Throughout the Arab World, one particular phenomenon betrays the ugliest aspects of our culture. From Morocco to Kuwait - in different contexts and manifestations - there’s a consistent social practice of the commodification, mistreatment, and objectification of domestic workers, who are often (but not exclusively) migrant women from sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia. A new photo series by Chaza Charafeddine, Lebanese visual artist and writer, puts the relationship between these women and their employers under a magnifying glass.
...yes, the photos are nice, but who's going to buy a photo of their maid to put in their salon?
The series - named Maidames as a play on the words ‘maid’ and ‘madames,’ what female employers call and are called by domestic workers in Lebanon - depicts 10 foreign domestic workers as historical figures, fashion icons, and celebrities. Evoking figures from worlds apart - from Jacqueline Kennedy, Haifa Wehbe, and Marilyn Monroe, to Egypt’s Princess Fawzia and the Virgin Mary - the series poses the question of what happens when women who occupy such a disempowered rung in society are dressed in the trappings of power.
KuMaria, shows Kumari - a Sri Lankan domestic worker who was also Charafeddine's project assistant - as the Virgin Mary.
Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers - an estimated 250,000 people - are bound by the same kafala system that's common throughout the Gulf and the Levant, whereby unskilled migrant laborers must have an in-country sponsor who is legally responsible for them. In Lebanon, the system is set up so that a worker cannot leave her employer without an official waiver, signed before a notary public.
I was told that I shouldn't be dressing them [domestic workers] up like a madame, because it could go to their heads
This results in both a legal and cultural state of exception in society, where their position is permanently precarious. On a social level, it perpetuates a culture that teeters on the edge of modern day slavery. It somehow becomes possible for Kuwaiti blogger Sondos Alqattan to take to Instagram last year to protest legal reform that would give Filipino domestic workers more rights, claiming it as preposterous to "have a servant at home who keeps their passport with them," and that they should not have one day off a week. Though Alqattan was slammed for her comments on Arab social media and international makeup brands like Max Factor Arabia severed ties with her, her opinions are not truly out of the ordinary.
Vera as Marilyn Monroe.
To paint Alqattan as the exception is to selectively omit so many subtle and manifest expressions of this culture of slavery. To go no further than social media, to say the least, our culture has made it possible for myriad Facebook groups of 'agents' to advertise different nationalities and discounts like they’re selling them in the modern day equivalent of auction blocks. This literal commodification necessitates the total dehumanisation of these women; they can never really be on the same level of ‘personhood’ as their employers.
The diverse reactions from Beirut society to Charafeddine's series reflected the same skewed lens through which these women are perceived. Among the positive and negative reactions to the exhibition, there arose a recurrent comment that - though the aesthetic is beautiful - her project goes too far. "I was told that I shouldn't be dressing them up like a madame, because it could go to their heads," says Charafeddine. "There was also the reaction of 'yes, the photos are nice, but who's going to buy a photo of their maid to put in their salon?'"
In a slightly less dehumanising vein, others applauded Charafeddine for giving the women some fun and a chance to express themselves. “But my goal was never to give them a little fun; I wanted to see what happens when they dress in the tools of power, when they become the madame.”
Nadine as Sultana, evoking the popular Turkish TV series Hareem El Sultan (Muhteşem Yüzyıl).
Instead of imposing a particular aesthetic on each of her workers-turned-models, Charafeddine asked each of them to choose two women from a catalog of 80 fashion icons, celebrities, and historical figures that they would like to see themselves as. The only figure Charafeddine knew she wanted to include was Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring.
How do they know that I wouldn’t tell them to just go home and I wouldn’t pay them anything? And they know for a fact that the law and the police would be on my side.
The identity of the original model has been a topic of debate among art historians for centuries, with one origin story - depicted in a novel by Tracy Chevalier and a subsequent film starring Scarlett Johansson - positing that she was the family’s maid’s assistant. “Of course, the history has never been confirmed. It’s a story,” Charafeddine qualifies. “But it’s a story that I liked for the painting, because she would be the most famous domestic worker in history.”
Hana depicting Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. After the exhibition, Hana shared with Charafeddine her aspiration to be a writer, artist, and photographer.
Most importantly, the series explores the identification of the disempowered ‘maid’ with the powerful ‘madame,’ and the emotional and physical transformation that ensues. “Even though they had seen the photo before, they couldn’t imagine it would look as impressive as it did in the exhibition,” Charafeddine says about the models’ reactions to the exhibition. “And they were impressed with themselves more than anything. One woman said she had never thought she could look beautiful.”
In the process of choosing the women they wanted to emulate, the photo shoot centered around them, and an exhibition where they were the stars, the workers-turned-models occupied a different space than they often do in Beirut society. The same women who are made to feel small, powerless, and invisible were approached as stars in their own right.
Miss Vera, Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis.
In the din of the human rights focus on legal rights and exploitation, one aspect of the realities of being a domestic worker often goes unnoticed. There’s a psychological effect of not only working in a home every day, but also living in a state of exception, of permanent precarity and the threat of violence, further compounded by the realities of gender and race.
...she is always seen as a threat. That she might run away, or tempt the man of the house, or steal, or kill.
“She is everything that is disempowered, in terms of race, profession, and sex. So she’s always at risk herself, and always seen as a threat. That she might run away, or tempt the man of the house, or steal, or kill. Everything bad is deemed a possibility against her. And of course, that completely shatters your sense of self.”
Kumari as Princess Fawziya of Egypt.
More than merely bringing attention to the exploitation of women under an unjust system, Charafeddine also wanted to focus on when the relationship between worker and employer is actually a good one. “The abusive relationships are very clear-cut. And there isn’t much to do with them besides condemn them. But when the relationship is good, it’s more complex and therefore more interesting.”
The abusive relationships are very clear-cut. And there isn’t much to do with them besides condemn them. But when the relationship is good, it’s more complex and therefore more interesting.
In delving into the social dynamics around her, Charafeddine had noticed that the ‘madame’ often becomes a reference for the domestic worker to emulate, especially when there’s a significant age difference. “If she’s young, she starts to want to become like her madame, who takes the place of a mentor or mother, and becomes the ideal of what a woman is.” As a result, she posits, their answer to the question she posed - of what woman they want to look like - in fact reflects the madame, and conjures her in fantasy. Even though none of the employers were involved in the process, the madame is forever present.
Mahalit as Haifa Wehbe.
In speaking of the photo series, Charafeddine has spoken of how these are women that “cook for us and clean our dirt and raise our children,” though we rarely - if ever - truly see them as complex individuals. From that starting point, she explores how a woman can transform from one to the other. This raises a question, however, as to what purpose this transformation serves, if it is only from one side of the dichotomy to the other, from ‘them’ to ‘us’. An analogous question is often posed, for example, against what has been called ‘corporate’ feminism, which seems to seek to replace male CEOs and rulers with female ones, without ever truly questioning the very foundations of patriarchy.
To this, Charafeddine says that it is a question we as Arabs must ask of our classist societies, about the fundamental duality of our relationships. Because of the master-slave dynamic inherent in much of Arab social culture - illustrated in macro and minute manifestations such as the wildly popular Quranic misquote “enna khalaqnakom tabaqat” (We have created you in classes) deployed at the drop of a hat in discussions of class - she sees legal reform as the most important avenue for change.
Mahalit as Grace Kelly.
“That’s where it has to start,” Charafeddine explains. “The domestic worker becomes an employee, with set hours, paydays, and overtime. What the law can do is force the employer to respect human rights. That’s how it can become possible for us to exit this dialectical relationship of us and them.”
In the process of creating the series, another interesting reality emerged, centered around Charafeddine’s own positionality. Because in terms of class, ethnicity, place, and language, she resembles - and, in a way, is - their madame. Kumari, a domestic worker who was also Charafeddine's project assistant for the series, acted as mediator between the artist and the workers-turned-models. “That’s why I bring up the problem of trust,” she says. “Even though they trusted me to a degree because Kumari was vouching for me...until the last day, some of them seemed to be waiting to see what I’d do. Because I could turn at any moment. How do they know that I wouldn’t tell them to just go home and I wouldn’t pay them anything? And they know for a fact that the law and the police would be on my side.”
And even though she insisted from the very first day that if she calls them, for example, Hana and Kumari, they should be calling her Chaza, they could not call her by her name. Until today, all but one of them - the one she had been acquainted with for years before - insist on calling her ‘madame’. The dialectical relationship of us and them - maid and madame - reproduces itself, within the very project that aims to deconstruct it.
You can take a look at the rest of the photos from the series below.
Bruktayt as Marlene Dietrich.
Bruktayt as Shakira.
Melanie with Fur.
Nadine with Flowers.
Ruby with Hat.
You can follow Chaza Charafeddine's work on her website.