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Why do we feel that if we are paying our helpers a salary, we own them? That they should accept whatever abuse we heap on them?
Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash
The news today of the young minor domestic helper being assaulted and abused by her employers sent jitters up my spine. Not only did the employers illegally employ the young girl, but they also treated her barbarically. Almost as if she was not human, but an object, subject to the whims and moods of the people who employed her.
Unfortunately, this is not the first instance of such an incident happening. A few months back, there was CCTV footage of a high-end residential society where a woman was seen beating and dragging her maid out of a lift. Before that, there was a video of a woman slapping a security guard.
Domestic helpers, security guards, all seem to have become punching bags for the Indian middle class.
I recently went to a ladies’ lunch. The conversation meandered from children to recipes to movies and finally, domestic help. One lady showed the picture of a “maid” she was planning to hire. After looking at the picture, most women advised her against it.
The arguments against the woman in the picture ranged from she was too young and would look for opportunities to mingle with servants of neighbouring houses and could even have an affair; She “looked tez” and thus would shirk the work; She was beautiful and thus could entrap the innocent men of the family with her feminine wiles (because our Indian men are too innocent, they do not know when they are led astray).
Thus, despite only having seen a picture, a young woman was type-casted as a husband-stealing, work-shirking hussy. The conversation then turned to how the rest of the women had trouble with domestic help. These people don’t want to work, only take, was the verdict.
The conversation disturbed me. Not only was a young lady’s character dissected by strangers, but the conversation also reeked of abuse of privilege.
However, there was nothing in the conversation I had not heard before. What sickened me more was that all the women were well-educated. I thought they could have been more sensitised, more empathetic. But alas, they too followed the same mould of exploiting and keeping their help suppressed.
It lead me to question why do we feel that domestic helpers have to be suppressed? Why do we feel that if we are paying our helpers a salary, we own them? That they should bow and scrape to our pleasure and accept whatever abuse we heap on them?
Is it because of the inherent class system in our society, where having dignity, and taking away someone else’s, is power? Do we feel that if we treat our help as humans and give them dignity, we will lose our power over them?
I know a few people have wonderful relations with their helpers. They talk to them with respect, give decent wages, bonuses, and even regular holidays. And yet, there is an invisible line.
The line might be in the form of a separate cup kept for them or a separate mat for them to sit on or the lifts that they are not allowed to use. However close might be the relationship, they are still the help, not one of us.
Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us beautifully brought out this relationship between Sera and Bhima. Even though the Bhima gave her whole life in service, in the end, she was still the “help”.
The sad part is that the incident with the young girl is not the last time something like this will happen. The pattern will keep getting repeated.
We have learnt how to hire help, but not how to treat them. We want them to be self-effacing, and invisible, like house elves. Doing everything for us, and in return, getting their self-respect and dignity stripped. For it is only by keeping them suppressed, do we feel powerful.
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There are many mountains I need to climb just to be, just to live my life, just to have my say... because they are mountains you've built to oppress women.
Trigger Warning: This deals with various kinds of violence against women including rape, and may be triggering for survivors.
I haven’t climbed a literal mountain yet
Was busy with the metaphorical ones – born a woman
Fighting for the air that should have come free
And I am one of the privileged ones, I realize that
Yet, if I get passionate, just like you do
I will pay for it – with burden, shame, – and possibly a life to carry
So, my mountains are the laws you overturn
My mountains are the empty shelves where there should have been pills
When people picked my dadi to place her on the floor, the sheet on why she lay tore. The caretaker came to me and said, ‘Just because you touched her, one of the men carrying her lost his balance.’
The death of my grandmother shattered me. We shared a special bond – she made me feel like I was the best in the world, perfect in every respect.
Apart from losing a person who I loved, her death was also a rude awakening for me about the discrimination women face when it comes to performing the last rites of their loved ones.
On January 23 this year, I lost my 95 year old grandmother (dadi) Nirmala Devi to cardiac arrest. She was that one person who unabashedly praised me. The evening before her death she praised the tea I had made and said that I make better tea than my brother (my brother and I are always competing about who makes the best chai).
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