Kalpana Sharma’s piece “Beware of the Maid” (18 June 2009; http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/4667727.cms) is a contemptible piece of writing that not just displays a complete lack of sensitivity and basic decency, but also shows up the standards (lack of them?) of journalism of the Times of India group. It trivializes serious issues such as the abuse and ill-treatment faced by thousands of domestic workers — who are compelled by circumstance to be mute sufferers — by turning the focus of blame squarely on the victims.
Starting off with a note on Hollywood celebrities who have had affairs with nannies and various other domestic help, Sharma shifts the focus to India. Her opening point itself is completely off target as she says how “the issue that was till now the domain of the West has come closer home”. Wrong, so wrong.
It is no secret that class and gender distinctions plague everyday life in our society, and that the brunt of it is borne by those in the margins, including domestic workers, who have no recourse to redressal for the sort of ill-treatment meted out to them on a daily basis. Sharma’s bizzare display of ignorance only reinforce the prejudices and worse faced by these women who have no-one to turn to.
She then goes on to focus on the rising infidelity of men “at the hands of maids”, thus again making the assumption that the blame is automatically ascribed to the woman. In the very premise of her article she appears to absolve men of all blame for cheating on their partners, thus reinforcing the very harmful and regressive gender stereotype of men being unable to contain their desires. This, in fact, reminds one of the ill-considered dress codes imposed by certain colleges on women students with the thinking that it is their manner of dress that provokes sexual harassment; or worse, the theory that some women ask for it by their mode of dress and behaviour.
Sharma also objectifies domestic helpers — already powerless women, often illiterate and usually forced to work without any sort of expectation of fair treatment — as sexual objects by using some shockingly inconsiderate — and one hopes misrepresented — quotes from a noted psychologist. The author writes, “The fact is that men don’t really fall in love with a maid but feel like exploring the alternative world of headless, harmless women.” Notice the carefully chosen words “headless, harmless” — implying that playing around with such women is “safe”. She also adds how, since domestic workers in India are unable to stand up and fight for their rights, it gives men the power and control they crave. A female professional is quoted as saying that it enables men to “unleash the beast” in ways that they know their wives and girlfriends won’t put up with!
On the whole, it is demeaning and disrespectful on multiple levels. Putting the stereotype aside of “men will be men” and “women must behave appropriately”, there is also a deep contempt displayed for the working class. From the tone and the words used, it would appear that the writer thinks of the domestic help as a lower form of life, “harmless and headless”, and therefore not worthy of respect as a fellow human being.
She ends with some friendly woman-to-woman advice: “choose your maid with care”. Nothing about choosing your partner with care?
It has been long since one stopped expecting any sort of standards from Times of India, but this time they have plumbed fascinating depths. With popular culture and the media intent upon maintaining the status quo in a society mired in patriarchy, glorifying the “Indian culture and tradition” in its current imbalances of class and gender, one wonders what hope remains, especially for those who need it most.