Thursday, August 2, 2012

In defense of the unkempt housewife

Note: This isn't a tirade against a single blog or a writer, but about the general condescending attitude we often have towards the Indian housewife. I use the term 'housewife' rather loosely, to cover so-called career women whose duties at home are not modified in consideration of their financial contribution or demanding schedules. Also, I am not one of those women - I've been fortunate enough to marry into the most supportive family that respects me for what I do, and counting my blessings only heightens the anguish I feel on behalf of the millions of women who aren't as lucky.

About a month ago, Firstpost did this sarcastic little piece on the ubiquitous sight of Indian women in shapeless nightgowns, sometimes simply referred to as 'gown' in all private and public places. It was all very funny, and we've all got some horror stories of women popping up in their most hideous cotton wear in the most inappropriate spaces. Then I read on, and followed the link to a blog that elevates the humble nightie to the status of a menace, and while I still agree it is inappropriate to flaunt your nightclothes in any place other than your bedroom, I wish the high and mighty of women's attire would at least spare those poor middle-class ladies who are just minding their own business.

And then some statements went right on to peck on my nerves: 
"...only those women who “never care about what others feel or see about them” wear them. Some even think that such women are “sheer lazy or perhaps don’t care types”."
“It’s like they're not really bothered about their appearance, because I guess it’s not their priority… And I don’t see the purpose of the dupatta that they wear with the nightie though,” a friend quipped, while another said: “I feel like buying them some clothes… seriously.”

Really? You wanna buy some clothes for them? How awfully generous of you, it really warms the cockles of my heart, my dear gentleman. While at it, could you please also buy them washing machines, dishwashers, cars, and maybe more lucrative jobs for their husbands so the wives may hire some help and not have to single-handedly do all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, dropping kids to school in the wee hours of the morning? And these are not just the stay-at-home housewives.

While Indian culture has progressed enough to allow women the privilege to have jobs and careers, this privilege or freedom for most women just means having to slog 8 hours outside the home and 8 hours inside. So while they are supporting the husband by sharing the financial burden, in many households it is criminal to expect the husband to help out with the housework. A very good friend of mine who is a doctor married to a doctor (and her husband is one of the most supportive men I know), once remarked that she feels uncomfortable asking the husband to help out with the kids, because "that's not the way we're brought up".

My own experience with prospective life partners (back in the dark, dark days when I was past 25 and still single) ranged from amusing to frustrating, as man after unevolved man directly or indirectly hinted that after marriage, I'd be allowed to work, provided the furniture and curtains of the house don't become dusty, neglected victims of my monstrous ambitions. Of course I married the guy who'll eat cereal if I don't get time to fix breakfast.

Most women I know, don't have that choice. Whether they have jobs or not, many married women don't have a life, not at least in the way I know it. I rarely hear a lunchroom conversation where the husband, the in-laws, the kids, upcoming festivals and weddings, and near and distant relatives of all shapes and sizes don't pop up once - because even though many of us now live in nuclear families, life for many women still revolves around family and little else. Movies are functional entertainment only, and books are a luxury, not because they're expensive, but who has the time?

Indian men are among the most spoiled sub-species of the human race, and I know guys who literally will not get up and get their own glass of water. I once had an argument with a male colleague who never rinsed his coffee cup in office, which would make it easier for the maid to clean them. He gave some thought to the matter, and ultimately refused to change the habit. Very few men I know ever offer to take their own plate to the sink. I cannot imagine the plight of the woman who has to play Nirupa Roy to these lazy bums, lay out their breakfast and pack their lunch while they smoothen their hair and read the morning's paper, then run out with a basket at the sabziwallah's call, haggle over the price of bhindi, then rush in and scream at the older kid still in his/her pajamas, shake the younger one out of bed and brush his/her teeth, force feed them both and drag them to school on a two-wheeler. Once everybody else has left, she may finally take a shower (unless it's a traditional household where you can't enter the kitchen without a bath, in which case the wife has to get up before 6 to make it all possible) and dress for work. Oh yes, there is still work, where she might walk in on a conversation about how female employees are always tardy. I've not even introduced judgemental in-laws to the scene yet.

But apparently, tending to all these people is not enough, and now the same women must also answer to the aesthetic sense of the Maya Sarabhai's of the world. Never mind that Indian women are among the most anemic in the world. Never mind that many of the fat aunties you see buying vegetables in their nighties would happily trade their quality time at the grocer's for an hour of Yoga, if someone just let them. Sadly, the only me-time they'll get is at the monthly waxing trip to the neighborhood beautician, followed by someone clucking their tongue and commenting on how these modern women will bankrupt their husbands over their own vanity.

I do not endorse the family-before-myself mindset in Indian women, and wish they'd instead invest some time to teach their husbands and sons some manners. Now these same regressive values are reinforced through many of our TV shows. Yet, it is not difficult to see why these dumb shows strike a cord with their intended demographic - the women on screen are just nicely decorated versions of the average Indian housewife, who was never asked if she wants to slog her life in kitchen or if she'd rather work in an office and have her food laid on the table and her clothes cleaned and ironed for her. It must be nice to see those pretty ladies spell out the virtues of the ordinary woman. That's probably the only appreciation they'll ever get.

So yes, a lot of Indian women on the streets aren't very elegant dressers, nor do they have the most eclectic choice in entertainment. In fact, most have stopped caring about what anybody thinks of them. Wouldn't you, if you had their life?


  1. very nicely written ..Thank god there are no such women treated like that in my entire family :-)

  2. Thanks. So would you say women in your family are generally well groomed? Just asking to know if my logic holds any water.

  3. A well written article. I am glad that you voiced the opinions of millions of super-women.
    Would like to add: lack of co-operation on part of men or women will only lead to dysfunction in their own families and lives.
    Talking about judgements, you rightly said, people no more dont care about what others think.