Set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, the movie “The Help” tells the story of how the rebel Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) an aspiring writer, persuades two black maids, Aibleen and Minny (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) to work with her on a secret book. Skeeter wants them to reveal the daily hardships undergone by working for their employers and in this way earn for them racial equality and a job for herself in New York City. The story is made relevant not by the political but by the personal, especially by the villain Hilly’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) campaign asserting that the maids must have separate bathrooms – and the white young women are seemingly more racist than their mothers because they seem to want to go along with Hilly’s plans! “The Help” manages to showcase the inequalities that were rife in the US in the 1960s in a thrilling movie regarding racial awakening in Jackson (which is an adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s book by the same name).
“The Help” is a life-changing movie because it brings forth several issues that we as a society do not want to deal with even though we face them on a regular basis. The movie may have touched a chord in many Pakistanis’ hearts because they could identify with the characters and their dilemmas because all around us we have servants who are “the help.” Replace the word “race” by “class” and the reality on ground in Pakistan in 2019 is the same as it was in Mississippi in 1960s. At present our track record for treating the poor Muslim and Christian community who are forced to take up jobs as cleaning staff at Muslim homes is not one to be proud off.
The very concept of needing multiple staff at home as a necessity for running a household is old-fashioned in many countries, but in a labour- intensive economy such as Pakistan with 57.2 million of labour force – 43% of which is in agriculture, 20.3 % in industry and 36.6 % in other services and a government unemployment rate of 5.9% – cheap labour is readily available to the middle class, upper-middle class and upper-class. Though it is a 24/7 job to be a housewife, let us be honest, in our country most household labour is actually done by multiple maids who visit homes for cleaning, ironing, washing, cooking, dish-washing, dusting and so forth. Cleaning has by and large been left to the Christian community or poor Muslims who are often treated as inferior, and the ones who are dark-skinned are treated even worse merely due to their skin colour, just as in 1960s Jackson!
Similar to the movie, our servants usually use separate washrooms and cutlery. We are carrying out social exclusion on the basis of class and religion and this is especially so in the case of Christians and Hindus in Pakistan. In the movie one character says that, “they carry different diseases”. In Pakistan there is the idea of building separate toilets and “servant quarters” for staff. So what Hilly, the villain of the movie, is proposingi.e. separate bathrooms for the black maids, is actually being practiced in Pakistan with no future in sight where our domestic staff will use the same bathrooms as we do.
Being a member of staff means you are excluded. Maids are often a secondary parent and it is their responsibility to take care of the upbringing of another human being, usually a child, whose basic moral values and values of hygiene and etiquette are all taught to these children often not by their mothers but by their staff members. And yet in Pakistan, that very domestic worker’s hygiene is often questionable, usually due to lack of education.
There is social pressure to “stick to your class” and to treat domestic workers or servants as inferior and not to be on a first-name basis with them. As one privileged friend of mine once firmly said to me: “Please don’t be frank with my maid, you spoil her.” The idea that a kind word, or a smile, to another human being can be misinterpreted as weakness, and that we are in a constant state of class-conflict is bizarre. If anything, it is the ruling class that needs to be kept in check rather than those who serve them hand-on-foot.
In the movie, the title “Ma’am” is used frequently to refer to the white superiors; similarly in Pakistan the title “Begum Sahiba” or “Baji” is used interchangeably to refer to the lady of the house. As another friend of mine who had recently moved back from the US pointed out to me: her children made her realize that their maid was older than her yet she was called her “Baji”, and that this was an unequal power dynamic. Of course, she made the maid stop calling her “Baji” immediately and call her by name, but her kids are sometimes more intuitively aware of power imbalances than she was. As Foucault argues power structures are so inbuilt that (especially as regards to language dynamics), as we grow older, we do not even realize we are using them, and we mesh right back into them, even if we have lived abroad for decades. One has to work hard to subvert the current discourse, as was done in the above example.
In Pakistan, “geet” singing brings the Christian community together. A comparison can be drawn to the black American community shown in “The Help” who were united by class and drew solace in their Lord, Jesus Christ.
In the movie, Hilly is shown to possess a cruel heart and doesn’t even give $75 to her maid for her son’s college tuition, however there are examples in the movie of an another owner who bought two acres of land so that his maid could take a short cut to work. As always, not all individuals are the same, and where there is hardship there is also kindness. The question one must ask oneself is: why even today is there so much indifference to the personal lives and low income bracket of our domestic workers? Do their lives not matter? Do they not feel sadness, joy and agony? Are they not human after all? In my interviews with maids in Lahore, they shared their personal stories and dynamics with their owners. One in particular was rather unhappy with her place in the world. She said: “I don’t even tell my mother-in-law and mother’s side that I work because they look down upon it. At first I used to do the kitchen work but then they blackmailed me that I would have to empty the servant quarter if I didn’t do the house cleaning regularly and the cooking as well. So then I started doing the cleaning. No one would stay here because they are strict and give less money, but I have to because I need the room and my children go to school. The children of the house even refer to me by name, rather than with respect.” Another maid said: “At the old workplace the children were of a very commanding nature but here the children are well-mannered so I enjoy it more. The lady of the house also takes very good care of me and took care of all my medical bills when I was in the hospital.”
Though the maids I interviewed did not complain about domestic abuse, there have been cases in the media of domestic violence. One in particular of a judge’s wife who beat up a child maidservant and put her hands over a stove to burn them when a broom wasn’t found has been highlighted. They then detained her in a storeroom and threatened her with dire circumstances. The cruelty that domestic staff in Pakistan faces can be ascertained by this incident. The child maid’s father has forgiven the suspect, Raja Khurram Ali Khan and his wife but the High Court of Pakistan suspended the judged, fined the accused PKR 50,000 and gave them a one year jail sentence. They have taken the case to the Supreme Court. This domestic violence is against the tenets of all the charters that Pakistan has signed, listed below, yet nothing is done to enforce them by law.
Pakistan is signatory to Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In 2008 Pakistan ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and also the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In 2010 it signedthe UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1984. Furthermore, Pakistan is a signatory of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). All of the above are the conventions related to the domestic workers’ lives – the rights of women workers and their treatment. Yet these conventions are blatantly violated in Pakistan on a daily basis and the government does little to ensure that their basic tenets are met.
“You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” says Aibileen (a black nanny) to a four-year-old white child she takes care of – perhaps those are words that need to be repeated to workers and their children more often so that they don’t believe that it is their fate to live a miserable existence of servitude, paid minimum wage or less, and so that they feel that perhaps one day – with education, awareness and positive social reinforcement – they can be uplifted from their current state of poverty to a better state of social inclusion and parity.