BREADWINNERS - PHmuseum

BREADWINNERS

Lina Geoushy

2019 - Ongoing

Egypt

In a patriarchal society where men can expect to control their wives' career choices and have a final say over all household matters, a woman may go out into the world, find a job as a housekeeper, earn money, and support her whole family. However, her power and status at home may not change at all, so she ends up carrying the burden, rather than the privilege of being the sole provider.

The following excerpt from the “Understanding Masculinities 2017” UN Women report illustrates some of these tensions and how they relate to the shift that is occurring in the female-male work paradigm:

"Qualitative research reveals anxiety among men and women about shifting gender roles. Some men described women's work outside the home as a destabilizing force within the family, supplanting the husband's "natural" role as a provider. Others worried about a woman's career drawing her away from her supposedly primary role as caregiver, putting children at risk. Some women were also concerned about the risk of a male backlash against demands for gender equality, making women shoulder more burdens and responsibilities, instead"

Being a woman, documentary photographer, and having been directly impacted by these patriarchal structures, I was drawn towards capturing the strong, intelligent women who are burdened with the financial responsibilities of providing for their families while enduring the societal pressure of expected gender norms.

'Breadwinners' is a record of female housekeepers who are overlooked and relegated to the fringes of Egyptian society. In this personal project, I took a documentary and portrait approach to produce a series of portraits shedding light on and representing female housekeepers employed in homes in Cairo, Egypt. It is also a series of self-education and investigation into the impact of Egyptian culture and the prevailing power of patriarchy on these women's lives.

Female housekeepers in Cairo often take on the role of a surrogate mother at their place of employment, sometimes living in the same house, cooking, cleaning, ironing, and caring for the children in the house. It is not unusual for a domestic worker to be seen as part of the family, even though their duties are in many ways more akin to those of a servant.

More pressing is their treatment under the Unified Labour Law in Egypt. These female domestic workers are not provided with any sort of legal protection. In fact, legislators had actively sought to deprive them of legal protection because they do not understand how to compare a domestic worker to a regular one - their work is not seen as real or worthy of labour protection laws.

The sheer amount of effort and time required of them to do all this work, and yet not be given any appreciation, legal support, or respect deeply resonated with me, and I hope that these portraits prompt viewers to appreciate and celebrate these dignified women and the work they do in their communities.

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  • Amal, Arabic for "hope," is a 43-year-old mother of one. Cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the same two-bed apartment was the lifetime job she inherited from her mother. She is now part of two generations working with the same family. Traumatised by the abusive pedagogical methods utilised by her teachers, Amal dropped out of school at age 14. Housekeeping was not her career of choice She only resorted to taking on the job after her mother passed away, compromising her family's financial situation. 

    Soon afterwards, in her mid-30s, she got married, only to divorce after three years to protect her son from an alcoholic, drug addicted, and physically abusive father. Amal moved on to marry another man, 20 years her senior, who never married before. Kind as he is to her and her son, he is unable to have children and needs an expensive operation that his pension and Amal's income combined can’t cover.

  • Azziza, ”precious” in Arabic, is 50 years old and has been a housekeeper for all of her adult life, working with the same family for 25 years. She got married twice, gave birth to three children, and took custody of another two from her second marriage. Azziza married three times. Her first husband died from kidney failure. The second and third husbands divorced her after they realised she hadn’t inherited any money from her first husband. The second husband wanted her to buy him a taxi with her presumed inherited money, and the third wanted her to support him financially.

Azziza, a victim of illiteracy, found herself naturally gravitating toward the unregulated profession of housekeeping. She completes tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and managing the house's grocery inventory, none of which depend on reading or writing. This line of work does not offer a minimum wage, pension scheme, or any kind of recognisable employment rights. It’s an entirely unregulated profession, where brokers link households with female domestic workers, take an initial fee, and leave the workers to labour for daily pay with no hope, no long-term protection plans or medical insurance. Azziza spends 15 hours each day commuting and working. With one-third of her daily pay disappearing in transportation to and from work, minimal time is left to take care of her children and herself.

Recently, while she was tied up at work, her teenage daughter got conned by a man on social media who promised her a better world but ended up stealing her brother's life savings. Her daughter was also engaged to Azziza's nephew, but after her attempt to escape, the engagement was called off, leading to a rift in the family and rupture in a lifelong relationship between Azziza and her brother.

As her 15-hour shift comes to an end, Azziza ponders about the future, a future that does not guarantee her any financial or medical protection after her strength fades away and her working days are long gone.

  • Aida, Arabic for “returner," is a 41-year-old mother of two and a grandmother of one. She is also the sole caregiver to her mother, a 75-year-old woman struggling to navigate a chaotic healthcare system while dealing with numerous health issues. Aida has been working all of her adult life as a housekeeper, a path similar to the one taken by her own mother.

    Aida is married to a 60-year-old-man, a smoker with a chronic heart condition and two pacemakers to keep him functioning. She is the sole breadwinner in the household. Her life has become an endless series of temp jobs to make ends meet and constant battles with the Egyptian healthcare system.

    She takes days and weeks off from her work, which is lost income, to escort and support her mother through hospital visits. She always starts with the public health care system that turns patients away and does not have an adequate standard or the resources to deal with the demand, a system so flawed that people die in the queue from primary diseases. As a result, Aida is frequently forced to turn to expensive private clinics in the hope of securing the care required for her mother

    Her mother lives alone, Aida's siblings are caught up with their own responsibilities and barely visit, leaving Aida as the closest and only caregiver to their mother. She wishes she could be there for her even more, but with the hours she works and her mother refusing to move in with her, her options are limited.

  • Wafaa, Arabic for "loyalty," is a 55-year-old mother of three daughters and one son. She married at the very young age of 17 and divorced early in her life. She has been working with the same employer for 11 years, commutes to and from work via microbuses and tok-toks, a round trip that takes at least three hours of her day.

    During her married years, she used to work and handle the family's financial obligations, while her husband reaped the rewards of her work. She cleaned other people's houses for a living and got paid daily for her services. 

    Wafaa divorced her husband, a man who was more of a burden than a partner in life and suffered the consequences of crossing this unjust man. He forcefully took away their youngest daughter to Alexandria so she would cook and clean for him and also work so he could gain control of her income. He made the daughter drop out of school, diverting her life path to one of manual labor rather than education and enlightenment. He falsely promised to support her to get married and pay for her trousseaus, but as expected did not follow through on his promises. The daughter is 22 and has recently left her father to live with Wafaa in Cairo. She now works in a sewing factory and does not answer to her father nor pay him the rewards of her daily labor.

  • Noha, Arabic for "knowledge," is a 40-year-old mother of two teenagers and has been working as a proud cook and housekeeper for her employer for over 11 years. However, this was not the career she imagined for herself. 

    At a young age, Noha was forced by her father to drop out of school and get married. She did manage to secure a diploma in business before being forced to stop her educational journey. This is a common cultural phenomenon in specific segments of Egyptian society, where parents value their daughter being married and obeying a husband more than her getting an education, the chance at a career or even having the basic right to make her own choices. 

    After years of looking after her husband's aging mother, Noha decided that she needed to start working in order to support her family financially and fulfill her ambitions. Initially, she applied for the position of a cook in a small hotel, however, eventually Noha ended up working in the hotel owner’s house as a cook and housekeeper. At first, this was a position she wasn't proud of and had to hide from her husband, even though he was sick and had stopped working, making her the sole breadwinner. 

    Over the years, Noha built a respectful and healthy relationship with her employer, and now she is very proud of her profession and work.

  • Saadeya, Arabic for "happy," is a 60-year-old divorcee from Alexandria. Her two brothers and two sisters are still living there. She has a flat in her hometown but lives with her current employer whom she has been working with for 16 years in Cairo. Saadeya previously worked as a nanny for a Lebanese ambassador for ten years, which allowed her to travel to the US and several other countries.

    She’s been married twice, but every time she got married her husbands wanted to take advantage of her and gain control over her income.


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