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.

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