Khadamma: The Asian domestic worker in the Gulf

Curator's Note

The dominant repertoire used in recounting experiences of the Asian expatriate community in the Gulf Coorporation Region has been the category of male migrants. This selective framing of ethnic identities not only leaves out female migrants from its purview, but also fails to account for the different levels of skilled, unskilled and semiskilled segments that constitute migrant labor from Asia. The 2011 Indian film, Gaddama (Dir. Kamal) actively works against this construction by foregrounding the female migrant worker as the fulcrum of its narrative. One of the core sectors where women from Asia are employed is the realm of domestic work. Colloquially referred to as Khadamma (derived from the Arabic word Khadima), these are care workers who come from countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Philippines. They are mostly unskilled workers, many of them female breadwinners who take up overseas jobs to support their families. Drawing inspiration from the real-life experience of one such woman who died in a deportation camp, Gaddama traces the life of Aswathy, a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia who escapes after being subjected to physical and emotional abuse. While framing the film through the attempts of a social worker to track her whereabouts, Gaddama offers a layered narrative that conjoins the lived realities of the migrant workers as they negotiate the vulnerable subject positions. Even though the film weaves its narrative around Aswathy’s disappearance, it also explores the issues of undocumented migrants, those who are forcefully send to herd goats in isolated stretches of deserts and the apathetic treatment meted out to labourers whose worth is measured solely in terms of numbers. Gaddama then, is an important attempt at re-visiting the notions of overseas labor and the category of expatriates whose bodies and identities are marked as being precariously transnational. In the Gulf, the dominant kafala system allows sponsors unconditional power over decisions on retaining the employee and can forfeit their passports at will. The consideration of blue collar workers then complicates the often-simplistic understanding of the transnational as an expression of globalized liberation. While it is true that remittances from migrants contribute substantial revenue for the home countries, Gaddama and the narrative of the woman-migrant worker, unsettles the picture-postcard imagination of the Gulf as the land of opportunities, which often masks the plight of such workers who undergo unspeakable travails to eke out a living.

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