There is a bone-headed stubbornness about any persistent bias. Otherwise it would not have been possible for the country’s new census records to list homemakers as “non-workers”. Fundamental attitudes to women looking after their households may not have changed, but official India had enough time to take note of the growing acknowledgment, at the insistence of women’s rights activists, that not only is housework ‘work’ but its economic value too should be properly assessed. Now that the Supreme Court has said essentially the same thing when coming down heavily on the equating of homemakers to “beggars, prostitutes and prisoners as equally non-productive workers”, there is no excuse to pretend that housework does not matter. The court’s objections to the implied comparison of housebound wives to other categories of presumably non-productive workers make a certain dark irony inescapable. It is also a reminder of the struggle of sex workers to be acknowledged as workers. However, the court has put down the official attitude towards homemakers to an insensitivity to the dignity of labour and a strong gender bias. In both, the court is undoubtedly correct, and its pointed comments raise important allied issues.
Housework is invisible, hence it is easy to ignore and exploit. Yet it does not take genius to conclude that without this invisible work going on uninterruptedly, no economic activity by those who go out of the house would have been possible. Quantifying the contribution of homemakers to the economy is not a desirable job: a proper assessment could make many earning men look quite silly. But in these changing times, concepts of housework and gendered distribution of the work are changing too. Different aspirations and economic goals are inducing different lifestyles and values. But the change will take some time to spread. Meanwhile, in spite of the court’s displeasure, the low value accorded to housework will continue to haunt the status of homemakers. And the other group of women which will continue to suffer for this would be paid domestic workers. Their wages reflect exactly how little housework is valued by Indian society.