21-22 Rudolph Field Research Fellow

Intimacy and Domestic Labor Relations in Karachi

Project Abstract

Most urban South-Asian households from middle-class and above employ some kind of domestic labor for assistance. But seldom are domestic laborers contracted with predetermined work hours and list of duties; instead, they are hired with a vague task of taking ‘care’ of the household. Such an arrangement breeds closeness between workers and their employers, who cook together in the same kitchen, watch the same daily soap operas, and share gossip about other households. Yet in a caste and class-conscious urban South Asia, such intimacy is entangled with status anxiety that is expressed through concerns about bodily hygiene, leading to the separation of materials and spaces that are accessible to domestic workers. My current proposed project aims to explore the multiplicity of ways in which the discourse on hygiene converses with existing cultural notions of caste-class-based purity and pollution to create and reiterate the separation of people, spaces, materials, and bodies in the homes of the urban middle-class in Karachi. By addressing the middle-class’ engagement with the discourse on hygiene and how it is both conveyed through and constitutive of materials and spaces in homes, the project hopes to lay out how contemporary notions of prescribed hygiene, in their presumed universality, are consistently shaped by such distinct cultural and class sensibilities to recreate existing structures of inequality.


Ilqua Lutfi is a second year PhD student in the department of Comparative Human Development. She completed her undergraduate studies from the University of Virginia with a double major in South Asian Studies and Global Development Studies. She received her MA degree from the University of Chicago’s MAPSS program with Anthropology as her concentration. Her doctoral research explores themes pertaining to intimacy, aesthetics, and hygiene in the context of domestic labor relations in middle-class households in Karachi, Pakistan.