In the simple yet stunning photographs of Jannatul Mawa, a woman-activist photographer from Bangladesh brings together shared affinities of two different women belonging to different worlds of caste, class and sometimes religion, yet bound by the patriarchal notions of being a ‘woman’ and their defined relationship to ‘domestic space’.Interestingly, these photographs also raise a specific set of questions pertaining to female identity and its marginalisation within patriarchal societies. For example, does labour performed by women within domestic spaces have any economic value? How, over a period of time within patriarchal societies sexualised division of labour has become ‘naturalised’ and confined women’s labour to domestic and private spaces? How caste is entangled with sexual division of labour within domestic domains?
In Jannatul Mawa’s series ‘close distance’, we as viewers for the first time witness maids sharing space with their women employers within the same frames. Such contrasting images point towards the unequal power relationship subjects share with each other, their interdependency and their power negotiations in their everyday encounters. Through the body language of subjects, this power relationship not only gets communicated within the photographs but also refers to the patriarchal forces at work in shaping the ‘identity’ of these women with which they perceive themselves and their roles in the patriarchal society in which they exist. In a contemporary society such as ours ours, even if working, educated and upper caste women get replaced by lower caste women for lowly waged demeaning domestic labour but still household work, cooking and nurturing remains largely the concerns and ‘skills’ of the ‘women’ especially among the middle and lower class strata. Governing or labouring within domestic spaces by women points towards the ‘naturalisation’ of sexual division of labour comfortably practiced in our society. No wonder, when it comes to ‘professional skills’ of cooking in professional kitchens or environment in the corporate hotel industry, chefs turn out be largely men with heavy salaries and perks.
Being a ‘maid’ or ‘domestic servants’ in middle class homes of counties like India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, means providing cheap labour without fixed working hours, salary and leave structure. As pointed out by Nivedita Menon, domestic labourers or work in south Asian countries bear the brunt of both feudal hierarchy and capitalist exploitation. In the first all-India survey of non-unionised female sex workers conducted recently, seventy one percent of women said they had moved voluntarily to sex work after having found other kinds of work to be more arduous and ill-paid. The largest category of prior work was that of domestic workers. In other words, a large number of women in the sample had found being a domestic servant to be more demeaning, exhausting and ill-paid than sex work¹. By bringing visibility to maids along with their woman employees in ‘close distance’, Jannataul Mawa brings forth the entanglements of caste, economy, patriarchy and women subjugation within it, which has kept patriarchal forces intact in our society over the
– Sameena Siddiqui