Photo courtesy of Lina Geoushy
Through her project: “Breadwinners,” Lina Geoushy, an Egyptian documentary and portrait photographer based in London, has shed light on the heroism of female housekeepers in Cairo.
Caring for one family can be a daunting task, yet these hardworking women do it for several families in the short span of one day. Then, most of them go home to deal with the toxic masculinity of their husbands or fathers, who wait for the women to come home in order to collect their money and go sit at a street café. “I was married to a man who used to drink and smoke up in front of our child, which is unacceptable. As soon as he started getting physically aggressive I got a divorce,” says Amal, one of the breadwinners interviewed for the project.
These housekeepers work day and night to earn enough money for a modest life and to take care of their families, receiving barely any appreciation or gratitude for their relentless efforts. “I was supporting my husband and daughter financially and I ended up having a lot of petty debts. My husband is old and not involved in household decisions. I consider him my third child,” says Azza, another of the women interviewed.
“Qualitative research reveals anxiety among men and women about shifting gender roles. Some men described women’s work outside the home as a destabilising 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,” the intro of Geoushy’s Breadwinners book quotes from the “Understanding Masculinities 2017” UN Women report. The report illustrates some of these tensions and how they relate to the shift that is occurring in the female-male work paradigm.
Geoushy’s inaugural portrait series captures Egyptian housekeepers in proud, empowering, and humanistic ways, highlighting their role as cornerstone to their families and every home they work at. The Breadwinners exhibit is showing till the end of September at the Royal Photographic Society 100 Heroines Exhibition in London & Blackpool. One of the portraits was selected as an AOP (Association of Photographers) finalist and was part of an awards exhibition in London in July. The Breadwinners photobook will be available for purchase by the end of 2019, with all the sales proceeds going to the collaborators.
We talked to Geoushy, who is currently studying photography at London College of Communication (LCC) and investing her academic knowledge to add depth and meaning to her love for capturing images and telling stories that deconstruct and question the public’s perception of the prevailing power of patriarchy, as she states on her website.
What was your inspiration for the Breadwinners project?
My inspiration was drawn from Alfonso Cuaron’s Film Roma. The film was a catalyst for events and people [I have] always encountered and met in [my] hometown, Cairo.
What drew you to these women in particular and to the stereotypes attached to their choice of occupation?
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.
Being a woman and a documentary photographer, and having been directly impacted by these patriarchal structures, I was burdened with the financial responsibilities of providing for their families while enduring the societal pressure of expected gender norms. These narratives are my visceral reaction to our current social and legal climate, my way of raising awareness of these problems that we must all face together.
What surprised you the most when you were talking to the women?
These female domestic workers are not provided any sort of legal protection. They don’t have health insurance, social insurance, or pensions to rely on when they retire. 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 labor 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 appalled me.
[There’s also the] shocking toxic masculinity and the commonality of having a passive unemployed man in the family (usually the husband or the father) taking control of his wife’s or daughter’s income. Usually, those male family members rely on her completely to provide [for them], yet expect her to obey and answer to them.
Most of my collaborators were proud of their work; however, they felt that it’s the society, especially the men, that associated negative connotations to the profession. Many women had to lie about their profession when they started working, in fear of stigma.
[Finally, the] normalization of the word shaghala or khadama and how some children and employers have unjustified entitlement and ownership over their housekeeper; these attitudes and ways of communication deeply hurt housekeepers.
Were any of them reluctant to take part in the project?
Some were unwilling to collaborate [out of] fear that the man in their family would object to them being photographed. I had to accept and respect their choices of course.
What kind of impact do you want this project to have on audiences?
My project strives to initiate/stir a conversation about how Egyptian society perceives, treats, and rewards these dignified female housekeepers in Cairo. It aims to be a catalyst for social and legal change. It aims to prompt viewers to reconsider their perceptions and behaviors towards these dignified women and the work they do in their communities.
Follow Lina Geoushy on www.linageoushy.com and Instagram @linageoushy