On women hurting women / by Alice Su

The Atlantic | May 24, 2017

AMMAN, Jordan—I got my first glimpse of what it’s like to be a Filipina migrant worker in Jordan on an October day in 2013, shortly after I’d moved to the region. I was walking down a street in western Amman when a police car pulled alongside me on the road, the officers inside rolling down their window and beckoning me to stop. A man slouched in the passenger’s seat looked me up and down, then said, “Where is your passport?”

I was confused. I’d left it at home, as usual, I told him. He said, “Where do you live?”

I beckoned in the direction of my apartment, still perplexed until he said, “Where are you from? Filipina?” His colleague in the driver’s seat smirked.

I looked at the men. “No, I’m from America. USA.” The two officers sat up quickly, glancing at each other. “Welcome to Jordan!” one of them said as he rolled the window back up, his partner already driving the car away.

That incident repeated itself several times, always with the same progression: Men followed or pulled alongside me on the street, asking, “Philippines?” When I told them my nationality, they quickly backed off.

There’s a neighborhood in Amman nicknamed “Manila Street” where many migrant workers live and congregate on their days off, setting up Filipino food markets, buying phone cards, and visiting the Western Union to send money home. Many of the Filipina women who live there are “runaways,” meaning they lack regular papers and can be arrested or exploited on the streets at any time. When I visited the area, a Filipina woman at the street market explained why police kept pulling me over. “They will try to make you their ‘girlfriend,’” she said. “Sometimes they are police and sometimes they are just pretending. They say: ‘You have iqama [residency papers]?’ If you don’t have, they ask you for money, or drive you somewhere to do fucking. Or else they can send you to jail, or back to your country. I hear too many stories like this.” Several other migrant women later told me the same thing.

I’ve been reporting on migrant domestic labor in Jordan and Lebanon since January, visiting shelters, women’s prisons, and overcrowded neighborhoods where migrant women flock together for survival, often cramming as many as a dozen people into a small apartment. Jordan has about 50,000 migrant domestic workers, of whom the largest subgroup are from the Philippines. Lebanon had nearly 170,000 registered domestic migrants in 2016. Most of them—about 105,000—are from Ethiopia, but Filipinas are the second-biggest group, at roughly 18,300.

In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers are specifically excluded from labor laws, which means they have no legal guarantee for basic rights like a minimum wage and maximum work hours or days off, and nowhere to appeal when they are verbally or physically abused. Their work contracts require that they live in their employers’ homes. When abuse happens, they have nowhere to go. A startling number of migrant women jump off balconies, dying in either suicide or failed escape attempts. Lebanese General Security, the government’s intelligence and security agency, told me that the bodies of 110 migrant women had been repatriated from Lebanon in 2016 alone. That’s more than two a week. As of mid-April, 28 more women had died in 2017.

I’ve learned to tense up every time strange men ask me if I’m Filipina, and to quickly announce my U.S. citizenship, even as I feel sick for wielding my privilege as self-defense. I didn’t think about how trapped it feels to be a migrant domestic worker until I was exposed to leering men trying to exploit me because of my Asian face. My own response has been to report on what’s happening and try to understand and expose it. But in his essay “My Family’s Slave,” Alex Tizon went beyond exposure to self-exposure, which is why his story moved me.

Reporting on systemic injustice—analyzing a broken policy and telling the stories of its victims—is crucial work. But it offers a certain kind of psychological safety: Even as you expose yourself to heart-wrenching injustice, you write about it as a professional observer, removed from any guilt or complicity. It’s much harder to tell a story of injustice that—without excusing or explaining away evil acts—nonetheless acknowledges the humanity of the perpetrator, and admits that we all have the capacity for cruelty. Confronting the conditions that can lead someone to choose evil is an important part of understanding and preventing exploitation.

I recognize in Tizon’s descriptions of his mother and “Lola” a pattern I have seen in my reporting: how one exhausted, single immigrant mother turns all her fury and shame into abuse of another, weaker woman in her emotional and physical bondage. They remind me of a Filipina woman I met in a shelter here, who told me how her madam had starved her, threatened to turn her over to the police, and beat her so badly she jumped out of an upstairs window, injuring her hip and spine, to survive. I wrote all of that in an article, but couldn’t fit what she told me about her madam: that she was also a lawyer, single mother, and bulimic. That she used to cry, binge, and throw up at home every day, and that the worst beatings usually came after angry, screaming phone calls with her estranged husband. For months, I’ve been watching and wrestling with how to articulate this specifically cruel way that women can dehumanize and harm other women. I’ve often wished I could include a footnote to these stories: Sometimes the victimizers are victims themselves.

Two weeks ago, I visited a women’s prison with the Jordanian police’s anti-trafficking unit. They were interviewing detainees to determine whether any had been victims of trafficking. One Syrian woman started sobbing as soon as she saw the police. She was a refugee and single mother, she wailed, whose husband had been killed in the conflict and who just wanted to see her children again. The investigators told her to stop crying. Then she admitted that she had allowed paying customers to enter her unit in Zaatari Camp and rape a 15-year-old girl, another refugee even more vulnerable than herself.

My insides curl at these stories, the ones of hurt women hurting others, empathy and horror churning against one another. I meet mothers and sisters and daughters with such capacity to nurture and heal, but such ugly potential to be monsters as well. I wish they came in neat categories—the wicked stepmother versus the kind princess, the brave heroine versus the jealous queen—but they don’t. So often they are good and bad at once, which doesn’t in any way vindicate the bad, but rather helps us to comprehend it.

When I report these stories, I am terrified by my own understanding of the abuser and abused. I want to feel like I write: in third-person, distant from the villains, certainly incapable of the unforgivable crimes they commit. The power of Tizon’s approach—an openly guilty one—is that he turns the culprits from they to us. He uncovers his own shame instead of pretending that only certain people are evil and exploitative. His story strikes at my secret fear: that we are all capable of cruelty, dehumanization, or self-blinding complicity with injustices from which we benefit. He writes not about good people versus bad people, but about people who can do good or bad, and who give in, tragically, to the latter. How fearful to acknowledge that we can go either way, I think. But then again, how freeing to realize that we have a choice.