Making visible what is held invisible

Light of Truth

George Pattery, SJ

Jeo Baby’s ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ says it all: Nimisha has her task cut out from dawn to dusk with the men hardly lifting even their little finger to help but the complaints stay – don’t cook food in the cooker, firewood is better; don’t wash my clothes in the washing machine, a hand run is better; I am not dissuading you from going to work, I will decide when it should be – so on and so forth.
It sounds bizarre and anachronistic to pay for house-work of a house-wife! It is demeaning and monetizing everyone and everything! We/they do it for love – thus goes the arguments against, including that of Kongana Ranaut.
Kamal Haasan has initiated a social media war with his party’s manifesto to provide wage for the house-work. Is he trying to gain political mileage by popular gimmick? Is there a real issue? Shashi Tharoor has strongly supported this proposal. Sooner or later all of us will have to take a stand.

What is the issue?

‘The wife owes service and labour to her husband as much and absolutely as the slave does to his Master, despite the poetical fancy of elevating her in social estate’ said Antoinette Brown, a protestant Minister in the the early part of their history. We go a step ahead in India and glorify our women as goddesses but deny them equal rights, and now in U.P and M.P even pass ordinances against the right to choose their husbands, says Faizan (Cf. Faizan Mustafa in Hindu, 21 Jan, 2021). He supports his views with data on the various and many legal cases and census-reports, saying that on an average Indian woman spend 299 minutes a day on unpaid domestic services for household members whereas men spend 97 minutes; this besides her spending another 134 minutes for caregiving services for the family.
Household work constitutes one of the biggest economic sectors in the world, and yet it is not considered in calculating the national incomes; Mustafa refers to a court judgment by Justice A.K.Ganguly in Arun Kumar Agrawal Case (2010) citing the Census of 2001 that mentions that there were 36 crore women in India who performed household duties but categorized as non-workers and clubbed them together with beggars, prostitutes and prisoners. Though we have come a long way in advancing the cause of women in socio-political life, we are yet to measure and quantify the unremunerated domestic activities of women and their recognition in GDP so that the actual economic contribution of women is highlighted.
In another significant study Anusha Chandrasekaran (Indian Express, 20 Jan 2021) says: ‘ILO defines unpaid work as non-remunerated work carried out to sustain the well-being and maintenance of other individuals in a household or the community, and it includes both direct and indirect care’. Stating the obvious disparity in the duration of work and remuneration, Anusha raises the following questions in search of a remedy: Is payment for work going to actually elevate the position of women as argued? Or is it going to further institutionalize patriarchal roles of women’s responsibilities within the homestead and men’s outside? Who will pay for this ‘salary’ for housewives? Husbands? Government? Tax subsidies? Should there be payment for household work, rather making it a special pay for women? She is forthright in saying: The data pointing to wide gender disparity when it comes to work participation, unpaid work, pay gap, etc and the wide-ranging arguments reinforce that we have a long way to go when it comes to rejecting patriarchal norms that entrench ‘love’ and ‘duty’ deep in family values.

“Enable women to flourish in order to enhance
transformation of our society.

It is not just about whether the unpaid work of women at home is recognized, it is also about the more basic question of why domestic work is seen as the domain of women. Manu, the patron saint of patriarchy in the Indian context, associates the fire-place, the grinding stone, the broom, the pestle and mortar and the water-pot, with impurity/sin – all activities that he also linked with women’s responsibilities. From matrimonial advertisements to television serials, from films to the neighbourhood gossip mill, all celebrate “homely” brides, “good” housewives, who will take care of their families well”. There are, according to Anusha, three basic reasons for this predicament: i) Until and unless sexist association of domestic chores with women is called out and questioned, there will be a range of justifications to ensure women stay within the hearth. The argument of paying them for it or not will not change the situation; ii) Domestic work has to be treated as a profession, and workers must be accorded fair wages; iii) Concepts of family, rooted in these patriarchal constructs of “love” and “duty” derive from a dominant male gaze over the years. It draws from one that has led people to believe that not just through history, even prehistory.
In yet another study (IE 9 Jan 2021) Arpon Tulsyan says: more than creating a new provision of salary for housework, we need to strengthen awareness, implementation and utilization of other existing provisions, starting from the right to reside in the marital home, to streedhan and haqmeher, to coparcenary and inheritance rights as daughters and to basic services, free legal aid and maintenance in instances of violence and divorce. Arpon concludes: ‘Our aim cannot be only to ensure “basic income” to women. Women should be encouraged and helped to reach their full potential through qua-lity education, access and opportunities of work, gender-sensitive and harassment-free workplaces and attitudinal and behaviour change within families to make household chores more participative. Once these conditions are met, working inside the home or outside must be a woman’s choice, a freedom that she can exercise for herself.’

Towards a perspective change

It is evident that the proposal to remunerate house-work requires a change of perspective in socio-economic life; it calls for an inclusive approach that respects and values all work as dignified and all humans as equal. This fundamental and essential perspective is getting advanced through this proposal of remunerating house-work. All along, the social teaching of the church defended the inalienable rights and freedom of the person and dignity of labour. Especially in the modern period, starting from Rerum Novarum to Fratelli Tutti, church teaching has been consistent and insistent on upholding the human person and dignity of labour. Perhaps, as in the larger society, these concepts were understood, internalized and propagated with a gendered outlook. It is time that we acknowledge and respond to this. Such transformation takes place when it is perceived from financial point of view.
Money matters especially where social changes are concerned; when something is paid for, it is taken note of. In the case of those under BPL it becomes urgent and acute that house-work is remunerated. Think of Malati who is a daily worker; gets work for three days a week; she works for three days and return home daily to do all the house-work to support her husband (migrant worker) and her two children. It is in such cases, the proposal to pay for house-work gets its teeth. Think of MANREGA and its impact on rural life and economy. We have healthy models like MANREGA to fall back on, to devise ways and means of working out remunerating house-work so as to capacitate women to find time and space to flourish. It is a two-way process: remunerating house-work enables the economy to recognize the economic activity hitherto unnoticed and include it in economic thinking; on the other hand change of economic perspective demands critical legislations to empower women, and thus to advance economy and raise social standard.
The three key players in this regard are the institutions of judiciary, state and religion. They exercise major role in shaping the social mind-set of peoples. All of these institutions depend on ‘economy’ for their everyday life(After all, Karl Marx was right – the economic foundation determines the super-structures). This every-day economy is mostly ‘home-centred’ and built around ‘house-work’. Perhaps it is time that we devise economy that helps home-making, rather than fit ‘house-work’ to economic systems and financial markets. Covid-19 has taught us to live with the essentials when the entire humanity is threatened of its existence. Can we not think of an economy that sustains ‘home-making’ with affordable house-work for all the stakeholders? Today people talk of “circular economy,” which reduces, reuses and recycles materials across consumer goods, building materials and food, reducing the carbon print on the environment. Can we not reduce the work-load of women, re-distribute household works and release the time, energy and capacity of women for social growth? Economy is meant for helping social goals. The work-economy of women should enhance the ‘social life in the family’. By remunerating household women, especially of BPL section, we enhance the individual flourishing and social life of women, and thus enhance family lives.
Kamal Haasan has rightly initiated a critical debate that can reshape life in Indian society by enabling the flourishing of women through remuneration of house-hold work of women, especially under the BPL line, in tune with MANREGA model. During the struggle for 10 cents for the landless’ ’in the past, Church in Kerala missed the boat. Here is a wonderful opportunity to join the movement to enable women to flourish in order to enhance socio-economic transformation of our society. It’s the Great Indian Kitchen!

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