Housework and the Indian middleclass woman

Housework and the Indian middleclass woman

Award-winning journalist Nilanjana Bhowmick’s book, 'Lies Our Mothers Told Us', will make you sit up and think about 'normalised abuse' of the Indian woman through over-work under the garb of domestic responsibility. A review.

Nilanjana Bhowmick's latest book asks some pointed questions about women in Indian households Nilanjana Bhowmick's latest book asks some pointed questions about women in Indian households

When a woman decides to step out and make a difference –  many things shift – and almost always odds are stacked against her. Nevertheless, she doesn’t give up.

The middleclass domestic scenario day-to-day is however a little different – here she is expected to perform in multiple roles and deliver – no questions asked – and giving up is not a choice. Nilanjana Bhowmick’s powerful book – Lies Our Mothers Told Us – in 20 chapters, explores and connects stories of middleclass women – as they negotiate patriarchal aggression in various walks of life, but especially at home.

The inspiration, says Nilanjana is her own life – how she saw her mother, a policewoman being bullied at home, despite her professional proficiency. More closely, her own professional journey as a journalist has been one of constant struggle against newsroom misogyny.

 “The struggle of the Indian middle-class woman at home, work, and society at large against patriarchy is sugar-coated for everyone’s convenience. It took me some time to decide to pull the collage together to bring forth the underlying theme of patriarchy and how women negotiate with it in India. The stories are documents of real-life narratives – something I have curated over the years as a journalist,” Nilanjana told Business Today.

The veneer of normalcy and a superficial ‘okayness’ of day-to-day inequality at work or in domestic quarters were the two things she wanted to explore closely as she started bringing the book together. The peeves of domesticity where a woman is often disempowered, loaded with chores and rituals, and coerced to fit into roles with defined duties is the area she has put under the lens.

The stories show how a woman who is capable of sufficient productivity at the workplace is often robbed of her freedom at home and made an unwilling victim of the expectations of her family. The manner in which domesticity subjugates women in the Indian middleclass household is encapsulated thus through the history of the division of male and female roles in the household:

The book said:

"Today there is a need to go back to Marxist literature especially because the manner in which it defines women’s labour is why traditionalists are opposed to it—it can disturb the status quo and interfere with the family structure that has emerged as a refuge for men. Marx defined housework as ‘petty, stultifying and degrading’, while Engels said that with the emergence of private property and class, society had began grouping men as breadwinners and women as housewives—and therein had bagan women’s oppression. Therein lies the historical defeat of the female sex.’ The Irish socialist republican James Connolly had said that if men were the slaves of a capitalist society, the housewives were ‘the slave of the slave.’"

She explains: “The Indian woman has little alternative to overwork and the amount of labour she puts in at work and home together often surpasses healthy levels. Over-work is also a price she often has to pay for being ambitious about a career. Indian women are among the most overworked in the world. In 2019, a Time Use Survey found that Indian women spent 299 minutes per day on housework and 134 minutes on caregiving duties per day. Men spent only 97 minutes on household work, and 76 minutes a day on caregiving. Women in our country shoulders over 82 per cent of the domestic work and almost 28 per cent of caregiving.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), working for over 55 hours a week leads to a 35 per cent higher risk of stroke and 17 per cent higher risk of dying from heart disease. From the anecdotal evidence I gathered from women about their days — Indian women often end up working up to 70 hours every week — in fact probably more.”

The labyrinths of rituals, routines, and set conditioning have normalised over-work for women in the domestic set up and thus Nilanjana’s book shines a torchlight  on the many lies that permit covert permissiveness of domestic abuse in the garb of ‘responsibility.’

Nilanjana Bhowmick is an award-winning, independent journalist. Her work on gender and social justice has been awarded by the European Commission and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. Her book Lies Our Mothers Told Us examines gender inequalities inside India’s middle-class homes.