The notion of honor is also associated with women, but unfortunately, it is merely A pretext to deceive them and evade the duty of supporting them.
Everyone defines housekeepers as honorable women. They do not engage in prostitution or feed off showing their chests. Some even exaggerate their worth by adding phrases like widows even though their husbands are alive or raising orphans to elicit sympathy even though their children are not orphans. Perhaps they are married women with no children, or maybe they are not married at all.
In essence, no one recognizes their true worth or treats them as productive workers who earn a monthly or daily income. This unknown and unacknowledged income is not even included in national income figures. They are not listed in the ranks of employed workers, so they are outside the realm of Labor power; no union represents them or to which they can turn. They are not protected by health, social, or economic insurance. Even in a daily work contract, they fall victim to emotional categorization and exploitative employment.
Khulood, a 38-year-old woman, is a housekeeper in the Tijara district. Her day starts at 6:00 in the morning when she leaves her house with four other companions in misery. She must return home by 1:00 PM as the five workers are committed to a specific driver who also has a school schedule at the same time. Khulood works six days a week, and during peak seasons, her working hours can extend to 10 hours a day. Work becomes extremely exhausting and strenuous in these seasons despite appearing generally lucrative and income-generating.
Sickness is not allowed, fatigue is disregarded, work is to be done, and all risks are possible in an unsafe and exploitative work environment. Khulood does not forget how one of the employers expelled her from the house, suspecting she had COVID-19, without any attempt to verify. She also doesn’t forget her sister, who lost sensation in two fingers of her right hand due to a broken glass panel while cleaning it. The homeowner didn’t assist her that day; she left her to go to the clinic alone and didn’t even give her her work paycheck, which almost ended with the excuse that her weekly wages wouldn’t equal the value of the broken glass panel.
Some homeowners agree to postpone Khulood’s tasks, such as cleaning their bedroom windows, to the following week. However, some insist on Khulood completing all the homeowners’ requests. Most homeowners avoid inviting Khulood to the breakfast table, citing a lack of time. While this may seem understandable, it is unacceptable. Some women consider breakfast an additional loss added to cola’s wages, so they abstain.
The circle of violence against housekeepers expands, narrowing down on the most vulnerable. Violence transfers from mothers to daughters and daughters-in-law, not limited to just homeowners. There are strict boundaries, and everything comes at a price, even though justice is absent, even the right of a day or two off from exhausting work.
Aisha trained her daughter to work in households by frequently taking her to the houses where she worked. She insisted that her daughter’s new job be in the same neighborhood and perhaps the same building where her mother worked. She also trained her at home to remain silent, ignore mistreatment, and not respond to the homeowner’s insults. She repeatedly taught her to say ‘yes’ and ‘as you wish’ and to eat properly if invited. Everything is meticulously scripted, with an acceptance of extreme injustice. We might think it’s a world with just a few hours of work, but it’s a brutal and unjust world without regulations, protection, or even the slightest recognition of rights.
Aisha was overwhelmed by the enormity of the work she had to do. She worked outside the home every day for more than six hours, not counting the two hours or maybe more that Aisha wasted commuting. Her husband was unemployed, staying up at night and sleeping during the day. He refused to care for his mother, who had Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and countless other illnesses.
A bizarre idea crossed her husband’s mind, an idea he considered genius; they would marry off their eldest son, who was only 17 years old! In other words, he was still a child to their cousin’s daughter, who was 15 years old. The son’s wife would be responsible for the house, cooking, cleaning for the entire family, and caring for the elderly grandmother. With a foolishly wide smile, Aisha’s husband said to her, ‘You will rest and become a queen!’.
It was a bitter mockery. A queen? On what throne? Who will bear the burden of accumulated exhaustion? We will add to the family, what’s new? They will give birth to more kids; no one knows how many, and no one knows the extent of the miseries that will come with them. I alone must provide their food, clothing, health care, and education if there is a way to educate them. The solution was a cause for ridicule and even more frustration, a desire to disappear and escape from this harsh world.
Aisha rejected her husband’s so-called genius plan and wished for his quick death, or her own, as there seemed to be no escape from despair and misery except through death. Death became a solution, and there was no point in prolonging the agonizing and exhausting dying process, especially in the complete absence of support or participation. She could reject the plan because she was the only one capable of spending money. She decided to reject it so that the circle of violence wouldn’t expand, and she wouldn’t go from being the victim to becoming the oppressor.
Aisha says ‘the lady I work for in her house calls me sister. She tells the neighbors that her children don’t like her cooking and consider me skilled and unique.’ she laughs sarcastically and says, ‘What good does all this praise do me? Nothing at all, except more humiliation using insincere and fake politeness to pass on more requests and orders. And if my performance ever falters, she unleashes her anger and threatens to replace me with another worker, saying hundreds of workers wish to work for me.’
At 6:00 in the morning, twelve women sat in a rundown bus, all residing in the Jaramana camp. They were heading from their homes to the President Bridge, where the buses for the western neighborhoods of Damascus, known for their financial prosperity, were gathered. Six of them had been working for ten years or more in specific households, while the other four worked as cooks in homes where their employers preferred the workers to cook in their presence under their direct supervision. They prepared traditional dishes like kibbeh, stuffed grape leaves, Mahshi (stuffed vegetables), pastries, and Kersheh. These are traditional meals, but they require special skills and considerable effort.
Most of the workers are also committed to washing dishes and pots, and some of them wouldn’t leave the house until after serving lunch for the house residents and thoroughly cleaning the tables and kitchens. The remaining two women worked as daytime caregivers for two elderly ladies. They cooked for them, cleaned their rooms, and cared for their health by assisting them in walking or administering their medications on time.
One of the workers said, ‘The woman I care for is heavy, and no one helps lift her during washing or changing her diapers.’ This causes her immense and painful discomfort, and she feels that she will soon lose her ability to move due to the strenuous and harsh work.
The struggle is intense. Women from specific neighborhoods go daily, burdened with fatigue and requirements, to serve families capable of paying for particular services. However, the ability to pay does not necessarily mean providing enough for the workers. They are not entitled to natural rights as workers in any other field. Injustice intensifies here, where any worker who receives leftovers from the homeowner is considered to have gained a significant bonus and a great gift.
Mona, whose work is confined to the kitchen, says: ‘As soon as I started mixing the meat with Bulgur to prepare kibbeh, I felt like crying. The tenderness and coldness of the meat on my fingers awakened hills of deprivation. I wondered bitterly how many months had passed without my children eating meat. I won’t deny that the homeowner will offer me a piece or two to eat right here, but I will nibble on them until I almost choke. I’m embarrassed to refuse food with the excuse that I want my children to eat from it. The lady will consider it a subtle plea and a lowly request for more to provide for my children. The agony here is that I eat but never feel satisfied, yet even so, I wish I could hide the kibbeh pieces to give to my children later.
Housekeepers receive their wages daily. Some homeowners give a small compensation for transportation to a few workers, and others give small gifts on holidays. However, after deducting transportation costs, most housekeepers returned to their homes with only their daily wages.
Amina says, ‘My husband awaits me at the door. I bring him a pack of cigarettes. He used to seize all my earnings. Still, after he was diagnosed with diabetes, and my eldest son threatened once that he would kill him if he repeated his despicable act. We used to stay without food, medication, and even water because we bought it due to the absence of potable water in our miserable neighborhood. After that, my husband stopped seizing my earnings. Now, before heading home, I first stop at the local vegetable market and buy a pack of cigarettes for my husband and whatever affordable vegetables I can find to prepare lunch. One of my partners in misery taught me not to disclose the value of my full earnings or any meeker gifts or bonuses, no matter how small. I have a small and skinny wallet that never leaves my chest. I collect in it whatever little I have, just in case of an emergency or a sudden health issue that requires a hospital visit.” In a generous and joyful laugh, she said, ‘One day, I invited my daughters and grandchildren for ice cream’ she continued ‘we still laugh heartily when we remember that beautiful moment. I always think of repeating it despite the high cost and the skyrocketing prices of ice cream.’
None of the housekeepers mentioned a homeowner who granted any of them an additional day’s wage for a weekly day off. Even those who work continuously in the same houses do not receive payment for their day off, compensation for any injury, or even the cost of a prescription for urgent medical treatment. On the contrary, housekeepers are terrified of getting sick. They never show their fatigue, nor do they admit to any pain, fearing that they will have to stay at home without pay or any compensation, helpless to provide for their children and meet their long and exhausting list of needs.