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Class & Religion 29 October 2006

Posted by EDITOR in BARAKA, Culture, Economics, GUESTS.

Our guest contributor this week is Baraka, a San Francisco-based writer and human rights activist. This post can also be found on her blog, Truth & Beauty.

When she lived in Pureland, my mother used to give a dars (lecture on spirituality) every Friday to a group of women in Saidpur, the village next to Islamabad.

She’d trek over the broken, unpaved roads to sit down with the women in mud huts without electricity because she felt it was her moral responsibility to share what time, knowledge, and money that she could there, with her neighbors.

In that way she fulfills the traditional role of a Begum – originally a matriarch of high social standing with related greater responsibilities to her family and community, which has devolved into being a lady of lesiure for many.

Islam teaches us that the rizq (sustenance) of the poor is enfolded into the wealth of the rich. The money that we give them does not belong to us nor is it charity but simply their due share that we are responsible and answerable to God for delivering to them.

Amiji has always kept this in mind and though she began giving dars with other Begums from Islamabad, they dropped off one by one, complaining of the heat or smallness of the huts, until eventually she was the only one left.

Moving to Freeland two years ago was a very difficult decision for her because it meant leaving her work with the women of Saidpur behind. But she came to California to be a support to me and Baz during my illness and now returns to Islamabad for four months a year to spend time with her four grandchildren and also to reconnect with those women.

Last Friday she ordered two daigs of mittay chawwal (sweet rice) to be made and invited the group to our home.

I sat with them too, shaking each person’s hand in turn and then listening to Amiji speaking about Ramadan while observing them. They sat on the ground under the ceiling fan, some blank, others engaged, some thumbing rosaries and sighing heavily in response to her words. Their plain clothes, their faces lined even in youth spoke of hardships which I couldn’t even imagine.

They were so excited to see me. Amiji had told them that I was ill and they’d prayed for me, they said. “We’re so happy you’re well, Baji,” they exclaimed.

I’d barely known they existed. Their smiles touched and humbled me…I am always overwhelmed by how fortunate I am to have friends and well-wishers everywhere I go, alhamdolillah.

Our former khidmatgaar Iqbal’s daughter came to visit once she heard that I was here. She’d always been attached to me as a small child and I to her, in that careless but kind sort of way that an older child of higher social standing can sometimes be.

When she told me that she thought of me all the time it made me cringe, because I had thought of her rarely, if at all, in the past two years since I saw her last.

Iqbal’s family stayed with us for almost two decades – he and his shy pahari wife arrived as newlyweds and each of their five children was born here and presented to be named by us. Their eldest daughter Maryam, who had been born in our home seemingly yesterday, was engaged to her cousin earlier this year before the family finally moved 30 minutes away to a house that my parents helped them to build.

When I saw my Nigerian friend in London a couple of weeks ago we spoke about the whole aspect of being brought up with helpers, the strangeness of which is something I rarely discuss with anyone else.

It’s the accepted way of things in many developing nations, with middle- and upper-class folk having someone on the grounds or coming in regularly to help out. I understand that it is a living for many people and that some employers try to be kind, but their presence often makes me uneasy.

I say that it’s because I don’t like being waited upon, or that a sense of privacy in the home is lost, but perhaps it’s the mirror that they hold up to me that makes me uneasy. Looking around at the women in the dars circle I saw that their faces, their skin tone, their bodies were not unlike mine – but my destiny has so far been very different from theirs.

If indeed God has chosen me to be educated and of a higher social status than these women, than so many in the world, then that implies far greater responsibilities upon me to give back. But, am I fulfilling those responsibilities?

When I am here, they are on the fringes of my life, and even when I am away, I play a much larger role in theirs than they ever do in mine. They tend to me; I grace their lives.

I am always full of good intentions toward all the people who have provided service to me and my family, but they slip from my mind so quickly, especially when I am away.

It’s something I need to work on: to be more grateful of sincere service rendered, and to be more conscious of the inter-dependence with which God has created us.



1. VARANGALI - 29 October 2006

Baraka – thank you for the post. You raise a very difficult topic, and it in turn has raised a few concerns in my mind.

I feel that your presentation of the issue is a tad reductive – I would love to hear a bit more about the sociological repercussions of the employer-employee relationship in traditional Pakistan. The fact that your servant Iqbal asks your family to name all his children suggests that there is a layer of psychological subservience that complements the economic relationship.

Zareena Aunty, who has cooked for my family in Karachi for many years – still feels uncomfortable eating at the table with us. I feel that this form of respect from the employee to the employer is more destructive than the active care we “kind” employers put in (your parents paying for Maryam’s house, mine paying for Zareena Aunty’s meds, etc). And I feel that this form of subservience-enducing respect (encapsulated by your well-put “They tend to me; I grace their lives”) is in fact cemented by the “kind” actions.

A rough analogy to Iqbal spending two decades with your family could be the Filipino worker who lives and works in Dubai for two decades, but is still a second-class citizen (if that). Are we comfortable having people live within the walls of our house for two decades and still not be family?

2. The Turk - 30 October 2006

I agree with you VARANGALI having servants in pakistan is touchy subject. One of my uncles’ married a white girl and brought her to Pakistan for the first time. She was shocked to find 13 yrs old boy working as mali. And people sitting talking with endless cups of chai till the wee hours and khansama waiting till every one is done. Some houses she went to have small children like 7 or 12 already working as houseboy etc.

I personally disliked that pratice a lot. They sort semi-adopt a kid and work and maybe teach to him/her write etc. and semi educate him. My mother saw this and said we can help some kid like that. I said no way; that not adopting that just slavery. I’m sorry. Either he/she is like blood or not. I have seen these kids wanting to play with other one and lady of house comes in says no you have to do the dishes etc. Man, that just jeed me off. I was 15 and told off that aunt of mine. But aunt just took stride and forgot about it made some minor excuse.

However. that was happened when first start really living in Pakistan as time passed I got used to everything. Masie, chamadar, driver, cook. I’m so used driver; that where I work right now. I have the early shift which no will take that I had my company pay for taxi both ways.

It comes down to is are we exploiting them or not? Because we do pay for their services. As white girl sees, no OT, no health insurance etc. We may help out in certain cases. Where they become close enough. However for regular masie, etc which usually changes every couple of years usually not.

However, some servants have been with us forever and become sort of family. Waheed start working as houseboy back in 1986 and he was like 12 or so. We paid for his marriage cermoney and later he wanted to go to Dubai. My Uncle got his a job as a driver there with some friends of his. He was like big brother to all of us cousins.

However still he never ate with us. He ate in his room or kitchen. Growing up it seems cool to us young ones to eat with him in the kitchen.

But, its a tough one – explotion or not?

I can’t say.

3. Baraka - 31 October 2006

Salaam & thank you for your comments.

I feel that your presentation of the issue is a tad reductive

Yes, of course it is.

It is merely a short, personal reflection upon being confronted with helpers once again after a certain number of years abroad.

That said, there is much more to the topic. In a country like Pakistan where society is still transitioning from colonialism and feudalism and where most people do not have access to job security, pensions, or health insurance the evolving role of helpers is certainly one that should be studied.

My parents have helpers and have had them for the past 21 years. They provided the funds for the four children’s education (both Islamic and secular), covered all the family’s medical costs throughout, provided a home for them to retire to, and will be helping out with the costs of the first child’s wedding in two years as well.

My parents look at this as their moral obligation.

They intend to raise Iqbal’s children out of servitude and into a more independent profession or standing.

While there is certainly a “subservience-enducing respect” aspect to this, I also look around and see that many helpers are not treated this way at all and neither their spiritual, mental nor physical needs are taken care of.

Reflecting on Islamic rulings on slavery, it seems many of them are meant to eventually end slavery rather than to perpetuate it. I think that should be the aim here too.

In spite of these attempts, the fact remains that I ate at the same table as Iqbals’ family perhaps twice (& it was immensely uncomfortable both times), that they had a separate set of plates from the ones we used, that they lived in the quarters not 30 physical feet from us but cultural light years away, and that they are not, after 20 years of service, what I would consider family, though I am grateful for their presence, particularly in helping to care for my ailing grandparents.

These are complex relationships to which I bring a lot of Western prejudices and hesitancies.

Whenever I meet Iqbal now he says he is happy to be retired so well, has now become a landowner himself, is renting out part of his home, and has three children destined to be homemakers, doctors, nurses, or teachers.

For me the real question is, can we form a relationship of respect and dignified service in this transaction where both parties need something but in which the power structure is unequal?

I think that the answer is yes, but it takes a great deal of thoughtful action and taqwa and is, at the end of the day, still imperfect.


4. R - 31 October 2006

masha’Allah Baraka i really appreciate your thoughts here, especially your candidness. i can relate to your feelings, though i experienced them in contexts different from what you speak of here. for example, instead guilt over the unreciprocated attachment of helpers towards me, it was the same guilt with respect to women i befriended on the streets of cairo.

although i did not grow up with helpers and have always had an aversion to the notion for the reasons you bring up, under much pressure i ended up hiring help for about 4 months while living in Saudi Arabia. however, these were “independent” women not under my care (unlike the typical Saudi practice, so their pay was over 3 times the average). so there wasnt much of that “subservience-enducing respect” thing. actually in one case, there was none whatsoever: upon politely asking (not ordering) one helper if she could merely watch over a pot of food (which i prepared) so that i could feed my daughter, i was answered with a “la w’Allahi.” (and that was the only the beginning!) so while the dynamics were a bit different, still i noticed that uncomfortableness or unwillingness to eat together (though at my insistence we still would). anyhow to make a long story short, i dont see myself doing it again. but i agree with you on your last comment. masha’Allah so well put, jazaki Allahu khayr Baraka. :)

5. VARANGALI - 31 October 2006

Salam Baraka – thanks for your response, I think it clarifies several issues. I especially appreciate the parallel drawn to Islamic concepts of slavery/servitude; I think there is much to be unearthed in a thorough discussion of the interplay of taqwa, psychology of servitude, and economic development. (something they never discuss in a economic development course…)

6. R - 31 October 2006

btw i wanted to add that while in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, i had seen a spectrum when it came to relationships/treatment of helpers. personally, i saw very, very few who treated their helpers the way that your family did Baraka. actually my father’s family once had a helper too… though i had not known her in those days. decades later she still would visit my grandmother, and i had thought that she was a relative since they would introduce her as such. but later i came to find out that she was in fact the helper they had employed for many years. so the relationship can evolve and continue on in a different form long after the economic relationship ends.

as uncomfortable as i am with the idea, i realize how invaluable these helpers are to the families they work for. i can appreciate the need, especially in very large families, or in families where both husband and wife are working, etc. at the same time, i hate the inequality that seems inherent in the relationship, which is manifested in many ways, such as in the helpers’ living quarters. or perhaps not inequality, but the loss of dignity or as VARANGALI puts it the “psychological subservience.”

also in relation to VARANGALI’s comment: i greatly dislike that children should be raised by helpers only to be separated once the “term” is up. i still remember the same helper who had refused to stand in front of the stove, her tears when parting with my daughters. yet she had lived with us for a mere 2 months or so. what then in the case of those who take care of a family’s children for many years and end up raising them?? what does it do to a very young child when the caregiver he knew all his life just disappears suddenly? (a common problem in Saudi Arabia as the helpers are not natives and eventually return to their countries) i feel that if they play an active role in raising/caring for the children, then they are like family and should be treated as such… for their sake and for the sake of the children as well. for the sake of honoring and respecting for the special bond, the love, between caregiver and child. i dont know if this is realistic or “practical”, but just my feelings..

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