The Lost Generation: Are Qatar's children, brought up by foreign servants, losing contact with their culture, their language and their families?
Yousra Samir investigates the children brought up by servants who know neither their culture nor their language - and finds a tragic story of verbal, sexual and physical abuse and of the lost bond between child and parent.
Maid over Mummy: a cartoon by Yazeed al Harthi
Most Qatari women have at least one or more housemaid or nanny to look after their children; some upper class Qatari women even have a nanny for each child. When your kids are throwing a tantrum, or your baby keeps you up all night and starves you of sleep, having someone whose job it is to take care of them sounds perfect. But it isn't always so peachy
There have been countless cases of verbal, physical and sexual abuse of children in Qatar at the hands of their housemaids and nannies. Many of these cases continue unknown, especially if the children never spends time with their parents, or if they are simply too young to tell.
"I rarely saw my parents while I was growing up"
On the other hand, many housemaids and nannies are verbally, physically and sexually abused by the children themselves, and are too scared of the children to inform the parents. Sometimes the parents themselves mistreat their housemaids and after witnessing their parents doing so, the children think that this sort of treatment is acceptable and they replicate their parents' behaviour.
"I rarely saw my parents while I was growing up", says one young Qatari woman who wished to remain anonymous.
"Our maid used to constantly hit and pinch us... and my parents never knew because they were never there."
"In the daytime they would be at work, then they would come home at lunchtime, sleep, and wake up again in the evening and go out. Our maid used to constantly hit and pinch us and my older brothers got away with hitting me, and my parents never knew because they were never there".
A culture and language under threat
Even if the housemaid or nanny treats the children under their care well and the children likewise respect them, there are other downsides to children being left most of the time with a housemaid or nanny.
Many Qatari parents have complained that their children pick up the cultural habits of their housemaids. Some Qatari children speak and understand their housemaids' native language better than Arabic! There have even been cases where young Qatari children have learnt to worship the same way that their Hindu Indian housemaids do, and have little knowledge about Islam or Islamic worship. Some of these parents fail to realize that they are the ones at fault and place the blame on their housemaids.
"There have even been cases where young Qatari children have learnt to worship the same way that their Hindu Indian housemaids do..."
"The impact of foreign nannies" on children is very large, and the effects include children being neglected, receiving a lack of attention, and learning habits that are not desirable", says Dr Salah Al Mannai, a professor of social work at Qatar University.
According to Dr Al Mannai, common problems associated with leaving children in the care of housemaids include sexual harassment and malnutrition.
Losing the bond between parent and child
Being placed in the care of a housemaid or nanny most of the time also prevents any bonds being made between the children and their parents. Some parents in Qatar rarely see their children, either because they are out with friends, out shopping, at work or away on business trips. When the children reach their teenage years and do not require babysitting by housemaids or nannies anymore, parents try to exert some control over their children's lives but they are unable to do so as their children have little connection with them.
the parents know nothing about their children's lives, or their children's personalities
Teachers, like my mother, who work with Qatari children, constantly catch out parents when speaking to them, as the parents know nothing about their children's lives, or their children's personalities, and have little clue about how they are developing socially or academically. In many cases, the housemaid or nanny is the person dropping off and picking up the children from school, and even attending parent-teacher meetings.
A new balance?
"There are two sides to this," says Hind, a young Qatari woman about to graduate from university. "On one side, there are women from the previous generation, like my mother, who were the first generation of women to have careers. This was back in the '80s and '90s, and they found it really hard to juggle between their work and their children.
"On the other hand, there are many women, especially from upper class families, who were pressured into early marriages and into having children early, so once they had all their children, they would dump them on their maids and spend all their time going out and having fun, trying to catch up on the years they missed being young and free."
"...the new generation of Qatari women is finally achieving a balance between work and home..."
"However, there are some women who are simply selfish and just cannot be bothered with their children. But the new generation of Qatari women is finally achieving a balance between work and home, and is much more motherly and hands-on than my mother's generation."
Choosing the right job
Not all Qatari parents leave their children under the care of housemaids and nannies. Many Qatari women choose to work as teachers, or in government jobs, on purpose so that they start and finish work at the same time as the schools, allowing them to go home and spend time with their children.
Lulwa, a retired primary school teacher, was forced to leave her sons with her housemaids when they were toddlers as there were no daycare facilities at that time.
"I was lucky because I knew and trusted my housemaids well. I even did spot checks on them and found them taking proper care of my sons. But, once they reached school age, as soon as I came home from work, I kept my sons with me. Other women have not been as lucky as me with their maids."
"My mother never left us with the maids when we were growing up..."
Not all Qatari women are not willing to leave their children at home with the housemaid.
"My mother never left us with the maids when we were growing up", says Jowhara.
"She would always leave us with our neighbors or with our grandmother or aunties. It was a risk she was not willing to take".
Many Qatari children have been in the care of housemaids and nannies since birth and they develop a close relationship and bond with them. These housemaids and nannies almost become substitute mothers to these children.
I have often been out and seen young children running to their maids instead of their mothers when they have hurt themselves. I once saw a small girl fall over and her mother open up her arms to the child in order to hug her. The small girl ran into the arms of her maid instead. I could see the pain on her mother's face.
The small girl ran into the arms of her maid ... I could see the pain on her mother's face.
Eventually, though, these housemaids' and nannies' contracts expire and they have to return to their homelands.
One nanny who looks after the son of a member of the royal family and who has to remain anonymous, cried as she told me:
"His mother rarely sees him and never spends time with him. He is so attached to me; I don't know how he is going to cope when I leave to go back to my country this summer."
When my mother asked the same nanny if the boy's mother ever read to him or helped him with his homework, the nanny laughed and replied:
"Are you joking? Do you think a woman like her would take out time to read a storybook to her child? I am the one who reads books to him and who helps him with his homework."
Sometimes, after having spent the first years of their lives with a housemaid or nanny, years which are crucial to a child's development and in the bonds they make with the people around them, when the housemaid or nanny eventually leaves it destroys the child and has a significant psychological impact on them.
...when the housemaid or nanny eventually leaves it destroys the child...
According to Dr Salah Al Mannai, there is definitely a considerable psychological impact on children as a result of spending the majority of their childhood with housemaids and nannies:
"Many questions arise in children's heads as a result of being with the maid for a long time and being away from their parents, such as what is right and what is wrong and is their culture the right one for them or not!"
Related articles: Servant's Stories - stories from the mouths of maids who have lived and worked in Qatar.