While Parveen is responsible for washing and ironing, Maria’s duties are to clean the house, which she has been doing for nearly five years. She is twenty years old and loves to chat – even spilling her family’s secrets soon after we first met. Although she is young, she is an efficient worker.
I met her almost three years ago, when I moved to live in Pakistan. She does not just work in our house, but also in two more houses near ours. Her mother and two sisters also work as maids in our neighbourhood. It saddened and impressed me at the same time, to hear how they all used to walk two hours one way from their house to ours, in the scorching heat and humidity, or in the bitter winter cold. Maria’s father used to work in the army as a janitor.
Maria has been working as a maid since she was nine years old. At first, she used to go from house to house assisting her mother, but when she grew older and more confident, she started working on her own. When I asked her what she did with her earnings, she told me the whole family gives their earnings to their father to contribute towards getting their house built. They don’t keep anything for themselves; if they need any money, they ask their father.
When I moved to Pakistan I didn’t know many people and found myself getting quite lonely at times. Maria was the one person I saw on a daily basis, and we got to know each other and became friendly. We would discuss recipes, latest fashion trends, arts and crafts, differences between the Qur’an and the Bible, and a multitude of other topics. I would show her a variety of things on the Internet; as she doesn’t have access to it, she gets very excited at the thought that anything can be seen and learned through a screen. She confided in me that she wants to become a beautician. I encouraged her to aspire to achieve higher goals in life, and so to help her make her dream come true, I started teaching her how to read and write in English. She would finish her work, and for half an hour we would become teacher and student.
In a way our relationship is an awkward one, because she works in our house so I must keep a certain distance from her and be firm with her when she slacks in her work. But I am sympathetic to her plight, trying to make her feel better when her employers verbally abuse her. A person in her situation has to put up with a lot of nonsense and injustice. If something gets lost in the house, she has to endure the humiliation of suspicious glances and implied words, even if she is not accused outright. Sometimes she has to put in longer hours and do more than what her job requires, without any extra pay. Her various employers bully her, not caring that she is working hard for a living, and that she is a young girl who does much more than what middle class and upper class girls of her age can do. I noticed that with time, the women here start behaving as if they own their maids. It is no different with Maria. Her employers also behave as if she is a slave, not an employee. She has to put up with lies, slander, verbal abuse, exploitation, constant bullying, and if she answers back out of anger, she is labelled as rude and threatened with job termination. She doesn’t even have the right to defend herself, because she was born at the wrong end of the social spectrum. It is heart wrenching to see her frustration and despair at such times, but her youth helps her to stay upbeat and find joy in little things.
Because of their dedication and hard work, Maria’s father was finally able to get their house built. So when he retired from the army recently, they left the army headquarters they were living in and moved to their own house, even though it’s only partially completed. They now take a bus to come and go to work. Because he must work, Maria’s father is now a janitor in the vegetable market.
Seeing Maria and her family work so hard and pool their incomes to run their home in such difficult economic times, filled me with respect and admiration for them. It cannot be easy for them to go to work in large houses and see the women of the house wearing designer clothes that cost more than their entire monthly incomes; to see the men of the house drive fancy cars while for them taking a rickshaw is considered splurging; to see how the rich enjoy imported food while they can only wonder what these foods must taste like. Even if they are glad of the hand-me-downs these employers give them, a part of them must still feel humiliated to receive used clothes.
Parveen and Maria are illiterate, yet they could teach us a thing or two about strength, hard work, and patience. Knowing the trials these two women go through and the sacrifices they make on a regular basis, has raised me from the mundane trivialities of life and made me realise that whatever situation Allah (SWT) places us in is our destiny. Now, instead of worrying and complaining about issues that are beyond my control, I try to be patient and pray to Allah instead.
Ayahs 5 and 6 of Surah Ash-Sharh, The Solace, always speak to me: “Indeed, with hardship [will be] ease.”
Allah (SWT) is telling us that all His servants will face trials, but with those trials will come relief; things won’t always be the same. Therefore, the righteous praise and thank Allah (SWT) for the good in life, and bear the hardships with patience and gratitude. May we all be of those who thank Allah day and night. Ameen.
Umm-e-Ismaeel has lived in Saudi Arabia, America, and now resides in Pakistan. She is an ESL teacher and freelance writer; her work has been published in various magazines and ezines. In her free time she likes baking, painting and gardening with her son.