Muslim Domestic Workers in India Change Names Out of Fear – Al Jazeera English | Directory Mayhem

New Delhi, India – Munni Begum was 10 when her mother forced her to drop her last name. At the time she didn’t understand why. She often accompanied her mother and grandmother as they juggled multiple cleaning, cooking and caring jobs in the Indian capital, New Delhi.

But it wasn’t until Begum, now in her late 50s, who started doing housework herself, that she learned that all the women in her family had to adopt Hindu-sounding names at work to survive.

“They just won’t hire us,” she told Al Jazeera. “They hated us Muslims. Some of them told us to our faces that we are bad people. So Munni was a name that went well with both of them [Hindu and Muslim] communities.”

Begum recalls that her widowed mother wore sari and bindi to work, traditionally associated with Hindu culture. “And my sister used to even work on Eid al-Fitr to avoid suspicion,” she said.

After working as a domestic worker for more than 40 years, Begum said she faced discrimination and abuse in many Hindu and Jain households. She said she was turned away from many households because of her Muslim identity.

“I had to raise my children on my own, my husband did not support me at all. It was so difficult,” she said.

Everywhere I go they ask me about my identity. I know how to prepare food but they don’t give me the cooking job because I’m Muslim.

through Shabana Raeel, Muslim domestic servant

The number of domestic workers in India – where Muslims make up about 15 percent of the 1.5 billion population – is unknown.

The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, says while official statistics put the number at five million, it could be anywhere from 20 million to 80 million.

According to another report, nine out of ten Muslim workers in India make their living in the informal economy. The 2020 study by the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) and Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) found that more Muslim women work in the informal sector than women of other religions in India .

India’s domestic workers generally face rampant caste discrimination and even violence. Employers often restrict workers’ access to kitchens, washrooms, elevators, and even their places of worship. There are separate utensils that workers can use to eat.

But Muslim workers continue to be marginalized because of their religious identity, said Anita Kapoor, activist and secretary-general of the Shehri Mahila Kamgar Union (Municipal Domestic Workers’ Union) in New Delhi.

“Many workers have to hide their name and identity to get and avoid a job [further] Discrimination,” she told Al Jazeera.

“And not only does the worker have to change their name, but also their children, who often accompany their mothers to work, and their husbands, who sometimes do jobs like driving in the same households. So her whole family has to go through this struggle.”

Begum’s daughter Shahana Parveen, also a domestic worker, recalled a childhood incident when she accidentally used the traditional Arabic greeting “Assalam-o-alaikum” (peace be upon you) at her aunt’s workplace.

“My aunt immediately scolded me and said, ‘Shut up! Use Namaste!’ (a Hindu greeting). I think I got her into trouble that day,” laughs the 35-year-old.

Seema, formerly known as Shahana Parveen, outside her friend’s home in New Delhi [Romita Saluja/Al Jazeera]

Married to a Hindu, Parveen changed her name to Seema, a Hindu name. “I changed it when I married a Hindu man,” she clarifies.

“Personally, I never had the problems that my mother and aunts had. Even before my marriage, I never had to hide my identity. [Fortunately] I have worked for many good families – Hindus as well as Muslims.”

However, the situation was not so favorable for Shabana Raeel. The 28-year-old recently had to give up her job because of the discrimination.

“Everywhere I go, they ask me about my identity. I know how to prepare food but they don’t give me the cooking job because I’m Muslim. Just recently, someone told me, “We don’t hire Muslims. You are untouchable to us. And the Brahmins (the highest caste in Hinduism) don’t even let us enter their houses.”

Muslim domestic workers
Shabana Raeel had to stop working as a domestic worker because of religious discrimination [Romita Saluja/Al Jazeera]

Raeel is facing financial difficulties and has struggled to keep up his job in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“For one of the jobs, my employer was very good, but her father-in-law used to fight with her about my hiring. He told me not to clean his room or cook for him. He mocked me for my meat eating habits. Finally, one day I asked him, ‘Don’t Hindus eat meat?’”

A study conducted earlier this year by the Led By Foundation, aimed at increasing the representation of India’s Muslim women in the workforce, says a Hindu woman in the informal sector is twice as likely to receive a positive response than her equally qualified Muslim counterpart. The report, titled Hiring Bias: Employment for Muslim women at Entry-Level Roles, finds that there is a direct bias towards Muslim women in the hiring process.

“Of all my clients, only one hired a Muslim domestic worker,” Shashi Chaudhary, who runs a recruitment agency in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.

“So many Muslim girls and boys are calling me about work. But what am I doing? Nobody wants to hire them. I feel so helpless. Sometimes I want to cry over their circumstances.”

So many Muslim girls and boys are calling me about work. But what am I doing? Nobody wants to hire them.

through Shashi Chaudhary, Recruitment Agency Owner in New Delhi

Parijat Pande, a resident of New Delhi, says he avoids hiring Muslim workers because he doesn’t want them near the family place of worship.

“It’s about the sanctity of the place. Someone from another religion may not know the do’s and don’ts that we follow. They also do not associate with [our] religious beliefs and beliefs.”

A young woman, who asked not to be identified, said she was forced to hire workers from her own community because of parental pressure. “I have no preference, but my parents and relatives often have such views about working with people of a particular religion or community,” she told Al Jazeera.

Tired of the daily humiliation, Raeel quit her job. “I just couldn’t do it. It felt so weird, so bad.” Her husband, who works as a driver, is now the sole breadwinner in the household.

Activist Kapoor notes that many Muslim workers over the years have started giving their children Hindu names so they don’t face similar challenges.

“Either they would give their children a name that is used in both communities, like Heena, or they would give their children two names, like Khushnuma and Khushi – one for the official documents and the other for everyday use,” she said Al Jazeera.

Sometimes, she says, employers change a worker’s name themselves. “Some of them give them such ridiculous names that it’s humiliating.”

The pandemic made the hardship worse

All workers say the pandemic has significantly increased their challenges. During the long lockdowns, domestic workers across the country lost their jobs, falling into a vicious cycle of debt and struggling to get food on the table. With no strong labor laws and comprehensive welfare programs to protect them, many relied on the help of nonprofit organizations or a few benevolent employers.

Ruksana Sheikh, who has been a domestic worker for 20 years, says: “Two kind employers gave me 1,000 rupees ($13) every month. That, along with some help from [Kapoor and other workers’] Unions helped us survive.”

Normally she would do four jobs to earn around 10,000 rupees (US$125) a month, but now she only does two.

However, what she is most concerned about at the moment is the education of her children. “After the pandemic, everything went online. I have three children and only one phone. How to manage their classes on a simple phone? And coincidentally, when the internet stops working or the limit is exhausted, the study goes completely wrong.”

Although most schools in Delhi have now reopened, Sheikh said she still finds it difficult to afford the school and coaching costs.

Muslim domestic workers
Ruksana Sheikh is struggling to make ends meet after the pandemic [Romita Saluja/Al Jazeera]

At work, Sheikh uses Pinky, a non-religious name given to her by her grandmother before she was born. “Everyone calls me Pinky. But they are also well aware of my Muslim identity. At least they have my ID documents,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Never have I ever lied about or hidden my identity.”

Munni Begum says that although it has taken her years to assert her Muslim identity, she has hope for the younger generation. “Look, whatever you do, you’ll still be their servant,” she said.

Madina Akhtar, her relative and herself a domestic worker, agrees. “Younger women these days are learning to speak up, even though they have their own challenges.”

Akhtar had to work under a Hindu name for years after losing her husband. But not anymore, she says.

“I’m just tired of hiding my identity. In one of the households I had to go to the toilet once. And they turned me out on the street in the middle of the night because they don’t allow me to use theirs. So what’s the point of ‘being’ a Hindu if you can’t even use their toilet?”

Leave a Comment