The hidden labours of Egypts domestic workers

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Lina Geoushy’s ongoing project hopes to fight for gender equality in the nation’s labour laws

Three years ago, Lina Geoushy watched the Netflix film Roma. The film tells the story of Cleo, a housekeeper working in Mexico City during the 1970s. “I was deeply moved by her character, I felt like I knew her,” she explains. “Growing up in Egypt, I’ve seen women like her in so many homes. The woman is like a second mother, she does everything, and at the same time, she has her own family. I cried watching the film.” Splitting her time between her home in Cairo and London, where she was completing a postgraduate degree at the London College of Communication, Geoushy was looking for inspiration for her next project. She found it in Cleo’s story.

The result is her ongoing series Breadwinners, which highlights the lives of Egypt’s often marginalised domestic workers. “The model in the Western world is very different – this isn’t just hiring a cleaner you pay by the hour,” she explains. “They do everything; cook, clean, childcare, grocery shopping, everything.”

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 and gave birth to three children, and took custody of another two from her second marriage. “I have been working as a domestic worker for 25 years, and it’s a very laborious job. I am worried I have no pension or medical insurance to lean on when my health deteriorates ” © Lina Geoushy.

There is a duality in the profession, Geoushy explains. The women are seen as part of the family, sometimes even acting as matriarch, while also being an outsider, an employee referred to as “the help.” This blurred line can lead to difficulties. 

The women are paid by the day, which restricts their freedom and makes them dependent on the employer. But, despite the lack of legal validity and security in the domestic industry, housekeeping can also keep their entire families financially supported. Each woman’s experience is unique, but a lack of medical insurance paired with debt are common issues within the profession. “Queuing for very basic treatment compromises their work days,” she explains. With limited savings, many women are forced to borrow money, resulting in debts that can’t easily be paid back. This keeps the women stuck in their jobs, and with no legal recourse available, there can be nowhere to turn. “Many men in the family might not like ‘their’ women working in housekeeping, yet once they start getting money from them, they begin to accept it,” Geoushy explains. “Some men actually send their daughters and wives to work, and they live off what they make, taking control of their income. These women quite literally are the breadwinners.”

“I didn’t want to present them as oppressed victims. There’s a large side of life that doesn’t appear in the media – these women are the ones who are actually providing for their families. I wanted to shed light on their dignity and strength.”

Rather than solely presenting the women’s struggles, Geoushy advocates for a fairer system with her work – one in which these women are given the same workplace rights as their male counterparts. “Simply put, housekeeping is not acknowledged as a profession, with Egyptian labour laws completely leaving them out. They have no legal protection, pensions, or insurance. It is a very labour intensive role, and many of these women work into old age,” she explains. Geoushy uses Breadwinners as evidence, a tool to help remove patriarchal biases present in Egyptian law. “I personally am not going to change the world in a second, but by talking to lawyers, UN organisations, and people in the government, I can help. Hopefully, we can fight for more gender equality within the law,” she explains.

Wafaa, Arabic for "loyalty," is a 55-year-old mother of three daughters and one son. She married at the young age of 17, and divorced early in her life. She has been working with the same employer for 11 years, commuting to and from work via microbuses and tok-toks, a round trip that takes at least three hours of her day. “I got married when I was 17. Although my ex husband used to generate income, his behaviour was abnormal, he used to keep his income only for himself.” © Lina Geoushy.
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.“I feel under immense pressure to fulfil my duties as a daughter, wife, mother, and sister. I am doing the best I can to financially support all of them.” © Lina Geoushy.

The respect and admiration Geoushy has for these women is evident in the work. For her, it was important that each woman was able to tell her own story.“It was extremely important to avoid any stereotypes of Middle Eastern/ North African  women,” she says. “I didn’t want to present them as oppressed victims. There’s a large side of life that doesn’t appear in the media – these women are the ones who are actually providing for their families. I wanted to shed light on their dignity and strength.”

40-year-old Noha was one of the women interviewed by Geoushy. “At first I was too ashamed to tell my husband that I am a domestic worker and cook, because I felt that it’s not a suitable job. Now, I feel very proud of myself,”she says. Paired with each portrait is information on the sitter; their name, their work, and the struggles they face. When exhibited, their voices can be heard next to their portraits. Each story is unique, with every woman navigating social and legal injustice in different ways.

Noha, Arabic for "knowledge," is a 40- year-old mother of two teenagers and has been working as a proud cook and housekeeper for over 11 years. However, this was not the career she imagined for herself. “At first I was ashamed of sharing with my husband & people that I am a domestic worker and cook, because I felt it’s not a suitable job, but now I feel very proud of myself.” © Lina Geoushy.

Breadwinners exhibited at the 2019 100 Heroines exhibition in Blackpool, Doncaster and London, as well as at the 2019 Photocarrefour “Re-centering Africa in a Digital Universe” exhibition, Nigeria. The project also won the Royal Photographic Society Documentary Photographer of the Year Award in 2019. When travel becomes possible, Geoushy wishes to return to Cairo and continue the series. Breadwinners was only the beginning – her most recent project, Shame Less, tackles the stigma around discussing sexual assault in Egypt. ”With Breadwinners, I didn’t want to just present the layers of [the victims’] lives and then not do something about it. I would love to have an outdoor exhibition in Egypt, where we can really champion them – I want these women to see themselves celebrated.”

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.