Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage), a gender-sensitive campaign, which began in early August, comprises of women from Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Ambedkar University, National Law University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, and grew out of a Facebook page. In has strongly protested against a recent Diwali advertisement on http://www.bookmybai.com/ which asked husband to “gift” his beloved wife a maidservant. This is what Pinjra Tod said on its Facebook page:
This Diwali, we were hit with the promise that women were to be finally liberated from the shackles of housework and that they would never ‘need to enter the kitchen again’. Years of patriarchal oppression that caged women to house work would now be miraculously over through a savvy ‘master’ stroke accomplished in a few minutes: the ‘maid’ that a husband (mind you!) needed to ‘gift’ to his beloved wife (instead of ‘useless diamonds’) through the newly launched online service of bookmybai.com.
This advert has left us fuming in rage, not only with its sexist, misogynist, casteist and classist constructions, but also by the twisted manner in which it seeks to co-opt/appropriate the feminist dream and discourse of women’s emancipation from the slavery and monotony of domestic work.
How does bookmybai.com construct the breaking of the cage of domesticity for women? Who are these women who would never need to enter the kitchen again? Who are the women whose labour would make this possible? While middle class women are promised “trusted”, “safe, reliable and easy”, “background verified” and “hassle-free replacement” of maids to achieve their freedom from the kitchen, the intensely precarious conditions of work (extremely low wages, indefinite hours of tremendous hard work, no job security, no medical or holiday pay, blatant practices of untouchability and sexual harassment by employers etc.) that characterise the lives of women involved in the domestic and care work industry are completely invisibilised.
While emergence of domestic work as a”saleable” commodity has directed attention towards the labour of women within the house earlier invisiblized under labels of ‘love’ and ‘affection’, the bad working conditions and market value of that work also reflects the little social, “productive” value that is attached to that work, and other work historically associated with women.
It is also interesting to note at this point that despite the idea of women’s economic independence gaining currency across larger sections of society and notably among the middle and lower middle class, the actual share of women in the urban working population remains ridiculously small, out of which the largest growing sector is one of the lowest in the world (15%). What this implies is that the largest growing section in which women seeking economic independence find jobs is the low-paid and highly exploitative sector of domestic work and others like it. This in turn also reflects on how all women and “women’s work” is perceived and valued in society, touching on women of all backgrounds, even the one shown beaming in this advert!
Middle class homes constitute some of the most brutal prisons for domestic workers, who are often literally caged inside houses and their physical mobility is severely restricted. Many of us have grown up in our families complicit in these practices of exploitation — the pittance wage paid, the separate utensils, the different seating and sleeping areas, the daily abuse, the regulations, the harsh regimes of work and surveillance: the lists are endless.
Many of us who live in university hostels know that over the last decade the women who perform the important tasks of cleaning and maintaining the hostel premises are being increasingly thrown in more and more insecure conditions of work, where jobs which were earlier permanent positions under the university administration, are now operating under sub-contracted and casual contracts. Bookmybai slyly appropriates the language of women’s liberation from domesticity to essentially reinforce a hierarchical model of society, where the emancipation of middle class and upper-caste women is to be premised on the continued exploitation of working class and Dalit women.
There is absolutely no challenge to the sexual division of labour, which confines women to the burden of reproductive work. It is the husband constructed as the primary ‘bread-winner’, who is to ‘gift’ the ‘maid’, the husband/man is not even imagined as needing to contribute to housework.
To add to it all, the website contains filters for ‘religion’ and ‘region’, legitimising the discrimination and exclusion that is already practised in society in an employment portal. The CEO justifies this by saying that this is information that customers want.
Can we imagine a website in the US that profiles ‘black’ and ‘white’ ‘maids’? What does the buying and selling of humans remind you of? Feudalism? Slavery? The CEO unapologetically claimed that this sexist and casteist advert was supposed to be ‘funny’.
In the horrific gesture of commodifying and dehumanising the domestic worker and her labour into a ‘gift’ to be traded and exchanged in the market, this ad inadvertently lays bare the oppression and alienation that marks the lives and experiences of domestic workers. Bookmybai.com is however not an isolated case, but a new and more ‘organised’/’formal’ avatar whose outrageous articulations brings out very starkly the issues and questions that characterise the domestic work industry in general. The struggle for higher wages and unionisation that is being waged by domestic workers across the globe hence becomes very significant in such a dystopic context.
Women’s liberation from the cages of domesticity will only truly be possible when we build and create institutional and collective forms of sharing and engaging in reproductive labour and care work that dismantles the sexual division of labour, and where the liberation of one section of women is not contingent on the exploitation of another section.