A Bangladeshi Artist is Drawing Together Women & Their House Help
A Bangladeshi artist is attempting to bridge the gap between mistresses of the house and their domestic help.
We have existed side by side with the help of the house for as long as we can remember – and while they know every inch of our home and lifestyle, we keep them at a distance. This holds true across families, whether middle class or high class.
A social activist turned photographer from Bangladesh has illustrated this wide disparity between the mistress and the maid through her series ‘Close Distance’ and her work speaks volumes.
Between Jannatul Mawa’s commissioned works and those she pursues personally, ‘Close Distance’ came out of the latter.
Traditionally housemaids work for just two meals a day and assist the rich and middle class housewives in Bangladesh. They don’t have fixed working hours or salaries. At around 15 dollars a month, such cheap labour is rare in the world. Also, since domestic work is gendered, housemaids are women.Jannatul Mawa
Passionate about documenting fundamental realities of poverty, equitability and equanimity in marginalised and vulnerable communities, Mawa has been lauded globally for her works on gender related issues of dignity and survival. “We are prejudiced and one class does better by exploiting the other. And among those oppressed, women fare far worse,” says the award winning photographer and human rights professional.
In society, Mawa believes it is perceived that only women perform domestic work and that includes housewives.
So, this household activity is analogous for them although the ‘class’ creates a distance. Every day, maids take care of the bed and sofa with their hands but are neither allowed to sit nor sleep on them. With these overlapping domestic roles, they are ‘close’ and ‘distant’ to each other at the same time. My intention was to document them by creating a rare occasion where both were put at a close distance.Jannatul Mawa
Interestingly, she believes a dialogue has started – all the women photographed agree that a gap exists but each one of them would prefer a fairer world, with more rights and equality for the poor.
Mawa grew up in the thick of student politics and her ideology was always inclined towards the left. Working in the field of human rights in isolated areas of Bangladesh meant she had to give up active participation, but continued supporting from the side lines.
I moved to Dhaka to give my daughter a solid education but had to quit because I didn’t get the profile I had worked on for decades. So, I reflected on what to pursue next. That is when I studied photography for 3 years and my love and knowledge for it grew manifold.Jannatul Mawa
Mawa is now a faculty at Pathshala, the same varsity where she learnt the art.
“Cant Leave Homeland”
Discussing the situation in Bangladesh, where freedom of speech and attack on artists have become rampant, the photographer tells us that anyone who has followed the country’s politics closely will know that a time like this was sure to come.
Not just Bangladesh, the world is facing threats everywhere. It makes living traumatic and the first idea is to take flight. But I don’t want to escape to a foreign country just for a peaceful meal. Even though freedom of art is dwindling, I will continue working in my homeland.Jannatul Mawa
Speaking to another artist from Bangladesh on the condition of anonymity confirms this. Friends and families of several artists pointedly ask them not to post any opinion on Facebook. And even while many believe that Facebook activism doesn’t really change the world, it plays an important role in exchanging information. With the loss of so many artists’ lives, most believe they have ‘nothing to lose anymore’.
“I continue to work as an activist and use my photography for the voiceless and the oppressed,” says Mawa who has shared with us her next project – an eye opening series on the middle-class housewives of Bangladesh.
(Runa Mukherjee Parikh has written on women, culture, social issues, education and animals, with The Times of India, India Today and IBN Live. When not hounding for stories, she can be found petting dogs, watching sitcoms or travelling. A big believer in ‘animals come before humans’, she is currently struggling to make sense of her Bengali-Gujarati lifestyle in Ahmedabad.)
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