks and Call for Solidarity,” ESCWA Policy Brief (Beirut: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, ESCWA, 2020).
 See for example, introductory preface to Omnia el-Shakry, Understanding and Teaching the Modern Middle East (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020).
 Assaf Dahdah’s L’art du faible: Les migrantes non arabes dans le Grand Beyrouth (Liban) (Institut Français du Proche-Orient, 7, 2012).
 See Human Rights Watch, “Without Protection: How the Lebanese Justice System Fails Migrant Domestic Workers” (New York, 2010); International Labour Organization (ILO), Regional Office for Arab States, “Intertwined: A Study of Employers of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon” (Beirut, 2016); KAFA (Enough) Violence and Exploitation. “Dreams for Sale: The Exploitation of Domestic Workers from Recruitment in Nepal and Bangladesh to Working in Lebanon” (Beirut, 2014).
 Reem Haddad, “A Modern-Day ‘Slave Trade—Sri Lankan Workers in Lebanon,’” Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).
 Omar el-Shehabi, “Policing Labour in Empire: The Modern Origins of the Kafala Sponsorship System in the Gulf Arab States,” British Journal of Middle East Studies, 2019.
 Stuart Hall, “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” Social Justice 20/1-2 (1993).