Did Shiney Ahuja rape his maid? I can’t say I know the answer to that question. But do I believe Ahuja when he says he didn’t rape his maid? Certainly not. My answer stays the same even though the maid reversed her statement earlier this week and suddenly announced, after a year, that Ahuja didn’t rape her.
For a moment let’s put aside the CSI-style semen/DNA evidence. Among the things Ahuja has said in his defence is that he doesn’t have a criminal record and that he comes from a good family. His wife has defended him through this past year.
The perfect wife: Shiney Ahuja and Anupam arrive at a hearing in June. Sandeep Mahankal/Hindustan Times
Alas, the abysmal criminal record of the nation’s “good families” vis-à-vis their domestic help goes against the actor when we wonder about the truth in this case. Besides, unluckily for Ahuja, Indian men are known serial offenders when it comes to their inability to distinguish consensual sex from rape. And Indian women have a reputation for ignoring the misdemeanours of their spouses.
If your eye is tuned, the horror stories are everywhere.
There’s the 11-year-old domestic worker who was tortured with a hot iron rod and whose head was banged against the wall. The 10-year-old who was burned and starved. The 12-year-old who was tortured, raped and then committed suicide. All these cases happened in the homes of “good families”; often the husband and wife were both responsible for the crimes.
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We live in a country of sexual predators where our neighbours, relatives, fathers—all from families as good as Ahuja’s—routinely stalk our children. What chance does a poor, uneducated, young, live-in maid have in this perverse power structure?
Domestic workers are the largest sector for female employment in urban India. National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data from 2005 says there are 4.75 million domestic workers, but the actual number is estimated to be much higher—maybe even as many as 90 million. Most of these are women.
The women who work at our houses are often underage, migrants in their first big city and don’t know the first thing about fighting back. Take the case of the Bangalore-based software engineer and his wife who allegedly poured hot oil over their 14-year-old household help from West Bengal. The girl said they routinely hit her, made her work without clothes, and from 4.30am until midnight. She was eventually rescued by a rights organization.
Of course we’re not the only ones who treat our help worse than slaves. Recently a Saudi couple hammered 24 nails into their Sri Lankan maid when she complained she was working too hard!
Stree Jagruthi Samithi’s Geeta Menon has worked with women for the last two decades and in 2006 she began the hard work of organizing Bangalore’s domestic workers. Menon points out that even supposedly empowered Indian women rarely share stories of abuse and sexual harassment. Domestic workers have even less confidence—and no real forum—to share the truth. “The issue is a very hidden one, the women don’t know how to talk about these things. It happens in the privacy of the home and usually stays there. Even the sexual harassment guidelines don’t apply because there is no workplace,” she says.
Often, says Menon, the harassment can even come from older men in the employer’s household. When domestic workers are asked to take care of older family members, they may find themselves being taken advantage of. When they protest, they are threatened with the loss of employment. Or accusations of theft.
The lack of any institutional support structures only makes matters more difficult. “Everything is very, very arbitrary and based on an individual’s personal relationship. If I’m nice I’ll treat her as a human being,” says Menon.
Many of you Lounge readers from good families may not be guilty of torture or sexual harassment. But how many of you can say your maid has all the basic rights of any self-respecting worker—paid leave, health insurance, a weekly off, regular increments, at least minimum wages? Why not start by upgrading her from maid to housekeeper since she is responsible for helping you run your home.
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