From Legal Battery to Contractual Sterilization: The Politics of Women’s Incarceration in the Middle East

Not only are laws about migrant women’s bodies resulting in the mass incarceration of women in the Gulf—they are also producing a chain reaction in the form of a generation of children who are stateless.

From Legal Battery to Contractual Sterilization: The Politics of Women’s Incarceration in the Middle East
(Jack Fussell / Flickr)

The echoes of babies’ cries reverberate off the prison walls. Black and Brown mothers scurry around the cramped space, seeking what little pockets of privacy might be available to nurse their infants. A sense of sadness and frustration hangs in the air.

The Al-Awir prison is located at the outskirts of Dubai—miles away from the teaming skyscrapers that characterize the cosmopolitan Gulf city. Female prisoners who are also mothers are placed in a particular wing of the compound where they shuttle between their holding cells and the makeshift nurseries.

A more elaborate facility for children is being developed, but most of the women will never get to see this. For now, they are confined to the windowless white walled rooms with colorful interlocking rubber mats on the floors for the young ones who are learning to crawl.

Emirati Law Ensures Contractual Sterilization for Migrant Women

Amana sits in a corner of the room using the ends of her black, cotton headscarf to tickle her son’s face. She smiles as she gazes deeply into his brown eyes, desperate to memorize every single feature of this lovely creature’s face. She knows her time with him is limited.

Like many of the women who share her prison cell, Amana was turned in to the authorities by her employers when she started showing visible signs of pregnancy. She had been in a relationship with her employers’ son, a relationship that was not approved of by the Emirati couple. When her pregnancy became known, her female employer—who insisted Amana refer to as her Madame—turned her into the police for violating Emirati laws that effectively ensure contractual sterilization for migrant women.

Pregnancy outside of marriage is strongly frowned upon for anyone, but it is prohibited for migrants who, according to Emirati law, must return home immediately if impregnated. If they cannot finance their return journeys, and/or if the citizenship status of the unborn child is in question, they usually end up in a prison such as Al-Awir, awaiting trial and often deportation.

From Legal Battery to Contractual Sterilization: The Politics of Women’s Incarceration in the Middle East
Al-Awir Prison in Dubai. (Screenshot from YouTube / Gulf News)

Many of the women—Amana included—are waiting for the fathers of the children to come forward so that their babies will not be stateless. Rarely does this occur.

Amana was born and raised in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Like her mother and grandmother before her, she migrated to the Gulf in search of employment in order to be able to support her family back home.

She initially moved to Kuwait City in 2008 to work in one of the city’s many five-star hotels. While she began her trajectory cleaning rooms, she had worked her way up to being one of the waitresses serving juice cocktails at the sprawling poolside garden. Amana said that despite the heat, she preferred the fresh air and the views of the glistening water.

One day she met Omar, a young businessman who was visiting Kuwait City from Dubai. The two hit it off immediately, and after a week, Omar had convinced Amana to quit her job in Kuwait City to come and work for his parents in Dubai. He told her that she would be working as a “household manager,” but it turned out that she would be one of the many domestic workers on staff at his parents’ large mansion in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The two could not officially move in together until marriage, but Omar assured Amana that this was where their relationship was headed. For the first few months of their time together, Amana and Omar carried on their love affair passionately. But as time passed, and as Omar’s mother began taking notice of her son’s affections for a person she regarded as “the help,” Omar and Amana’s relationship changed. Omar became more withdrawn, travelled more often, and began ignoring her. Amana was tasked with more and more work each day and was verbally abused regularly by her employers if she did not meet their unsustainably high expectations. When Amana had first moved to Dubai, Omar would take all of his meals with her—but six months into their relationship, Omar was back to eating with his parents, now demanding that Amana serve him.

 mana was heartbroken. The other domestic workers in the household told her that all of their passports were being held by Madame and that she had no hope of finding another job without Madame’s support. Their employers were not known for being generous.

Breach of Contract

A few months later, Amana realized she was pregnant. She wanted to tell her lover the news, hoping that this would cause a thawing in his icy behavior, but he had gone on a two-month long trip to Europe and was not answering her calls.

Before long, Madame noticed the change in Amana’s swelling belly. Amana was not sure if Omar’s mother suspected the baby was her grandson, but she immediately turned Amana into the police for “breach of contract.” Eighteen months had gone by and Amana was still in prison, now with her baby, awaiting a court trial or some news from Omar.

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Suddenly Amana’s son begins to cry. She looks up and realizes that a number of babies are crying in the room, but one of them seems to be wailing the loudest. She turns and sees her friend Josephine, whom she calls Josie for short, jostling her breast, desperate for her little one to latch on. Josie is sweating while her baby’s wails are turning his face purple.

Amana passes her son to me and floats over to her friend. I see that Josie’s nipples are cracked bleeding. Amana scoops Josie’s son up and pulls her own breast out, guiding it gently into the infant’s mouth. Almost immediately the baby is soothed and the echoing wailing quiets down once again. These moments of kindness amidst the horrors of their precarious lives offer rays of hope for many of the women.

Before the blanket of quiet has a chance to settle, Josie bursts into tears. She rubs her nipples and squeezes her breast, willing some milk to ooze out so she can rub the soothing liquid onto her skin. But, no luck.

 Take a deep breath,” Amana encourages her friend. “Do it like I showed you.”

Josie tries, but still no success. Amana furrows her brow as she meets Josie’s gaze.

“I think you are going to have to go back to the doctor, back to the hospital,” Amana says.

Sexual Violence in the Workplace

“The doctor? No. The hospital? Never,” Josie says.

Her sadness has quickly turned to anger. I later learn that Josie, a young woman from Eritrea, had run away from her employer after he raped her repeatedly. Josie’s employer had been making advances for several months since she arrived to work for him as a domestic worker.

Seven months into her time in Dubai, he began raping her on her regularly scheduled days off. The encounters had become more and more forceful. After a particularly harrowing experience, Josie snuck out of the apartment in the middle of the night. She asked a local taxi driver to take her to the nearest hospital because she was still bleeding from her rape five hours earlier.

She arrived at the hospital and reported the sexual violence she had been subjected to. The nurse asked her to wait a moment and made a phone call—Josie presumed she called a doctor. While waiting for her call to be returned, the nurse administered a pregnancy test which turned up positive. She cleaned and dressed Josie’s wound and asked her to sit in the waiting room.

Josie was terrified and uncertain as to what would happen next. She did not have her passport or working papers and realized that her absconding from her employer made her vulnerable to deportation. Worse still, she had not been paid for the last several months and therefore did not have enough money to return home. Her greatest hope was that the doctors would take pity on her condition and help her.

But the doctor never arrived. Instead, it was the police whom the nurse had called. Josie was arrested on the spot and transferred to the prison where she had spent the last ten months. This experience had negatively colored her image of the medical system and she adamantly refused to ask for any medical assistance preceding, during or after the birth of her now one-month old son.

Both Josie and Amana knew that Josie would have to figure something out quickly. They knew that Amana’s days in the prison were limited as they had watched many of the women leave and never return shortly after their babies turned one. The clock was ticking.

Contractual Sterilization

Amana, Josie and the other women who share their wing of the Al-Awir prison have all been arrested as a result of becoming pregnant. Migrant women who become pregnant while working in Gulf countries like Kuwait or the UAE are prohibited from becoming pregnant while on contract.

Pregnancy, even as the result of rape, is seen as a violation of contract under the kefala or guest worker programs that governs migrant lives in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Women are expected to abstain from sexual relations, even as many are working three- to five-year shifts during the most fertile period of their lives.

This harsh policing of migrant women’s bodies and reproductive capacities is producing a situation of what I call, “contractual sterilization”: Because they are prohibited, by contract, from becoming pregnant, they are effectively sterilized as the consequences of their violation of contract are exceedingly harsh and for most migrant women, completely untenable. This contractual sterilization is a central part of pregnancy and motherhood under regimes of unfreedom.

As a concept, then, contractual sterilization also captures the intersection of motherhood, migration, and encounters with the state that migrant women face.

Not only are laws about migrant women’s bodies resulting in the mass incarceration of women in the Gulf; they are also producing a chain reaction in the form of a generation of children who are stateless. Migrant women who become incarcerated—as a result of contractual sterilization—and give birth in prison are deported, most often without their children. This is a result of incongruent citizenship laws regarding citizenship transfer.

Citizenship around the globe is typically earned through jus solis (soil or geographic based citizenship), jus sanguinis (literally translating to ‘blood based’ citizenship transfer, meaning through a parent—though which parent differs based on the country), or some combination of the two.

Neither the UAE nor Kuwait permit jus solis. And for both countries, jus sanguinis is passed through the father only—meaning, unless a child born in the UAE or Kuwait can prove that their father is an Emirati or Kuwaiti citizen, the child will not have citizenship.

Stateless Children

As in the case of both Amana and Josie introduced above, male employers or even citizen boyfriends are most often reluctant to come forward and acknowledge their paternity.

In cases where the mother of the child hails from a country where citizenship can pass through the mother—such as the Philippines—the children can go back to the sending country when the mother is deported. However, if the mother as in the case of Amana, migrated illegally, or as in the case of Josie, comes from a country where citizenship can only pass through the father, then the child is rendered stateless and not given a passport from any country. When their mothers are sent home, the children remain for decades in the Gulf as stateless persons.

Thus, the incongruency between citizenship laws coupled with contractual sterilization is producing conditions of incarceration and statelessness for an entire generation of migrants and their offspring. The disconnect between laws and policies on the one hand, and the messy realities of lived experiences on the other, is producing a system of structural violence with harrowing results.

Unless we recognize these gendered laws and the fallout that results from contractual sterilization, we are going to be contributing to these cycles of violence that make the migratory experience for so many women such a challenging endeavor.

Last week, Nasrin Sotoudeh, the notable Iranian human rights activist, was finally freed from a brutal prison sentence. She was arrested and held on charges of conspiring against the state, treason, and fomenting a velvet revolution. The latter is the blanket charge the many women who fight oppression in the region are accused of that legitimates—in the eyes of the government—their incarceration.

From Legal Battery to Contractual Sterilization: The Politics of Women’s Incarceration in the Middle East
A banner hangs at the entrance of the European Parliament in Brussels, when Nasrin Sotoudeh and filmmaker Jafar Panahi were awarded the European Parliament’s first Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012. (Courtesy of the European Parliament)

Nasrin’s case highlights the challenges that many women activists face in the region that leads to their imprisonment. But her freedom, and her fearlessness in engaging in activism—through hunger strikes and writing to her supporters, even while incarcerated give us hope and a roadmap for change. Like Amana and Josie, women who are beaten down by bad laws—experiencing what I call ‘legal battery’—frequently rise up. They use the underground networks they have developed, leveraging them while incarcerated, to speak back to oppressive regimes.

Feminists from around the world have been closely following Nasrin’s case and lobbying for her release. Her freedom was cause for celebration for all of us.

And while we join in lifting up a model feminist in Nasrin, it is important we consider the context of what landed her in jail in the first place.

Activist. Feminist. Human rights defender. These are all words that describe Nasrin. Now we have to add formerly incarcerated woman. And though she is recovering from the trauma of her time in Evin, Iran’s most notorious prison, she is already continuing her fight to change the bad laws that contour the lives of so many women in the region.

Women of color face legal battery around the world. Inspiring stories like Nasrin’s, and the hope that women like Amana and Josie carry with them to continue to push for legal reforms and fighting against structural violence, can inspire us all.

So, as we celebrate the first woman of color vice president in America, let us also take that celebration transnationally to continue to build solidarity with feminist networks across oceans.

For more on this, read Bina Fernandez’s “Degrees of (Un)Freedom: The Exercise of Agency by Ethiopian Migrant Domestic Workers in Kuwait and Lebanon.”

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Pardis Mahdavi, PhD, is director of Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. She is the former acting dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and previously served as professor and chair of anthropology, director of the Pacific Basin Institute and Dean of Women at Pomona College. She has authored five books, one edited volume and numerous journal and news articles and been a fellow at the Social Sciences Research Council, the American Council on Learned Societies, Google Ideas and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.