India is experiencing the resurgence of humanity as it continues to grapple with a deadly second wave of COVID-19. Meanwhile, an image of a middle-aged woman cooking chapati on a stove while on oxygen support was circulated widely across social media. The woman in question, possibly infected with or recovering from the virus, is seen breathing through an oxygen concentrator placed nearby. The photo was captioned, “Unconditional love = mother. She is never off duty.” While the origins and authenticity of the photograph remain unclear, the post spiralled into conversations on women/ mothers and unpaid labor being passed off as “duties” in Indian households.
The post surfaced at a time when women are reportedly disproportionately affected by the pandemic. A July 2020 McKinsey & Co report shares that women are more susceptible to COVID-19’s economic impact owing to existing gender inequalities. Globally, the report estimates, female job loss rates due to COVID-19 are 1.8 times higher than those encountered by male counterparts. “One reason for this greater effect on women is that the virus is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried by women," it states.
Amid this rising burden of unpaid care, it is worth considering the cultural optics behind the patriarchal entitlement of the said post.
Chapatis, Mother India cult and patriarchal culture
In a patriarchal culture like India, women and men have been traditionally assigned indoor and outdoor spaces respectively. Pitted against the masculine space of the world, the feminine space of the kitchen and the home has been relegated secondary to the more “productive” masculine territory.
At an age when gender-sensitive conversations and women’s movements have challenged men’s hegemonic control over the outside world and accelerated “feminization” of the domestic space with greater inclusion of men in the traditionally feminine space, the binary of women’s work/men’s work and women/men still prevail, pushing the narrative of the woman of the house/household as the domestic goddess.
Why goddess? To proclaim a woman as a domestic goddess is to valorize her unrecognized labor; to deify her as a higher being, a goddess who nourishes, cooks, cleans, cares. The Mother India cult propagates the image of a sacrificial mother who is happy to offer her life, love and labor for her children and family. It is the ultimate fetishization of the woman as an unquestioning caregiver; the “unconditional love” of the mother that the social media user was referring to. And, therein lies the irony of this posturing that on one hand, hails the woman as a goddess who is revered and immortalized in popular cultural narratives, and on the other hand, projects her as a tireless worker who is bound to perform her domestic duties with zealous efficiency.
A woman’s domestic labor is thus devalued and even demanded as a round-the-clock vocation and justified in the context of the home and the kitchen being her place of pride. A patriarchal mindset has internalized this view of the domestic space being a woman’s, especially a homemaker’s sanctum sanctorum that legitimizes her position within the family, the fundamental unit of society.
The dichotomy of the Great Indian Kitchen is that the roundness and softness of a chapati served piping hot at the dining table dominated by male members, and where women often eat last or less, hails her wifely/motherly toil as unconditional love, all while romanticizing the beads of sweats breaking out on her forehead.
Systemic patriarchy has ensured that women too have often internalized the inherent gender norms and glorified women’s work as being only suited for the feminine. The result? A tradition of men unskilled at domestic work, considering it against their manly pride and prestige; men who are infantilized by wives who end up mothering them, and a generation of boys who continue to unquestioningly glorify women’s unpaid labor as a labor of love.
Should women be paid for housework?
According to a Time Use in India - 2019 survey, 91.8% of women in India between the ages of 15 and 59, and only 20.06% men participated in unpaid domestic work across Indian households in 2019. The report highlighted the concept of “time poverty” as experienced by women when it comes to their participation in paid work. While Indian men spend 80 percent of their working hours on paid work, women spend nearly 84 percent on unpaid labor. This glaring “time poverty” indicates that on an average, women in Indian households have much less time for pursuing hobbies, leisure time and community participation.
Notably, women’s unpaid domestic labor is not accounted for in either the GDP of the country or in its employment metrics. This “invisibilizes” the women workforce in Indian households devaluing not only their physical labor but also their emotional labor that goes into upholding family traditions. This is rooted in a culture that glorifies “slavery” schooled in the “virtue” of toleration.
The above data begs the answer to the question: Should women be paid for household work? Recently, actor-politician Kamal Hassan and his party Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) had proposed ‘payment’ to women for their work at home if voted to power in the 2021 Assembly elections. A day ago, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet gave its approval for implementation of a monthly income support scheme under which female heads of general category families will receive Rs 500 and that of SC/ST families Rs 1,000, thus fulfilling a pre-poll promise in the Trinamool Congress (TMC) manifesto after election results were declared on May 2, 2021 in the state.
The question though is, will wages for household work/domestic labor course-correct inherent kitchen politics in Indian households? Surely, such cash-transfer support is progressive in nature and targets providing agency to the woman via her purse, but will it provide enough agency to enable women to break free of the vicious chain? Will it accord them the choice to negotiate power structures woven in the domestic design, cultural biases and patriarchal conveniences of Indian families? Or will it unintentionally end up legitimizing the role of women in domestic chores, and work towards incentivizing household labor?
Opinions will surely differ on this as there is no one answer to the issue. Education of the girl child, prioritization of higher studies and careers for young women over marriage, careers over early marriages, motherhood as not an ideal but a choice, and love rooted in the tenets of respect and equality rather than self-negation should alongside be the course towards correcting the gendered narratives of India’s taxing informal labor economy.
A culture that prides itself on the “unconditional love” of a mother needs to revisit the patriarchal conditioning that is so prejudiced against women and their rights to their bodies, safety, well-being and life itself.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)