The issue of women domestic workers in Pakistan has so far received little scholarly or media attention. While searching for the literature only one research paper and a survey on domestic workers was found.
The dearth of literature in Pakistan perhaps shows that scholars, researchers and educators, including the author, have enjoyed the services of domestic workers but have turned a blind eye to their problems.
It can thus be argued that as a result of a conflict of interest employers have failed to raise a voice for regulating domestic service in Pakistan.
As mentioned above the only article found while searching for literature on women domestic workers in Pakistan during the last two decades was a paper by Ali and Khattak on women domestic workers in the NWFP, presented at a seminar on women's employment legislation.
In this paper the authors discuss the nature of domestic service, working conditions and the various types of domestic servants, for instance full-time, part-time and workers in urban and rural settings, in the light of a few case studies.
While advocating the need for proper legislation that could cover these variations in existing conditions and types of domestic work, they argue that the 'public- private dichotomy' and the 'cultural construction of self' are the two major reasons why domestic workers in Pakistan are not covered by the labour legislation.
The issue of domestic workers in Pakistan has received the attention of Urdu novelists and playwrights who use the character of domestic workers, especially female domestic workers, in their stories and plays. Some of the stories are based on well-known facts of history and go back to the Mughal era, in which beautiful young maids were trained in singing and dancing to please and add colour to the life of the palace.
A famous case is that of Anarkali, a maid in the palace of the Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Akbar. Imtiaz Ali Taj, a renowned Pakistani playwright, depicted the story of Anarkali in his stage play.
The story depicts the reality that despite tall claims made by Mughal rulers of their services and reforms rendered to the cause of humanity, the joys and sometimes even the lives of these maids were sacrificed on the altar of the royal ego.
Anarkali was punished for her sincerity and devotion whereas others who yielded to the pressures survived and flourished with their timid hypocrisies.
This contrast shows that character and personalities are distorted in an environment of pressure, intimidation and exploitation. This issue was also raised by another Urdu short story writer Ismat Chughtai who commented on the psyche of male and female domestic workers who served her family for generations.
Chughtai said that servitude, stretched over generations, perpetrates the slave mentality. Her comment about her domestic workers is that 'Their mentalities were enslaved with their bodies. They were born with slave mentalities and they lived with it.'
She goes on to observe 'Servants have dual personalities; one in the presence of their masters is servile, kissing the hands of their masters, and the other behind their back gives full vent to frustrations by abusing their masters.
This negative remark of the writer rings of truth and reveals her sympathy for the downtrodden human beings whose personalities have been marred by maltreatment at the hands of their employers.
The theme of callousness of employers has been elaborated upon by various modern writers in different regional languages of Pakistan. Zaitoon Bano, a Pushto short story writer, in one of her short stories refers to the death of a young maid called Basri who, after being seduced and impregnated, was thrust upon a burning oil stove and burnt alive by her debauched landlord master.
The matter was hushed up by concocting a story that the tragedy was an accident. Her parents were too poor and intimidated to call for justice.
I also came across a poetic monologue of Ahmad Faraz entitled 'Kaneez' (maid). In this poem he portrays the advances of a drunken master towards his maid and her reactionary remarks in response, with a tinge of deep sarcasm.
The poem reflects the vulnerable position of women domestic workers who are sexually abused by their
These pieces of literature highlight the fact that the situation of women domestic workers is a socio-legal issue and writers and poets sensitive to their plight have addressed it in their literary works.
Sympathetic realisation of this issue inspires creativity and adds to the significance of the issue. No doubt, these literary creations in the form of poems and stories cannot be a substitute for practical measures to improve the living conditions of the female servants but the fact remains that they inspire a deep feeling of sympathy as well as highlight their insecurity and miseries.
Literature is a powerful source of raising awareness. In the context of women in domestic service, it acquires further significance as it highlights the problems of the vulnerable.
Excerpted with permission from
Silent Voices, Untold Stories Women domestic workers in Pakistan
and their struggle for empowerment
By Ayesha Shahid
Oxford University Press, Karachi