Maid who escaped death row now rich – and hated

New ordeal for Indonesian who escaped Saudi sword

An Indonesian maid is beheaded in Saudi Arabia. For a second one on death row, strangers at home rally to her cause and raise tens of thousands of dollars. She not only escapes the sword, she’s now rich. And hated.

Darsem binti Dawud Tawar, 22, shot to fame earlier this year in Indonesia after spending more than three years in a Saudi prison accused of killing a man who allegedly tried to rape her. But when she safely returned to her small fishing village, the public tide swiftly turned against her.

She’s accused of living in luxury, building a fancy house along the dusty track that passes for Main Street, throwing around cash and draping herself in jewels.

“She acts like a bling-bling celebrity now,” said Siti Patonah, a 32-year-old vendor, scrubbing apples and watermelons at a market as five or six housewives gather.

“It’s true,” one says. “Like a nut that forgot its shell.”

The execution in June of a 53-year-old grandmother, Ruyati binti Satubim, sparked mass protests in Indonesia and prompted the government’s first effort to do more to protect the 1.2 million women who flock to Saudi Arabia every year. It recalled its ambassador from Riyadh, and last month barred any further workers from going to the Gulf kingdom.

But Darsem’s case has stolen the show, sparking fierce debate in the world’s most populous Muslim nation on whether she should donate her windfall. Some Indonesian lawmakers fret that the public may not be as likely to give next time around, even if a life is at stake.

Life’s been anything but easy for Darsem. She dropped out of school before finishing 6th grade and moved to the capital, Jakarta, so she could help support her family.

By 15, she was married and pregnant and months later she went to the Middle East — first Oman, then United Arab Emirates and finally Saudi Arabia — as she’d seen many other young women do before her.

Theirs were the nice concrete houses, standing out among the wooden shacks lit by oil lamps. They had the shiny Yamaha motorcycles, the 21-inch TVs carried through doorways in big, brown cardboard boxes.

She’d heard, but chose to ignore, the stories about maids working abroad — women killed by their bosses, stabbed with scissors or burned with hot irons. “My husband didn’t have a job, my father was getting old, I thought it was our best chance,” Darsem says from the living room of her parent’s two-room house, aqua-blue paint chipping off the walls.

She refuses to talk about what happened next, saying she wants to put it behind her.

But according to Saudi media reports, Darsem killed her employer’s relative — a man who was mentally ill — with a hammer to the head after he attacked her. She then threw his body in an empty water tank and covered it with concrete.

Darsem spent the next 3½ years in a Saudi jail, but it wasn’t until the beheading of Ruyati, also accused of murdering an abusive boss, that her luck finally turned. Newspapers and activists on Facebook and Twitter championed her cause.

The government quickly scraped together the $500,000 demanded by the family of Darsem’s victim for her release.

The public also chipped in: Men held out boxes and nets on traffic-clogged streets to collect change from motorists, women went to schools or mosques and — when she finally came home — a TV station handed her $140,000 from its viewers.

That’s a fortune in the predominantly Muslim nation of 240 million, where many people make less than $200 a month. In Trungtum, a struggling, coastal town 110 miles (180 kilometers) from Jakarta, Darsem may as well be a millionaire.

Everyone has a suggestion as to how she should spend the money, she said, and they all have their hands out.

“But why should I give them anything? They did nothing to help my family when I was gone,” she says of her neighbors, pointing to the roof above her, badly damaged in a heavy storm and patched together by her father’s own hands.

Asked why she doesn’t help with legal fees of 23 Indonesians still on death row in Saudi Arabia — the most popular suggestion on Twitter and op-ed pages — the round-faced girl with dark, slow-blinking eyes looks incredulous.

“I didn’t even know those women,” Darsem says. “There were dozens in my cell all the time. They were always coming and going. But really, who are they to me?”

But despite the rumours, Darsem is hardly living large.

The $10,000 house she's building 50 yards (meters) from her parents’ is not much bigger or more extravagant than any of her neighbors’ and her future plans are modest: Some land to grow rice. A new, wooden fishing boat for her dad. A sewing machine to open a tailor's shop.

“... A good education for my son,” she says.

But she can’t escape the gossip.

Each trip she takes to the market is scrutinized: the baskets filled with colorful fresh fruits, the new kitchen appliances.

The vendors, fishermen and housewives say hello and then, after she passes, talk about her clothes or the gold necklace, studded with a tiny piece of translucent jade, that rests delicately on her brown skin.

“I don’t think it was a good idea to give her money beyond what was necessary to set her free,” said Peter Singer, a Princeton University professor who has written extensively about ethics and charity.

“But once it’s given to her, you can’t really have any expectations on what she does with it.”

Darsem, meanwhile, says the money she’s clinging too so tightly hasn’t made her happy. “I feel stressed all the time,” she said, adding that there isn’t one person in Trungtum she’d call a friend.

In the end, she decided to take back her estranged husband, even though he had remarried while she was gone and had another child, ignoring their own son, Ahmad Safi, now 6.

He's the only one she can come close to trusting. "I don't know why everyone's turned against me," she said. "Would they rather I was miserable and destitute? Really... it's not fair."

The local TV station that collected the $140,000 on Darsem's behalf has taken much of the heat.

Many viewers thought they were saving the girl from the executioner's sword, but the government insisted it was responsible for the "blood money" demanded by the victim's family.

So TVOne decided to give it to Darsem.

Standing awkwardly beside her as she accepted the cash — almost a sideshow — was Een Nuraini, the daughter of the woman who was beheaded. "I don't know why they even invited me," said the 35-year-old who lives in Sukatani, a small village a few hours from Trungtum.

"But when Darsem promised on live TV to share some of the money, I hoped to be able to use it to send my mother's parents to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage."

Several weeks later, Darsem called and asked her to come.

Darsem presented Een Nuraini with an envelope containing $2,000. It was well short of what she expected, and nowhere near enough for her grandparents' trip.

"I don't think she understands," said Een Nuraini, her eyes welling with tears from beneath her dark gray headscarf. "The only reason she got all this attention — not just the money but also help from the government — was because of my mother."

She says no one has supported her family. Neither the government, nor the public.

Asked what she intended to do with Darsem's money, she looks up and says softly, with no sign of regret, "Oh ... it's gone already."

"I gave it all to the local mosque and orphanage in my mom's name."

"I know that's what she would have wanted."

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