>I have been living in a new building complex for a while now, about five months. This place has about 400 apartments and only about 40 families have moved in so far. Being a new place, naturally there is a scarcity of helping hands and all of us have been having a bit of trouble. the domestic help is hard to come by and even if one comes in, ends up asking for R.s 5000 for a part time job of 2 to 3 hours. People are settling down to Rs. 3000 to Rs. 4000 a month in front of such demands.
while this may sound like a crib club but i am not cribbing about the money — my point here is that i do believe that the domestic help ought to be paid fairly and justly for their time, effort and for the emotional investments and that both for us and for them it is a up close and personal relationship. however, increasingly in many places what i witness is a relationship of mutual need with a underlying tonality of mistrust and resentment.
in my personal experience, both in Calcutta and in Bangalore (these are the only two cities i have lived so far), i have experienced domestic helps (all of them have been women for me) who are in dire financial needs. Some of them work because they have to earn money because the man in the house is an alcoholic/deserter/wife beater/waster/drifter – the children either studying or not working or if married, are still largely dependent on the mother for some sustainability. I have also experienced women who wishes to better their standard of living, to improve their living conditions and who is working alongside the husband/father/brother to generate the additional income.
when these women come to work, they come prepared to be treated as only a pair of hands and nothing else – and if by chance they are treated as something more than that, most feel overwhelmed, don’t know how to receive and some even feel resentful about it.
when I look around me and talk to other middle class/upper middle class women, more often than not, i find many of us as apathetic and almost hostile to these women. some of us believe that these women are out to only extract and are to be treated as such. some believe that since we have to use their services, we may as well extract as much as we can, some of course believe that they should be treated well but only to the point so that they don’t cross their boundaries. i do sense fear, resentment and anger from most women that i talk to.
I must also admit that this is not the only thing that i hear, i also hear from women about understanding them, helping them, working with them, etc, but rarely do i hear about a relatedness that comes from a connect between two women, irrespective of their social status.
i wonder whether some of these are legacies of our feudal heritage, our class consciousness, and whether there is something more to this than just the class and feudal system. May be there is our unexpressed anger about having to pay more than we believe they ought to be paid? is it the fear of being merged and being classless? Is it the fear of identification with these women which can evoke our own victim identity as women in our personal context?
I have both personally and professionally, come across many women in the middle and upper middle class whose victim hood is very similar to the stories that the other women tell, albeit the events unfold differently. the intrinsic processes of victim hood of a women and patriarchal social system is the same for both classes of women.
I believe some of the difficulties we are facing today vis-a-vis the domestic help issue is part of a struggle that we upper class women are afraid to touch – i.e. our own victim hood – that we face either personally or experience it on a daily basis through other women, in our social life, in the communities and in the world. the media brings it up close and personal at every moment, we face it at work, at home and even internally every time we feel shame and guilt because of who we are.
May be, if we were to own up our hidden shame and guilt about being the victim directly or indirectly, we could actually then identify with these women and regard them as part of our gendered community, who shares the same pathos, same sense of shame and guilt and same sense of helplessness, as also the same sense of resilience, same grit, same willingness to push through adversities, same sense of joy and the same emotional world . We would of course have our different ways of dealing with our victim hood in our lives but to acknowledge that at the core we are the same, may actually make us gain friends and compatriots rather than just a pair of hands, who we must be watchful about.
May be the other disconnect that some of us are facing is that it becomes difficult for us to accept that they too wish to upgrade the quality of their living process … that they may also wish to work for that additional income, that they may also be aspirational just as much as we can be.
I also share and acknowledge that living in today’s world, our identity is not just gendered, it is also impacted by our belonging system such as class, work place, community, language, educational history, etc, etc. and against this backdrop, comparison and identification with our domestic help seems distant and a bit impractical.
However, what i am trying to point out here is that when these people come to work at our home, don’t we consciously or unconsciously expect them to treat our home as theirs, take care of it, look after its inhabitants and be respectful to it? to put it simply, we are expecting them to invest emotionally in our context, and i believe that most of them do. What they do at our home is in a way replacing the woman of the house (in a traditional sense) become her substitute; and doing that without any emotional involvement day in and day out, is a very tough job.
The question i am asking us, is what emotional investment apart from offering them help and aid, are we willing to make? What kind of relatedness are we building if we are not willing or not aware of this possibility of an emotional connect? do we even believe that it is necessary?
As for these women, perhaps for them to claim a little more space in our emotional world and simultaneously to allow us to be part of theirs, would be a first step.
the day we connect with them not just as employers and employees but as people of the same gendered community who share similar stories of love, longing, passion, desire, happiness and sadness, we may actually start liking ourselves better through their eyes and vice versa.