False hierarchy of gender, caste practices has devalued domestic work. Pandemic has only sharpened this inequality

The kitchen is a place of nourishment and skill — but also of the exhausted, unvoiced rage of Indian women. That anger simmers in the just-released Malayalam film, The Great Indian Kitchen. But before it boils over, the camera lingers on the hands of women at work: Slicing carrots, peeling tapioca, washing cups, scrubbing dishes, grinding coconut into a chutney on a stone slab, sweeping, mopping, washing. Breakfast follows lunch follows dinner. The men read the newspaper or stretch into a yoga-asana, call out for tea (with milk for him, and without for someone else). They ask for the toothbrush to be handed over and know hot dosas will find the plate, unasked. Scene after scene looks at the never-quite-finished women’s labour at home — as well as the easy, polite entitlement with which men receive the fruits of that work, not even a haldi stain on the assumption that this is how it should be.

This unsettling look at domestic drudgery — both in Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen and the Bengali film Tasher Ghawr, about a housewife trapped with her abusive husband in lockdown — is rare in contemporary popular culture. Indeed, to many of us, food is daily pleasure and aestheticism, a link to cultures and histories that make us. But like the salt that disappears into a sambhar or a dal done right, the arduous labour of women in the kitchen and home (and their lack of choice in opting out of it) is an essential — and ignored — ingredient of Indian lives. Here are the facts: The NSSO time-use survey 2019 of nearly 4.5 lakh Indians reveals that women spend nearly five hours every day on unpaid domestic work, compared to 98 minutes by men. Less than 6 per cent of Indian men are involved in cooking, compared to 75 per cent women.

The home is where the majority of Indian women perform work that sustains households and enables men (and privileged women) to take up productive paid jobs in the economy. Even for those women who take up work outside the home, domestic responsibilities shape their choice of work and professional progress. The drag on Indian women’s labour force participation (one of the lowest in the world) is not only a function of low education and social status, but also, to a significant extent, of culture — the basket of values that, by tying women’s identity tightly to the supervision of children and home, nudges them out of the workforce. “Why do you want to take up a job, when the work you do at home is more important than that of ministers?” says the father-in-law to the newly-wed daughter-in-law in The Great Indian Kitchen. Like Schrodinger’s cat, the domestic work performed by wives and daughters is both priceless, and of little value.

No matter the strides in education and social practices, in the political and cultural discourse about women, marriage and home are still seen, unquestioningly, as the rightful and natural context for women’s lives. So much so that economist Swaminathan Aiyar can prescribe work-from-home (WFH) as a fix to the problem of too few women in the workforce because a) “they do not have to leave home and face molestation or badnaami” and b) because it can make it feasible for them to do “both office and family chores”. The Supreme Court Chief Justice finds it possible to suggest that women farmers from Punjab give up their space in democratic protests and return home, rather than bargain for their economic rights. It is the same daddy complex that leads to anti-conversion laws meant to “rescue” Hindu women in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh from the exercise of their own will — and return them to their families, their homes.

For a brief while last year, the middle-class lockdown home — by becoming a simultaneous space for salaried work and unpaid housework — made it impossible to ignore the toil that sustained a house. In the absence of domestic help, schools and childcare, women were stretched thin — but men, too, did more at home. A study by economist Ashwini Deshpande found that the gender gap in domestic work shrunk during the lockdown, but widened again by August, when many men returned to employment.

Around April, I had stepped into full-time kitchen work for the first time in my life, ears ringing with the mocking prophecy of aunts (“In the end, no woman escapes the pressure cooker”). All my life I had determined that I would not turn into my mother, an immensely capable woman whose talent and energy ought not to have been circumscribed by the dazzling meals she cooked, and the exacting, punishing standards of domestic work by which she ran her life. But, here, I was. Working with my mother in the kitchen, I learnt with my hands what I knew in theory — that this is work that demands skill, creativity and organisation; that like all physical labour, it rewires and restores the rhythm of the body; that it allows the sharing of pleasures that makes us human. Why, then, do men not feel the need to acquire this life skill?

Could a salary for housework paid by the state, as Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) leader Kamal Haasan has promised Tamil Nadu women voters, be a way to value this work? While a refreshing acknowledgement of the labour that subsidises the economic activities of society, the proposal leaves the fundamental hierarchy of the patriarchal home unchallenged — that a woman’s place is in the home — and absolves it of change. A salary also presupposes a worker’s ability to bargain for higher wages, and exit her workplace. Can these negotiations take place in the home, which places men’s needs and pleasures at the centre of its workflow? More importantly, how can women determine a fair price, when the labour that sustains homes is so consistently devalued? These are important questions, given that the economic shock of the pandemic is bound to push more women out of the workforce — and into unpaid domestic service. According to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data, while men recovered most of their lost jobs by November 2020, women didn’t — 49 per cent of job losses were of women.

A false hierarchy of gender and caste practices has, indeed, devalued the essential work that sustains us — whether cleaning or cooking or the care of infants and elderly. It allows caste-privileged women and nearly all men to pass on this work to those from “lower castes” and the impoverished — for low wages. This fundamental inequality robs women of self-worth, but also stunts men into pre-fabricated social roles. It radiates out of the home into the public sphere. It shapes workplaces that reward 24×7 male workers who can afford to ignore the demands of the home; eases out women who shoulder precisely that burden or confines them in supportive, secondary roles. It leads to abysmal wages paid to domestic workers. Care work performed by women, largely from the lower castes, remains devalued even in the middle of a pandemic, as is evident in the struggle of ASHA workers. Even professions such as teaching, that tend to employ more women, remain low-paying.

Dismantling these hierarchies – and expanding the imagination of women as citizens independent of the home — might make the family a nourishing place, not only for men.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 23, 2021 under the title ‘Home, alone’. [email protected]

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