August 26, 2019

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  • Maids and marginality in Cairo: Why legal reform isn’t enough

    Widespread poverty in Egypt has driven many women into domestic service, where income can be significantly higher than other available low-threshold ‘female’ jobs.

    BY RAHMA BAVELAAR Cairo – On a summer morning in 2012 at 6am, Nadya pulls a black abaya over her colorful housedress, wistfully pins her rectangular headscarf under her chin, locks the door behind her two young daughters and steps into the oncoming heat. On a good day, it takes her two hours to get from the narrow unpaved alley in the densely populated working class neighborhood of al-Marg, to the landscaped compound in the wealthy new desert suburb of Shaykh Zayd, where she works as a maid.

    This summer, frequent power outages on the underground metro network, numerous strikes by public transportation workers and the “anti-protest walls” that carve up the Downtown Cairo area lengthen her journey. Chronic back problems make her body ache under the oppressive heat of the overcrowded microbuses and is aggravated by the strenuous nature of her work. But like the thousands of domestic workers who share her daily commute, she has no health insurance to cover treatment and can’t afford to take time off.

    Her only elder sibling could have helped, but he cut off all contact with her several years ago because he couldn’t bare the dishonor of his sister working as a maid.

    When I ask her if she thinks this is fair, she responds with the natural levity and stubborn pride that keep her sane: “Who else will feed the family when the men don’t live up to their responsibilities? Respectable women only do this work because we have to.”

    Tens of thousands of Egyptian women and girls work as part-time or live-in maids in the homes of Egypt’s middle and upper classes. As one of the most accessible occupations for women who seek employment in Cairo’s sprawling informal sector, domestic work is a crucial, and sometimes the only, source of subsistence for countless struggling Egyptian families. Despite the importance of this ‘invisible’ workforce, maids are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in the workplace and suffer social stigmatization within their own communities.

    Will a Union solve the problem?

    Last year, the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement  founded the first Egyptian Maid’s Union, which will be lobbying parliament for the inclusion of domestic work in the labor law. This kind of legalization would theoretically grant domestic workers basic workers’ rights such as a contract, health insurance, a minimum wage, days off, and a pension.

    The creation of a formal legal framework through which maids can theoretically claim these rights is important, yet the limited ability of formal legal changes to address structural social and economic problems is rarely acknowledged. Extensive conversations with maids and a reading of the available research on their experiences suggest that negative social attitudes towards domestic work, as well as the advantages of informality in the absence of either viable economic alternatives or functioning social services, might seriously limit the ability of legal reform alone to have a serious impact.

    A Family Affair

    Ni`ma, 40, and her daughters Aya, 18, and Heba, 26, all work as maids in upper-middle class neighborhoods. Before she got married at 16, Ni`ma, whose full lips and tired eyes still suggest her former beauty, enjoyed helping out in her father’s tea kiosk in Embaba, the housing project that unfurled around her family into one of Cairo’s largest informal areas. When she married, the kiosk had become a cafeteria and a decent source of income, but it was “no place for a married woman”, so Ni`ma stayed at home, despite her husband’s inability to provide for basic needs.

    As the girls grew up, mandatory after-school lessons, the exceedingly costly affair of preparing marriage trousseaus and soaring inflation weighed heavily on the family. Ni`ma’s husband moved to Libya as a migrant worker, but dispatched most of his income to his two sons from a previous marriage. Left to her own devices, Ni’ma found a ‘secret’ job as a maid, “because it would have brought shame on him if he’d known”. He didn’t find out that his wife and daughters had saved up for a new apartment all by themselves until two decades later, when revolution in Libya forced him to return to revolution in Egypt –  and chronic unemployment.

    Aya has inherited her mother’s attractive features, but her lips and hands twitch nervously when she speaks of the perpetual conflicts caused by financial insecurity and her father’s neglect. She dropped out of her public high school (“the kind where you come out more ignorant than you go in”) at 16 to work in a local clothes boutique for LE 300 a month, despite rumors that she exposed herself to flirtation in the shop. She soon joined her mother as a maid when she realized she could make triple the wage and save her reputation by pretending to work in a daycare.

    “If I tell my fiancée about my work he or his family might break off the engagement,” she says.

    Heba, who has a warm maternal smile and trouble walking due to poorly treated childhood polio, received a degree in literature from Cairo University but graduated to soaring unemployment. She had hoped her degree would help her to “move up”, but she soon discovered that she lacked the connections to find a job as a teacher, despite her keen intelligence and Mubarak’s promises to provide work for the disabled. After working for a pittance as a seamstress, her mother found her a full-time job as a full-time maid and nanny in Shaykh Zayd. She makes LE 2500 a month, far more than she would have as a teacher, but she works an average of 12 hours per day.

    When I ask her if it is the norm for maids to hide their occupation she says, “I know many girls on my street who say they work as nurses or daycare minders, but we all know they are maids. It’s an open secret, but we have to maintain our reputation.”

    “They will say I humiliate myself”

    The stories of Ni`ma and her daughters illustrate the widespread economic challenges that push women into domestic service, as well as the fact that their income can be significantly higher than other available low-threshold ‘female’ jobs. With their combined incomes, Ni`ma and her daughters have managed to move out of the windowless single room where they grew up and the street where the uncleared rubble of collapsed buildings mark out memories of earthquakes, to a spacious three-bedroom apartment a few streets down.

    In light of soaring unemployment and the inability of many men to support a family, the social censure faced by women like Nadya and Ni`ma for contributing to the family income is hard to understand. When asked about the reasons for their secrecy, two themes stand out in the answers: the association of domestic work with servanthood and humiliation, and concern about interaction with non-related men.

    “If people in my neighborhood know I do this work they will say I’m a servant and that I humiliate myself, ” says Heba. The common description of domestic work as bahdala (humiliation) and the derogatory use of the term khadama (servant) partly result from the historical association of domestic work with slavery, but more so from the awareness that some of the conditions of dependency and patronage that defined the master-slave relationship continue to exist in the deep social asymmetry between maids and employers today.

    Hana, 40, a jovial and sharp-witted mother-of four from Embaba, works part-time as a cook and cleaner in 6th of October City. Negotiating her relationship with her employer can be tricky because “she’s very attached to me and jealous when I express affection for other employers, and even when I ask to leave early to visit my mother.”

    Like most maids, her working hours and task-description have no clear limitations. On any one day, she may be asked to perform any cleaning or caring job in the home and she is often expected to work until late at night if there are guests, without being paid extra. The ability of her employer to fire her at will, combined with the uncertainty of the job market, force her to go out of her way to obtain the “madame’s” affection and to give in to unreasonable demands. This sense of dependency reinforces the occupation’s low status.

    The Sexual Ambiguity of the Intimate Outsider

    The social ambiguity of the maid’s position within the household, as what one sociologist describes as “marginal insiders and intimate outsiders”, combined with the ‘private’ location of the work is at the root of the moral suspicion and secrecy surrounding the occupation. Conservative social and religious gender expectations, as well as what Hana identifies as “popular cultural representations of maids as either flirtatious and sexually opportunistic, or as a helpless sexual prey” feed the myth of the sexually available maid.

    Hana says about her first job in the home of a student bachelor: “I could not possibly have told my husband; he would have assumed immediately that I was there for a purpose other than cleaning.”

    Fear of sexual abuse is not unfounded. A research project by the Center of Migration and Refugee Studies (FMRS) at AUC found that 10% of migrant domestic workers reported various forms of sexual harassment, while a research project by Terre des Hommes on underage Egyptian live-in maids (who constitute a significant percentage of those who work in the sector) claims that 21% of former child domestic workers report “intense experiences of sexual abuse”. This is doubtlessly a conservative estimate considering the trauma and shame involved in confessing such incidents to researchers and the futility of filing police reports.

    The Dilemma of Informality

    Legal protections and formalization of the sector might help to make domestic work both safer and more ‘respectable’. But ironically, in the absence of either viable professional alternatives or a social safety net provided by the state, the very ‘private’ and informal nature of domestic work that puts maids at risk also offers significant advantages, ones that are likely to outweigh provisions from a legal system that few trust to enforce the rights of the poor over the rich.

    Despite the irregular hours and emotional pressures that come with her current job, Hana is happy with her employer “because she cares about me”. She receives extra money on the occasion of the Islamic holidays; occasional help with medical costs and hand-downs of used clothes and furniture. This provision of a measure of ‘social security’ for maids is common and socially expected, especially when the employment relationship has been well established. These benefits of the ‘informality’ of the employment relationship are important perks for the women I spoke to.

    Relatively flexible hours are also an advantage for women who usually have their own extensive housekeeping and childcare responsibilities. Hana remembers the heavy burden on her family before she left her nursing job at Kasr Al-Aini hospital which involved frequent night shifts: “I would find my children asleep in the staircase because there was no one at home to let them in. Because I had no time to cook, I spent almost my entire income on prepared food and couldn’t save a penny. Since working as a maid I can be home on the weekends and save money for my youngest daughter’s marriage.”

    The experience of small-scale NGO initiatives with providing a semi-legal framework for domestic workers confirms the reluctance of maids to conform to the restraints of contractual work.

    ‘Alashanek ya Baladi (For Your Sake, My Country) Association for Sustainable Development, an NGO that focuses on job training and opportunities for underprivileged youth, conducted a pilot project for which they recruited women in Old Cairo and Dar el Salam to be trained as nannies and maids. In return for basic training in cleaning and childcare skills, they offered job mediation and created a symbolic contract in which wages, work-hours, period of employment and a job-description were specified.

    Raghda Abdelnabi, the Training and Employment Project Manager at the organization was one of the coordinators of the project. She admits that the women were uncomfortable with the contract: “Both employers and maids found the contract strange. The maids often emphasized that they really value the flexibility of working without strings attached and being able to spend time with their children.”

    Abdelnabi confirmed that the problematic moral status of domestic work is another obstacle to projects that want to provide job security for maids: “It was very hard to find a sufficient number of participants for the project because of the social stigma involved.”

    She says the pilot taught her that far more research is needed into the nature of the market and the needs of domestic workers before training and contracts can become effective. More coordination between scattered NGO projects is also required for legal advocacy to be effective, she says. Advocating for the rights of maids needs to include both legal reform and awareness campaigns, she believes, that counter negative social attitudes towards domestic work among both workers and employers.

    Bogged by Economy, Empowered by Revolution

    With its renewed restrictions on independent unions, the Islamist-led government has done very little to bring formal rights for maids any closer. In the meantime, the deepening economic crisis has riddled the lives and work of Nadya, Ni`ma, Aya, Heba and Hana in ever greater contradictions. On the one hand, soaring inflation is pushing an unprecedented number of women into domestic work, while demand has decreased and wages remain unchanged. Heba laments: “A friend who also works as a maid told me recently that her employer threatens to hire someone in her place whenever she is displeased with her because she knows there will be ten others waiting.”

    Yet on the other hand, the revolution has produced a language of empowerment that inspire even the most vulnerable to consider their circumstances in a new and more politicized light. When Hana overheard a child in her employer’s household refer to her as “my shaghala (maid)” she asked the mother to correct the child, so she wouldn’t grow up as someone who looks down on other people.

    “Language matters,” Hana insists when I ask whether referring to her job with a different word will change her actual position within the employment relationship. “After the revolution, things have changed. I am asking my employer to live up to the ideals she herself called for in Tahrir.”


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