This Labour Day, let us acknowledge and respect Pakistan’s hidden women
It is a sunny day. A dark woman with a dupatta draped over her head can be seen walking on the side of a pavement. Her destination is a house, where she is to cook, clean, wash and iron. Once done, she will enter a different house, and then another, to repeat the same chores.
Sounds familiar? It should, for what is being discussed is the quintessential life of a housemaid in Pakistan.
There are thousands, if not millions, of housemaids in our country, and yet they are abysmally ignored, shunned and marginalised by us all. Why?
“My landlord has put my stuff outside the house, baji. I need money, or else I’ll be homeless.”
These were the words spoken by our former maid when she came to our house, desperate for financial help. This woman didn’t even have the money to buy milk for her only daughter – her husband being in the hospital, crippled as a result of leprosy.
I also remember that her mother, when she worked for us earlier, would always sit in the balcony and smoke cigarettes. She was frustrated with her life, her husband’s joblessness, and her children’s futureless existence. And once, she too came to our house asking for something to add to her daughter’s dowry.
Our current maid never went to school.
“When did they ever teach girls in villages?” she replied rhetorically, when I asked her about her education.
This is a woman who would always force her son to take lessons from me.
These are all examples close to home, but they are not unique, or in isolation. There are millions of maids out there who face the same ordeal faced by the maids I have personally come into contact with. These women are victims of their circumstances. Born in poor families, they are doomed to carry the legacy of their poverty all the way through to the furthest of their posterity.
They are both hapless and hopeless. And what is even more worrisome is the fact that nobody cares about them or their situation either.
It’s not just that they are undocumented. They are simply missing – missing from the national employment statistics, missing from our conversations about equality and justice, and missing from our list of priorities.
Moreover, there is a painful dearth of information available about the lives of housemaids. Except for a thesis on the plight of domestic workers by a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick in 2007, there is close to nothing available in the form of credible data with regards to these workers. The truth is their work has no more than peripheral importance, and this goes on to reflect in the lack of seriousness with which they are treated. For proof, look no further than the fact the word ‘maid’ itself is treated like a derogatory and demeaning term.
What are their lives like? What are their sentiments? What do they think of those who are better off than them? Nobody knows, and nobody wants to either.
The importance of a maid is felt only through her absence. When your maid doesn’t come for a day or two, doesn’t your house look like a hurricane struck through it? When you look at the growing pile of laundry or dirty dishes, don’t you start missing your maid?
Sadly, when it comes to the relationship they have with their employers, many a maid has been a victim of ridicule, mistreatment, exploitation and abuse at the hands of her employer. We must ponder over Tayyaba’s case, or the much publicised death of Shazia Masih. These, along with the countless other stories of abuse and torture that somehow reached the limelight, may perhaps awaken our slumbering conscience and pave way for the realisation that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
It is ironic that despite being an integral part of our lives, our maids fail to get the attention they deserve. They work hard and work long hours. It can be argued that their work is more taxing than that of white collar workers, as they work constantly for several hours in multiple houses every single day.
Labour Day is commemorated in Pakistan with a holiday, but who is this holiday for? While white-collar workers get a day off, how many of us are extending the same privilege to our housemaids? In many cases, housemaids are not even aware that the privilege of a day off extends to them as well, while we continue to capitalise on their lack of awareness and overall helplessness.
The hierarchical structure of our society has made it difficult for women like housemaids to break out of the stature fate has assigned them to. With more women now leaving the house to get work, there will be more women coming into houses as domestic workers. Yet these women are resentful and bitter, primarily because no one has the time or patience to listen to them, to address their concerns.
Yes, we need to have a larger conversation about housemaids. And yes, we most definitely need stricter laws in place for the protection of our labour. In many cases, maids are overworked and underpaid; with no form of security mechanism to turn to in case of abuse, as the employer has all the power in their working relationship.
However, this Labour Day, let us make an extra bit of effort to acknowledge the contribution of our housemaids. Pay more heed to the hurdles they come across; from getting an identity card made to feeding the mouths of their children, they have too much burden to bear alone. Because isn’t that what this day is about – the acknowledgement of the work our labour force does every day without fail?