I was at a government office yesterday. I had taken the day off my work and traveled to this other city to get some documentation done. If you have been to one of the district level offices in India, you would know the conditions there and the pace at which things move. Such offices are great levelers. There is where we encounter true humanness. Everyone has to wait outside in hot humid conditions and a lucky one can get a chance to share some space on a small wooden bench.
So here I was sitting and another lady came by and sat next to me. She was accompanied by a woman, who appeared to be her younger sister and another woman who looked like her mother. We started talking. It’s interesting how sharing common experiences make us connect at a human level and our backgrounds, language etc don’t matter. So here we were discussing about our woes of spending the entire day at a place like this, not knowing if our work was going to get done. She mentioned that she too had traveled from out of town and taken the day off from work just like me. She worked as a maid and had given some excuse to the lady of the house and hoped the trip would be successful.
She had to bring her sister along to help her read and understand the procedures. Her sister was “10th standard pass”. After some waiting, her sister came to her and said that her “signatures” were required, and the lady laughed loudly saying does that person also need a lecture on “anghoota chaap” (thumb print as proof), the mother and sister also laughed. It seemed like some private joke they were sharing, so when I asked she told me this story.
She had an account at a bank and had recently visited to get a cheque book. She was attended by a lady staff at the bank who told her that a cheque book could not be issued to her. When she asked why not when she had sufficient balance, the bank staff sniggered and loudly said they could not since she was an “anghoota chaap”(someone who has to use finger that is inked and then pressed onto the paper). This angered her, she felt insulted that she was being made fun of for being illiterate. She couldn’t take this and said to the bank lady that she was not there to seek alms but to get her own money, she was a customer of the bank and expected to be treated respectfully. She also told her that she was able to sit in an air-conditioned office and work only because a maid like her would be taking care of the chores and helping the family, and so she should not be disrespectful towards another woman. She apparently created quite a bit of stir in the bank. The manager stepped in to apologize and help her understand. So the laughter was when they all referred to this incident. She also added that she made sure that every one of her daughter’s was educated so they wouldn’t face such disrespect.
There was so much truth in what she had said to the bank lady. Every one of us (at least in most Asian countries) who are leaving our homes and going out to work, are doing so because we have someone who takes care of the cooking, cleaning, doing the dishes, laundry and caring for our kids, while we are working on a presentation, preparing a strategic plan and working with our teams. Like a senior woman colleague of mine once said, the old adage was, behind every successful man there is a woman, and today behind every successful woman there is a maid. And yet there is a no acknowledgment of this invisible work force that comes in everyday, leaving their own families behind to care for ours.
Every international women’s day we celebrate the diversity in work place, we celebrate the spirit of the woman, we acknowledge the contributions made by women leaders. There are awards for exceptional women and their contributions. All this is well deserved. What about the maids? A maid is fighting many odds of the society. By stepping out she is creating an entire economy around her, increasing the possibility of her family getting out of poverty and investing in educating her children. She is not only helping us but helping change the contours of our society. So this Women’s Day let us also acknowledge the millions of women who are empowering us in a silent way. Let us thank her when we see her tomorrow morning for making a difference to our lives and being there for us. Let us celebrate with her, let us honour the maid.