In the Local/ Intercity Bus
Housewives, The Invisible Unwaged Workers
By : Hoda Aminian
Saturday 28 June 2008
Translated by: Pouran Saeedi
Change for Equality It was 10 o’clock in the morning when I left home. I took a deep breath to feel better, but as soon as my lungs filled with the polluted air of Tehran, I felt sick. It was getting warmer when I started going toward the farmers’ market in a nearby square. The daily scene in this square is one of women busy hauling around full baskets and shopping carts. Women come from near and far to buy their daily foodstuffs and groceries just a little bit cheaper than at the regular stores. However unremarkable that price difference is, it has a tremendous impact on their life that it is well worth the burden of the distance and the heavy loads of shopping. The wrinkles on their faces make them look much older. Watching this scene always reminds me of something: housework without wages.
Throughout human history women have been treated as service providers, performing household chores like cleaning, cooking and also raising children; this has always been women’s responsibility, whereas men have been financial providers and heads of household, occupying themselves with work outdoors. Even now, this traditional gender segregation still exists and extends even to women who have an outside job. They have to carry out the same domestic chores as their main duty when they come back home from work, since in many cases they have conditional permission from their spouses that their outside job would not affect their main responsibilities as a housewife. The story is totally different when it comes to housewives. These women are working their entire life at home without pay, or any expectation from their husbands and with a lot of patience for the comfort of others, as if this had been their duty to begin with. Indeed, over time these services have become so taken for granted that nobody even recognizes or appreciates them; a service is being provided without charge, and yet nothing is received in return.
A bus was stopped at the corner of the square. I got in. Some women were talking about the price of the goods and complaining of the high cost of living that they were having difficulty in handling. The bus began to fill up with all the women with heavy baskets. I step out to help an elderly woman to get in with her shopping. I look at her face. I don’t know how old she is, but she looks too young to be so in need of help. She thanks me and while placing herself in the first seat, tells the lady sitting next to her about her innumerable pains.
I look at the high stairs of the bus, which makes it difficult for women to get in. I’ve always been fascinated by the male dominated way of thinking about the design and construction of public transport and other municipal infrastructure, making me think that women and their needs have always been ignored; The sidewalks with their rough pavements, the wide drains with iron bars placed over them that make it difficult for many women to cross.
By now the segregated women’s compartment, which is smaller than the men’s, is full and there is no empty space left, while the larger men’s section is relatively less crowded. Some women are standing next to their shopping. I encourage the woman who is holding her 2-year-old child in her arms to sit in the men’s section. She laughs and breaks the gender segregation rule by sitting on the last seat and putting her baby next to her. An elderly woman follows her and takes a long, deep, peaceful breath while looking me with a knowing smile on her face. I smile back at her. Other women keep standing as if sitting in the men’s section is a rule that cannot be breached.
The green bus belongs to the private sector and gets cash instead of bus ticket. An elderly woman takes her bus pass for senior citizens out of her pocket, shows it to the person next to her and tells her with a pretty loud voice that since she has been given these cards to use in place of tickets, most buses have started taking cash rather than tickets and that her legs were not strong enough to wait for a long time in the heat for a ticket bus to come.
I try to stay focused and not get distracted by the old lady and her problems. The bus driver gets in and starts up. I have the Campaign’s petition and some leaflets in my purse, but I have to get off the bus soon. I am in a rush and have no time to collect their signatures one by one. So instead I take out the leaflets and petitions and distribute them among the ladies in the bus. At first they look at me with curiosity, and then the woman sitting in the back of the bus asks me if she should pay for them. I reply to her with a smile that they are free and are intended to make women familiar with their rights. I explained the Campaign to them, its demand for equality between men and women. I showed them the petition on the back of the pamphlet and ask them to sign and send it back to us if they agree with it. Their faces cover with smiles and each of them starts talking about and sharing their own problems.
One of them who has already heard about the Campaign and its activities asks whether “that woman has been released?”. I look at her inquiringly. She continues: “they fired our neighbor’s husband. He was a temporary laborer in the company adjacent to the Vozara detainee center. It was there that I met some women". They tell me that their friend was in prison. An elderly man joins us, her husband. They say that their friend is active in women’s rights. They ask me whether I am not one of them too. The questioning look on my face fades away and I answer her with a smile: "yes". She was Khadijeh Moghaddam and has been released from prison. I give her the petition. She says “I’ve already signed it. I got it from the friend of that lady in prison. The one with gray hair”. The thought of the Campaign brings a smile to my face. She was talking about Nahid. She continues “ they’re working for our rights”. By now, others have become more curious. She asks if I have more of the petitions with me to give to the other women. While I was getting her the petition, she asked me to read it and to see if I can help her with her child custody issue. I ask her about the custody problem. The woman starts talking about her daughter’s divorce and how her request for child custody is being denied. She asks if I’m a lawyer or if can do anything about it. I reply that I cannot, but that I can introduce her to an attorney. She replies that these days lawyers are charging even more than doctors; so who can afford to hire an attorney?—she asks. I tell her that one of the Campaign members who happens to be an attorney asks her clients to distribute petitions and collect signatures instead of demanding a fee. This way she familiarizes women with their rights, while her clients pay no fee for the consultation. They all seem to be thrilled, showing a lot of interest. They all are housewives with heavy baskets next to them and lots of issues on their minds.
I give Zohreh’s phone number to six of them. They take it for different people: a sister, a neighbor or a daughter, and the petition circulates among them to be signed.
By now I’ve missed my stop by some blocks, but I don’t care. I say goodbye to all of them and get off at the next stop. I think to myself that part of our problems comes from our ignorance, but the other part is the result of financial problems. A woman who doesn’t know her rights or cannot afford a lawyer has no power.
The bus is getting close to the next stop. I have to get off. I put the petitions in my purse and say good-bye to the smiling faces. The bus stops. I go down the high steps to the front door where I reach out as far as possible so as to be able to get the money to the bus driver.
I wonder how these women with all their heavy loads are able to spare a hand so as to reach out to the driver to pay for their fare.
Housewives, these invisible unwaged workers, not only devote themselves to endless domestic chores, but also care about the problems of other women living around them.
Still I hear their voices in my ears. The high price of goods, dowry problems, custody, divorce, …..A voice stops me. A voice from the only one among the women who was silent and watching, asks me quietly if I can get her the phone number of that woman (Zohreh). She looks over 30 years old. I give her the number and we keep walking together shoulder to shoulder.