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
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.