Indian Married Women – A housewife or a homemaker or domestic engineer?
“My daily routine - wake up early. The first task is to prepare breakfast and lunch for my husband and kids. I pack them off to work and school. Come home, take a nap, by the time the children return home I have watched some TV, spoken to a few friends over the phone and surfed the internet. Post evening I get busy in preparing dinner, then my husband comes back, after dinner, we mostly hit the bed.” - Neha, Traditional Indian housewife
If asked to defined an Indian Married women the most common adjectives used are “Nurturing, Self-sacrificing, Frustrated, Lonely”
But perhaps one that captures her presence over millions of years is – invisible.
For ages she was ignored by family members, overlooked by society, sidestepped by elders and dismissed by professionals. The Indian housewife seemed to exist in a curious time-warp, lingering within boundaries, slaving on timeless chores of cooking, cleaning, managing the children, satisfying the husband and smiling for the society.
In actual fact, the housewife is one of the most powerful and profound mirrors of change each society undergoes. Take Britain’s example. With the 18th century’s Industrial Revolution, economic life started shifting to cities and families shrank. The housewife slowly became the manager of a nuclear family. Transmitting middle class values, diligence, frugality and hygiene became the housewives responsibility. Then came the World Wars. Suddenly millions of European men were fighting along the battle-lines. Housewives found themselves working in hospitals, factories and offices. The change was irreversible. When the men returned, they found women no longer content only to clean floors or cook meals. Women wanted to savour the zing of life containing both the domestic and professional. As with subsequent generations of housewives, they have never received an adequate emotional, physical and psychological recognition for this double shift.
But the change itself was enormous, reflected in culture, fashion and public spending. The 1970s brought a bigger change in attitude when the word “housewife” was publically trounced. It got replaced by “Homemaker” which provided more dignity and broader definition to their work. And today there is a shift towards use of the word “domestic engineer” which gives an appropriate recognition and definition for their work.
The Indian housewives story also reflects the enormous changes the nation experienced. The Nineteenth century Bengal led the way with debates over the ideal housewife. Traditional practices like violence, abuse, neglect and sati where questioned for the first time. While men where never to let go of their psychological dominion, writers like Rabindranath Tagore to Munshi Premchand expressed how silently women questioned their place in society and struggle against their limitations.
As the Freedom Movement grew, Mahatma Gandhi understood the suppressed power of the housewife, calling for women to step out of their homes into the struggle. Thousands heeded him, giving up imported cloth for khadi, joining satyagrahas, courting arrest. While their efforts were rewarded with Independence, Partition and its violence of rape, mutilation and abduction was a tremendous step back in their struggle.
After Independence, the middle-class housewife symbolised the values of the Nehruvian mixed economy, notably simple living, high thinking, where education of her children was crucial for progress. The pressure on housewives to conform to a standard tradition continued with no recognition for their effort. The 1980s sowed the seeds for the future. It was the Economic liberalisation through the 1990s that has been pivotal in helping Indian housewife move towards the Indian homemaker tag.
Economic needs and taste of financial independence at younger age motivate middle-class women to move out of the limitations of household chores. Many women today are no longer content being just housewives. The change in social mindset is probably best explained by fashion. Not more than 15yrs ago, a married woman was bound to choose only between traditional sari and salwaar kameez, this has now been replaced by more modern trousers and dresses.
This change in mindset can be seen in post-80’s-90’s housewives who look to give their daughters much more choice than they ever had. From liberal sense of dressing, empowering with greater pocket money, flexibility of communication and in many cases a more open view to sexual freedom and choice of partner.
The neo-Housewives have become a major seat of economic power. From soap operas, to multi-level marketing schemes, to fashion, food and lifestyle stores everyone targets the new Indian homemaker as prospective client.
The picture of change is still moving at a slow place. The problems faced by homemakers from boardroom to bedroom are still never spoken about. Those women confide to work inside the boundaries of “home” are still an invisible face.
Latest brutal suicides where mothers have jumped to death along with their infant children are example that the violence from their dearest hasn’t stopped just changed shape from physical to emotional. Thousands of housewives investing into the share-market and multi-level marketing are a cry for a sense of self-worth.
Female infanticide widely prevalent is still an expression of male-ego that still reflects age old philosophy. A 100km ride away from any major metro city and the Indian women is still lingering between the 19th-20th centuries.
The last 10yrs have been a huge step for the Indian women to move from “housewife” to “house maker”... and there is a great chance that the next 10yrs will help her explore further from “house maker” to “domestic engineer”.
( I was inspired to write this article after reading the Times of India Article - The Indian Housewife BOUDI.BEGUM.BABE. by Srijana Mitra das)