Stop Using The Derogatory Term ‘Maid’ Or ‘Servant’ For Women Who Make Your Life Easier!

In different societies around the world, 'maids' are disproportionately underprivileged, economically suffering women, often oppressed and recipients of abuse.

In different societies around the world, ‘maids’ are disproportionately underprivileged, economically suffering women, often oppressed and recipients of abuse.

Two of my friends had reached out to me following a conversation about the term ‘maids’ to discuss my issues with the term more. I have not been able to reply in detail to both, so I decide to explain here my thoughts behind the term.

I personally find the application of the term ‘maid’ in English (or equivalent terms in other languages) classist, and often utilized to  undermine the hard labor of human beings.

This is not about offence or political correctness; I am not advising/ expecting/ instructing anyone to do anything. I am merely explaining my thoughts for those who care to hear me out.

Who are called maids?

If you for a moment ignore the archaic meaning of a ‘virgin girl’, its primary meaning is domestic worker. Domestic worker or domestic employee or custodial staff (in case of non residential employment) are more appropriate terms to me.

If you look in the dictionary, the job description for the term maid literally says ‘domestic servant’. To start with, I refuse to call anyone, anyone else’s servant.

Contextually, in different societies, ‘maids’ are disproportionately underprivileged, economically suffering women, often oppressed and recipients of abuse.

  • ‘Maids’ are often the poor Black African women in rich, Caucasian households in South Africa.
  • ‘Maids’ were often the Black women employed by richer  plantation owners in the historical American south.
  • ‘Maids’ were/are often poor immigrant women in foreign countries.
  • ‘Maids’ are often housewives who are made to feel they have to do all household chores.
  • ‘Maids’ are often women without caste privilege and/or economically downtrodden, slum-dwelling women in India.

The list is a broad snapshot, and neither all inclusive nor accounts for every exception. Maids are disproportionately underprivileged women all over the world.

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Again, this is not about political correctness or black vs white vs brown skin colour. This is my observation, experience and understanding.

A small personal story about a ‘maid’ whose face I’ll never forget

Employing children (especially young early teen girls) was/is a common practice in India, even though there are laws against it.

In 90s, my aunt’s family employed a lady for household work for decades. She has 15 or so children…15 (may be one or two less/more)….all of who  started working as domestic workers or in restaurants by 8-10 years old. My aunt did a lot to support the family and many occasions trying to get the kids to schools.

My mother to my recollection never employed anyone below legal age, and when I was in the 6th grade my family employed a 16 year old daughter of the lady who was employed by my aunt. I would spend many evenings with her. She was illiterate, and convinced me – a 6th grader – that the last family that employed her had a son who loves her. This person promised her marriage (an underprivileged child essentially, she was 13-15 when that happened).

I did not understand the nuances as a child myself. I thought I was helping her, and helped her write a letter to this guy who had promised her marriage!

She was soon gone from our house (later, when older, I gathered that it was because she was pregnant from the guy), and her very poor family got her married off hastily to a person from Nepal who was just visiting their town. Much later it was found (and I heard this from my older cousins) that the guy from Nepal was a suspected human trafficker.

Geni was never heard from again.

Geni was the name of this 16 year old girl my family had employed. Geni means ‘nothing’ in my native tongue. Once her mom had explained to my aunt why the name. This mother was frustrated at another pregnancy (this was her 10th child, I think), she had no reproductive health care, she named the child Geni to mean genri-googli (the mud dwelling snails and molluscs that got pulled up when fishermen fish and considered nothing of importance).

Geni’s whole story was seared in my memory as I grew older and understood better. Geni is the representative of who we who’re privileged call ‘maids’. Geni’s mom too…..

Who call them ‘maids’, essentially meaning domestic servants?

It is us, the ‘educated’ middle to upper to richest ‘classes’. I cannot imagine an underprivileged person deciding to call themselves a name essentially branding them as servants.

Words are words. The word as is a mere word. The meaning that it is applied for, the job description… is to me a problem. It is the educated who coined the term, and also often get offended when pointed out the disrespect to human dignity the term refers to.

If someone employed in the profession decides to call themselves that, I will simply abide by their choice. But it’s not Ok to use an essentially derogatory term for someone else.

Why is it an issue to me?

This has nothing to do with anyone else. This is not about I am holier-than-someone else.

I have observed and analyzed coins of inequality for my personal development. Terms that diminish human dignity, reduce the actual labor of human beings to ‘being a servant’ are in my opinion direct contributors to the inequality which we perpetuate.

I personally do not like the society of human beings so much; I have no qualms about it. But I try to follow rationality. In my rationality for me, I will not continue using terms that have been used to undermine human labor, terms that have been assigned to people just to prove their labor means less. Words can be utilized to perpetuate societal bias and I refuse to contribute to that.

Economic consequences to using derogatory terms for people

There are other economic consequences too.

‘Maids’ are often underpaid; there is no pre-decided pay scale, no reasonable minimum wage, no medical insurance. Again, this means they disproportionately remain in perpetual poverty, and often get erased from society, like Geni.

So, I refuse to call anyone, any term that has been used to mean servitude. I no longer also use the phrase ‘public servant’. I do demand that people deliver their employment responsibilities, and I prefer to hold people accountable when they fail. I personally work very hard for my responsibilities, so it is only fair to me.

I am not a revolutionary that wants to change the world. I have deduced myself, with my limited time on earth, that I shall demand (and make CERTAIN I get) equality for myself as well as others around me. One essential part of it for me is to treat everyone’s labour like I treat mine. If I were employed as a domestic worker, I would not like to be referred to as a ‘maid’ with the quintessential connotation of servant. So I shall not refer to anyone else as maid.

(Again, if someone employed in the profession chooses to use the term for any reason they find empowering, I simply will go with their wishes, but I won’t personally use it for anyone else). So every time the phrase comes up with someone casually using it, I speak up. For every other profession too, I try to educate myself of the most professional term, and use it.

I understand that this is probably no way to try to change anyone or their views. We are all entitled to our respective ways. I think several of us (irrespective of our current economic levels) owe much of what we are to several women whose labours made homes, provided childcare, and household maintenance, all of who would be referred to as ‘maids’ by us.

No. No one is made to serve another, and in my rationality all deserve recognition, respect and proportionally appropriate remuneration for their labour.

Image source: a still from documentary Maushi/ YouTube

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About the Author

Pratyusha Mandal

I have a pen as a tattoo, because I love to write. Professionally I am a scientist. Some clear logic, some blue thoughts, some scarlet sarcasm, some pink sword, some black satin- I like to read more...

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