Fashion show looks to change perceptions of domestic workers

413815_img650x420_img650x420_cropBEIRUT: The Alleyway in Gemmayzeh was packed Labor Day evening for a fashion show in support of the rights of migrant domestic workers. Organized by the Insan Association, the event was aimed at changing the public perceptions of domestic workers in Lebanon, and asserting their right to identities outside their employment. Under a floating ceiling of pastel umbrellas, workers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Cameroon walked the lamp-lit runway into cocktail bar The Angry Monkey, where they were greeted by a cheering audience as they modeled vivid dresses from Lebanese designers and traditional attire from their home countries.

“Our aim [for our work] with migrant the domestic workers is to have a fair law that can protect them and stop the kafala system,” said Randa Dirani of Insan.

There are approximately 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, according to Amnesty International. Lebanon’s sponsorship-based kafala system is so rife with exploitation and abuse that the Philippines, Ethiopia and Nepal have each banned their nationals from traveling to Lebanon to work. But many still come. Common forms of reported mistreatment include confinement, forced labor, non-payment of wages and physical abuse, according to Amnesty.

“They have a sponsor, and when they come they depend on this sponsor, and they really don’t have the freedom to change,” Dirani said.

Late last year, domestic workers petitioned the Labor Ministry for the right to form a union.

The ministry has yet to respond, and Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi has dismissed the newly founded union as illegal. Workers continue to press for its recognition and marched Saturday in Beirut for better protections from the government.

Dirani said female domestic workers in Lebanon struggle against societal prejudice to assert identities outside their employment. “We’re asking that she be treated under the Lebanese law in a fair way and we want [people] to look at this lady as if they were looking at any lady living a normal life, to look at this lady as an employee – she has her employment – but outside her employment she has her free time. And she can live her life the way she likes.”

Anna, a Sri Lankan domestic worker who has been in Lebanon for 18 years, said she was thankful for the opportunity to let workers assert a different side of themselves.

“We are also people and we are also strong women, we are also beautiful women.”

“[It allowed] us to get in front of people and show our beauty,” she added, smiling.

The feeling at the event was contagious. “I really liked it because they were really happy, and seeing all the girls wearing my designs, it really made me happy,” said Noura Atchan, a fashion designer whose pieces featured in the show.

In the finale, models donned traditional dresses from their home countries. Shubi, a domestic worker from Bangladesh, said her national dress was her favorite, a sentiment echoed by many of the models. “I prefer my national dress because it’s very comfortable for me.”

“We are not only domestic workers,” Shubi added.

The event raised funds for NARI, an organization of Nepalese feminists in Lebanon, who are collecting for victims of the massive earthquake that devastated their country last week.

Sujanna, a domestic worker from Nepal, spoke of the grief and resolution of the Nepalese community in Lebanon. “Nepalese women are still strong … we lost so many people. So many families, who are here, who are working – domestic workers – lost family and houses, everything they lost, [and] they are still working.”

“They are crying, we are crying, [but] we are still working happily because [the] work is worth it.”

Lippie, from Bangladesh, expressed solidarity with her fellow workers after the show.

“We enjoyed today because we are domestic workers [during] the day, and [this evening] we are enjoying ourselves, we can do what we like; [it’s] freedom.”

“We are not only domestic workers, we are helping each other.” (Courtesy Daily Star)