It was extremely sweet of the Supreme Court to say earlier this week that daughters-in-law should be treated like family members. India’s patriarchy needs periodic legal admonishments to remind it that the idea of marriage was not meant to be easy access to free bonded labour. I just wish the honourable court, increasingly the last word on a society in flux, had worded its reprimand a little more thoughtfully.

Don’t treat your daughter-in-law like a slave with no rights is what the country’s apex court meant to say in a case of dowry harassment that resulted in the suicide of an Indian woman who gave up hope. Don’t treat your daughter-in-law like your housemaid is what the judges actually said, according to newspaper reports. It’s a clear reflection of the fact that we still treat our household help like slaves.

This issue has been discussed more than once in this space but I’m a firm believer in the virtue of hammering home key themes. The Mint archives hold enough horror stories about the rape and torture of domestic help. I’m lucky that I work with people who seem to worry about the same things.

Earlier this month, writer Mayank Austen Soofi who prowls the city in search of tales for Lounge and for his blog The Delhi Walla, helpfully alerted his readers to rules around Members’ Domestic Employees (MDE) at the Delhi Golf Club: “MDE are not permitted in the Club House, Lounges, Annexe, Golf Course etc. Ayahs are only allowed to sit in the demarcated area near the swings. In case member wishes to give her food, member has to pick the food from the counter and only then, can be given to Ayahs. Ayahs are not allowed to pick up food from the Counter. Ayahs accompanying members and their children in the Swimming Pool area can sit on the bench in front of the Tomb. Ayahs are not expected to use any other area and not allowed inside the Change Room. Ayahs during non-winter months can use demarcated area to sit in the tiled area in the front lawn."

Most Indian clubs follow a similar apartheid theme year-round. And for those clubs that do allow the maid in the dining room, her employers will ensure she hovers over their table, on standby, in case they need to hand over their toddler at any point between appetizers and dessert.

In a recent post on Kafila, Lounge contributor Veena Venugopal raged about the Parle Gold Star biscuit ad, starring Amitabh Bachchan, where a male employee shows initiative and changes the brand of his employer’s biscuit without checking with him. The ad ends with Bachchan telling his domestic help: Next time, don’t think.

Venugopal argues that we are all bad employers as far as our household staff is concerned. “The only reason we have been able to get along so conveniently while treating our employees like servants is because we have managed to prevent them from thinking."

Policymakers have been working on improving the rights of domestics, standardizing pay, registering this mass of workers, mostly women, whose numbers are variously estimated. In her book Seeing Like a Feminist, author Nivedita Menon says there are about 15 million people employed in this industry.

But policy is only one aspect of this issue. And semantics only a starting point. Menon says even replacing the word “servant" with “domestic help" is misleading. “Make no mistake—these are servants. They are treated as less than human, less than pet animals," she emphasizes. As in other modern-day social mysteries like The Case of the Immutable Indian Man, the real solution to this one too is all in our head.

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