Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


A visa or a life

January 25, 2013

Executions in Riyadh are usually carried out at 9:00 a.m. in the morning with a shining steel sword hovering over the white shrouded figure about to receive it. Rizana Nafeek’s execution is reported to have taken place a little later than usual, at 11:40 a.m. Saudi time. Perhaps there were other punishments to be carried out first, perhaps the executioner who always takes his position to the left of the condemned, right leg forward and left leg back, was delayed in some way. Perhaps there was not enough of a crowd, or too much of one. The dusty details of the mid-morning of January 9, 2013 when Rizana Nafeek’s thin, dark neck met the executioner’s sword are never likely to be known.

Rizana Nafeek was a poor Muslim girl from a small village in Eastern Sri Lanka. Like hundreds of thousands of sweaty, hungry others eager for a visa and a job with a rich family in Saudi Arabia, she came to work in the country so she could change with dirhams the cycle of poverty that enslaved her family. The visa-clutching, future-fearing Pakistani men at Riyadh or Jeddah Airport could tell you the same story; of middle men paid and houses put up for collateral, of sisters dowries and parents operations Rizana Nafeek, like so many of the men and women who come to Saudi Arabia to do the jobs Saudis will not do, came ready to do anything to get and then keep her visa. To fit the age requirements she lied on her passport, growing in the minutes it took to fill the form, six years older than she was. Blessed with a Saudi work visa, Rizana Nafeek, the village girl became Rizana Nafeek, the Saudi maid in the household of Naif Jiziyan Khalaf Al Qutaibi, spending her days, cooking, cleaning and caring for the family’s children

Based on the murky facts only those who have lied to live would understand, Rizana Nafeek was just 17 on that fated afternoon of May 22, 2005 when catastrophe struck. It was 12:30 p.m. and she was bottle feeding the baby boy in her care while the mother of the child was away. Suddenly she noticed milk oozing from the mouth and nose of the infant. A terrified Rizana tried to soothe the baby stroking its back and throat and neck but within minutes the infant’s eyes closed. Later doctor’s reports would say that the infant had probably already passed away from a possible internal blockage in the stomach when Rizana noticed the streaming milk.

The infant’s life would not be the only one lost. At around 1:30 p.m. when Rizana’s employer, returned she began beating Rizana with shoes and slippers accusing the teenage maid of having killed the baby and bloodying her during the beating. For three days, Rizana endured the harangues of her distraught employers and on May 25, 2005 she was arrested for having murdered the baby. At the police station in Dawadmi, she was beaten with a belt so that she would confess to having killed the baby. After several hours of being struck, she confessed to the killing. She was not allowed to see any attorneys or anyone from the Sri Lankan Consulate until she confessed. The confession was in Tamil and the man who recorded it barely knew the language and so wrote it down in Arabic. No postmortem was carried out on the deceased child to determine the cause of death.

In the years of captivity following her arrest, and the near immediate death sentence that was imposed on her, Rizana Nafeek would state again and again that her confession had been obtained under the impact of a severe beating, but the cries of a hapless maid and a motley of human rights groups were not enough to change the mind of the Saudi officials and, as is the case with all condemned to execution, the maid was enshrouded, led outside into the sun and killed with a single swipe of the executioner’s sword.

On January 16 2013, just a week after Rizana’s neck met the sword, Pakistani Arshad Mohammad was also beheaded by Saudi authorities in the Eastern province of Khubar. He had been convicted for smuggling drugs but as with Rizana Nafik’s case few details are available regarding the evidence or the conviction. Like Sri Lanka, Pakistan exports labor to Saudi Arabia and in our job hungry, utilitarian calculus that prioritises visas over justice, Pakistan almost never raises the thorny issue of the injustices poured on its hordes of iqama clutching migrant workers. The logic is simple, a worker with a visa is worth more than one with a gripe, and a few murdered maids or menservants are a small price to pay for solid Saudi jobs. Everyone else seems to agree and because of this, not much can be expected for the three Pakistanis currently awaiting execution in Saudi Arabia or the hundreds of others frightened and forgotten inside Saudi prisons. In the hardscrabble calculations of labor export, the worth of a Saudi visa is more than that of a migrant worker life.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.