“She Looks Like A Maid.” Why Do We Use Our Domestic Help’s Name As An Insult?

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What does it mean when someone says a woman “looks like a maid”? The first thing it means is that the person who says that is a classist, derogatory misogynist. Second, it is indicative of the rot ingrained in our lexicon so deep that we are blissfully unaware of its implications.

Using ‘maid’, someone who is on payroll to manage a household’s domestic activities like sweeping, cleaning, brooming, cooking, as an insult is not uncommon in India. For the average middle-class Indian privileged enough to employ a domestic helper, it becomes an instance of superiority to have a person “below” them they can casually deride. It elevates their own position, separating them from and rendering them better than the lower class, they believe.

And so, notwithstanding the prejudicial connotations of throwing around maid as an offensive, we have comfortably settled into the idea that domestic helpers are supposed to look and be a certain way. That their appearances aren’t as neat, hygienic, beautiful or polished as ours. The “us” and “them” distinction is comforting to the status quo.

A recent exhibit of this came when a social media user declared that their maid looked “much better” than actor Swara Bhasker in a saree. It would be gullible to believe the remark is meant to sing praises of their maid. The hateful insinuation that a maid, who isn’t generally what society expects to be graceful but in this situation is said to be so, does more to diminish her further than dignify her.

It was hard to miss the inherent discrimination in the tweet and Bhasker’s reply was befitting. “I’m sure your household help is beautiful. I hope you respect her labour and her dignity & don’t act like a creep with her.”

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This issue of bias cannot be seen as disjointed from the affront that is the caste system, which goes back two millennia in the subcontinent. Differentiating people in society based on their lifestyles and work is an early practice in discrimination, with royals occupying the highest rung of the hierarchy and ‘untouchables’ accorded menial tasks considered ‘impure’ stripped of all status.

This is not different from other contemporary “looks like…” allusions we make in colloquial terms from our daily vocabulary as descriptors for others today. Unsurprisingly, we reserve a major chunk of this deprecatory language for women. ‘She looks like a slut’ for a woman wearing short clothes. ‘She looks easy’ for a sexually independent woman.

We don’t flinch at all in putting forth these offhanded insults in public because it is a general understanding that many in society share our views. Remember when Kangana Ranaut appeared on national television last year amid a feud with film industry colleague Urmila Matondkar and called her a “soft porn star” against a context that could only have been meant to be insulting?

Multiple laws exist today to keep such oppression in check but how functional are they at the grassroot or individual level? Has our society shed its partisan proclivities and adopted a more inclusive outlook towards marginalised communities? Seeing them as equal to us seems like a big ask, going by how easily classist we are, but are we kind enough to our domestic support? Are we shedding or even attempting to repair our sexist tendencies language is exposing?

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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