Sunday, August 17, 2014

Invisible women

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 17, 2014

At a garment factory. Photo: K. Pichumani
At a garment factory. Photo: K. Pichumani

Should women ‘work’ after they get married? I put the word work in inverted commas deliberately because women work all the time but only when they do paid work is it considered ‘work’.

One imagines that this question need not be asked anymore because India is changing. But is it? Going by recent reports and studies, it is evident that some things never change, or change so slowly as to be imperceptible. And the one equation that does not change is the expectation from women once they get married. Their priority has to be ‘the family’ and all else, including jobs that could be something they enjoy doing, must be set aside.

An advertisement that is being passionately analysed and discussed on social media depicts a woman boss instructing her junior, who turns out to be her husband, to work over-time to complete a project. Meantime, she heads home and instead of putting up her feet and relaxing, proceeds to cook up a gourmet meal for the husband. She then sends him the pictures through her phone to tempt him to come home for the meal.

So is this depiction of woman as the boss ‘progressive’ or is it ‘regressive’ because ultimately she conforms to the stereotype of the wife who must please her husband? If the roles had been reversed, would the husband boss have done something similar? At most, he might have ordered in a great meal, or asked the domestic help to cook something special. Incidentally, where was the domestic help when the woman ‘boss’ was slaving in the kitchen? It stretches credulity to believe that a woman at the top in the corporate sector would not have domestic help.

Perhaps we are making too much of this but the advertisement raises other, more important, questions about the ability of women to continue doing paid work after marriage. This paper carried an interesting analysis on this subject on August 11 ( The article reported research that showed that women dropped out of paid work once they got married or/and had children. The exceptions were women in the upper income bracket and the poorest, who had no option but to continue some form of wage work. Poor women in villages also had no choice although their work was often unpaid as it was part of agricultural tasks that they were expected to do in the family.

What the advertisement represents is the exception to the rule. For the majority of women who are poor, whether in city or village, there is really no choice. Speak to any woman who works as a domestic. You hear identical stories. There is not enough in the house to make ends meet. The man either has no work, or cannot work due to addiction, or is in a low-paid insecure job. Often, the woman’s salary is the only steady amount coming into the family kitty. As a result, these women — come rain or shine, illness or family tragedy — are forced to continue to work. What is interesting is that despite the drudgery of domestic work, many of them persist because it gives them a chance to escape the greater drudgery of the work they must still do in their own homes.

The article in The Hindu, however, does touch upon a group of urban women who are neither so poor that they must work for survival nor so well-off that they can continue to work outside their homes because they have help at home. It is the women in the middle who get caught. For them, paid work is ‘permitted’ so to speak, only until they get married. And then it has to stop. Unless the family into which they marry ‘allow’ them to continue. So the little bit of autonomy they gain through earning something through their own labour is snatched away from them the day they get married. Apart from the blow to their own self-esteem, this is a waste because these women could be productively employed.

We do not read enough about this class of women. They are all around us in our cities — working in garment factories, in offices, as saleswomen in the growing retail sector, in call centres etc. Yet, they are virtually invisible. What are their stories?

Perhaps it is time the camera focused on these lives. 

(To read the original, click here.)

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