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Isha Singh Sawhney

Isha Singh Sawhney is a writer, musafir and obsessive people watcher. She loves seeing new places and hates leaving them.

Why Indian women must have it all

he lady in the kitchen, who has to decide which ghee, or oil, is best for her family. The lady with a kamar dard from too much housework. The lady who discovers the perfect kitchen counter cleaning sponge, and tells her saas to sod off when she gets nagged for not finishing the dishes. Meet the leitmotif of household drudgery — the woman.

The number of household items on our television that target women cannot be counted in a small paragraph, on your fingers or in a Buzzfeed list. Find me an advertisement about the home, where a woman isn't shovelling the goodness of some packaged foods into her child or battling a severe housework-induced ache, and I will change my name. Okay, the name of my column. Women will always be cleaning, sweeping, clearing, folding, cooking. You get that never-ending cycle of their lives. And there's nothing wrong with that image. Or that life.

The 21st century homemaker has technology to thank for a lot of things. Bread makers, clothes dryers, robotic vacuumers, have joined forces to make her (I say homemaker, but we all know it's usually always her) life easier. This isn't so she can lie back and enjoy her technology given freedom, but so that she can go to work, and battle it out on yet another front, where technology isn't helping speed things along.

The homemaker versus board-roomer argument is as old as detergent. Women who can balance both are revered. Like Kali Ma, the ultimate picture perfect circus act; the woman as devi in the kitchen and her office. Superhuman-like. The work-life balance argument ranges from opinions like Sheryl Sandberg perfecting it, to Indira Nooyi ruing publicly about feeling like she hasn't been the best mother to her daughters. 

Shobhaa Dé, in an interview on primetime news declared these women “want to cook for their husbands, their families and in-laws.” Note, the conspicuous absence of cooking for her own parents.

But really, this comes back to one massive question, asked again and again — can women have it all? Popular media in India represents women either as picture-perfect domestic creatures or ball-breaking a**holes in the office. TBZ, the jewellery giants have an entire series on how a man must give his wife the best diamonds possible, because she will decide what's for dinner for the rest of his life. How depressing is that image of an infantilized man, or a woman tied to eternal domestic slavery? The rest of the ads tell men that they won't need to ever make a single bed, if they buy their partner the right piece of TBZ jewellery. 

nce in a while, advertising tries to break the barrier by placing women in both places. Some try hard to be emancipated, like the surprising matrimonial website ad, where a husband is trying to convince his father, that his wife, married through Bharat Matrimonials, works because she wants to, not because they need the money. Others like Airtel attempt to portray Indian reality, quite unsuccessfully. But where the telecom giant whose ads are usually very perceptive of urban modern day relationships (remember the young couple in a new relationship who talk all night, or the boy who learns Mandarin to impress his new Chinese friend?) fails, is by representing a woman who has to come home from work to cook for her husband. And not vice versa. This is where overtly sexist, regressive ads are less harmful and malevolent than the subtly progressive advertisements that women like Shobhaa Dé are forced to defend. Shobhaa Dé, in an interview on primetime news declared these women "want to cook for their husbands, their families and in-laws." Note, the conspicuous absence of cooking for her own parents. That's what their daughters-in-law are for. Note also that by saying "want", we are again transposing in women a lack of choice, and forgetting how women are so deeply entrenched in what their familial responsibilities are, they want to be all-achieving, super jugglers.

India is complicated, and relationship dynamics are contextual to the norms we are born into and live with. But what we need is a vision that removes us from a never-ending cycle of domestic duty.

There is nothing wrong with a woman who chooses to stay at home, to look after her children instead of following a hard nosed career path. My mother did it happily, of her own free will. She wasn't particularly obsessed with house management or cooking, she just wanted to make sure there was someone home for her daughters when they came back from school. In fact everytime we were without help, her go-to meal was khichdi served with boiled veggies. But while she was definitely an agent of her own autonomy, with the option to work if she wanted to, there is no denying the fact that her decisions were also partly a given, because our father as a naval officer worked in a job he'd trained for since he was 16. A job you can't really tell a man to quit, to become a stay-at-home dad.

There is no simple answer to this quandary. But there are small fixes, most of which begin with the man at home, or the rules an organisation has when it comes to recognising and officially validating the domestic responsibilities of the man, and giving them that freedom to pitch in at home regularly. When we normalise the voluntary willingness of the other half to pitch in at home, to be the one who goes home to cook a meal before his wife comes home, or the one to get up to get the kids ready for school or to at least be able to make his own bed, women can have it all. They can run businesses, be good mothers, run marathons, cook gourmet meals and not die of guilt. As we demand equal rights at home, let's also demand equal help at home, and stop infantilizing our men to think the kitchen, the home and the kids are their domain, too. And maybe we can all begin by not congratulating the man who can actually clean his kid's diaper.

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