Saudi Arabia has just executed an Indonesian domestic worker convicted of murdering her employer, despite her pleas that she was acting in self-defense to protect herself from sexual assault. The New York Times reports that Tuti Tursilawati, originally from Majalengka, Indonesia, was executed on Monday without the knowledge of the Indonesian authorities. Her family were also not informed prior to the execution.
In 2010, Tursilawati was convicted of murdering her employer in the Saudi city of Taif. The domestic worker rights group Migrant Care claimed that she’d been acting "in self-defense" and that her employer had been trying to sexually assault her.
Indonesia has lodged a protest with the Saudi authorities, who are already facing international condemnation for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and renewed focus on the Saudi-led war in Yemen. President Joko Widodo told press on Wednesday that he’d contacted Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir to protest the execution.
Tursilawati’s death will refocus attention on the status of foreign domestic workers in the Gulf States. The predominantly female labor force is frequently subject to human rights violations and a myriad of abuses, ranging from physical violence to sexual coercion. Women from Asia frequently travel to Saudi Arabia to work as housemaids in well-to-do households. When they arrive in the country, they can be subject to the whims and caprices of unscrupulous employers, who have been known to withhold their passports, trapping maids in abusive households with no means of escape. Between 2011 and 2013, Indonesia temporarily banned domestic workers from travelling to the Middle East out of fear for their safety.
In 2015, Broadly reported on the perilous situation for domestic workers in the Arab states. “We don't have any rights, they can do whatever they want and we cannot do anything, just shut our mouths,” Norhana Abu, a Filipina domestic worker, told Broadly. Abu was locked in her employer’s home and forced to work around the lock, with barely any rest, sleep, or even a day off.
And there are few signs that the situation is improving for the 964,000 foreign-born domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. The controversial Kafala system of sponsorship for migrant workers—under which workers are legally tied to their employers, and unable to take new jobs if the situation turns out to be abusive—is still in place, despite protests from human rights groups. Although neighboring Qatar recently moved to implement better protections for migrant workers ahead of the 2022 World Cup, no such move has been announced in Saudi Arabia.