Children may get away with not doing their homework, but women have no escape from housework. The latest census data in India show nearly 160 million women engaged in “household duties” alone. Many of them conceivably work eight or 10 hours a day, doing a variety of jobs to run the house usually on a budget, maintaining everything from clothes to furniture, providing daily meals and periodical hospitality on tap, tackling everyday emergencies, looking after the old and the sick and bringing up the young. Yet they have said they are “not working”. They must have internalized the idea that what they do is not productive, perhaps, or that it cannot be called economic activity, or simply that whatever is done at home is not ‘work’. The last is now out of place, since a lot of women — and men — choose to work from home that earns them wages.
The peculiar fuzziness around the status of housework — is it ‘productive’? Isn’t it? Is it ‘economic activity’? — indicates logic weakening at the onslaught of gendered vision. Any woman can do housework and rear children — it is shameful if she cannot. This is ‘woman’s work’ and the home is her workplace. Confined here, a woman is, praise be, invisible; hence her work — that work must be taken for granted, for without it everyday life would come to a standstill — is also invisible. This kind of painfully contorted reasoning that confuses logic with perceptions, prejudices, desire, oppression and the operations of power has been used to devalue housework for generations. Not even so-called ‘working’ women escape the demands of this gendered approach to housework. In Indian homes where both men and women work outside the home, most women still do either all or most of the housework.
How would economic activity outside the house be possible without housework? Why should women be made to feel unproductive because they work for the home? That, of course, is just one issue raised by the census data. Another one is the issue of the huge numbers of women still doing only housework. This is a reflection of social attitudes and the lack of or limited access to education, which feed on each other to lessen women’s confidence and sense of independence. What this means for the country is, of course, a disgraceful loss of human resources. But is the country interested in utilizing these resources? Or is it easier to let more women sit at home since jobs are scarce anyway? Certainly, there is no demand for women-friendly arrangements in workplaces so that women workers can give their best. Maybe India does not want its women going out to work. If all women worked outside the home, India’s beloved sons would be forced to share in housework and child-rearing. Housework would become teamwork and some kind of gender equality would be in the offing. Could anything be more outrageous?