Soniah Kamal

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'Islam is not Pakistan's religion; Marriage is'

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Death of a Domestic Maid/Help/Serf

The death of 12-year-old Shazia, who worked as domestic help for an
affluent Lahore family accused of beating her frequently, is a crime on multiple
levels. According to the autopsy report, Shazia died as a result of severe
physical torture. The police have now taken into custody the principal accused
and three members of his family who were nominated in the FIR, as well as the
couple who originally put the family in touch with Shazia. It is hoped that the
case is investigated speedily and thoroughly, for delays will cause the young
victim’s family further anguish.... Representative of the manner in which
Pakistan fails to protect the most vulnerable of its citizens, Shazia’s death
ought to serve as a wake-up call.
from the Dawn Editorial- 26 Jan 2010


The death of a domestic maid at the hands of her employers serving as a wake up call to the law and to the people; I fear that will not be the case. Rather, those who can afford maids (in countries such as Pakistan, labor is so cheap even middle class famlies can afford round the clock servants) will tut-tut and pat themselves on the back about how nice they are, after all they never beat their servants. In fact the employers will go one up and talk about how it is they, the affluent, who are at risk of being cheated/murdered by their servants.

In Pakistan, maids are referred through word of mouth, and once employed, the norm is for the maid to move into her employer's house where she works from the dawn till dusk-- no 9 to 5 here-- and is allowed a day off once a month, and even that, at times, begrudingly.

At times the 'maid' in question is as young as the children she is employed to look after, and so a ten year old will be serving dinner to another ten year old cum friends who are watching cartoons without a care in the world.

An educated maid is often viewed by both their mother and Mistress alike as just a big headache, no doubt because education increases their expectations from life. In any case, sending a maid to school is considered a waste of money by her parents. Sooner or later, the maid's destiny is to get married and have children (that this is the preffered destiny for all women in Pakistan does not breed any solidarity between Maids and Mistresses because the social distance between them is too vast). Once she is married off, if the former maid does need to work outside her house and become the breadwinner (reasons often include her husband turning to narcotics or running off) she can always get employment as a maid while her own children are looked after by extended family.

I am not suggesting that employers are devils and maids are angels. Of course some steal, others cheat, and yet others shirk their responsibilities. A common complaint is the maid who swears to return from her vacation only to not do so and therby leave her employer in a lurch. Never the less, no matter what lurch a maid leaves one in, at the end of the day, it is she who is powerless.

In Pakistan, all maids, let alone the live-in maid, is literally at the mercy of her employers. Some employers are unkind, others are not, and whether a servant gets employed by the kind or unkind is nothing more than the luck of the draw, fate, kismet. Even the kindest of employers can turn deadly if the right buttons are pushed, buttons which are pushed easily in a clime where the class structure is rigid and, from poweless to powerful, an impossible chasm.
Following is an even more appalling report of the last days of twelve year old Shazia Bashir:
SLMP chief coordinator Sohail Johnson said the girl worked under constant
stress and experienced emotional and psychological trauma. She was also denied
the agreed salary (Rs 1,000 or about US$ 12 per month).
Shazia “would get
insults whenever she raised the subject of payment,” the Christian activist
said. Three days before her death, her employer tortured her, he noted.
Afterwards, he tried to have her treated at his home without informing the
parents of her health situation. In the end, the medical care she did get proved
inadequate and she had to go to Lahore’s Meo Hospital.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Discovering J California Cooper and Family


Until joining my African-American book club I had not heard of author J. California Cooper even though she is the winner of a National Book Award for Homemade Love (1989). Why is this? After all I'm fully aware of story tellers such as Toni Morrison, Edward P Jones, Terri McMillan, E Lynn Harris. Bebe Moore Campbell etc... Have I been living under a rock? In any case, I have been reading her first novel Family, published in 1991, and I am swept away. On the face of it, this novella is about slavery, however under the skin and bones it is a beautifully rendered tale of human endurance and hope, no less because the tone the main character uses to tell the story of her family is not engulfed in anger or bitterness. Instead the sytle is both lyrical and crisp and perfect for allowing the reader to absorb brutal details without getting too heart sick to continue. In fact the novel ends on a note of hope and connectivity, a real feat to pull off given the subject matter. I love the way she playfully wrestles and uses word play to present the concept of time and the times in this novel. Her style reminded me of Khalil Gibran whom I used to read a long, long time ago once upon a time, so I was defintely tickled to see him listed in her dedication. I so recommend Family, a little treasure of a read with a big heart. And look forward to reading more of Cooper's work.

I could quote whole chapters, but here are a few words:
...so, once upon another time, a long, long time ago, time didn't mean
anything to my people, exceptin it was hard times all the time. And time can
look endless. That's the time I was born.


...When the children was sold and the money used to buy more land or somethin
for the land, Always named whatever was bought by the name of her child. So
there was fields named Lester, Ruby, and Lark, and whole lotta cows named Satti.


...So they loved in silence and touching. Always's heart overflowed so til it
hurt. He did not know where her other children was tho. It's always something to
remind you that everything ain't never gonna be alright!


Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Magdalene Sisters


I have been meaning to watch The Magdalene Sisters ever since I heard about it, but have not had the gumption till yet. The Magdalene Asylums was one institution amongst many where disreputable girls were sent away to presumably be reformed although in fact to often live out their lives in hard labor, supposed apt punishment for their sin of being unwed mothers, or raped, or in some cases merely flirtatious and good looking. This film in particular focuses on the fate of four Irish girls. My mother loves the Irish, they're just like us, she's always said. Accordingly, this was a hard film for me to watch, no less because, had I been born in that clime I would have, no doubt, ended up in one of those institutions out of, no doubt, the goodness of my parents's hearts, after all they would have only been trying to save me as well as themselves. How thank full I must be then that Pakistan harbors, at least, no such institutions for fallen women. Of course troubleseome wives, sisters, daughters etc... do often go mad for which there are institutions...

I was shocked to discover in the film postscript that the last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996.

19 bloody 96. The year I graduated from college. That year I was still trapped in my mind, scared, broken, and trying to make sense of who I was versus where and to whom I’d been born. That year I did not know there were still institutions where my broken, scared, senseless sisters were trapped too.
The Magdalene Sisters is based on the documentary 'Sex in a Cold Clime' which you can watch here (it is also available as an extra on the DVD). Please do take the time to watch it so you can bear witness to these stories which should have never been. I was heart broken by the looks on the womens faces as they relate their losses of so many years ago. And, as usual, really pissed at the way religion and community manipulates females.
The picture above is the cover of the book by James M Smith 'Ireland's Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment. Here is a blogpost by the author himself on the Manchester University Press blog.
"Are you the man who wrote the Magdalen book?" A voice, hesitant and frail,
asked from the other end of my office phone. "I just finished it. I read about
ten pages a day." She called to share her story. She wanted someone to listen.
She needed someone to understand.Her mother died when she was seven. Initially,
she and a younger sister were cared for within the extended family. The farm
required her father's attention. At fourteen, he deposited her with the Good
Shepherd nuns in New Ross. Her sister was sent to the congregation's Limerick
convent." read rest here