“An estimated fifty to one hundred million people, a vast majority of them women and girls, are employed in private homes as domestic workers. They carry out many of the most essential tasks for the household, including cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, shopping, and caring for children and elderly members of the employer’s family…” Jo Becker, Campaigning for New Human Rights Standards, 2012.
“According to ILO, almost 30 percent of the world’s domestic workers are employed in countries where they are completely excluded from national labor laws, including weekly rest days, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, and overtime pay. Even when partially covered, domestic workers are often excluded from key protections such as minimum age requirements, maternity leave, social security, and occupational health measure” HRW, Pressure Grows to Protect Domestic Workers, October 28, 2013.
“….an employer group from Pakistan argued that in developing countries, regulation of domestic work would rob many poor people of the opportunity to make even a meager living” Jo Becker, Campaigning for New Human Rights Standards, 2012.
She was tall and slim with a wild mane of curly black hair and a toothy grin. She was my first friend. Her family lived in the little room behind our house. There lived her father Nabi Baksh, her mother Aamna, her two brothers, an older sister Sakina and a little girl the family had adopted from their village when her parents died.
Aamna worked in the mornings cleaning our house—comprised of a small bathroom, drawing room and a small hallway that led to the bedroom. Afterwards, she would head to other homes in the neighborhood.
Nabi Baksh and his older son Nawaz took care of the house. Nabi Bakh was very old. He had snowy white hair and crooked yellow teeth. He wore a cream colored headwrap over a similar shade of shalwar kamiz and it was difficult to understand him sometimes because of the naswaar that he always had in his mouth. Together the two of them watered the garden, tended to the dogs, the chickens, the goats, pigeons, a peacock, deer and flamingo, washed the car, fetched groceries from the market and did small repairs around the premises.
Rukhsana and I made dolls out of cloth and I would let her keep them in a vanity case my mother had given her, with the silver clasps and the small mirror inside the lid that was covered in velvet. One time, Rukhsana placed a cone of henna inside the vanity with the dolls. The next day we discovered that our dolls had been ruined by the henna that had spilled all over everything. The dolls all had stained faced as if they had played in mud during the night. We threw away all of them and tried to make new ones, but it was not the same anymore and my family and I moved away to Islamabad soon after.
A few years later when I returned I saw Rukhsana again. She was a teenager now. But compared to my own gangly looks, she had already blossomed into a slender beauty. She had been putting off marriage, but it was going to happen soon.
We thought back to the time Sakina, her older sister, came to visit from the village. She had been married to a boy in her goth and returned soon after to see her family. Rukhsana and I, no more than seven or eight years of age, sat by as she told us about her life in the village. It was tough, she said, you have to be up at the crack of dawn and tend to the fields, work the crops and then see to the home.
Sakina pulled out a green lipstick from the black purse she now carried, a wedding present from the city she had bought before going to the village. It was already looking tattered. The leather had feathered, little curly pieces forming in places. I was tempted to pull some of the pieces off but knew it would upset Sakina. Also, the green lipstick was far more fascinating. Sakina showed it to us and then applied it to her lips and it was a bright red. We were so awed. But Rukhsana was crying. She did not want to get married and go live in the village. She liked being in the city. Although work was sometimes hard, it was nothing compared to the life of drudgery in the village she said. She showed me a wristwatch she had bought recently. She offered it to me. It was too loose on my wrist. It had a gold chain and a small elegant dial. It looked pretty expensive.
Rukhsana also had a couple of perfumes. When my brother lost money he saved in his clay piggy bank, my mother became very suspicious of Rukhsana. She searched her things. Rukhsana got upset and she left soon after. I never saw her again. Another few years passed. I met her brother, who now worked as a driver for my father. He told me Rukhsana was married with two children and lived in the village.
She had a round head, round eyes and small hands. Her skin was the color of coconut shell. Hamida was adopted by the family that worked for us and lived in a small room behind our house.
My younger brother stuttered and was very shy Hamida was pretty much his only friend. She would stand behind the mesh door of the house. My mother did not allow her inside. She probably had never been inside the house. She only knew what she could see from the two front doors. She would press her face to the metal mesh. A fine criss-cross pattern forming on her cheek and forehead and would strain to see what was inside. The door that led to the dining area was what interested her. She could see fruits in a bowl on the dining table and sometimes a bag of chocolates or soda cans my father would bring back often from flights abroad. She would see an apple and would tell my brother to fetch it for her. Sometimes she would ask him for the gum in his mouth and he would take it out, covered in his saliva, and hand it to her. A smile formed on her lips when she put it in her mouth.
THE GIRL WITH THE CURLY HAIR
I do not remember her name. She had a swarthy complexion and a face like a Japanese anime, with curly strands that fell to her elbows. She tied her hair in a braid. She had the prettiest eyes with thick lashes. She loved to preen in the mirror and whenever she passed by her reflection in the hallway mirror she would turn her head and give a little smile before rushing forward to do my mother’s bidding. She came to work for us after Rukhsana left. She was the opposite of Rukhsana in that she loved to talk. She would chat with my mother all the time, complimenting her on this and that. Then she did not come in for days. When she did come she had bluish bruises on her face. A cut lip. Her family had beaten her. She had fallen in love with a man in the neighborhood and her family had discovered her affair and had tied her to a tree and beaten her. She did not want to go back home. But my mother did not think it was wise for outsiders to get involved in a family matter. She disappeared again. This time too she had bruises and looked weaker than before. Then we never saw her again. A woman from her community said her family had married her off to someone from their village.
She was so quiet. She lived with us and slept in the bedroom my brother and I shared, although the two of us slept in our parents’ bedroom. We liked her very much, but then she started calling our mother Ammi. We protested. My mother asked her to call her Baji instead. My brother and I exchanged covert smiles.
I was working as a television producer on a show about parenting. I sat in the woman’s drawing room. It was decorated I cream and gold. She wore a gray georgette outfit by a local designer. Her hair was bronzed and styled in soft waves. She had a four-year old child and the segment was about making food for children. She showed us how to make a quick fruit mash for the child. Then we sat down for the interview about her parenting and chatted while the cameras were being set up. A woman walked in, she introduced her as the child’s maid. After she left the room, the woman told me this was the second maid she had hired from the Philippines. The first one had to be fired. She had been giving her child sleeping pills for years. The woman discovered when the child was found to have brain damage. Her son was still under treatment, she said.
Leslie was Christian. She worked for my aunt for years. She was reed thin and grinned like a sailor. She would tie her duppata around her forehead while sweeping the floor. Her husband was a drunkard and beat her she said. She carried affairs behind his back to have her own fun.