Restructuring Caste and Class: Its Link With Patriarchy

This reflection paper is based upon my understanding of the reading ‘Of Rasoi ka kaam/Bathroom ka kaam: Perspectives of Women Domestic Workers’. “This reading begins with narrating how the idea of dirt is socially constructed. Dirt is something which has to be segregated from cleanliness.”[1] The author correlates dirt with domestic workers and brings several authors into a conversation to prove how dirt is related to caste and class based distinctions. “He also interviewed some domestic workers who claim that their employers are more concerned about hygiene than their caste.

But the author does not believe such a behaviour to be a sign of  reduced casteism. Because caste system in itself is based on notions of purity, cleanliness and hygiene. According to the author, such a prerequisite to employ a worker reinforces the caste hierarchies.”[2] Earlier, domestic workers were hired only according to their caste. However, this has gone through a slight change. Today, domestic workers believe that they are not chosen due to their caste. But in reality, caste hierarchy is being reimposed due to its deep connection with ‘dirt’. The difference between past and present is of ‘consciousness’. When people feel, they are not discriminating based on caste, they still might be doing so unknowingly on the basis of ‘hygiene’. This also tells us that caste system identifies itself with both ‘dirt’ and ‘jaati’. People have not detached themselves from the idea of caste and that the caste system has mutated itself to look apparently different. This exactly is the reason why so many people feel that the caste system has disappeared. The author has encouraged people to look at caste and dirt as an overlapping idea rather than isolating one another.  

When people show least concern in the caste of the domestic workers, they are not really overcoming the stereotypes but are restructuring it on the basis of cleanliness. For instance, a domestic worker can be a dalit and be hygienic and a brahim domestic worker can be unhygienic. In such a case, most people are likely to hire the worker who is hygienic. Hence, people are only starting to reject the stereotypical generalization that dalit workers are always dirty. However, they are not rejecting the caste system. “The author in this regard mentions the argument of Sara Dickey according to whom, it is the class system that employers are concerned about because class ultimately decides the purity of workers.”[3] I disagree with Sara Dickey. Although she is correct in saying that earlier, people’s notions of hygiene originated from caste and now, it develops from one’s class.

But this statement is not entirely correct due to two reasons: One, this kind ideology reinforces the caste ideology as it further promotes the idea of cleanliness in a domestic worker. Second, that Dickey has failed to understand that the common origin of caste and class is the concept of dirt. Earlier, the concept of dirt and doing a dirty job gave rise to caste and now, it gives rise to class.

Today, this class, again becomes an indication of one’s hygiene which Sara Dickey is claiming. She might be correct to some extent in saying that class decides hygiene because it is universally accepted that a person belonging to a higher class is more hygienic than a person belonging to a lower class.  However, she has ignored the common seed (the idea of dirt) which gives birth to class and caste. Hence, there has been a shift in what originates from the idea of dirt(caste to class) but not necessarily in the origin of it(dirt). Due to lack of understanding about these complexities, we end up deepening the practices of untouchability and caste system.

“After these discussions, the author describes the idea of a household space and tells how dirt is supposed to remain outside the physical boundaries of house. If dirt is allowed to enter and co-exist the way the family members exist, it would vanish the purity of household space. He says that the reason domestic workers are treated like untouchables because people want to create boundaries and separate the hygienic from the unhygienic. According to the author, the most undesirable worker communities are muslims and jamadars.”[4] Narrating an example from my life, I have seen multiple times that some castes lead a very nomadic life and hence, people are hesitant to hire them. They are afraid that they might run away, even if their addresses are police verified. This shows how stereotypes about a particular caste is generalized. The above discussion helps us realise that it is not just class which the employers take notice of but also the caste and religion. Hence, it is very difficult to say that the caste and religion is ignored by the employers.

I also want to add to the idea of dirt by citing an example from my personal life. One of my mother’s acquaintance who had shifted from north india had started staying near our home. She had this view that maids in north India were more hygienic than in Navi Mumbai only because they were fairer. On relating this example to the reading, I have realised that the idea of dirt not just gives rise to caste but also to racism.

This person had rejected several maids only due to their skin colour and had complained of finding it hard to get a fair skinned maid. Just, like caste, racism also originates from the idea of dirty and different. Alike caste, fair skin tone is also used to decide the class of people. One of the persons of my almost my age was not ready to accept that the vegetable seller in the bazaar could be fair and beautiful. This also demonstrates how intricately the society had tied class and beauty. These examples point out how racism, class and caste take root from the idea of dirt.

“The author of the paper has laid down the perspectives of women domestic workers and has shown how their ideas of ‘ganda’ and employers’ idea of ‘dirt’ formulates and organizes the sector of domestic worker. According to the interviews he took, the domestic workers work in selective houses only. Employers’ caste, religion, native place, sociocultural status and even sexuality is used by the workers decide their work place.”[5] “For example, a hindu worker would avoid working at a muslim employers’ home because they believe that their homes are impure and unhygienic.

A higher caste worker would also not work at the home of a lower caste worker. This notion exists only because workers also have an idea of what they consider ‘ganda’ and what they consider as a suitable work environment. There is also a division within workers with regards to who does rasoi ka kaam and who does bathroom ka kaam.”[6] The former considers themselves to have a better status than the latter. “Furthermore, the author tries to argue how the workers within a household space have unequal claims over a property. He gives example of a permanent worker who has an upper hand in the house when compared to the part-time worker who only cleans the bathroom.”[7]

These divisions are present in the society but they do not shock me as much as the employers’ sexuality does. In the society, I live in, many maids do not work in houses because the men of those houses have had extra marital affairs or the women there are suspected to be bar dancers or sexually active. Our maid was reluctant to work at a home where a couple was staying in a live-in relationship. Some domestic workers have also expressed that working in these homes can be a threat to their security. According to most of them, their employers’ sexual life defines their reputation in the society. Hence, domestic workers avoid working for employers who are considered sexually immoral. Domestic workers also define such people as ‘gandi aurat’ or ‘ganda aadmi’. Furthermore, domestic workers also consider their co-workers who might be sexually involved as ‘ganda’ or ‘dirty’.

What I can cull out from the overall discussion is that sexuality plays an immensely important role for domestic workers to decide their workplace because according to them sexuality determines the sociocultural status of their employer. Secondly, workers also feel that they have a status in the society and that working without considering certain things like sexuality can be detrimental to their status. Thirdly, workers derive their respect from their employers also. If they work at a home which fits as the perfect work place according to their imagination, they would be agree to work there. Sometimes, these workers can also resist, if they are asked to do something that does not fit into their caste based status. “For example, a worker may get offended if they are asked to do bathroom ka kaam as their caste allows them to do rasoi ka kaam only.”[8] “This shows that workers take pride in doing ‘rasoi ka kaam’ and consider ‘bathroom ka kaam’ inferior and dirty. Author claims that by showing their defensive side, they try to push themselves away from the disrespect their work brings to them. These examples indicate that the ideas of dirt are not just one-sided but are embedded in everyone.”[9]

The whole idea of the author was to convey the dynamics of purity and pollution. He also tells how the domestic workers find it awkward when they are treated as ‘untouchables’ or are completely separated from the household space. But as discussed above, the workers in a house also discriminate each other.

This is completely dependent on the nature of task. The more respectable the job of the worker in the eyes of society, the more power he has. This paper also lays out the dynamics of power which is dependent upon the nature of the task an individual performs. The employer is always at the highest level. This social constructed hierarchy is the ranking of the tasks which decides ones’ respect and ability in the society. Higher the rank, higher would be the respect that the profession fetches you. In this hierarchy, workers are placed at the lowest level. I consider the hierarchy of tasks the reason for such discrimination faced by the domestic workers. Even if people do not discriminate on the basis of caste, they will still consider the tasks lower in the ranking, less useful. By doing so, we are only readjusting and reinforcing the caste ideologies.

The particular question in my mind after reading the paper was that what could be the ideal work environment for a domestic worker? And what is it that can resolve the doubts of workers’ hygiene in the minds of people. The first step would be to stop classifying one job as more respectable than other and give equal importance to all the tasks. The next step could be to detach ourselves from the concept of dirt. Thirdly, we must avoid creation of boundaries between the workers and employers. This would instil comfort within workers and will create a good work environment for them. We must realise that just as we would not want our work environment to be discriminatory, the workers also expect the same thing.

The next analysis of the author was about why the job of domestic workers is not considered respectable. “According to the author, household labour is very sacred for a woman. Performing these tasks in someone else’s house in exchange of money would amount to selling this pure labour which is extremely shameful.”[10] This reminds me that the society perceives a woman, modern, if she can manage her professional and personal life well. However, domestic workers are not seen in the category of modern women even when they fit into the requirements of a respectable modern women: Taking care of her job and family at the same time. Drawing parallel between a woman working in an office and a maid is extremely important to realise how we consider women in office a necessity and a maid an inherent threat.

The difference between these two women is only of caste and class. The workers are mocked for their dressing sense, language and their job. Saying that a woman looks like a maid, is considered an insult for a woman. Workers themselves are ashamed about the work they perform. Some of them even lie to their families about their job. All these instances demonstrate how the connection of dirt with nature of task can produce the effect of caste and class and can bring disrespect to people. I have not only learnt a lot about the power relations that exists but have also enjoyed the reading because I could relate everything well with my life. In totality, the author has convinced me on the point that caste system still prevails in India and that, it is playing a key role in managing the sector of domestic workers.

[1] Sonal Sharma, Of Rasoi ka Kaam/Bathroom ka Kaam: Perspectives of Women Domesric Workers, vol. no. 7, Economic and Political Weekly, 52, 53 (2016).

[2] Ibid, 54.

[3] Ibid, 53.

[4] Ibid, 56.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 57.

[7] Ibid, 57.

[8] Ibid, 57

[9] Ibid, 57.

[10] Ibid, 58.

Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.

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