The Work of Domestic Service in Contemporary Morocco


A review of Hired to be daughters: Domestic service among ordinary Moroccans, by Mary Elizabeth Montgomery.

“Domesticity in Morocco has always been a ‘family’ thing, a charitable thing, the very act of making kin out of poor people constituting a good work” (p. 125), states Mary Montgomery. This is what the author of this groundbreaking dissertation demonstrates and analyses throughout her historically well-contextualised study. She shows the transformation of domesticity from an aid conceptualised inside kin networks and emotional boundaries to a waged-work position. Montgomery accurately shows how women involved in domestic work are resisting what she calls the “daughter rhetoric” and try to implement more formal labor relationships identical to any other work framed by the labor market. Putting an end to the model of quasi-fosterage on which the Moroccan domestic-service sector is based is what is at stake in this dissertation that explores the relations between employers and their families on the one hand, and the domestic workers on the other hand. Montgomery chose to approach those relations through the lens of a moral economy permuting itself to accurately articulate the questions of money but also of gifts circulation, exchanges of emotions, and kin intimacy, and go deeper into the understanding of local concepts such as fosterage, daughter, charity, gratitude, doing the good (khayr and ajar), etc. She also investigates the vocabulary used by the workers, shedding light on the process of making domestic work a market-based labor that will concretize through a new domestic labor law (Chapter 7) currently discussed in the Moroccan parliament (May 2016) and that gave rise to sharp criticism from parts of the progressive civil society for its inefficiency in guaranteeing under 18 years old women’s human rights.

After a short introduction presenting the thesis and the main research questions, the author starts by offering a very insightful description of l’Océan, the neighborhood of Rabat in which she lived and conducted her fieldwork (Chapter 1). She convincingly depicts the area by mobilizing historical sources as well as sociological studies and ethnographic accounts she gathered from the elder inhabitants of the neighborhood. This focus on space is definitely the best way to be introduced to the subject. The neighborhood she investigates resembles none else. She shows that although l’Océan is defined as a popular quarter by Moroccans -in the sense of sha’bi (a notion she discusses with reference to the academic debate on what is defined as popular in the urban and rural Arab world), it is nevertheless home to a combination of precarious, lower middle-class, and middle-class families. This heterogeneity has increased with the blossoming of the real-estate economy, as new slots were reserved for well-off middle-class households. It reflects the ambiguities that have been observed with the transition of the domestic work. The presentation of the neighborhood allows the author to introduce her host-family, the Sebbaris, with whom she lived and started her fieldwork. The Sebbari family figures throughout the dissertation as a perfect ideal-type since the female head of the household has been involved for at least four decades in “employing” through the custom of informal fosterage ten young women that became her daughters as she named them as well as domestic services givers.

The author takes us into the intimacy of the family and reveals the diversity of the relationships developed between the family and domestic workers that appear as insiders not linked by blood to the family. She points the difficulty to disentangle emotions and labor at stake in relations that are defined by the actors only as emotional, thus obscuring the strong hierarchy that produces them. Thereby, the author shows how a family still modeled on what it sees as an “authentic”, even “Islamic” way for employers/family and workers/daughters to relate to each other (giving care out of generosity, for the former, and giving services, for the latter), struggle with the transformation of labor work and its introduction into the commodified labor-market where wages rather than emotions, gift or charity produce and define the link between those women who need assistance at home and those unqualified women from precarious background who need salaries to become and sustain themselves (Chapter 3 and 4). The author explores all the different terms used to emphasize the care at the core of the relationship between women and families (the latter insisting in seeing these ties only in kin terms). By doing this and giving voice to both sides, she gradually take us to the crucial point of the transformation at stake. Indeed, chapter 3 connects the “idiomatic or practical kinship” that blurs the boundaries between paid and unpaid labor and has historically mediated the tensions brought by inequality, with the blossoming of domestic work management that show how it entered the realm of labor-market.

The following chapters are dedicated to the professionalisation of domestic work through its domestication at the hand of informal agencies and intermediaries, but also to the moral transformation of the self among domestic workers. This is accurately explored when the author leaves her host-family and focuses on the daily life of the workers by describing their days off, through which she addresses their struggle for social improvement and respectability (Chapter 5), and analyzing their contacts with their own families, thereby revealing the latter’s inner hierarchies (Chapter 6).

Mériam Cheikh
Centre Jacques Berque & The University of Edinburgh (IMES)

Primary Sources
One year ethnography conducted in Rabat in 2012
Colonial ethnographical accounts

Dissertation Information
University of Oxford. 2015. Primary advisor: Paul Dresch.

Image: A young woman adds the finishing touches to loaves of bread before putting them in the oven at her home in the Gharb region. Photo by author.

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