The ongoing protests and discussion on the right of Indian women to breathe freely, reminds me of several encounters with abused women working in homes. Ask your domestic help, or ‘maids’ as we commonly call them, and she will know a number of women who have faced sexual assaults at the ‘workplace’, but are not quite reassured by the legislation passed recently by the Lok Sabha to provide for protection of women at the workplace.
Sometimes, they don’t quite face an attack that can be qualified as such, but is a violation of their sexual rights in ways that are too common on the street as well as in our homes. This area, which has been left grey for centuries, is actually an integral part of the discussion on the rights of women and the measure of a liberated society.
In this undefined space, laws help, but only when the society is receptive and sensitive. There is often a thin line between sexual intimidation and assault, and a woman on the streets or at work, usually puts up with what is socially accepted before taking on the perpetrator.
The domestic workers are a classic example of this phenomenon. They suffer sexual abuse at the hands of their employers but rarely speak out. One of them once told me how the owner of the house, when alone, would enter the bathroom when she was washing clothes and hold her by her shoulders to make a point. When I told her to stop working at that place and volunteered to tell him off, she said her family will wonder what the fuss was all about – after all, he wasn’t exactly touching her at inappropriate places or assaulting her – and feared antagonising him. Eventually, she stopped telling me about him out of fear that I’d pressure her.
In another case, when the maid complained to the housing society secretary about the lecherous behaviour of one of her employers, the secretary scoffed and told her she was free to go to the police. Soon, she got stereotyped as a woman who complained too much and was kept at an arm’s length by most households.
Domestic workers make up 30 per cent of the female workforce in the country. Leaving them out of the Minimum Wages Act – as most states do – is bad enough, but they find the lack of security in the place of work more galling.
Every woman, rich or poor, has had to put up with some degree of violation on our streets. If she’s spared an outright assault, she is often subjected to that male gaze that can tear up her self-esteem in a flash and reduce her to a lava of helpless rage. Even when she does hit out, it does nothing to alleviate her nervousness the next time she steps out.
Applying any law to these indistinct zones is a tricky affair and demands a heightened sensibility that most of us are still to acquire. The new law would help, but as a society we need to crack this glass ceiling of indifference to our own kind.