A day in the life of Nasreen kaamvaali

Published: February 10, 2012

When Nasreen cries she mustn’t cry for a movie, for her dignity or a bad day, she should cry for her sorry lot. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

Get-togethers at our place had increasingly become as monotonous John Grisham’s novels – the same faces, the same stories. That was before a fecund family brought along its 12-year-old maid who doubled as a nanny.

Nasreen had a clean face, shampooed hair and possibly her best dress on, but bent by the weight of a chubby baby, she seemed like a blot on the landscape. She couldn’t be part of light-hearted flirtation, political discussions or trade cooking recipes, so she just sat in the corner and smiled. For a pubescent girl stuck with a two-year-old who, when not eating or sleeping, could only utter nonsense and liked relieving himself in his pants, she seemed rather too happy.

After downing the main course (which thanks to my family’s culinary provincialism is almost always limited to nihari) people melted away to different parts of our house. Nasreen went with the girls to watch some silly movie.

Half an hour later Nasreen was told to leave the TV lounge. After investing 30 minutes in a movie, no one would want to miss the ending, and neither did Nasreen. She used her best defense:

Acha baji, ab mei bilkul chup. (Alright baji, I won’t speak now.)

Tumhay samajh nahi aa rahi? Jao – idiot! (Don’t you understand? Leave, you idiot!)

This is where another choti baji, unable to grasp the concept of a defiant maid, inquired:

“What is she?”

I couldn’t decide whether she is linguistically challenged or just downright inconsiderate. Though the way she rolled her eyes back into her head after saying this, I’d say the odds are strongly in favour of the former.

Acknowledging all the hisses and frowns, Nasreen smiled but didn’t leave. Thus, it was decided that hostilities couldn’t be suspended. The women who paid her  salary continued to discuss her in English.


“She is a real b**** right?”

It was a surprise when Nasreen lost her temper but managed to stop at just convincing herself, rather loudly though, that the two ladies bore uncanny resemblance to female canines as well.

Moments later, bari baji barged in and asked Nasreen to find herself better company in the drawing-room. Before leaving she considered it relevant to add that the maid was “really very foul-mouthed”. Nasreen had missed the movie, was shamed in front of everyone and then subjected to the torture of a mortally boring conversation. However, none of these could be the cause of her bloodshot eyes.

When Nasreen cried she didn’t cry for a movie, for her dignity or a bad day, she cried for her lot in life. It’s not one lost evening she has to mourn; it’s the evening of tomorrow, of the day after tomorrow and probably the rest of her unmarried life.

In Lahore alone, there are hundreds of Nasreens. Serving tea before the sun looks down upon empty streets; outside elite schools with their mistresses who can’t carry their babies any longer than nine months and at davats sitting in kitchens with toddlers. It’s such a shame that while Cossette has survived Les Miserable, Jean Valjean hasn’t.

When a 9-year-old boy working for a close relative decided he had had enough of washing plates, his uncle, who worked as a driver for the family decided to ‘bring him to his senses’ by cutting his ear off. And then my aunt, an otherwise accommodating and sensitive woman, after expressing the customary horror at the use of such persuasive arguments, turned to the child-servant and asked:

“We haven’t been cruel to you, have we? You don’t starve, you get good sleep.”

It was strange that it would escape her that food and clothes don’t make a home for a 9-year-old.

I don’t know what one needs to do to help this wretched lot out of this pit, but I do know what one doesn’t need to do: treating them as slaves. And to know this, one doesn’t need to revisit the sixth day of creation, one doesn’t need government laws, and one certainly doesn’t need guts. All one needs is shame –  only a little of it.


Have you ever employed a child as a domestic worker in your home?

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Orr Ali

Orr Ali

The author is an undergraduate student at LUMS, pursuing a degree in Bsc. Electrical Engineering.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://www.elucidations.org Abu Bakr


  • Farrukh Shabbir

    You really need to stop gawking on Maids specially other people’s maids. All I got from this blog is, mean women being mean and a nymph-o-observing kid gawking at a Maasi about whom he has no clue, what so ever! Recommend

  • Bee

    People believe that “Roti,Kapra,Makaan” is all these servants need.Recommend

  • http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/author/430/faraz-talat/ Faraz Talat

    Very moving..

    Charity begins at home. It’s ludicrous talking about ways to fix the country and help the poor, when you can’t even treat the people working in your own home with respect and dignity.Recommend

  • ABC

    This is so true. My aunt has several maids at her place who take care of the whole house, the babies, and everything else. They have been physically abused by their fathers and their husbands and they work, just to escape from the violence within their homes. However, my aunt and her daughters, who talk about Allah and His Messenger day and night make fun of their maids and over burden them by extra load of work.


  • Kinzah

    a great piece to write..we are often worried about the big bad world for our loved ones but fail to see these innocent people as humans…my mother has never had the heart to put such a young child to work, she always said that i can never tell my child to go play outside and make anothers’ child go work in the house at the same time..there was always that counter argument that at least these kids are working and not begging or that if not you someone else will hire them…but the fact remains…these children loose their innocence at a much early age..how would we feel if we were made to feel so demeaned? probably not nice…Recommend

  • blah

    Simple, stop the production. Recommend

  • Ahmed Bilal

    I am all against the child nannies stuf but it is also a fact tht this MAASI CULTURE has becum a real CARTEL now being the main source of robberies n theft ..as they know they are the weaknes of evey house hold..thanx to the house wives new habit of not working n being lazy…Recommend

  • Ahmad

    I think its time we stop ignoring the injustice around us and at least speak against injustice. Really highlighted an issue that is not given much attention.Recommend

  • harri

    Thought provoking piece, a good read. we are celebrating the fact which the slavery era has ended long ago… but slavery has just changed form and exist all the same as before!!!!! Truly we should have little shame!!Recommend

  • Parvez

    ……but the fact is that we are a shameless lot, generally speaking. On how we got this way, people could write volumes. Your suggestion of getting a dose of shame injected into us as a remedy, sounds nice. Now suggest something doable. Recommend

  • alicia

    I don’t get why Pakistani women can’t do their own work? In the west the so- called westren women who have no ethics or values according to our society wake up at the crack of dawn, get their kids ready, make breakfast, drive them to school, clean the house, cook food, go to work, go grocerry shopping for their children, water their plants, wash and hang their clothes out etc.
    Infact its not only westren women most people around the world excluding South Asia, Arab countries and some few other areas do their work themselves. why are Pakistani women majority of whom do not have jobs so lazy? Recommend

  • http://- Abid P. Khan

    I still have to see a Paki woman run after a bus if she is late. Recommend

  • Homa

    Proud of you for your humane awareness.Recommend

  • Devil’s Advocate


    I understand your point. However, even as a student in the US, all of my flatmates just pool money to pay a woman for cleaning the house. It is not something I introduced, it was a system already in place. It depends on what your priorities are. Some students decide they don’t have time to clean the house and would rather pay someone to do it for them. The woman actively advertises that she is available for student house cleaning. She wants the work. It benefits both. One of my friends works as a baby-sitter. It is not that the concept is altogether alien here.

    Pakistani women are not lazy. Most of them cook (usually for joint households), all of them do grocery shopping and take care of their children WHILE holding down jobs and getting no help from their husbands. Women in Pakistan are also somehow primary caregivers so taking care of the elderly becomes their responsibility alone. When you compare with the “west” (whatever that means), please note they have a elderly care system. You added “go to work” in your list of what western women do. They live in small, nuclear families, I assure you that their husbands help equally with house chores (older children do their own chores) and, this may seem like a little thing but is actually quite, quite significant, they have technological assistance. They do not even clean everyday (because of the climate here, there is less need to). If they need more help, they do hire it, hence the high frequency of day care centers and babysitters (if you listen to family talk, you will hear things like the need to align and extend school hours with work hours so that husbands and wives can better manage their day). Busier husbands and wives may even hire someone to clean the house. There are a lot of home cleaning organizations. I imagine they exist because there is a demand. The generalization and comparison was quite unhelpful.

    This article points out something entirely different. It refers to child labor and mistreatment of household help. There you can make a comparison of sorts. There is no child labor here and no one disrespects anyone else, regardless of their work.Recommend

  • http://Islamabad Nahyan Mirza

    We cannot compare the “Western World” with the socio-economic dynamic of Pakistan and India for that matter. We are not welfare states and the uneducated and poor classes which also existing in the US have to rely on unskilled labour at a young age to pay their way. In the US such a person would get social security and welfare benefits but not here. Domestic help is the only option and part of our economics. We cannot deny it… The only point is to treat our household help as humans and equals. We work in an office in a highrise office complex and still get told off by our bosses, that is replicated in our homes. I don’t consider household help as child labour. If not in my home, a poor 10 year old girl would in realistic terms be sitting on the roadside, facing the evils of society, sexually abused, mistreated, begging, and slowly engaged in a life of crime.. At least in my home she is living in a secure and caring environment, earning for her family and in good hands…. We must understand the ground realities of Pakistan before blaming the culture and system..Recommend

  • KM

    We just need to treat the help like human beings. The fact is that if these kids weren’t working they would be starving along with their siblings because their parents simply cannot afford to feed so many kids. They would be selling themselves or picking pockets, because their parents would certainly not be sending them to school. We need to educate these kids by buying them books and giving them lessons. They can help out but we must not give them too much work. The solution is that the uneducated lower classes should be educated and measures should be put in place so that they do not have so many kids. Recommend

  • Mekaal Aoun

    ppl wouldn’t know what her feelings are…. very well written Recommend