New Delhi, India – Munni Begum was 10 years old when his mother made him give up his surname. At that time, she didn’t understand why. She often accompanied her mother and grandmother as they juggled multiple cleaning, cooking and caring tasks in India’s capital, New Delhi.
But it wasn’t until Begum, now in her late 50s, started doing domestic work herself that she learned that all women in her family had to choose Hindu-sounding names in their place of residence. work to survive.
“They just don’t want to hire us,” she told Al Jazeera. “They hated us Muslims. Some of them told us to our face that we were bad people. Thus, Munni was a name that went well with both [Hindu and Muslim] communities”.
Begum recalls her widowed mother going to work wearing a sari and bindi that are traditionally associated with Hindu culture. “And my sister used to work even on Eid al-Fitr to avoid suspicion,” she said.
Having worked for more than 40 years as a domestic worker, Begum said she faced discrimination and insults in many Hindu and Jain homes. She said she was turned away from many homes because of her Muslim identity.
“I had to raise my children on my own, my husband didn’t support me at all. It was so difficult,” she said.
Everywhere I go, they ask me my identity. I know how to cook but they won’t give me the job of cooking because I’m a Muslim.
The number of domestic workers in India – where Muslims make up around 15% of its population of 1.5 billion – is unknown.
The International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations, says that while official statistics put the number at five million, there could be between 20 and 80 million domestic workers in India.
Another report states that nine out of 10 Muslim workers in India earn 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 the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) found that more Muslim women are engaged in the informal sector than women of any other religion in India. .
Indian domestic workers generally face rampant caste-based discrimination and even violence. Employers often restrict workers’ access to kitchens, restrooms, elevators and even places of worship. There are separate utensils with which workers can eat.
But Muslim workers are further marginalized because of their religious identity, said Anita Kapoor, activist and general secretary of Shehri Mahila Kamgar (Urban Domestic Workers Union) in New Delhi.
“Many workers have to hide their name and identity to get a job and avoid [further] discrimination,” she told Al Jazeera.
“And it is not only the worker who has to change her name, but also her children who often accompany their mothers to work, and their husbands who sometimes take jobs as drivers in the same households. Their whole family must therefore go through this struggle.
Begum’s daughter, Shahana Parveen, also a domestic worker, recalled an incident from her childhood when she accidentally used the traditional Arabic greeting “Assalam-o-alaikum” (peace be upon you) on her aunt’s workplace.
“My aunt immediately scolded me and said, ‘Shut up! Use Namaste!’ (a Hindu greeting). I think I caused them trouble that day,” the 35-year-old laughs.
Parveen is married to a Hindu and changed her name to Seema, a Hindu name. “I changed it when I married a Hindu,” she says.
“Personally, I never had to deal with the problems of my mother and my aunts. Even before my marriage, I never had to hide my identity. [Fortunately] I have worked for many good families, both Hindu and Muslim.
For Shabana Raeel however, the situation has not been so favorable. The 28-year-old recently had to quit her job due to discrimination against her.
“Everywhere I go, they ask me my identity. I know how to cook but they won’t give me the job of cooking because I’m a Muslim. It was only recently that someone said to me, “We don’t hire Muslims. They are untouchable to us. And the Brahmins (the highest caste in Hinduism), they won’t even let us into their homes.
Raeel is facing financial difficulties and has barely been able to continue working after the coronavirus pandemic.
“At one of the jobs, my employer was very good, but her stepfather used to fight with her over my hiring. He told me not to clean his room or cook for him. He taunted me about my habit of eating meat. One day I finally asked him, ‘Don’t Hindus eat meat?’ »
A study conducted earlier this year by the Led By Foundation, which aims to increase the representation of Indian Muslim women in the workforce, indicates that a Hindu woman in the informal sector is twice as likely to get a job. positive response than his equally qualified Muslim counterpart. The report titled “Hiring Bias: Employment for Muslim Women in Entry-Level Positions” notes that there is a direct bias against Muslim women in the hiring process.
“Of all my clients, only one has hired a Muslim domestic worker,” Shashi Chaudhary, who runs an employment agency in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.
“So many Muslim girls and boys call me for work. But what am I doing? Nobody wants to hire them. I feel so helpless. Sometimes I feel like crying over their situation.
So many Muslim girls and boys call me for work. But what am I doing? Nobody wants to hire them.
New Delhi resident Parijat Pande says he avoids hiring Muslim workers because he doesn’t want them around 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. Nor do they associate with [our] religious beliefs and faith”.
A young woman who requested anonymity said she was forced to hire workers from her own community due to parental pressure. “I don’t have any preferences, but my parents and relatives often have such an opinion about working with people of a particular religion or community,” she told Al Jazeera.
Tired of the daily humiliations, Raeel quit her job. “I just couldn’t do it. It was so weird, so bad. Her husband, who works as a driver, is now the sole breadwinner.
Activist Kapoor notes that many working Muslims have over the years started giving their children Hindu names so they don’t face similar challenges.
“Either they gave their children a name that is used in both communities like Heena, or they gave their children two names like Khushnuma and Khushi – one for official documents and the other for everyday use,” he said. she told Al Jazeera.
Sometimes, she says, employers themselves change a worker’s name. “Some of them call them such ridiculous names it’s humiliating.”
The pandemic has compounded the challenges
All workers say the pandemic has made their challenges significantly worse. During the long lockdowns, domestic workers across the country lost their jobs, falling into a vicious cycle of debt and struggling to put food on the table. Without strong labor laws and comprehensive welfare programs to offer them protection, many have found themselves dependent on help from nonprofit organizations or a few benevolent employers.
Ruksana Sheikh, who has worked as a domestic worker for 20 years, says: “Two kind employers gave me 1,000 rupees ($13) every month. This, with the help of [Kapoor and other workers’] unions have helped us survive.
She used to work four jobs to earn around 10,000 rupees ($125) a month, but now she only does two.
However, she is very worried about her children’s education at the moment. “Everything went online after the pandemic. I have three children and only one phone. How to manage their lessons on a basic phone? And by chance, if the Internet stops working or the limit is exhausted, the studies completely go down the drain.
Even though most schools in Delhi have now reopened, Sheikh says she is still struggling to pay tuition and training fees.
At work, Sheikh uses Pinky, a name independent of religion, given to him by his grandmother even before he was born. “Everyone calls me Pinky. But they also know my Muslim identity very well. They have my IDs after all,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I never lied or hid my identity.”
Munni Begum says that although it has taken her years to affirm her Muslim identity, she has hope for the younger generation. “See whatever you do, you will always be a servant to them,” she said.
Madina Akhtar, her relative and herself a domestic worker, agrees. “Young women these days are learning to express themselves, although they have their own challenges.”
Akhtar was forced to work under a Hindu name for years after losing her husband. But not anymore, she said.
“I’m just tired of hiding my identity. In one of the households, I once needed to use the bathroom. And they sent me out on the street in the middle of the night because they won’t let me use theirs. So what’s the point of “being” a Hindu if you can’t even use their bathroom? »