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Women's leisure is often fragmented and secondary

Rights to leisure reflect larger power structures in the home and in society

Alaka M. Basu   |     |   Published 04.07.11, 12:00 AM

Those of us interested in gender equality tend to be obsessed with the politically and economically important areas in which we need this equality — education, employment, health, political representation. But equality in these important but grim attributes leaves out many things that actually make life more enjoyable and thus more worth living.

Women deserve more from gender equality than better housekeeping and management skills. In most societies, men are much more likely to be granted rights to the time and money to spend on themselves, often in harmless, sometimes in more invidious, ways. Indeed, one of the reasons that women’s employment is touted in development literature is that women are less likely than men to spend their incomes on tea, cigarettes and gossip and more likely to spend it on things like child nutrition.

But tea and gossip are good for women too (even if cigarettes are not). They add to the joys of life. Fun and leisure may be strange things to worry about for poor households intensely preoccupied with day-to-day survival. But there is no doubt that access to leisure enhances the quality of life immensely.

Leisure is of course not a clearly demarcated activity; it can often be combined with work (gossiping with neighbours while peeling potatoes, for instance). To that extent, statistics may understate women’s access to leisure. At the same time, separating out the ‘leisure’ component of a day’s activities becomes important as women’s lives change; while it may easy to combine gossip with the peeling of potatoes, it may be less easy to do so with the formal assembly line work that accounts for much of the rising female employment in developing countries.

Very broadly, one can think of leisure as made up of activities that afford pleasure or happiness in themselves, not because they lead to some other kind of good; that is, not for their instrumental value. For example, child care does not count even if it is inherently pleasurable because it does achieve a larger purpose, that of child welfare.

For the bulk of women, leisure is probably best described in terms of very simple things such as a chance to rest, to socialize, to be entertained; in other words, as the ability to be what may be called ‘unproductively free’. Such unproductive freedom should include the freedom to occasionally lie on the terrace gazing at the stars without the milk boiling over, as well as the right to stand on the street and laugh loudly at a performing clown without being called a hussy.

Rights to leisure reflect larger power structures in the home and in society. So it is not surprising that the very idea of leisure is so alien to poor women that many of the women in a survey in Kerala mentioned washing clothes and cleaning the house when asked what they did in their free time. There is also much fine tuning regarding who can claim how much and what kind of leisure. Moreover, norms are often not directly about leisure but about other matters which have an impact on leisure. For example, norms about femininity can severely restrict the access of young girls to outdoor sports.

Rights to leisure cannot be exercised without the opportunities for it. What are some of these platforms? Leisure activities may be social/communal or solitary (singing bhajans versus reading), active or passive (playing badminton vs watching television), organized or casual (playing badminton vs gossiping), family centred or extra-domestic (going out for a movie with family vs going out with friends), creative or unproductive (painting vs sitting in the sun on a winter afternoon). While all these things are more or less legitimate at different times and for different people, for women in South Asia leisure is more commonly likely to be social, passive, casual and unproductive.

Women’s leisure is also more likely than men’s to be ‘fragmented’ and to be a ‘secondary’ activity. Fragmented leisure refers to leisure enjoyed in small units of time rather than in blocks — which makes it difficult to develop any sustained leisure interests. Leisure as a secondary activity refers to leisure that is combined with non-leisure doings (listening to the radio while cooking) — once again, this is relaxing, but does not allow wholehearted immersion in anything.

Material resources matter. But for women, it is not money that is the primary constraint, given the inexpensive nature of most of their leisure activities; it is time and it is space. Both these constraints are overwhelming and so there are fewer socioeconomic differences in women’s leisure activities — rich men play golf while poor men drink tea in the neighbourhood stall, but both rich and poor women seem to experience more fragmented and secondary leisure.

Women’s keen interest in free time was well brought out in field work I did in rural West Bengal some years ago. When we asked what they thought was the most important positive change that women had experienced in the last 15 years, we got a chorus of praise for, of all things, the pressure cooker. Elaborating, the women declared that nothing gave as much freedom as the ability to cook in 15 minutes what usually took a couple of hours. As to what they would do with all the free time that the hypothetical pressure cooker provided, many of the women dispensed with platitudes about how this would make them even better mothers or earners. Instead, what came out in the responses was the sense that life can be and should be fun.

Notwithstanding all these constraints, there are some specific forms of leisure that women have over time secured some rights to and that policies must somehow make an effort to protect:

Leisure and Obligatory Work: This is the leisure that women manage to extract from what are called ‘obligatory’ activities — non-remunerative but necessary tasks like housework, shopping, personal hygiene; many of these tasks are the responsibility of women, many are onerous, but women also manage to turn them into an opportunity for leisure. Water and fuel collection in poor countries is one good example. Because they are so time-intensive, policy is constantly harangued to deliver piped water and cheap, market-bought cooking fuel. While this is certainly a necessary policy intervention, these activities are often welcomed by women as a way to engage in non-domestic social interactions.

Work as Leisure: The second unexpected source of leisure for women is employment outside the home. There are no Indian data on work as leisure. But work outside the home, when it is not backbreaking, is also a form of escape from the routine and controls of domestic life, especially for the young married woman. No wonder women have taken to low-level office work in droves in urban India. This hunger for leisure outside the home at least partly explains to me the curious sight of crowds of young women spending all day outside the gates of the schools their children go to in Calcutta. Motherhood legitimizes the time outside the home for these women, who look relaxed and cheerful even in the blazing sun.

Indeed, the pleasures of work — when it is not too demanding — seem to be universal, as is suggested by recent research on the changing workplace as the site of traditionally home-centred activities, especially social interaction, and the home as increasingly the place where discipline is enforced, routines are followed and life is busy.

Religion and Leisure: Universally, people spend a significant amount of free time on religion-related activities. While some of this involvement is directly religious, much of it is more social. Religious activities as leisure are probably more significant for women. The current Ramdev agitation seems to have shrewdly recognized the importance of this form of social activity by welcoming women; this strategy also allows the agitation to paternally claim to be protecting women and not its own turf when the going gets tough.

Religion is also important for women’s leisure in India because it affords one of the few avenues they have for travel and tourism, especially alone or with other, often unrelated, women. Religious pilgrimages are fulfilling in more ways than in their promise of religious enlightenment.

Self Care as Leisure: Time spend on ‘personal hygiene’ is an ‘obligatory’ activity, neither work, nor leisure. But change ‘personal hygiene’ to ‘self-care’ and one sees that with sufficient time and resources, indulgent investments in the physical self can become serious acts of leisure. As recent sociologies of the local beauty parlour attest, women use these places to let off some of the steam accumulated from suffocating domestic demands as much as to adorn themselves for the glory of the household. For many women, there is nothing as liberating as a long pedicure.


The author is professor, department of Development Sociology, Cornell University

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