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This Is What Justice Looks Like in Saudi Arabia

One Sri Lankan housemaid has been saved from a stoning death—for now. Others are still dying.

Peer Grimm/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

A Sri Lankan woman sentenced to be stoned to death on charges of adultery has been granted a reprieve, but she is far from safe. 

A married housemaid, she received the death penalty while the man, also a Sri Lankan migrant worker, was given 100 lashes, the New Republic reported earlier this month. Since that article appeared, we received word that the Canadian embassy to Saudi Arabia would try to assist the woman. 

The court has now agreed to reopen her case for appeal. But the public still doesn’t know her name, for whom she was working, what she testified in court, or who bore witness against her. Not her family, not even her “betrayed” husband, knows that she stands to be executed. 

Why won’t her name be released? Officials involved with the case claim she doesn’t want her family to know how far she’s fallen, that she’d feel humiliated. But it’s hard to believe that the same court that would stone a woman to death would also protect her from the sting of social scandal. It’s just as likely that the housemaid’s name is being concealed to stifle media attention, as well as to imply her shame and guilt over a sexual crime for which her male judges might kill her.

If she does somehow survive Saudi Arabia’s judicial system, and makes it out of the country, she will be among the countless migrant women who have returned home with horrific stories.

“Now I have become a prostitute. I have come back home a prostitute,” says the woman in this video as she recounts the horror of her experience as a maid in Saudi Arabia. “The house I was working in threw me out on to the road. When I got into a taxi on the road, the driver took me to a brothel. I had to work as a prostitute for two months.” 

Another woman says that she was tasked with looking after 14 children. “When I couldn’t manage, instead of taking me back to my agency, they sold me to another agency. And at that agency they hit me until I started bleeding from my skull.”

Beaten like slaves, treated like merchandise, these women are among the fortunate ones. Other young Sri Lankan housemaids, working for two dollars a day, never return home. 

You might have heard about the young woman who was beheaded in Saudi Arabia in 2013. But you probably haven’t heard of the underage housemaid whose corpse was just returned earlier this month to her parents in Sri Lanka. 

She hanged herself in the spring. Or so it is claimed by Saudi authorities. Her parents are skeptical. “I have doubts that someone who was supposed to come home in May would kill herself like this,” her father says. “She called us and said she was coming in May.” 

Her parents had to fight tooth-and-nail to obtain her remains. “All the agency wanted to do was bury her in Saudi Arabia,” her mom says. “No one knows her there; this is our motherland, I wanted to bury her here.” The girl’s body was returned home many months later, rendering an autopsy all but useless.

Some might argue that these abused girls are outliers in an otherwise functional business relationship between the Middle East and Asia. There are, after all, about 2.1 million domestic workers in Middle Eastern countries. In Saudi Arabia, one of the largest employers, there are around 785,000 such workers, two-thirds of whom are women. Surely, the vast majority are fine. 

But abuse isn’t an aberration. Namini Wijedasa, a Sri Lankan journalist, recently reported that “the tales of misery are too numerous to ignore.”

Few, if any, of these migrant workers receive the protection of domestic employment laws. Visiting workers in Saudi Arabia must obtain permission from their employers to exit legally from the kingdom. If that is not slave labor, what is?

There’s also an utter lack of due process for these workers, and condemned prisoners are silenced, as is likely the case with the Sri Lankan housemaid charged with adultery.

Her future—whether she will live or die—remains uncertain. In the next month or so, pious men will once again stroll into a courtroom and pass judgment on her. Maybe they’ll have her stoned to death or thrown in prison, where there’s a good chance she’ll be raped by prison guards, like so many imprisoned workers before her. 

But even if the court sets her free, justice won’t be served: Nobody will pay for the injustices done to her.