Dr Ayra Indrias Patras’s new book sheds light on the plight of Christian sanitation workers in Lahore
ased on her doctoral research, Dr Ayra Indrias Patras’s Swept Aside: A Story of Christian Sweepers in Lahore examines the lives and lived realities of working-class Christian sanitation workers. The book deals with the marginality and discrimination experienced by sweepers living in ghettoised communities, trying to navigate the challenges associated with their subaltern status as sanitation workers and women.
The social position of the sweeper women puts them at a disadvantage so colossal that there appears to be no way for them or their families to break free from cyclical oppression that has relegated them to the lowest rung of the social ladder. Caste- and class-based prejudices, poverty and economic deprivation, exacerbate the problem.
Divided into four chapters, the book first describes the religio-political position of the minority Christian community in Pakistan. Next, it moves on to discuss the prevalence of caste- and class-based discrimination experienced by the sweeper women whose experience of intersectional marginality along gender, class and religious lines is perturbing. The third chapter highlights the working conditions. Titled Sanitation Workers - Dignity of Labour, it focuses on waste management companies’ lack of consideration for workers’ well-being. The fact that workers are not provided with adequate protective gear and living wages is highlighted. The last chapter examines the obstacles that prevent upward mobility.
Shedding the marginalised identity is challenging when the society perpetuates the stigma associated with sanitation work. Dr Patras brings out interviews that when these women try to rid themselves of the traditional caste-based work status, they face several challenges. Finding work in beauty parlours or branching out as freelance beauticians, for instance, is difficult. They are often mistreated, made to clean floors and not allowed to provide services because they are deemed unclean.
The class and caste-based exclusionary practices of the Indian subcontinent and the present-day pure/ impure binary in Pakistan are not entirely different in this regard.
Dr Patras points out that sanitation workers’ families are stuck in illiteracy and poverty, compounded by a lack of agentic thinking. Some of the Christian communities in the country have experienced upward mobility through education and skills training. However, many impoverished families associated with sanitation work have been unable to unshackle themselves as attending school remains low among their priorities.
Swept Aside probes into deep-rooted culturally imposed limitations that have historically prevented the sweeper community from finding other income sources.
Indian society has forever been divided along caste lines. According to Dr Patras, the families who today make up 80 per cent of the sanitation workforce in Lahore were converted to Christianity by English missionaries. Conversion to the new religion was supposed to help elevate these communities as they tore away from their low-caste Hindu status, but the label has continued to follow them. They have tried to deny this historical trajectory of conversion, writes Dr Patras, but they continue to be viewed only as such by the majority Muslim community.
Dr Patras’s research also analyses the complexity of gender relations and their societal manifestations. For example, interfaith marriages and liaisons in hopes of securing upward mobility continue to complicate the lives of young Christian women.
The sweeper women wish for better education and economic gains for their children. Unfortunately, they sometimes end up in marriages or relationships that further exploit them instead of providing security. Many in interfaith marriages find themselves in precarious positions, with neither family accepting them entirely. The clergy and community elders sometimes add to their burden by advocating against girls’ education, which could lead to inter-religion interactions.
Swept Aside navigates intra-community practices that keep the sanitation workers, especially female sweepers, from realising all the possibilities and opportunities available to them.
The sweepers and sewage workers face discrimination outside their community and often within the Christian community. Dr Patras critically analyses the stigmatisation of the sweeper identity by the upper classes, highlighting the rise of class-based insecurities within the community.
The challenges faced by the sweeper community are multi-axial, says Dr Patras. Swept Aside documents several factors, including socio-political, economic and religious inequalities, that shape and affect the lives of these workers. Taking into account only class, caste or gender and excluding other contributory factors would render the analysis of the situation most members of the sweeper community find themselves in “ineffective and inadequate.”
Through Swept Aside, Dr Patras subtly but effectively raises the concerns of a community that remains unseen and unheard. It is a worthy read: educational, informative, engaging and well-researched.
Swept Aside: A Story of Christian Sweepers in Lahore
Author: Dr Ayra Indrias Patras
Publisher: Folio Books
Price: Rs 995
The reviewer is a staff member