Eid: not equal for all

By Muhammad Hamid Zaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The festival of meat indulgence and BBQ is often when those with means, even many in the middle class, throw parties that bring together families and friends, loved ones and acquaintances. The newspapers are full of new recipes and innovative ideas on what to do with which part of the meat and how to grill with perfection. Indeed, it is a time to strengthen bonds and bring people together. But despite what we may say, the joys of Eid are not universally available to all. The ability to celebrate and be with family follows our traditional social pattern of class, means and wealth.

Every Eid event I have ever gone to, and every place I am invited to, has people behind the scene who never get to celebrate the holiday. They are expected to be around, away from the family, at no extra pay. In the kitchen and on BBQ grills, these “lesser people” do not get the time off on a day that is supposedly meant to be a celebration with family. Domestic help, whether male or female, stay put, work round the clock and ensure that the parties are executed with maximum success. But their children, back in the village or away from the homes of their masters, continue to spend yet another Eid without their father or mother. Our social contract requires that the Eid experience for the children of the domestic helpers must always be devoid of the love and care of their parents. Their Eid is certainly less significant than those who can afford to employ their parents.

I personally know several domestic staff who have asked for time off at Eid, and in every single instance they were told that it would not be possible, and often there was a thinly veiled threat of termination of employment if they asked again. On the other end, when asked, the usual response of the employers is three-fold. First, it is bewilderment at the question, as in what do you mean? Or I am told by these employers, we have lots of people coming, how can they leave when they are needed the most? The second argument, which is equally troubling is about tradition. I am told, by friends and family, that “we have always had a party on Eid” — but tradition has always been a front for discrimination and unfairness, and is hardly a justification for bad behaviour. The final, and perhaps equally troubling response, where the employers pat their back for empathy, is that the staff are given days off a week or 10 days later to spend time with family. As if the day of Eid is for the rich, and for those who have lesser means, Eid can wait a few days or a week. When I said to my friends, why don’t you have your party after a week, the conversation didn’t go much further.

The point about Eid is part of the bigger issue regarding the casual, contract-free, prone-to-exploitation relationship that exists between household employers and employees. The concept of minimum wage that is touted by the government in nearly every budget breaks down completely in this regard. The job at home is often without any formal contractual structure, has long hours and is largely unregulated in terms of expectations. Issues of violence, verbal and physical harassment and lack of legal options in case of oppression by the employers make this a form of modern slavery. Recent stories about serious abuse of minors have shown that even in the houses of judges and public officials, the problem of exploitation is widespread.

Seventy years post-independence, we hope that we will create a more just society, that is, at the very least conscious of an equal access to happiness for all. Looking at our own households, and reconsidering family traditions may be the first step.

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