By Mariam Mokthar
We live increasingly compartmentalized lives; we barely know the cultural traits of our neighbours who may belong to another faith. Some of us may take great pains to be aware of how others live, but despite our best efforts to appear to be multi-cultural, we often tend to neglect what happens in our own households.
Hari Raya Aidil-Fitri is a welcome celebration after 30 days of fasting during Ramadan and is an event that both the Muslims and non-Muslims look forward to. Apart from the religious significance, Muslims are the perfect hosts with plenty of treats on hand, gifts for the children and charitable acts to be fulfilled.
Time for Atonement
The usual greeting or salaam is “Selamat Hari Raya” and Muslims will also include the salutation of “maaf zahir dan batin”, asking each other for forgiveness as Hari Raya is also a time for atonement.
Hari Raya is when Muslims make the long trek home, “balik kampung” to be with one’s parents, in-laws and other elders, and to seek forgiveness from them.
The day starts with an early rise and after the ritual bath, everyone will be dressed in the best clothes and shoes, before the men go to the mosque for special prayers.
Children will ask to be pardoned by the oldest members of their family and kiss their hands whilst they seek their forgiveness. They also look forward to receiving “duit raya”.
A light breakfast with the family is followed by a trip to the cemetery to clean the graves of dead relatives and to offer prayers. Then it’s back home, to receive guests for “open house”.
Some are Neglected
Whilst friends and relatives are treated to the largesse and the hospitality of the hosts, there are some people who belong in our households and are treated like family by some of us, but neglected by many others.
They live with us and are in our presence 24 hours a day. They are probably closer to some members of our family than we would care to admit and yet, when it comes to having a joyous celebration like Hari Raya, few take the time to consider the feelings of these people.
Who are they? ‘They’ are the hundreds of thousands of women whom we term the ‘maid’ or as the children in our homes call “kakak”.
They are the ones whom we cannot do without and on whom we depend to feed, clothe and clean our children. They are the ones who take care of our elderly parents because we are unable to do so because of the hectic lives that we lead. They are the ones who help keep our businesses running by cleaning, cooking or serving our customers. And they are the ones who nurse us when we are ill.
Social Stigma as Maids
Some three decades ago, before Malaysia became the affluent nation that it is today, Malaysians from the rural areas comprised a large percentage of the household help in our urban towns and cities.
Improved and more widespread education for girls, better job opportunities, the proliferation of factory jobs, and the emancipation of women are some of the factors which contributed to a reduction in the percentage of women, from the rural areas, entering service in the home.
In addition, the social stigma of working as a maid for low wages, leaving home for long periods and having to forego normal family contact, coupled with the prospect of a non-existent social life, with long working hours in a menial job, were not enticements to many women, especially the young.
Foreigners Fill Vacuum
The vacuum left by Malaysians, predominantly the women, has since been filled by foreign maids who are prepared to leave their homes, their families and transport themselves thousands of miles, so as to earn an income to support their families and children back home, be it Indonesia, Cambodia, Philippines or Thailand.
According to the online news portal ‘Free Malaysia Today’, Indonesia and Cambodia supply the majority of the 230,000 maids in Malaysian households. The embassies of these countries have also reported that 2,000 women complain of being abused each year.
Admittedly, the known cases of people abusing their maids are under 1%. But these are the publicised, reported cases. How many maids suffer in silence?
Time Off for Maids?
How many households give time off, to these maids, for Hari Raya? In Indonesia, Hari Raya means many businesses are shut and non-Muslims take advantage of special hotel deals, so that their workforce can enjoy their holidays. Does the same happen in non-Muslim Malaysian houses?
What happens in a Malaysian Muslim household? Their argument is probably that the maids are there to work. Will the maids get a day off in lieu? Employers will also say that the maid has nowhere to go to anyway.
Perhaps it is not a question of who is right and who is wrong. A maid is more than just a pair of hired hands. They are also human and belong to a faith. Many are devout Muslims, Christians or Hindus. After all, they cannot balik kampung to be with their families or clean the graves of their ancestors. In all probability, they are prevented from returning for Raya.
The least we can do is give them a huge bonus or duit raya, and time off. They, too, deserve our consideration and compassion. Isn’t that what Raya is also about?