It’s Women’s Day. The newspapers bring out a special edition declaring the ‘importance of women’ and facebook is overloaded with status updates paying tribute to the various facets of femininity. It’s the day my uncle calls in the morning to wish my mom and me A Very Happy Women’s Day and we get “you are special!” SMS forwards from our various friends and fans urging us to “celebrate your womanhood!” And I sit here and think, so what’s the big deal about being a woman that needs to be shouted out and parroted by everyone just for this one day?
So here I am, trying to put my thoughts into words, trying to piece together what, for me, is important about being a woman today. More than two centuries ago, a group of courageous women stood up and starting talking about themselves, as women and as human beings. We’re as human as you, they told the men, and hence we should have a say in running the world and running our lives as much as you do. They fought for equal rights: to vote, to work and earn and to procreate. They challenged the then-societal beliefs that “a woman’s place is in her home” and urged women to become economically independent. A century later, around the early 1900s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton made a speech called “A Declaration of the Rights of Women,” and after a hundred-year struggle, finally got women’s suffrage. And there’s been no looking back ever since.
And today, on 8th March 2011, I think, well, Stanton and Mary Wollstonecraft and the rest of those amazing women, finally have their efforts paid off! Today women have access to education, to information and knowledge, and they are asserting themselves in positions that have traditionally been dominated by men- from political leaders to taxi drivers. In my own life, I know many women of my mother’s generation who are engaged in jobs outside their homes, and almost all the females my age have chalked out a ‘career’ for themselves, which hopefully isn’t restricted to marriage and bearing offspring.
But is it all that equal, I wonder… For if one wants to be a successful ‘woman’ of today, not only does one need to have a glittering career but one must also be a good wife and a devoted mother, balancing demanding work routines with household and children-related duties with apparent ease. Strangely, the same formula doesn’t apply for being a successful man: his worth is only measured by the number of zeroes in his month-end cheque! Then why are we, as women, burdened with that extra responsibility that men can brush off so easily?
To develop clarity on these questions and confusions in my mind, I began reading post-feminist theories and arguments. A bunch of disgruntled ladies argue that ‘feminism’ and the struggle for equal jobs and equal pay just put more responsibilities on women. Danielle Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, suggested that women should marry and bear children at an early age, stay home to raise their children, and then pursue careers later in life. Another similar thinker, Amy C. Goldman, declared that feminists who criticized traditional gender roles devalued the importance of motherhood. “A better form of feminism would be not to rebel against ‘gender roles,’ but instead to assert the value of these roles and to ensure their continuing existence. . . . It is where distinctions between the sexes are properly maintained that men and women complement each other and promote each other’s happiness.” she said.
But then this is only the conservative side of post-feminism. Other ‘liberal’ feminists have argued that the difficultly women faced in juggling this twin burden of responsibilities could be resolved by changing the entire notion of ‘work’ and ‘home’ itself. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, suggested a perspective change on the assumption that women only should bear child-rearing and other domestic duties. She wrote that “What women and men today need [are] real choices about having children . . . without paying an inordinate price or facing dilemmas in their careers. We need to restructure hours and conditions of work. The technology of work today . . . urge[s] us to flex-time, with staggered hours of starting and leaving work, and variable schedules during the work week.”
So while the conservatives state that feminism has evidently harmed women by transforming social norms of ‘equality’ and discouraging women from shouldering domestic responsibilities hence sabotaging their happiness, the liberals suggest an entire paradigm shift on conventional gender roles and the values assigned to them.
But then, how does it relate to my own life, my own understanding? Here I shall proceed to share some of my own reflections that I have formed while reading/talking/hearing/exploring feminism and asserting my place as an outspoken woman in this world.
I have been raised in a non-conformist, radical-thinking family, and as an only child. My parents had deconstructed gender roles and responsibilities in their marriage, a stark contrast to many of my relatives’ and friends’ households that I occasionally chanced to witness. Both my parents worked 9 to 5 jobs and shared all the household responsibilities. Since we didn’t have any household help, except for a woman who has been cooking for us since the time I began forming memories, hence chores were shared (and continue to be!) by all three of us. My father does the dishes, sweeps and mops, waters the plants and does the laundry. My mom makes breakfast and lunch. I help them both, and occasionally clean my room and the toilet. This isn’t a rigid system, people usually do what they feel needs to be done and sometimes force me to do it. I think it is a good, workable system.
But because of this, I find it difficult to accept rigid gender roles and get very frustrated when I see it happening, even with my so-called ‘modern valued’ male friends! Some of them refuse to step into the kitchen and help their mothers, even today! A lot of men justify their reluctance as “this is a woman’s job” and “demeaning their masculinity”… Then I wonder, why is it that if WOMEN step out of their houses to do jobs traditionally done by a man, that’s called empowerment, but if MEN step in to do work traditionally done by a woman, that’s subjugation? It seems there is an inherent notion in our society that masculinity is better than femininity!
This makes me think more about these allocated ‘jobs’ for women. Perhaps the inequality and discrimination lies not in who gets to do what, but in the perception of these jobs themselves. The values we assign to a set of activities traditionally done by women and men define which activity is ‘better’, hence economically beneficial, hence empowering. So, the activities of women as natural child bearers and rearers aren’t valued, hence have no economic gain, hence degrading to the person who does them. Who set these values in the first place, I wonder… And I haven’t really found my answer yet.
But what if we all change this hierarchy of values at its core? What if men and women BOTH become capable of doing what was conventionally restricted to only one gender? And what if traditionally ‘female’ work was of equal value as ‘male’ work? Sure, certain natural things cannot change; men won’t be able to birth children for a long time as yet, but they’re certainly up for taking responsibility for their offspring’s nurturing! If there can be reservations for women in the ‘hallowed’ hallways of power such as governance bodies and educational institutions, why can’t there be reservations (at least 33%!) for men in the even more sacred sanctums of the home and hearth?
And perhaps, this hierarchy of value isn’t only restricted to the work of men and women… it can be applied to the other oppressive systems in society today, say of caste and class. Virginia Woolf, in her feminist literary criticism essay A Room of One’s Own has said, people, for asserting their own superiority, devalue other groups different from them in certain ways, and start considering them inferior, to boost their own collective ego. And when the other group, that has been considered inferior, starts accepting that, well, that’s the start of discrimination. The same has happened in our scenario of caste and reservation, methinks. There are reservations for Dalits and other ‘lower’ castes for positions in educational institutions, but then why aren’t there, based on the same logic, reservations for Brahmins and other ‘upper’ castes in positions of sweepers and rag-pickers? Why is this work, actually very necessary for society, devalued?
I accept it is more complex than that. That there is an entire question of violence used for subjugation… And another of choice and centuries of being denied that choice— for both women and ‘backward’ groups—the choice for doing something apart from what was expected of them. But looking closely, was this choice as freely available to men and ‘upper’ castes as we think it to be? I think not.
I clean my own toilet. As I mentioned, we don’t have any household help, and in our non-rigid, organic role-distribution system, toilet cleaning often falls on me. Initially I was aghast, yes, I too carry that value hierarchy somewhere within me, but I did it. And started doing it more often. And soon, started enjoying it too, although occasionally it does gross me out. But well, I tell myself, it’s my own shit that I’m cleaning. And it’s a great way of releasing pent-up frustration, so ultimately, not only does the toilet come out bright and white and sparkling, but so does my soul.
So if you’ve read this completely and agree with me even just a little, take this Women’s Day as a time to reflect what value hierarchy you are carrying within yourself. What work, what chore do you consider ‘below’ your standard to do? Why do you feel it is so? Explore that. And then try to do that work. I think empowerment begins from there.