May 16, 2016
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Maid to measure: Lebanon domestics take to the catwalk

May 16, 2016

Anna Fernando struts down the black-and-white tiles of a trendy coffee shop in the Lebanese capital, dressed in high heels and a strapless ball gown of caramel gauze ribbons.

The 43-year-old left her native Sri Lanka 21 years ago to work as a maid in Lebanon, determined to provide her children with better opportunities in life than her own.

On her day off this weekend, she joined a dozen other domestic workers at a modelling show in central Beirut organised by local NGO Insaan, Arabic for "human being".

"Even if I work like a maid, I'm a human being," Anna says backstage, her eyes thick with mascara before her name is called to show off the work of young Lebanese designers.

Domestic workers take part at a modelling show in central Beirut organised by local NGO Insaan, Arabic for "human being" on May 15, 2016 - ©Patrick Baz (AFP/File)

Sunday's fashion show is part of an effort to humanise an estimated 250,000 foreign domestic workers who toil in the kitchens and living rooms of Lebanese families.

Now in its fourth year, the show aims to give participants the opportunity to be seen as something other than the hired help.

"In Lebanese society, they live like all other women when they're not at work," says Rania Dirani, the head of Insaan.

Rights groups often accuse Lebanon and Gulf states of racist and degrading treatment of migrant domestic workers, who are often referred to simply as "servants" or "Sri Lankans", regardless of their actual nationality.

- 'Not only domestic workers' -

Most overseas workers work under a restrictive sponsorship system called "kafala" that leaves them dependent on their employer's goodwill and unable to escape abusive work relationships.

Domestic workers are not protected by Lebanese labour law, despite the efforts of a new union begun for them early last year with the support of the country's federation of labour unions.

"At this fashion show we want to tell all these people we are not only domestic workers," Sumy Khan from Bangladesh says.

The 22-year-old with short hair and tattoos says she would have loved to have studied journalism at home in Bangladesh, but that she had to leave two years ago to support her family.

As she paraded down the catwalk in a short cream-and-white onesie between Lebanese and foreigners huddled along its edge, cameras in hand, her friends whooped and clapped in support.

The fashion show is just one of several civil society initiatives that seeks to combat often discriminatory and exploitative attitudes towards domestic workers.

Last year, a domestic help agency in Lebanon put out an ad on Mother's Day that was slammed by activists as racist and wildly dehumanising.

"For Mother's Day indulge Ur Mom & offer her a housekeeper. Special offer on Kenyan & Ethiopian nationalities for a period of 10 days," read a text message sent to thousands of mobile phone users and subsequently picked up by media.

The American University of Beirut last year surveyed 1,200 employers in Lebanon on their views of domestic workers, and Lebanese rights group Kafa has turned the results into an online campaign.

"Fifty-one percent of Lebanese women think (their) domestic worker is not trustworthy -- although she takes care of their children," goes one line.

- 'Now a migrant chef' -

Standing out among the models on Sunday, Alix Lenoir, a 20-year-old Franco-Lebanese student of industrial design, says she decided to join to connect with other participants.

"I think it's a shame that these women in our society in Lebanon have had a little of their confidence taken away from them," she says.

"When they go out, they go out among themselves -- not with other people."

By the end of the evening, Lenoir is hugging one of her fellow models -- 18-year-old Iman Bachir, the daughter of migrant workers from Sudan -- and promising to meet up soon.

Fernando says her sacrifice of living away from her family for two decades has paid off.

Today, her 21-year-old daughter is studying pharmacology and her 22-year-old son is about to graduate as an army officer in Sri Lanka.

And she is starting up a small catering business.

"People love Sri Lankan food. It's delicious, full of spices, and very good for you," reads her business card, on which her name sits in a circle of fresh herbs, chillies and spices.

She cooks Sri Lankan, Indian and Nepali dishes, the card says, and Lebanon-based foodies can order fluffy rice and fragrant curries by phone, via email or Facebook.

"I'm now a migrant chef," she says.

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