Several unemployed Saudi women have been forced to work as washers of dead bodies in hospitals and other centers.
Salwa Al-Qahtani, director of the women’s section at Asir Municipality, said most of the women coming forward to take up the work of body washing have an intermediate school certificate or university degree. While some of them take the task as a charitable service, others are driven to the job by poverty. The municipality supervises washing establishments in the province.
There are a number of body-washing centers that work as charitable endowments where body washers are employed adhering to certain procedures with licenses issued by competent authorities or courts.
Women can become qualified for the work by attending a training program on ritual cadaver washing organized by the Dawa centers of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call and Guidance and obtain a certificate to show that they have completed training.
A supervisor at a body-washing unit, Maodi Abdul Aziz, 29, said “I have a bachelor’s degree in Islamic studies, but the difficulty in getting a job in my field forced me to look for a job in the washing center as many university graduates do, especially if your are from a poor background.”
She said the monthly salary she receives is SR2,000 including a transport allowance even though her responsibility is huge. She decries the social attitude of looking at those who practice this job as inferior creatures.
Fatima Abdul Salam,35, holder of a bachelor’s degree in Arabic language from King Abdul Aziz University, is unhappy about her present job of washing cadavers. She said one of the major problems she faces is the negative attitude of her neighbors and other members of society about her profession.
She said she unsuccessfully waited for nine years after graduation to get a good government job with the help of the Civil Service Ministry but eventually lost hope and turned to this job which most people hate to take up.
Suad Ali, 36, who has a bachelor’s degree in special education from King Abdul Aziz University and is now working as washer of bodies, said: “I am divorced and have been working in this field for four years. I looked for a good job for many years and in the meantime I was divorced. I had to feed my three children who are in my custody and I did not have any other income. This is the only work available for me and I have no other choice but to accept it because of my poor circumstances.”
Another cadaver washer, Umm Taif, said washing the dead requires patience and courage to bear the sight of mutilated bodies, especially those who died in traffic accidents. “On one occasion, a woman who died in a traffic accident, with some body parts missing, was brought to us. I patiently washed and shrouded it,” she said.