Did you know, readers of this column, that white people still think people of colour feel less pain than them? Medical students in the United States were surveyed once and most of the white students, who were on their way to becoming certified doctors, all thought that people of colour—brown people like us, or black people—didn’t feel pain as intensely at white people did. That is the reason why in many parts of the world people of colour are routinely given less pain medication by doctors. Women are treated similarly, and women of colour have it twice as bad. But before any of us pat ourselves on the back, Notes from the Underground would like to bring it home with a smack, because here at home, here in our comfortable middle or upper middle class homes, homes where we know enough English to read a column and have a device with internet and rarely, if ever, clean our own toilets—here we think the same about our servants. “Those people” don’t feel so much pain. “Those people” are used to sharing one room with six other family members, so if their rooms in our homes are wide enough only to fit a charpai in then well, it’s better than sharing, isn’t it? If there are two people to a bed in a public hospital then at least it’s better than being on the floor, no? Back “there”, where “they” live, in villages, they haven’t even got indoor toilets so it’s not entirely terrible that in our homes they might have to share one bathroom with a whole lot of other people. Or women have to share with men, that sort of thing. Or, in the case of sixteen year old Uzma, having to sleep in a bathroom, because in the Naeem’s household, there just wasn’t any room for a teenager to put a mattress down for the night.

For a moment, let’s put aside the philosophical debate of hiring an underage child for domestic, or any work. Let’s pretend that a sixteen year old doing housework is a normal part of life. According to various press reports, Uzma was routinely starved and beaten. She died from head injuries sustained after her employer bashed her on the head with a steel implement—some reports say a ladle, some a plate. Some reports say Mahrukh Naeem kept hitting Uzma with it until she collapsed. Some reports say Mahrukh, her sister in law and one daughter kept Uzma locked in the house and didn’t take her to the hospital when she fell unconscious, electing instead to revive her at home with electric wires. Since none of these women are medical professionals and electric wires are not defibrillators, they only succeeded in electrocuting an already injured young woman. Predictably, she died. Even more horribly predictably, the Naeem family dumped the girl’s body in an open drainage canal, because the indignity of her life could only be compounded by further indignity in her death. The police found Uzma’s body soon enough, and the Naeem women confessed.

It is the sign of our wicked times that we treat our house help like this. People like to clutch their pearls about transgender people or homosexuals being a sign of doomsday, but the actual harbinger of doom is just how heartless we are, time and time again, to people we think aren’t good enough. Poverty is the great identifier of worth for us, because we are so spineless and mealy-brained we think that money is some kind of divine gold star for us. If you can afford servants then the servants better know it. People who define their power based on who they can crush with impunity are the real threat to the moral and ethical fabric of our society. It isn’t even the drug dealers or the bootleggers, those easy moral targets. It’s women like Mahrukh Naeem, who thought starving and beating a child in her care was an acceptable thing to do. It’s the people who think seven thousand rupees a month is a perfectly acceptable salary for a housemaid. We’re all part of the problem. We think “they” don’t deserve it, because “they” aren’t good enough…because they are poor. There’s no other reason. We don’t particularly discriminate about education, morals, lifestyle or aesthetics within our class, so the only reason has to be money, or lack of it. “They” should make our beds, smoothing down three-hundred thread count sheets and cosy duvets, but sleep on the floor with a lumpy polyester quilt from Ichhra and be thankful. They should cook our organic chickens, but eat daal themselves. They should know their place, and squat on the carpet whilst we sit on chairs. They should politely refuse when you offer them tea.

I often think about refugees, many people who are educated professionals but have to work menial jobs in their adopted countries, because they haven’t got the paperwork or support to do the jobs they are actually qualified to do. How would my life be, if, God forbid, I had to flee my comfortable house, leave my multiple graduate degrees hanging on the wall of my study, the journals that published my work, my computer, everything, behind. What if I found myself in a strange country where nobody would give me a job teaching English literature, and I had to scrub toilets instead. What would I want for myself, for my children? Fate can do this to anyone. Anything can happen. The privileges we enjoy are ours only through accident of birth. Even if you had to work your butt off to get where you are now, you were probably still better off than someone like Uzma. So what do we owe each other, and those less privileged than ourselves? How do we redress the balance, when we have so much and others have so little? We start with holding ourselves accountable. We start with fairness and kindness. We stop rolling our eyes when the maid has to go home because her little grandson fell off the roof. We don’t call people ‘driver’ or ‘guard’, we say their names. Better is what better does, and we sure can do much better.


The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.