Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Women's empowerment and household chores

I did not mean to write a post for Women’s Day. I find it rather tiring to wake up in the morning and remind myself of my gender. I’d rather be just a human being. Wouldn't that actually solve a lot of problems, if people spent less time and energy asserting their masculinity or femininity, and treated each other merely as fellow human beings? Anyway, so here is the reason why I decided to write on a women’s issue at this point. All my Bengali readers take a look at this article. For those who cannot read Bengali, I apologise for not translating the entire essay. Here is a quick summary for them: The writer, one Swati Bhattacharya, has put forward the view that it is women’s attraction for and contribution towards all sorts of household chores – from cleaning and cooking to gardening and knitting – that has caused them to lag behind in the job market. The writer feels that the pursuit of such ‘banal’ and ‘petty’ activities makes women less willing to take up careers – something that would have automatically meant their ‘transcendence’ (uttaran) into better lives. She gives some valid examples about how there are much fewer women than men in most professions – journalism and writing and scientific research for example. She feels this is due to the fact that women have internalized the age-old dictum of their places being in homes and kitchens. She has lamented about how patriarchy has brainwashed women into wanting to return to the very families that abuse and torture them, and even, in some extreme cases, take their lives. She ends with the metaphor of prisoners wanting to return to their incarceration after the jail has been destroyed in order to free them: she feels that no amount of external freedom and opportunities can really free women unless they can throw away the ‘shackles’ that household work represents.

While I agree in spirit with the point Ms Bhattacharya has tried to raise about increasing participation of women in different fields of work, I am infuriated by the reasons offered by her for the gender divide in jobs. I have several things to say in this regard, so I will address the writer for the rest of this post.

Dear Ms Bhattacharya,

I am a fairly educated, independent, discerning young woman of the 21st century, brought up in a highly liberal family. I have career ambitions and high hopes for my future, and I am sorry to see so few of my classmates having the same. I have never been indoctrinated by the ideas of a ‘woman’s place’ and gender roles. But I have been deeply insulted and pained by the views you have expressed in your article for Women’s Day. I am guessing you are a feminist; I am not. I believe in rights of a much broader sort: human rights. I believe in the right every single human being has to decide what sort of life s/he wants for herself or himself. Every single person has the right to live exactly as one wants to, as long as one is not doing this by hurting or unduly infringing upon the same rights of those around oneself.

Don’t feminists always shout themselves hoarse about how men are always telling them what to do and how to live their lives? Well, Ms Bhattacharya, what makes you think that just because you are a woman yourself, you have a right to dictate to other women about how to live good lives? What gave you the idea that the path shown by you is the only one that will lead to the liberation of women? Have you not noticed that you are doing the very thing that feminists always blame men for doing: trying to enforce your opinions on fellow human beings who are quite capable of making their own decisions – because for some reason you think you are superior?

Speaking of liberation, why should this word have only one interpretation: yours? You have understood liberation in one way; other people might have very different opinions. Personally, I find the Islamic burqa a rather restrictive device, and would hate to have to wear one. However, there are thousands of Muslim women – and not just uneducated religious fanatics – who claim that they find a certain freedom behind their veils, and wear them of their own volition without any male ever trying to enforce it. As my friend commented in the previous post, to each his own, and the sign of true civilization would be the acceptance of such differences without the automatic presumption of one’s own opinion being the only worthwhile one.  

You say that it is the importance that women give to household work that has led to their lower interest in career building. Many women give up their jobs once they get married or have children, because they want to devote all their time to their families. I have thought about this at some length. I think that in this matter a lot depends, or should depend, on the individual under consideration. There are surely many women in our society who would have liked to build their own careers – however small or big – and are forced into, albeit not always through abuse, choosing familial responsibilities over career-building. These women have my full sympathy, and I think it is a shame that even today women are compelled to make this choice without any support from either their spouses or their parents. But what you, Ms Bhattacharya, have tried to assert is that all women make this choice under compulsion, and all women would have done better to choose careers over families. Now there are two things that I want to say in this context: firstly, this idea of having to choose is not a worldwide concept. Women in many countries have been juggling families and careers for many years now. It is very much possible, and once our society – both men and women – start accepting this more readily, this problem of choice will hopefully subside. Secondly, for all the women out there who willingly choose to build homes rather than careers, who are you to say whether their choice has been right, or even good?

You talk of how the only thing worth doing is bringing about ‘transcendence’ of the human condition. Let us consider the many women who do take up various professions. You are a journalist yourself. Think of all the page three material that journalists write about on a daily basis. Is that transcendence? Many women take up teaching in schools as a preferred career. Having recently finished my fourteen year long school life, I will say that the biggest contribution of my teachers in my life have been bitter memories. School teachers spend a large part of their time thinking up ways in which to torment, irritate, gag and manipulate their pupils. By choosing to build careers, these women have permanently tarnished the reputation of schools and the experiences of students. And the many women who take up jobs in various IT companies, earn pittances and then waste it on exorbitant objects of self-beautification, and spend all their free time moving their backsides in discotheques trying to attract males of the very same mental level: have they achieved ‘transcendence’ of any sort? You have used the word uttaran, which translates into ‘transcendence’, but can also mean ‘climbing up’. Do monkeys also achieve uttaran when they jump up walls?

The ISIS think they are bringing about transcendence of the human condition by chopping off the heads of all non-believers. Hitler thought the same when he tried to make the Germans the master race and exterminate all Jews and anybody else who did not fit into his description of the ideal Aryan. Maybe you will call their actions progressive and ask all your fellow working women to mete out the same treatment to their non-working contemporaries? And if not, why not? Because their views don’t agree with yours? Or because you feel comfortable to think that your views somehow have to be right?

And now I come to the part that I find the most offensive of all. You call household chores banal and petty. How dare you? Who on earth gave you the right to decide what is petty and what is important? You say that there is no glory in making a perfectly shaped luchi: and I suppose it is so much more glorious to be a saleswoman in a supermarket or a grumpy ticket seller in a government bus station? Or maybe, a journalist who writes on topics which are ‘in’ at the moment? And why should everybody have to chase glory anyway? If I enjoy cleaning and decorating my home and cooking for my family, I am one happy woman doing these things, and my family is one happy family with a warm and cosy home to come back to. So what if I am not helping to take forward some ‘greater cause’? Maybe I have found happiness and fulfillment in my life that way: why do you grudge me that? In the example you give of your writer friend lamenting about how her acquaintance gave up a career in writing in favour of gardening and looking after the dog, all I can say is that just because you may not love dogs it doesn't mean that all women mustn't! You say that somebody else could have fed the dog while this girl honed her writing skills. I suppose you will laud only the woman who lets somebody else bring up her children and look after her aged and ill parents while she concentrates upon her career. After all, parents and children are part of the family, that prison-like system that prevents women from becoming (mostly) professional mediocrities!

Are you yourself a pathetic cook who has never been able to tell the difference between tea and kalo jeera, and keep your room like a permanent battleground, depending on your mother or your daughter or your maid for looking after your daily needs, while you can look down on them with scorn from your throne of a woman who earns her own living? If that is so, I have nothing but pity for you. Yours is a pathetic lot indeed; having failed to do anything of real significance in your career (from starting your own company to a charitable institution that does some real work for deprived women to writing a great book), you are now taking out your frustration by sneering upon women who perhaps have found happiness in life through their families and households. Believe me, there are millions of such women all around the world. Thankfully, your voice is really of little consequence: I will still go on keeping house and indulging in my feminine interests like knitting and cooking and colour coordinating upholstery, and hopefully my husband and children will derive much pleasure from these one day, just as my parents do now.

But be thankful that you and I shall never meet, for I’ll make sure to put salt instead of sugar in your coffee and darn your white dress with black thread – just to remind you of the significance of household activities and of those who take these activities seriously.

4 comments:

Ankita Sarkar said...

Urbi,

'I'd rather be just a human being.' -- Yes! While being extremely saddened by the general second-grade treatment that we women receive in society, I agree that homemaking is not just essential but also a difficult job that deserves credit. What matters is that it should be our informed and independent choice and not an imposition, and that we should be respected for whichever choice we make. For that matter, stay-at-home dads should not be stigmatized!
However, I feel rather saddened that many educated women across the world, including yourself, claim that you are not feminists. You cite broader human rights and I agree -- but I will point out that feminism, just like other movements for equality, are a part of humanism -- it is not to be confused with misandry! Like any other ideology it can be radicalized -- and the unfairness committed by a section of men can be wrongfully generalized to all -- but that does not make feminism itself something shameful; neither does it negate the society's real need for better-enforced women's rights. I feel that a true humanist has to be a feminist because women are human!
Perhaps I am being pedantic, but I cringed when you referred to your hobbies as feminine ones -- in my opinion, they are stereotypically feminine, and should not define womanhood any more than they should be eradicated from women's lives. If I don't do these, am I not a woman? If a man does these, is he not a man? Also, just like street smarts are necessary for a woman to be independent, men should know at least basic housework for their independence!
The article in question was wryly funny (deja vu, AIB, ahem). However, it was out of line to discredit the negative environment and turn the blame on the perceived intrinsic cluelessness of women -- and clueless, despite the nyaka-boka campaign's horrific outreach, we are not. I think that women are disadvantaged in careers by two things -- prejudice at work, and prejudice at home -- and any lack of ambition is not intrinsic. It is also extremely offensive to insult the finesse of culinary and aesthetic pursuit! I have taken pride in my luchis for ages!
That being said, while being shielded for the most part by liberal upbringing, two years in a school that is better representative of the general populace convinced me that the prejudice is still real. First, a boy in the Students' Council was given prominence over six other members, equivalently ranked, who all worked better than him, and were all girls. I eventually proved my mettle with some difficulty, but at the cost of being termed an honorary boy! In Class XII I was appointed Head Girl. My new colleague, the Head Boy, was a decent leader (and my friend), but a relative rookie who I helped get started. Effecting great public hilarity, and also apparently intending to compliment me, our classmates exchanged our titles while referring to us -- so insulting it is to be girl, and so honourable to be a boy, that being more experienced makes you male and taking a woman's advice is emasculating!
I am tired of stereotypes, which is why your line that I quoted resonates with me. I think it's high time we stopped defining everything we do by our genders, and that all kinds of honest work, done by all kinds of people, should be equally respected. Choice is the keyword -- and like other things, a woman's path to liberation should not be dictated by anyone else, male or female! So cheers to the women who juggle nappies and test tubes, and to those who don't juggle; and cheers to the men who do the same.
I bothered to type this huge thing because I love knitting, I love basketball, I love Maths, I love poetry; I love the women in my life, I love the men in my life; I love myself for being a woman, and would not love myself any less if I were a man.

Much thanks,
Ankita S.

Urbi Chatterjee said...

Dear Ankita,

Thank you for your comment. There are two things that I would like to say in reply:

1. I'm glad that you have recognized the stigma and ridicule that stay-at-home dads and house-husbands face. They are heavily discriminated against and deserve support as much as similarly stigmatised women do.

2. I call hobbies like cooking and knitting and dancing feminine because they are generally more commonly pursued by women than by men, just the way that men are usually fonder of fighting and racing cars than women. You may call this stereotyping, but to me it seems like logical categorization. Men and women are biologically differently wired, so it is hardly surprising that women are instinctively attracted towards certain things while men are attracted to different things. The number of women who enjoy art and craft and the number of men who like tinkering with automobile parts is significantly higher than the other way round. Hence the stereotyping. To answer your question, the pursuance or non-pursuance of these hobbies have nothing to do with one's manhood or womanhood (again, I return to the first line of my post - why this headache about whether one is being a good enough man or woman, instead of a decent human being?).

I am sorry you feel that you have been discriminated against due to your gender in school. I hope you will find a more mature group of people to work with in college.

Urbi

Ankita Sarkar said...

Urbi,

1. Thank you. I try to be as inclusive as possible when being vocal about equality.

2. There is no conclusive proof or counter-proof of the different biological wiring that makes hobbies and interests gendered. Researchers lug studies at one another to support either viewpoint, and newspapers oversimplify and sensationalize all experimental inferences. After all, our biological wiring is much older than the invention of all these hobbies! I resist the stereotyping as opposition to the very headache you speak of -- that is, for the right to be judged as an individual, whether one is doing the typical things of one's gender or not. Even if there is a biological wiring, it can only be a tendency and not an absolute affiliation: so skills should be judged on an individual level without gendered prejudice -- not in the form of 'good in Maths, being a woman' or 'expert knitter, being a man', but just as 'good in Maths' and 'expert knitter'! I think you will agree that that is not how the world currently works!
The only thing we conclusively know about men and women being attracted to different things is that they (mostly) are attracted to one another.

As for college, I think it will be as uphill a battle as now. It's worse in scientific careers, you know, since they are still somewhat against the stereotype for girls to pursue. And even within science they have stereotyping -- apparently Mathematics and Physics are more manly than Chemistry, and Biology is just a mildly tomboyish girl. I don't understand it: they're just subjects!

Thank you for your wishes, though. I wish you a good college life as well.

Ankita

Rukmini Banerjee said...

This might be a late comment, but I was so incredibly moved by this writing that it took me a while to orchestrate this reply. I have grown up in a family where both my parents worked, inequality was unheard of and both my parents loved us equally. My mom, by nature, has always been very organised and put together. Scratch the first trait- you have my dad! But despite having to leave and return at odd hours- my mom has always managed to tidy up the closets, organize the nooks and corners and despite an overwhelming day, she has always managed to go out of her way and make time for both me and my sister. What really stood out for me in your letter (i.e. post) is how nicely you put this: "I will still go on keeping house and indulging in my feminine interests like knitting and cooking and colour coordinating upholstery, and hopefully my husband and children will derive much pleasure from these one day, just as my parents do now."
So whilst my comment merely states that Ms Bhattacharya has completely not understood what house-keeping is all about, my comment for you is- thank you. It's good to see people with such power, such conviction and such honestly. Thank you again, for making my day!

Rai