The Kafala System as Racialized Servitude

The Kafala System as Racialized Servitude

Sumayya Kassamali, University of Toronto


As is well known to both scholars of the Middle East and readers of global news, migrant labor in Jordan, Lebanon, and most of the Arabic-speaking countries surrounding the Persian Gulf is governed by a set of regulations referred to as “the kafala system.” The word kafala, usually translated as “sponsorship,” references the fact that a foreign worker’s residence and employment in a given country is directly tied to their sponsor or kafeel – something often used to explain the high levels of abuse associated with this system. Scholarship on the kafala system, in turn, has particularly emphasized its centrality to the development of exclusionary regimes of citizenship in the oil-rich Gulf. And while a growing body of work has attended to new forms of belonging that have emerged from decades of temporary foreign labor in the region, as well as agentive spaces of resistance, it has yet to adequately foreground the question of race (see also Vora & Le Renard in this collection).[1] Historicizing the development of the kafala system in Lebanon, a context where “kafala” is specifically associated with female African and Asian migrant domestic labor,[2] points to its inextricability from processes of racialization. In particular, the development of the term Srilankiyye – literally meaning “Sri Lankan” but used to refer to all female migrant domestic workers, regardless of country of origin – suggests ways in which scholarship can attend to local terminology in order to better understand the new social hierarchies that have emerged in the aftermath of regional labor migration.


Histories of Domestic Labor in Lebanon

 Upper-class households in the areas that make up present-day Lebanon have long relied on outside help to perform domestic labor. Leaving aside the extended histories of domestic slavery under the Ottoman Empire,[3] well into the twentieth century, domestic service was arranged through local relations between well-off families and the poorer members of local villages, including those from what is today Syria. Rural families from Mount Lebanon would place their daughters in the homes of the wealthy, where, in exchange for household labor, the girls would be educated and socialized into the gendered practices of the elite, often increasing their chance at upward mobility through marriage.[4]In contexts where wages were offered, they were often paid directly to the girls’ fathers.[5] Elizabeth Thompson notes that in 1922 over 22,000 peasant women were recorded working as domestic help in the homes of their wealthier neighbours in the region, and families whose income had collapsed due to the decline of the silk industry in the region sent their daughters to work inside homes in Damascus and Beirut.[6] In the years after Lebanese independence in 1943, they were joined by Palestinians, Egyptians, and others fleeing regional turmoil for the economic haven that was supposed to be Lebanon.[7] Leila Fawaz records a woman telling her that as late as the 1960s, Druze and Christian women in Lebanon would refuse to work in factories or hospitals in Beirut, leaving such unrespectable jobs for the Kurds and the Shias, but would prefer the socially acceptable position of working inside the homes of wealthy Christian families.[8]

It was during the Lebanese Civil War that the demographic composition of these arrangements began to change. Egyptian and other workers from the region quickly fled the climate of militarized insecurity and returned home. Palestinians, unable to flee and centrally implicated in the war, became targets of heightened suspicion and distrust. In the words of one elderly Lebanese woman, “During the civil war the Palestinians became so strong, we stopped asking them to come for housework because we were afraid of them.”[9] Syrian workers, meanwhile, both male and female, faced mass expulsions from those areas that fell under the control of Christian militias during the war, something John Chalcraft identifies as the most important factor that caused the shift towards Asian labor in Lebanon.[10] At the same time, the civil war saw approximately 40% of the Lebanese population leave the country between 1975-1989, subsequently increasing the demand for foreign workers to fill their place.[11] Lastly, global economic crises of the 1970s led to a number of Asian countries, particularly the Philippines and Sri Lanka, introducing policies aimed at exporting their female labor force in order to reduce unemployment and increase national remittances.[12] The post-1973 oil boom in the Arabic-speaking countries surrounding the Persian Gulf made it an especially attractive destination for such migrant labor, both from South and Southeast Asia as well as from Lebanon. The confluence of these many factors provided the backdrop for the shift in Lebanon’s domestic service sector.

The earliest evidence of migrant domestic workers coming to Lebanon involves small numbers of women from Sri Lanka and the Seychelles Islands entering the country in the 1970s.[13] Despite the ongoing war at the time, even today people recall Filipina and Sri Lankan women entering the country during the 1980s – something that is also reflected in novels written about this time period by Lebanese authors.[14] But migrant domestic labor only expanded into a widescale social phenomenon after the end of the war in the early 1990s, as money for reconstruction started flowing into the country. This expansion is specifically understood to be associated with wartime Lebanese migration to the Gulf, where Lebanese migrants witnessed the Asianization of the workforce in the aftermath of the discovery of oil, as well as a growing demand for, and social status associated with, domestic servants.[15] In fact, I was told over the course of my fieldwork, many returnees simply brought their migrant domestic worker back to Lebanon with them. A key intervention of my own research is therefore to place the kafala system at the center of the account of Lebanon’s postwar neoliberalization. And a curious aspect of this story is the development of a new term to refer to migrant domestic workers in Lebanon: Srilankiyye.


Srilankiyye: The Racialization of Migrant Domestic Labor

Sri Lanka was the first major country of origin for migrant domestic workers arriving to Lebanon en masse after the end of the civil war. “Srilankiyye,” Arabic for ‘female Sri Lankan,’ is a seemingly neutral term that connotes nationality and gender through the use of a recognizable Arabic adjectival form. Yet, in contemporary Lebanon, Srilankiyye is a term used to describe migrant domestic workers of all countries of origin. Its derogatory definition is more akin to “maid,” yet its usage captures a uniquely gendered, racialized, and classed subject position that other vernacular terms for domestic worker (such as amile, khadime, saani’a, or shagghile) do not. I argue that the term Srilankiyye points to one of the key sociocultural transformations effected by the expansion of migrant domestic labor in Lebanon over the last four decades: a new form of racialization.[16] More than simply a shift in popular language usage or a new racist slur, Srilankiyyeindicates a new subject, and a new form of subjectification, in the social landscape. Moreover, taking a cue from the framework of racial capitalism, it also reminds us that the economic developments of the last century are inextricable from their reliance on various racial logics.

Drawing upon decades of scholarship linking race, slavery, and black critiques of Marxism, the analytic framework of racial capitalism points to the inextricability of capitalist growth from what Cedric Robinson has called hierarchies of human worth.[17] This body of work historicizes the emergence of racial ideologies and identities alongside the gendered structures of capitalism, both those of production and reproduction.[18] By situating the expansion of African and Asian migrant domestic labor in relation to the broader socioeconomic changes that took place in postwar Lebanon – and, in conversation with a growing interdisciplinary emphasis on the analytic relevance of race in scholarship on the Middle East (such as the many papers included here) – I understand the kafala system as productive of new structures of racialization, or what Jodi Melamed refers to as ‘social separateness.’[19] Here, I refer not to an isolated process but a fully intersectional one; a racialization that is itself always already gendered and classed.

Of course, the kafala system is not an isolated phenomenon. There are multiple genealogies through which we might understand the gendered racialization of (South/Southeast) Asian and (Sub-Saharan) African subjects in contemporary Lebanon. Alongside those of domestic slavery and servitude under the Ottoman Empire cited above, we might think of the racist discourse surrounding Senegalese troops sent to Lebanon under the French colonial mandate;[20] the movement of ideologies from fascist Germany and Italy into Lebanese political party-militias;[21] the economic and political ties with the development of the Gulf oil industry; popular associations between beauty and white skin on the one hand, and the perfect seaside tan on the other; or the many instances of cultural consumption that brought racial representations to Lebanon from the region and abroad. Unfortunately, such precise research on the production of racial hierarchies in modern Lebanon remains to be done. Here, the writings of Eve Troutt-Powell on colonial narratives pertaining to Sudan within 19th and 20th century Egypt, or Robert Vitalis on the effects of American Jim Crow legislation on the development Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, or Chouki el-Hamel on gnawa music in Morocco, are all exemplary.[22] These works remind us that neither can we simply transport Western analytic concepts of race into the region, nor can we isolate the question of race in the region as a purely local one.


The Case of the Lebanese Kafala System

Despite these multiple genealogies of difference, returning to Lebanon indicates what might also be unique about the kafala system. Rather than assuming that racialization takes the same form across time and space, the emergence of Srilankiyye as social category points us to a specific kind of racialization that has emerged out of the migrations, wars, and labor practices of contemporary Lebanon.

Research on migrant domestic labor around the world has long emphasized its place in what feminists have called ‘the international racial division of reproductive labor,’ in which racialized women from the global south leave their own families behind in order to care for the families of a mostly northern female elite.[23] Lebanon, as well as countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, or Saudi Arabia, remind us that racial hierarchies are rarely neatly aligned along the divides of North/South. However, a peculiar paradox characterizes the story of Asian and African women in Lebanon: they were perceived as more trustworthy than the women that came before them due to their status as total outsiders. What this suggests is that they entered a country recovering from civil war already marked as the ultimate foreigners. The modes of recognition and legibility that were available to them are thus inextricable from the immense factionalism, suspicion, and social polarization of the war. This is especially the case given their demographic isolation within the larger Lebanese population.

Although Lebanon’s population is only estimated at six million, it has long been identified by its demographic divisions. It is a country in which sectarian religious divisions are enshrined in government and law, membership in families has been described as preceding membership in the state,[24] and which has historically received multiple migrants and refugees, including the Armenians (who hold citizenship) and the Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Sudanese (who most certainly do not).

While frequently ignored in discussions of the Lebanese polity, African and Asian migrant workers offer an additional layer to the country’s exclusions. Ever since the 1990s, thanks to a combination of factors including local policies restricting foreign employment, the only South/Southeast Asian and Sub-Saharan African subjects one is likely to encounter in Lebanon are migrant workers. This is what makes it possible to strip Srilankiyye of its national referent and reinscribe it with the designation of migrant domestic worker. It is important to remember that this was not always the case, in a country that was formerly a central node in networks of Third World Solidarity as well as the headquarters of the Palestinian Revolution. For example, Lebanese author Hala Kawtharani writes of a fictional character that becomes fascinated with his mother’s account of Beirut in the 1950s and 60s: “a time when the faces of many colours from many lands walked al-Hamra Street and all the languages of the world could be heard.”[25] Today, however, such international diversity is most evident – both in literature and in life – in the many countries of origin that make up Lebanon’s hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. Hence the kafala system has produced a near perfect synonymity between the category of racialized foreigner, and the category of domestic servant.

Over time, as domestic workers came to serve as status symbols of an emergent Lebanese middle class, a set of formal and informal practices were consolidated around both their difference and their exploitability. According to the most recent studies, less than 50% of Lebanese employers give the domestic worker her legally-entitled day of rest each week.[26] Of these, a further half forbid her from leaving the house alone on this day. One out of five employers lock the worker inside the house at all times. Over 93% of employers confiscate the worker’s passport upon her arrival. 40% refuse to pay the woman’s salary in full at the end of every month, instead paying irregularly, upon request, upon termination of the contract, or not at all. Women frequently report being forced to work 10, 12, even 18 hours a day, with few breaks, for years on end. One-third of employers are said to beat their domestic workers. And in 2017, it was reported that two domestic workers were dying a week in Lebanon, as a result of either suicide, failed attempt at escape, or murder.[27] Despite both formal and anecdotal evidence about the mistreatment of domestic workers prior to the kafala system, both the nature and the quantity of these deaths remains unprecedented in earlier records. Together with the demographic shift from women and girls from the region to those foreign to it, this suggests that the kafala system has introduced a racialized subjection that is novel in the history of the Lebanese domestic sphere. This can be explained by neither culturalist explanations nor simply the globally recognized vulnerabilities of domestic labor. Instead, conceptualizing the kafala system as introducing a new hierarchy of human worth into the private and public spaces of postwar Lebanon is the first step towards both understanding these violences, and imagining a future without them.



[1] For example: Attiya Ahmed, Everyday Conversions: Islam, Domestic Work, and South Asian Migrant Women in Kuwait (Duke University Press, 2017); Omar al-Shehabi, “Policing Labour in Empire: The Modern Origins of the Kafala Sponsorship System in the Gulf Arab States.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (2019): 1–20; Andrew Gardner, “Ethnography, Anthropology and Migration to the Arabian Peninsula: Themes from an Ethnographic Research Trajectory.” Gulf Labour Markets and Migration. Gulf Research Center, 2014.

[2] Technically speaking, the kafala system in Lebanon also encompasses male migrant labor that does not perform domestic service but can be found in sectors such as sanitation and waste management. In addition, at various times aspects of the kafala system have also been applied to Lebanon’s large community of Syrian migrant workers as well as its many refugees. However, both in popular usage as well as in local and international legal-political discourse, kafala in Lebanon is synonymous with migrant domestic labor, and refers specifically to the large numbers of African and Asian women that travel to Lebanon annually under this framework. I therefore use the term in the same manner.

[3] See Stephan Conermann & Gul Sen (eds.), Slaves and Slave Agency in the Ottoman Empire (Bonn University Press, 2020)

[4] Ray Jureidini, “In the Shadows of Family Life Toward a History of Domestic Service in Lebanon.”

Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 5, no. 3 (2009): 74-101; Elizabeth Thompson Colonial citizens: republican rights, paternal privilege, and gender in French Syria and Lebanon. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000)

[5] Jureidini, ibid.

[6] See Thompson, Note 5

[7] See Jureidini, Note 5

[8] Leila Fawaz, “Sumaya: A Lebanese Housemaid.” In Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, edited by Edmund Burke III and David Yaghoubian, 352–63. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005)

[9] Jureidini, 94

[10] John Chalcraft, The invisible cage: Syrian migrant workers in Lebanon. (Stanford: Stanford University Press,


[11] Paul Tabar, “Lebanon: A country of Emigration and Immigration.” Institute for Migration

Studies (2010): 7.

[12] For more, see Grete Brochmann, Middle East Avenue: Female Migration from Sri Lanka to the Gulf (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993) and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration and Domestic Work (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).

[13] Martin Baldwin-Edwards, “Migration in the Middle East and the Mediterranean” Geneva:

Global Commission on International Migration, 2005; Nalya Moukarbel, Sri Lankan Housemaids in Lebanon : A Case of “Symbolic Violence” and “Everyday Forms of Resistance.” (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010)

[14] See for example Rabih Alameddine, The Hakawati (Knopf, 2008)

[15] See al-Shehabi (Note 1); Moukarbel (Note 13)

[16] It is important to note that this language pattern of conjoining nationality and profession pre-exists the kafala system and is not exclusive to migrant domestic workers; the masculine word for Egyptian (Masri), for example, can be used to refer to gas station attendants, due to the presence of large numbers of Egyptian men in this line of work, and the case is similar for Sudanese (Sudani) as a term for building concierges. However, Srilankiyye has shown a capacity for abstraction that exceeds the stereotype – hence it is possible to describe a Filipina or Ethiopian woman as Srilankiyye in a way that is not quite the case when it comes to Masri or Sudani. Although this emerges from demographic shifts in who makes up the domestic labour market (versus gas station attendants or building concierges), I argue it is precisely these sociohistoric changes that have produced the term Srilankiyye as a category rather than simply an adjective with varied connotations. It is also for this reason that the term has become recognized as more of an insult than a descriptor, something that is not the case for Masri, Sudani, or other comparable national adjectives.

[17] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Race and Globalization.” In Geographies of Global Change: Remapping the World, edited by R. J. Johnston, 261–83. (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002); Cedric J Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. (London: Zed, 1983)

[18] Robin D. G. Kelley. “What Is Racial Capitalism and Why Does It Matter?” November 18, 2017.–gim7W_jQQ&

[19] Jodi Melamed, “Racial Capitalism.” Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no. 1 (2015): 76.

[20] See Thompson, Note 5

[21] See Sune Haugbolle, “The historiography and the memory of the Lebanese civil war” [online]

Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, 25 October, 2011.

[22] Eve Troutt Powell, A Different Shade of Colonialism (University of California Press, 2003); Robert Vitalis, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (Stanford University Press, 2007); Chouki El Hamel, Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

[23] Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor.” Signs 18, no. 1 (1992): 1–43.

[24] Suad Joseph, “Political familism in Lebanon.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 636, no. 1 (2011): 150-163.

[25] Hala Kawtharani, “The Thread of Life”. In Iman Humaydan (ed.) Beirut Noir. (Brooklyn: Akashic Books, 2015), 95

[26] See Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Without Protection: How the Lebanese Justice System Fails Migrant Domestic Workers.” (New York, 2010); International Labour Organization (ILO), Regional Office for Arab States, “Intertwined: A Study of Employers of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon.” (Beirut, 2016); KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation. “Dreams for Sale: The Exploitation of Domestic Workers from Recruitment in Nepal and Bangladesh to Working in Lebanon.” (Beirut, 2014.)

[27] Su, Alice. “Slave Labour? Death Rate Doubles for Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon.” IRIN, May 15, 2017.