Domestic workers Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat shake the world

 

Gloria Kente

Gloria Kente is a live-in domestic worker in Cape Town. In 2013, her employer’s then-boyfriend got angry with her, allegedly grabbed her, spat in her face, and screamed a racist epithet at her. Kente called the police and had him charged with assault and a violation of her human and civil rights. She called him out for hate speech and harassment. When the man tried to extend `an apology’, Kente said, “NO!” If an apology meant not going to court, not having the State fully involved, then Gloria Kente wanted no part of it. Last November, the man was found guilty, and on Friday he heard his sentence.

The man was sentenced to two years house arrest, 70 hours of community service “in the service of Black women”, successful completion of various programs addressing substance abuse, prohibition from owning any firearms and from using any substances.

Gloria Kente was not in court on Friday, but her attorney said she was happy with the sentence.

As so often happens, the news coverage of this case focuses largely on the man. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers is not news. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers’ rights under the law is also not news. The news is that around the world, domestic workers are saying “NO!” to abuse. Around the world domestic workers are on the move, organizing, advocating, going to court and winning civil and criminal cases, organizing unions, consolidating power for domestic workers and for women workers generally. That’s the story.

In Hong Kong today, a court found that Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s employer had indeed abused her. Her employer was found guilty of criminal intimidation, grievous bodily harm and wage theft. Again, the story is not the employer, but rather Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s refusal to accept the veil of secrecy that enshrouds household labor. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih said “NO!” to the violence of like-one-of-the-family, and, instead, said “YES!” to workers’ right, women’s rights, migrants’ rights, humans’ rights, and every configuration thereof. As Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, after hearing the verdict: “To employers in Hong Kong, I hope they will start treating migrant workers as workers and human beings and stop treating us like slaves, because as human beings, we all have equal rights.”

In Lebanon, immigrant and migrant women domestic workers are organizing a union. In Pakistan domestic workers have formed their first trade union, partly as a response to increasing violence against domestic workers and partly as a response to the affirmative recognition of their combined rights and power. Last December, the Pakistan Workers Federation formed the Domestic Workers Trade Union. Of 235 members, 225 are women domestic workers. Sumaira Salamat, in Lahore, is a member: “It’s only in the last year-and-a-half that these women have finally realised the importance of what it means to become a united force. We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work.”

Everywhere, women domestic workers are on the move.

Remember that when you read about this court case or that decision and the abusive employer receives all or most of the attention. The days of employers owning history are over. Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat are shaking the world up. Remember their names.

 

(Photo Credit: IOL / Jeffrey Abrahams) (Photo Credit: Philippe Lopez / Agence France – Press / Getty Images)

 

In Lahore, in Johannesburg, there was no stampede

In the past two days, four women have died in what the press has called `stampedes.’

There was a concert Monday in Lahore, Pakistan. It was organized by a private college. The crowd was mostly young people, college students. At some point after the concert, something happened, the crowd tried to leave, there was only one door and even less organization, and … three young women—Farah Nawaz, Maheen Naseem Abbas, 17 years old, and Sadia Batool—were crushed to death. It’s a common enough occurrence, around the world.

On Tuesday, in South Africa, universities registered students who, for whatever reasons, had missed the earlier registration dates. Often the reason is students come from historically disenfranchised communities where there’s little or no expectation of their successfully pursuing further education. That too is a common enough situation, around the world.

As in past years, the lines were endlessly long, but the number of available slots were finite. Painfully, tragically so. Excitement, tension, anticipation, apprehension, were high. When the gates opened at the University of Johannesburg, the people rushed forward. In the rush, people were injured, and one woman, the mother of a prospective student, was killed. There were many mothers in the crowd, assisting their children. Many mothers, many children were injured. At least 22 are counted as injured, but those are only the visible injuries.

Both incidents, and especially the South African incident, have been widely, even universally, described as stampedes.

What exactly is a `stampede’, and how does a crowd of people, of human beings, morph into a stampede? And why is it the case that women and girls are more often than not those who suffer the violence of so-called stampedes?

Stampede is a relatively new word, and it seems to be a North American invention, another gift the United States has bestowed upon the world. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was coined early in the 1800s. Cowboys in the United States borrowed the Mexican word, estampido, which means crash, explosion, or report of a firearm, and estampida, which means a stampede of cattle or horses. It was an early example of transnational vaquero cowboy culture.

Stampede, or stompado, was a “sudden rush and flight of a body of panic-stricken cattle” or horses. Later, stampede came to mean a “sudden or unreasoning rush or flight of persons in a body or mass”.

At its inception, stampede meant a thundering, powerful, dangerous herd of animals. Today, when referring to people, it means a mass of people who are threatened and in flight. At the beginning, a stampede was about virility, big roaring animals and big riding cowboys.

When people stampeded, that was panic. In fact, the Spanish translation of human stampede is pánico. Panic. Sudden, wild, unreasoning, excessive, at a loss and out of control. And the term for mass panic is hysteria, the women’s condition: “Women being much more liable than men to this disorder, it was originally thought to be due to a disturbance of the uterus and its functions”.  Hysteric: “belonging to the womb, suffering in the womb”.

It doesn’t matter who is trampled in the event called a stampede. What began as an articulation of masculinity, the enraged capacity to destroy all in its path, has become the helpless, or `feminine’, implosion of self. What began as a roar has become somehow a whimper. When you read that a group was in a stampede, know this. Stampede is not a neutral word. Stampede is gendered, and the gender is woman.

There was no stampede in Lahore, there was no stampede in Johannesburg. Words matter. In both instances, educational institutions failed … and women died … again.

 

(Photo Credit: Adrian de Kock/thestar.co.za)