‘He’s stabbing women because he wants us to stay at home. He’s instilling fear in us. But we will continue to come out and work’. — Gulzar, 27, domestic worker
SO says my domestic help (maasi) after visiting Humaira, a 16-year-old girl from her community, in a hospital after she was stabbed near Liaquatabad while returning home to Moach Goth, a low-income settlement in Baldia Town, Karachi. Gulzar, divorced and a single parent, tells of another stabbing, this one of a 45-year-old maasi in the area where I live near PECHS. “She was stabbed in street number 10. She makes chapattis in bungalows and lives in Korangi,” I am told.
How would city officials have reacted if the lunatic was stabbing powerful, rich, influential men? Would they have shrugged it off saying it is impossible to find the lone knife-wielding man in a city of almost 20 million?
Paid domestic work is vital for the larger economy.
This palpable fear of being stabbed — experienced daily since the last two weeks by women workers — is being laughed away by many men (and women who are safe) with the incessant churning out of misogynist jokes (‘Men are taking their wives and dropping them off at Gulistan-i-Johar for a taste of knife, ha … ha…’, ‘It must be a tailor who is not getting orders for shalwars as girls have taken to wearing tights … ho … ho’).
You wonder what kind of a society you live in; a society so disrespectful of women who step out into the public domain to make a living, a society that takes violence against women in its stride, a society that lets criminals roam in the streets.
It is getting more and more difficult for women, day by day, to navigate the public space in this maddening city and face the dangers, humiliations and harassment lurking in nooks and corners.
At the workplace, women in low-tier jobs put up with not just maltreatment and, at times, harassment and violence, but suffer from low wages, long hours, lack of protection and absence of terms and conditions of work. Paid domestic work is still outside the ambit of the majority of our labour laws despite efforts by women’s groups and legislators to bring it under adequate legal cover.
Due to the ‘gendered’ nature of work performed generally by women (cleaning, cooking, taking care of children and the elderly), paid domestic work is not considered a ‘productive’ labour market activity by economists, but referred to as ‘non-productive’ personal care services. Though misogyny is embedded in macroeconomic structures, domestic work is most riddled with it because it is rooted in slavery and servitude under feudalism and its contemporary manifestations in Pakistan.
Contrary to the popular perception that domestic work benefits only housewives and working women belonging to upper- and middle-income households, paid domestic work is vital for the larger economy. It contributes significantly to the marginalised households run by mothers feeding children and their unemployed or low-paid spouses who can only find casual work due to the disadvantages they suffer (ie low literacy, lack of skills).
Another false perception held by many employers is that domestic workers get more than a fair bargain because ‘they are handed down clothes and food gratis, often get zakat, yet do not work with due diligence and have a tendency to disappear without notice’.
This patronising, master-servant attitude also seems to have seeped into the mindset of policymakers and distorted their understanding of domestic work, hence their reluctance to acknowledge it fully as one of the economic sectors that are important for women’s greater induction in the labour force.
Policymakers also fail to acknowledge that the demand for domestic work is increasing due to lack of policies reconciling work and family life and the state’s failure to provide care services where needed.
The first step to tackle the misogyny embedded in social and economic structures is to acknowledge its existence and accept that although its impacts cut across class, it hurts the less privileged working women the most. The state needs to realise that women-specific labour protection laws and implementation would help only if undertaken in tandem with creating an overall women-friendly environment. This necessitates cities which are safe and inclusive for women, where girls and women are free from violence and from fear of violence.
Women’s safe mobility and their easy access to public transport is a key ingredient in a women-friendly city. It is time city planners and policymakers take a round of the low-income settlements in Karachi and trail thousands of domestic workers and see how they navigate the city in the morning to reach their workplaces and return home in the evening.
The writer is a researcher in the development sector.
Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2017