Sto­ries of Si­lence

Ti­tle: Au­thor: Pub­lisher: Pages: Price: ISBN-10: ISBN-13: Silent Voices, Un­told Sto­ries Aye­sha Shahid Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, Pak­istan (2010) 250, Hard­back PKR. 595 0-19-547730-8 978-0-19-547730-6

Southasia - - Book review - Re­viewed by Huma Iqbal

S‘ ilent Voices, Un­told Sto­ries’ is an at­tempt to high­light the ex­pe­ri­ences of women do­mes­tic work­ers in Pak­istan and draws upon the find­ings of a so­cio-legal study about women, law and em­pow­er­ment. The book, through its well-re­searched chap­ters fills the gap in ex­ist­ing lit­er­a­ture by pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion about the pro­file, na­ture, work­ing and liv­ing con­di­tions of these women in the coun­try.

The au­thor, Aye­sha Shahid, lec­turer at the Law School, Univer­sity of Hull, UK nar­rates her own age-old re­liance on do­mes­tic house work­ers and draws from her per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing in a house full of women do­mes­tic maids. She tells the reader how her ex­pe­ri­ence pro­vided an un­der­stand­ing of the sit­u­a­tion of women in do­mes­tic ser­vice and helped her to lis­ten to their voices.

By us­ing fem­i­nist legal per­spec­tives, Is­lamic per­spec­tives on women’s work and legal plu­ral­ism, this book ques­tions the ef­fi­cacy of law as a tool for em­pow­er­ing women do­mes­tic work­ers in their strug­gle against ex­ploita­tive treat­ment in the work­place. It also ad­vances the ar­gu­ment that these women’s lives are shaped by sharp gen­der and so­cio-eco­nomic dis­par­i­ties lead­ing to un­equal power re­la­tions vis-à-vis their em­ploy­ers, state and so­ci­ety.

To val­i­date the find­ings of her re­search, the au­thor car­ried out semistruc­tured group and in­di­vid­ual in­ter­views of do­mes­tic women work­ers in the ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas of Karachi and Pe­shawar. A few case stud­ies were also car­ried out to sub­stan­ti­ate some of the ma­jor themes aris­ing dur­ing field­work. Aye­sha Shahid ex­plains in the pref­ace of her book: “Lis­ten­ing to voices of women n do­mes­tic ser­vice has pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity to un­cover the hid­den lives of women do­mes­tic work­ers who work in the pri­vacy of homes. It also ex­plores the na­ture of do­mes­tic ser­vice, dy­nam­ics of em­ployer-em­ployee re­la­tions and com­plex­i­ties of class, gen­der and mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties af­fect­ing these re­la­tion­ships.”

The au­thor points to an in­ter­est­ing as­pect in the book and states that “do­mes­tic work around the globe is con­sid­ered as an un­der-val­ued and un­der­paid ac­tiv­ity per­formed by the dis­ad­van­taged so­cial groups of so­ci­eties.” More im­por­tantly, tra­di­tion­ally do­mes­tic work in oth­ers’ house­holds has re­mained a prin­ci­pal way of earn­ing a liv­ing for poor women, where Pak­istan is no ex­cep­tion. And just like the role of gen­der, class, race and eth­nic­ity is im­per­a­tive in de­ter­min­ing the sta­tus of do­mes­tic house work­ers all over the world, the sit­u­a­tion, the au­thor ar­gues, is no dif­fer­ent in Pak­istan.

Shahid also states that all stud­ies, ir­re­spec­tive of the coun­try of ori­gin, point to the in­ad­e­quacy of a sim­ple legal re­sponse to ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion of women do­mes­tic work­ers. This ap­pears to be the case even in the coun­tries where legal sys­tems are well de­vel­oped. Hence, the need to con­sider the na­ture of prob­lem as so­cio-legal is vi­tal where all so­lu­tions must look be­yond black letter law, the au­thor in­sists.

‘Silent Voices, Un­told Sto­ries’ looks at the poor sta­tus of do­mes­tic maids in Pak­istan and at­tempts to high­light their “un­reg­u­lated, un­or­ga­nized and un­der­val­ued form of em­ploy­ment.” The book also dis­closes var­i­ous as­pects of the lives of these women. It points to­wards their mis­treat­ment of­ten at the hands of the em­ploy­ees as un­der the Pak­istani la­bor law, a do­mes­tic worker does not ex­ist as a per­son. In the ab­sence of ad­e­quate law, the au­thor re­veals that these do­mes­tic women work­ers are not en­ti­tled to any legal rights like a weekly rest

day, ma­ter­nity leave, pub­lic hol­i­days etc. Most of the women who were in­ter­viewed never en­gaged with the law or with the state on a daily ba­sis in their lives, nor did they ever think of ac­cess­ing courts due to their so­cioe­co­nomic sit­u­a­tion.

Do­mes­tic ser­vice in Pak­istan is also associated with bonded la­bor wherein fam­i­lies who have debts to pay to land­lords in ru­ral ar­eas en­gage in do­mes­tic ser­vice, of­ten for all their lives. Sur­ren­der­ing not only their la­bor, these work­ers then pay off their debt with in­ter­est rates by bond­ing their fu­ture gen­er­a­tions too in the ser­vice. Do­mes­tic ser­vice in Pak­istan has also got the el­e­ment of mi­gra­tion where many peo­ple from ru­ral ar­eas mi­grate to cities in search of a bet­ter life and of­ten land in house­hold work as that is the only skill they have. In most cases, fe­male mem­bers of such im­mi­grate fam­i­lies are em­ployed.

Cit­ing so­cial struc­ture of a Pak­istani so­ci­ety, which prefers seg­re­ga­tion of gen­ders in its so­cial sphere, Shahid states that the very rea­son why many women pre­fer to work as do­mes­tic work­ers than in any other em­ploy­ment sec­tor in the pub­lic sphere is that a house­hold is con­sid­ered a more se­cure place. The same psy­che of pre­fer­ring a woman worker around and not a male in or­der to keep the pri­vacy of homes in­tact, plays an im­por­tant part in hir­ing women do­mes­tic maids. How­ever, iron­i­cally hir­ing of women also rep­re­sents the re­in­force­ment and repli­ca­tion of gen­der in­equal­i­ties. They are given less than half the wages that male work­ers in the same oc­cu­pa­tion re­ceive. More­over, a woman worker is ex­pected to un­der­take ad­di­tional chores as com­pared to male do­mes­tic worker who would not do any ex­tra work than the one for which he has been hired.

The book is di­vided in three parts and each part con­tains sep­a­rate chap­ters on the is­sue. These chap­ters cover the the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tives on women, law and em­pow­er­ment; per­spec­tives of do­mes­tic ser­vice in the glob­al­ized world; cri­tiques of con­sti­tu­tional, leg­isla­tive and so­cio-cul­tural frame­works, con­tex­tual anal­y­sis of the key is­sues in women’s work etc. Part three of the book ti­tled: Chal­leng­ing Si­lences cov­ers in de­tail the un­told sto­ries of women do­mes­tic work­ers in Pak­istan and moves to­wards an in­te­grated ap­proach for non-legal and legal strate­gies for the pro­tec­tion of these women in the coun­try. This book also in­cludes the pre-em­pir­i­cal work plan which helped the au­thor in com­pil­ing her data as well as lists a de­tailed glos­sary of do­mes­tic and cul­tural terms used through­out the book, bib­li­og­ra­phy and the vis­ual sta­tis­tics of the find­ings.

All in all this book can be a start­ing point to raise aware­ness as well as carry out fur­ther re­searches into this is­sue of do­mes­tic work­ers and bring to fore­front their plights and in­jus­tices. Women do­mes­tic work­ers all over the world make up a very im­por­tant part of a so­ci­ety where there are not only the earn­ing mem­bers of their fam­i­lies but also con­trib­ute to­wards the econ­omy of their coun­tries by send­ing in for­eign re­mit­tances (as in the case of women do­mes­tic maids of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and In­dia.) The rights of all these women need to be pro­tected. As the writer rea­sons in her book: “Apart from a plu­ral legal frame­work, for­mal law alone can­not em­power women in do­mes­tic ser­vice…it is equally per­ti­nent to look into non-legal strate­gies so that ac­cess to jus­tice can be made pos­si­ble for these women.” Huma Iqbal is the As­sis­tant Edi­tor at SouthAsia Mag­a­zine. She writes on so­cio-po­lit­i­cal and de­vel­op­men­tal is­sues of the re­gion.

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