The Intimate Strangeness Between South Asian Women And Their Housemaids

“Every day, maidservants take care of the beds and sofas with their hands but they are neither allowed to sit nor sleep on them.” posted on

1. This is Jannatul Mawa, a Bangladeshi social activist and documentary photographer who “believes in the medium’s potential to combat exploitation.”

2. Through her photo series Close Distance, she attempts to draw attention to the nuanced dynamic between South Asian women and their housemaids.

All photos taken in households in Dhaka (Bangladesh) and posted with permission from the photographer.

3. Having live-in domestic help is ubiquitous in the South Asian upper middle class. Because of the gendered nature of household work, the help is typically female.

4. These women usually relocate from rural parts of South Asia to big cities, where they are employed to live and work for affluent families.

5. In return for household chores — including cooking, cleaning, and running errands — they are recompensed with food, accommodation, and a modest salary*.

*Dropping as low as $15 per month in Bangladesh, according to Jannatul Mawa’s website, and averaging around $60 per month in urban homes around India.

6. While such working conditions would be considered absurd and unethical in the Western world, they are rarely questioned in South Asia.

Earlier this month, an Indian diplomat in the United States was arrested for underpaying her domestic help. In an article covering the scandal, The New York Times wrote, “It is not unusual in India for domestic staff to be paid poorly and be required to work more than 60 hours a week; they are sometimes treated abominably. Reports of maids being imprisoned or abused by their employers are frequent.”

7. Despite living under the same roof and in extremely close quarters, maids and their employers in South Asia are not considered equals.

8. On the contrary, there is usually an extremely codified distance between a housemaid and the woman she works for.

9. As Mawa puts it on her website, “Every day, maidservants take care of the beds and sofas with their hands but they are neither allowed to sit nor sleep on them.”

10. Similarly, while the maid cooks for the family, she eats alone and typically out of sight.

11. These inequalities are likely leftovers of the caste-ism that South Asia has been historically entrenched in, and symptoms of a classism still prevalent today.

12. This photo series is an attempt to capture the awkwardness and rigidity that ensues when those assumed distances are challenged.

13. Despite their familiarity with and affection for one another, housemaids would never be allowed to or be seen sitting on sofas alongside their employers.

14. And when they are made to, the results are thought-provoking, sad, and beautiful.

15. See the full series and more of Jannatul Mawa’s work here.

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