When Munira Ahmed Yusuf was in the 11th grade, she got pregnant. Even in high school, she had no idea what a menstrual period was or the function it represented. Getting pregnant wasn’t a decision she ever made. After falling in love, her boyfriend initiated the sex. She knew it was wrong but had little say in preserving her virginity. No one ever told her exactly how babies were created. Nobody told her anything. Not her father and definitely not her mother.
Her lover slipped away into the night and was suddenly in Djibouti, a world away from Munira in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They wrote letters twice a week for two months. Then nothing more. That was the last she heard from him.
In desperation, Munira avoided her classmates, skipped class, and wandered the city streets following leads on how to induce an abortion. She would stop in a pharmacy and ask for “anything to make a baby go away”. Months went by, but Munira was determined to terminate the pregnancy. At the end of her second trimester, a Russian doctor convinced her to stop punishing her body and accept the pregnancy.
From a very early age, Munira heard over and over from her mother and aunts that a “girl with a ruptured hymen is a used object.” And those girls who even speak to men were either whores or infidels. As a pregnant teen, Munira committed the ultimate offense against the Koran, Muhammad the Prophet, and the creator of the world, Allah.Since Munira the virgin no longer existed, she was doomed to spend her life as an outcast,blotted with shame. Only a desperate man would accept a used virgin.
Munira was brought up a Muslim in Ethiopia. Her early years were spent in the Merkato area of Addis Ababa, not far from the city’s largest and most important Mosque, Al-Anwar. As she and her sisters got older, they watched their parents drift. Her father took her as an 8 year old to Pakistan. “He was never the same again,” Munira claims, “my mother suddenly meant nothing to my father compared to Islam.”
Ethiopian Muslims often appear to be slightly more liberal compared to Arabs or neighboring Somalis. Women wear headscarves but not veils. They dress modest, but modesty may include tight-fitting jeans and a low neck blouses. And there is a certain mysticism embedded in Ethiopian Muslims, a faith that looks inwards as much as it looks to Mecca.
Munira’s father, however, took a strong dose of the Arab culture that has spread to the non-Arab societies by the way of Islam. Like most Ethiopian Muslims, he accepted the austere, sexual morality forced on Muslim women, observed and enforced for over 1000 years. It was undeniable fact that Allah created men superior to women, undeniable because Islam is based solely on one source of knowledge, the Koran, and the Koran comes from Allah, the all knowing.
“How do I accept my mother’s rules and have this baby,” Munira wondered.
Her mother’s rules were the same rules written in the Koran, and these were more than rules, they were imperatives. For all intents and purposes, they were laws of life. When her 17 year old daughter came home with a small bump and told her about the pregnancy, Munira’s mother locked her in her bedroom for the next three months. Munira’s father had returned to Pakistan and her mother was the sole protector of the family’s reputation and the moral values of their creed.
During those three months, Munira never saw a doctor, never had a check up, and never left her room. Her mother fed her through the window, and her condition was kept a secret. Her mother told lies about her daughter’s health and an atmosphere of mistrust intoxicated the family.
When her water broke, the house arrest was finally lifted. Her mother called a taxi, wrapped her daughter in a gabi—a thick Ethiopian blanket—and sent Munira to the hospital. Alone.
“If you ever ask about this baby, we will kill you,” her mother whispered in her ear before she climbed into the taxi.
When a Muslim girl loses her virginity out of wedlock she has dishonored the family. Other families may gossip, men will shun her, and the girl is automatically branded a ‘whore’. Punishments for the girl—even if she is raped—range from a beating to murder. According to international organizations, more than 5,000 women are murdered in Islamic countries for this “offense”. Honor killings, as they are often referred to, still occur in Western Europe, sometimes just for dating a non-Muslim. Allah’s laws know no border.
Munira arrived at 10am to the Zewditi Hospital in Addis Ababa. The doctor ordered a cesarean, but the operating room was full. She waited until 5pm to give birth. She waited alone and went under the knife alone.
When she woke up the baby was gone. Munira’s aunt sat at her bedside and told her the baby had died.
“Aunty, if you love your children tell me the truth. Where is the baby?” Munira asked desperately.
“Your mother took the child.”
The nurse showed up, it was time for breast milk but the baby was gone. Munira was confused and couldn’t grasp why she lost her child. After five lonely days in a hospital room, she returned home to her mother who relentlessly drowned her in shameful names and reminders that she was a whore.
“It’s usually men who kill their daughters. Mothers are too passive. Mothers kill their daughters through words and emotionless eyes,” according to Munira.
When I met Munira, I had just read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the true story of a Somali woman whose family and life experiences lead her to reject Islam due to its treatment of women. I immediately gave her the book.
“The values of the Koran are essentially unattainable. Because of this inner impasse, Muslim women and men often become confused. A community that lives according to the prescriptions of Muhammad and the Koran inevitably becomes pathological in its fears of contradictions, in its anger at inner and outside ideals that they are taught to live up to,” Hirsi Ali writes.
A mother abused her daughter and disposed of her illegitimate child in order to absolve a violation against Allah’s law and protect her family from potential shame. In the pursuit of moral sanctity, she barely notices the crimes she committed. Religion encourages denial, and denial is a comforting coping mechanism for the most heinous crimes, especially if morality is in question.
What Hirsi Ali dubs the virgin’s cage is a paradigm of bitter consequences for Muslim women. The cage is a world in which only the most submissive, quiet, yielding and obedient women thrive. However, “surrounding this is a larger cage in which the entire Islamic culture has been imprisoned. Caging women in order to guard their virginity leads not only to frustration and violence for the individuals directly involved, but also to socioeconomic backwardness for the entire community. These caged women exert a harmful influence on children, especially young boys. Since most women in the Islamic world are excluded from education and are purposely kept ignorant, when these same women bear and raise children, they can pass on only their limited knowledge, and so perpetuate a vicious cycle of ignorance from generation to generation,” Hirsi Ali writes in her essay “The Virgin’s Cage.”
Munira’s baby was born on February 8th, 1994. Her son is 18 years old this year, possibly celebrating a birthday with another family.
“Every single night I stare at the wall and cry for my baby.”
After losing her baby, Munira decided to become a nurse. By then, her spirit had rejected the woman’s place in Islam though she could not outwardly show that to anybody, least of all her family. She continued to participate in family activities centered around Islam. She moved to Harar, a city steeped in history and oft considered the capital of Ethiopia’s Muslim culture. After two years of coursework, she finished her degree. She was 21 years old.
Thanks to her language skills, she was immediately hired as a teacher for the next class of nurses. On the side, she volunteered at the hospital and developed a very close relationship with the hospital’s acting medical director, Abdul.
“My family knew his family and said they were honored if we were engaged. I was in love with him. He was gentle and sweet.” For 10 months they lived separately, but Munira kept a key to Abdul’s house. One night, when she showed up unannounced, she caught him with a prostitute. He begged her for forgiveness, and they were married in mid 2001.
“I didn’t want a ceremony, but my mother insisted because her family is Arab, and Arabs give gold,” she explains. “She let me have the gold a few days and then she took it and kept it.”
As soon as Munira moved in with her new husband the heavy burden that is the purity of his wife’s sexual virtue began to wear on his conscience. He lectured her on the Koran and Muhammad’s laws, known by Muslims as hadith and constantly reminded her that she was not a virgin. At the same time, he was drinking alcohol, a clear violation of Muhammad’s law.
“We had sex before we got married. He knew I wasn’t a virgin. But this mentality is impossible to remove from a Muslim man. He was just waiting for the day I was his to begin the abuse.”
When her sister and boyfriend came to Harar, Munira’s husband beat her for the first time for allowing the unmarried couple to sleep in their house. The next day, he scolded Munira and her sister on what was haram—legally forbidden by Islam—and what was halal or accepted. Drinking beer and not praying is haram, but in a man’s house, the rules don’t always apply.
As both husband and supervisor, Abdul restricted her participation in further nurse training and education—essentially placing a tourniquet on his wife’s ambitions. Abdul pictured himself with his woman at home like a servant, not a diligent midwife interested in furthering her education. Eventually Munira stopped complaining and surrendered to her calling as the deferential wife.
After four years of marriage, a newly opened private hospital recruited Munira as head matron. The new job offered her an infinitely better salary. Her husband boiled with resentment. He accused her of sleeping with any and every man she came in contact with. In his disturbed mind, a married woman who left the house would potentially have sex with any man and his incontrollable libido. Was not this the reason Arab men cover their women from head to toe? But Munira didn’t allow his psychotic paranoia to deter her career.
“I spoke up and whenever I said something with confidence, he started hitting me. I was pregnant, but he didn’t care.”
The wheels finally fell of the cart when Abdul told her if she worked another day at the hospital, she could not return home. She left. That night Munira went to her aunt’s house after work. When her uncle saw her, he immediately took her back to her rightful owner, her husband. He beat her for sharing their personal problems with the rest of the world. He kicked her “like a ball” until Munira felt the fetus in her stomach rip away from her body. He dragged her into the living room and made her sit at his feet. Despite internal bleeding, she obeyed.
She feigned hunger, went to the kitchen (the woman’s place) and quietly slipped out the door to escape. She franticly ran through the streets of Harar, barefooted and in pajamas. A taxi appeared, she opened the door and her husband sat in the back seat. She pleaded for her life and the taxi took her to her aunt’s home, the same place she started earlier in the evening.
“I survived that night, but my baby didn’t.”
Islam permits no divorce unless the man wills it. Munira pleaded her father for a divorce, but this is not the way problems are mediated. Marital problems are never solved by weighing the opinions of the wife.
“Do you provide for your wife?” Her father asked her husband.
“Do you give her food and shelter?”
He turns to his daughter. “Then you have nothing to complain about.”
“But I do not love this man anymore.”
“Love has nothing to do with it. If you love me, you will stay with your husband,” her father dictated.
Munira carried a dead fetus in her body for almost a week before getting to a hospital in Addis Ababa. A doctor led her to the delivery ward in the same hospital she had been in almost eight years earlier. This time she knew the outcome. Massive blood loss and a damaged cervix left her bedridden for seven days.
Munira begged her husband to move with her back to Addis Ababa where she could be closer to her family, a source of protection. Abdul agreed, but he continued to hit and abuse his wife. In less than two months after the move, Munira fled. When her mother saw the bruises around her neck, she knew the only way to keep her daughter alive was to send her away. And Munira’s life changed from one position of servitude to another.
Munira was 27 and still had the bruises on her neck when her uncle who worked with the Saudi Arabian embassy organized a job for her to work in the palace of the King’s grandson in the Saudi capital Riyad. Her uncle assured her that she would be working as a nurse taking care of three children. A nanny who would know how to react in an emergency.
“When I arrived it was Ramadan and everybody was praying. I met the family, they spoke Arabic and English with me. They lived in a palace. The entire place was lavishly decorated with the finest rugs and over-the-top chandeliers. Since this was the King’s grandson, his wife made sure I knew she was a Princess and I was the servant. Each child had an enormous bedroom. The Princess was not allowed to leave the house without her husband’s consent, so I became her personal slave. The first day on the job, she asked me to take out the trash, and I realized that there was no other maid on the premises. So I washed and ironed clothes for the family. Only I didn’t know how to iron because I had never ironed in my life. She told me that people from my filthy country didn’t know anything. I apologized for my lack of skill. I told her that back in Ethiopia, our maid did all the ironing and that my family had two maids, a cook, and two guards. She said ‘I am a princess and I know how to iron and wash clothes better than you Ethiopian maids.’ Days later the prince came to my room and asked if I was ready to go to the embassy. I quickly packed and ran out.”
After putting up with her husband’s condescension and physical abuse for nearly four years, Munira lasted only a week as a servant. Being an Ethiopian maid in Arabia is a thankless job. Every day, hundreds of girls sidle next to each other in the Bole International Airport to board flights to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Kuwait. The majority are young and terrified girls from small villages in the countryside. Most have never seen an iron let alone used one. The girls pay fixers hefty sums to find them a contract that pays 3000 birr ($200 USD) a month. Many of these naïve girls are too blinded by the riches to consider the risks. The job attracts mostly Muslims but Christians too, for poverty knows no faith.
The prince pulled his luxury automobile up to a large building somewhere in Riyad. Munira tried her hardest to read the Arabic written on the signs. Years of memorizing the Koran in Arabic and she still couldn’t decipher where she was going.
“Get out of my car shekhala (Arabaic for maid)! Take your rags!” he barked.
The nurse scanned the street for an Ethiopian flag, a diplomatic peace offering, anything that would get her back home. A security guard led her into the building. They registered her name, her possessions and gave her a thin mattress, a pillow and a blanket. This was just like in an American prison movie, she thought. When she entered the main hall she realized it wasn’t a prison, it was Baba Abdula’s Halfway House for Runaway Maids.
Baba Abdula’s prison was a cross between a halfway house and rehabilitation clinic. Maids found wandering the streets of Riyad usually end up at Baba Abdula’s place. The maids raped by employers or owed money end up at Baba Abdulas. It is at once a hall of suffering, documenting the injustices of a class system exploiting impoverished girls, and a center of reconciliation. Every woman must stay a minimum of two months—often longer depending on the maid’s situation—before being reinserted into another maid position or sent to her home country.
Every maid eventually confronts her employer face-to-face with a mediator present. When a maid contests her salary or accuses the family of physical abuse, Baba Abdula’s verdict invariably falls in favor of the maid. The employer pays restitution and she is given the choice of returning to the original employer, to another house, or to her country.
“In reality, they lock them up to keep them safe from their employers,” Munira says.
Baba Abdula’s fortress of maids is divided into three floors. Each floor had a limited number of toilets to serve hundreds of maids. At any time, there are over 500 women living in the halfway house. On the third floor are the Indonesians, Saudi Arabia’s largest maid population. On the second floor, you can find the Filipinos and the Indians, mixed and completely unaware of each other’s language and customs. On the first floor live the Africans with Bangladeshis and Nepalese.
But it felt like prison. A maid goes to the third floor to get mobile phones, calling cards and cigarettes. On the second floor, maids can fill up on sugar, coffee, crackers and instant soup packets. The Bangladeshis on the first floor are known for their henna decoration and changed bills of 10 Riyals.
“The Africans weren’t famous for much. But they were easily the loudest of the bunch,” she smiles. “I learned that Saudis won’t even take Somalis as maids. Somalis aren’t docile and won’t be changed. But Ethiopians are in high demand. We’re soft spoken and submissive.”
Munira cried for three nights straight. Why did life bring her here, she wondered? She wasn’t a maid. She just wanted to be a nurse. Are maids treated so bad that they need to be locked up for their own protection? What culture would do this?
A prison guard called Munira to her one day. She spoke to her in Arabic and knew that she was a nurse. The guard had sprained an ankle and needed her help. Munira applied physical therapy techniques like massage and muscle building exercises. The first day, the guard offered her 50 riyals, and Munira turned the money down, saying she was doing it out of the goodness of her heart. So Munira became the prison guard’s personal nurse, massaging her ankle every day for 30 to 45 minutes.
Eventually, the guard returned the favor and brought her high value items from the outside. “Chinese noodles were a commodity and the Indians sold them at high prices. I knew I could steal some of that business,” she related, delighting in her shrewdness.
Munira sold the Chinese noodles at 10 riyals a piece and made a cool 200 riyals in less than a week. She bought a cell phone, called her uncle living in Riyad and asked him to bring her phone cards. She sold 100 riyal phone cards for 160 riyals. Munira braided the hair of the Kenyans for 15 riyals a piece. Then the security guard with weak ankles brought her the maid treasure trove: gloves, broom, mop, and disinfectant.
“I cleaned our bathroom almost every day, and I took pride in it. We had the cleanest bathroom in the prison,” she says. The Floor One leader ‘Mama Zenab’, an older Kenyan woman, took Munira under her wing. Together they cleaned like a couple of expert maids. At lunch, Mama Zenab divided the rice and chicken prison food for all the maids on Floor One and gave Munira a special piece of chicken or an extra splotch of rice, just subtle enough that no one could detect any favoritism.
Mama Zenab had no plans to return to Kenya. It was already her second time at Baba Abdula’s, and she saw her time in the maid reformatory as vacation from her employer and his wife. Mama Zenab’a prison was inverted. She felt free at Baba Abdula’s, and from inside the maid’s cage Munira felt a mother’s love and compassion for the first time in a long time.
At the end of two months, she opted to return to Ethiopia. Ten days later, she was passing through immigration when an agent shouted “move on you maid.” Once the passport was stamped and the Kingdom behind her, she removed her veil and left the limp fabric on the floor of the airport.
“I was scared when I took it off. Three Arabs were following close behind me. When we boarded, they walked by my seat and asked me for my phone number.”