Cleaning the Messes They Could Never Afford to Make

On attitudes toward domestic servants in Pakistan


“I think I’m going to get some water,” I say rising from my seat. “Why? Tell Khursheed* to do it,” my cousin replies, calling out to the girl who appears not to have yet reached puberty. There’s hardly any need to yell since Khursheed is standing at attention just a few feet away, but as I’m learning, this is how many in Pakistan have gotten used to speaking to their hired hands.

It’s not uncommon for even middle class families to have a slew of people in and out of the house to help. Reports suggest that there are at least 8.5 million informal domestic workers in the country. A recent study in Islamabad found that nearly 41,000 people work as domestic servants in the nation’s capital—that’s close to one domestic worker for about every 35 people living in the city.

That ratio isn’t that surprising given that so many here employ such an assortment of help—drivers, guards, gardeners, cooks, and “maids.” (I hesitate to use the word maid because it implies a certain parameter, or at least a touch of refinement—or maybe that’s just the white-apron, black dress image that I have of maids having never really seen one back in the States.)

All I know is that maids in Pakistan don’t just come around to tidy the house. They’re set to work on heaps of dirty dishes to wash, and baskets of clothes to launder and iron, but they also care for babies with dirty diapers to change, go out to buy groceries, serve guests, take things in and out of storage, and I’ve even witnessed a maid giving their employer a pretty serious massage. Its genenally the case that they’re asked to do just about anything that no one else wants to do—and feel compelled to oblige since replacements are easily found.

This willingness to send for the servant girl with such abandon leads, often enough, to a degradation of the girl herself. Even when a maid is hired as a nanny or asked to care for a crying baby on occasion, there’s talk of how her clothes are so grimy, she’ll get the little one sick. Once, on a particularly cold an rainy day, the girl, let’s call her Parveen, who worked in my uncle’s house was heading home in flip flops and a single layer of clothing. Knowing her route was at least 20 minutes long, I ran to my room and retrieved a coat, closed shoes, and socks for her to wear. I was promptly scoffed at by my aunt who told me that “these kinds of people” didn’t have the sense to keep such things and would probably sell them for extra cash. Naive as it sounded to her, I admitted that I expected my things back when the weather brightened in a few days. My mother was in town not too long after and my aunt made a point to tell her how low this act of generosity made her look—and how senseless it was too.

I got no satisfaction when I got my things back. The coat smelled of fire and for days I couldn’t stand to open the bag they came knotted up in. Clearly Parveen needed them more than I. She lived in Islamabad’s designated servant quarters, packed tight with shacks that barely fit the sprawling families there that crammed into them. Many more low-income people live in unofficial settlements, which the local government is trying to do away with despite a growing need for informal work as the capital’s population grows.

I know my aunt givers her daughters’ discarded clothes to Parveen, but sometimes I wonder how she feels wearing those hand-me-downs to the house for work. After all, she’s only 11 and at that age girls tend to long for pretty little things—the very sort that fill the house where she works six days a week.

I asked Parveen one day if she wanted to go back to school she said yes, but my aunt had promised to teach her to read. Of course, there was hardly any time for that given the day’s to-do list. My aunt has often told me that she doesn’t hit her or yell at her and lets her eat as much as she likes. I get the sense she thinks this is charity enough.

But there are those who take the vulnerability of the often very young girls who work for advantage—people like Chaudhary Mohammad Naeem, a former president of one of the largest bar associations in Pakistan, who was alleged to have tortured and killed his 12-year-old maid.

A report by a medical board at the hospital where Shazia Masih was admitted investigated her death and concluded that she had not been murdered. Why? Because she died of infections from her wounds and not the wounds themselves. Nearly a year after Masih’s death, her employer was acquitted.

Fatima Bhutto, wrote about the cruelty wrought on low-wage workers by the well to do like herself—Bhutto is the niece of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and granddaughter of another Pakistani PM, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Masih’s case drew a public outcry in Pakistan. Months before Naeem stood trial, but even then, Bhutto asked, “In a country where the entire top echelon of government, from the president to the prime minister, have been granted amnesty from corruption charges, murder cases, narcotics smuggling, kidnapping, and extortion so that they may lead Pakistan and pave the way for an obsequiously pro-American cooperation in the war on terror, why is anyone surprised that the rich and powerful are unaccountable? Why is anyone particularly horrified by the monstrous VIP culture that denies justice to the majority of the country and celebrates the injustices of the dominant, moneyed tastemakers?”

Bhutto goes on to denounce the real crime—hiring a child into the adult world of work. “We know that employing a child of school age in such demanding labor is cruel. We know that there is such a thing as minimum wage, even in Pakistan. We know that one can’t, shouldn’t be able to, get away with murder, but those things don’t really matter when one is above the law.”

But the issue isn’t only about class. It’s a matter of faith as well. Pakistan became a nation to offer majority status to Muslims and in the years since its foundation in 1947, its come to be rather intolerant of the Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and Christian minorities within its borders. An overwhelmingly Muslim country from the start, it became an overtly Islamic state in the 1970s under the rule of Zia ul Haq, a dogmatic and severe military dictator.

Many low-wage jobs are held by Christians like Shazia Masih who make up about two percent of the Pakistani population. While this divide has been reinforced by the otherness of an increasingly Muslim nation, it’s also rooted, somewhat surprisingly, in Hinduism. The reason for this is because a lot of lower caste Hindus who traditionally occupied the positions of sanitary workers converted to Christianity to flee from their original faith’s social constrictions. Instead, their motives being obvious, they were further mired in their position and their new status as Christian came to signal the same thing that Dalit once had. Indeed there are job postings in Pakistan for street sweeper sorts of positions that specifically ask for Christians to apply.

In a place where social mobility inches along, people hold fast to the upper rungs of the ladder perhaps for fear that others might knock them down along the way.

The same might be true in other countries, but it seems a bit less obvious in the developed world. Or maybe the role of maids and gardeners are just a bit more dignified. After all, there’s no hesitation where I’m from to offer the boy who mows your lawn a tall glass of lemonade in the same sort one’s family uses. Here, there are plastic plates and metal cups for the help and ceramic and glass for everyone else.

But, in their own, to me, rather feeble defence, my aunts and uncles might remind me that they need an army of servants to help them along. There aren’t many lawnmowers around and so a gardener’s got to come in with the a pair of hedge trimmers to take up the tedious task of cutting the grass. My family here have laundry machines, but they’re sloppy and splashy and not nearly as easy to use as the ones I’m used to back in the States, so they often hire someone to load and unload their clothes and then press them perfect. I’ll admit that technology has a part to play in making such tasks easier for us, but its by no means the root of human decency for those who do their housework in house.

I can see it no other way having grew up in America where there’s a certain national pride in doing everything for oneself. I’ve lived in Pakistan for the better part of a year and I still find it rather uncomfortable to ask someone to bring me a glass of water or iron my clothes, much less give me a head rub.