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Boudi. Begum. Babe.
Who is the Indian housewife? A depressed drudge living for others? A pampered doll living for herself? Victim or winner? A figure going forward or backward with history? Or staying where she always stood — at thethreshold of the home she helps make? Today, as India both changes and stays the same, TOI-Crest explores her life — the daily work, the pleasures, pains and multiple roles. We follow her as mother, care-giver, entrepreneur, spiritualist, shopper, sportswoman and TV-addict. We go back in time to see where she once stood, following her battles against dowry, bride-burning and abuse. We see how she has triumphed over tough times, and how the times have captured her in cinema, literature and soaps. We ask, 'Who is today's Indian housewife?'
Nurturing. Self-sacrificing. Frustrated. Lonely. Sexy. Selfish. There are a host of adjectives describing the figure of the housewife across literature, cinema and popular culture. But perhaps the one that captures her most brutally — and inaccurately — is this: ‘irrelevant’. Ignored by economists, overlooked by historians, side-stepped by politicians and dismissed by professionals, the housewife seems to exist in a curious time-warp, lingering within a home’s boundaries, slaving on timeless chores, bending over children and the elderly, cooking, cleaning, smiling. The images that spring to mind when you think ‘housewife’ seem to situate her in a place where little ever changes, her life least of all. This housewife is forever. Or is she?
In actual fact, the housewife is one of the most powerful and profound mirrors of change each society undergoes. Take Britain. The ‘housewife’ concept has roots deep inside the rural muddiness of the 17th century when such women mostly lived in the countryside, ran a complex household, farmed and marketed produce. Wealthier housewives lived in manors, ‘did’ the flowers and went riding, their lifestyles captured by novelists from Jane Austen to Barbara Cartland. With the 18th century’s Industrial Revolution, notions of the ‘housewife’ began changing dramatically. As the hub of economic life started shifting to cities and families shrank, the housewife slowly became detached from the land, centered on one home, taking care of a ‘nuclear’ family.
Transmitting ‘middle class’ values — diligence, frugality, hygiene — became the housewife’s responsibility, reflected in her home and children.
Then came the World Wars. Suddenly, with millions of men in Europe’s trenches, 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. Whether they received adequate reward for this ‘double shift’ is doubtful, as our statistical analysis shows (See All work, no pay). But the change itself was enormous, reflected in culture; designers like Yves Saint Laurent put models in trousers and mini-skirts, delighting and influencing thousands of women who stepped out of their aprons for a life of greater sparkle. Feminism was a high-heeled step away; after the 1970s, it became increasingly impossible to call a woman a ‘housewife’. ‘Homemaker’ was better (and safer), but ‘domestic engineer’ the best. In any case, the numbers were shrinking.
The Indian housewife’s story also reflects the enormous changes the nation experienced. Nineteenth century Bengal led the way with debates over the ‘ideal’ housewife. Was she to embody tradition and all its violence — sati, abuse, neglect? Or could the housewife symbolise Indian enlightenment — educated, accomplished, progressive? While men argued, the housewife, forced into stitched blouses, made to learn the piano and read German but still confined within her home, underwent tremendous confusion. Writers from Rabindranath Tagore to Munshi Premchand sensitively described her, caught between contradictions, struggling with limitations. Later, filmmaker Satyajit Ray captured this plight, the ‘boudi’ of Charulata and Ghare Baire, exquisitely bored, deeply frustrated, tremulous, tragic (See From maudlin to mod). 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.
After Independence, the middle-class housewife symbolised the values of the Nehruvian mixed economy, notably ‘simple living, high thinking’, where education (her children’s) was crucial for progress. The pressure on housewives to conform to a standard somewhere between tradition and modernity continued as our world of advertising so aptly articulated (See Lalitaji rules, does she?). The 1980s brought ruptures. With the legal rights of the divorced Shah Bano overthrown for political considerations and the shocking sati of Roop Kanwar, the vulnerabilities of the housewife became only too apparent. Economic liberalisation through the 1990s changed some of that; many women today are no longer content being ‘just housewives’. Leading fashion designer Ritu Beri says, “I’m not comfortable using the term in India now. The job of a housewife is incredibly tough anyway, but today most women are busy with multiple kinds of work. The shift in clothing, many more women wearing trousers and dresses than 10 years ago, shows the change in mindsets.”
As our stories reflect, many housewives want their daughters to enjoy far greater choices while some, in an era of short hair, scooters and sexual freedom, much more ‘babe’ than ‘boudi’, struggle with notions like ‘dressing up for the hubby’ (See Powder packed). Avenues of culture speak directly to the housewife. Nivedita Basu, ex-creative director of Balaji Telefilms, who worked on 52 soap operas including the massively successful Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki, says, “Housewives were our target group. Before Balaji, no-one addressed them so clearly. Our soaps were both aspirational and real for them. Everyone liked seeing the story of a poor girl married into a rich family. Lots of women said to us, ‘I have a family just like the one you show.’ Before our serials, there were no trends set around housewives, whether based on fashion, lifestyles or values which our characters strongly embodied.”
Yet, there are grave problems. “The work of women inside the home remains invisible, hence unvalued,” says economist Bina Agarwal. “The same work, cooking or care-giving, when placed in a market gets monetary value, but performed by women as part of the ‘care economy’ (CRE) goes unreported. At times, caste and class overlap in India. Social values about women with ‘status’ not working outside the home are transmitted accordingly. In rural India, when the National Sample Surveys or Census takes place, many male family heads don’t even report that their wives do manual labour since that’s a cause of embarrassment. In this situation, the fact that these so-called ‘housewives’ fetch water, gather firewood or look after family each day is totally overlooked.” And that’s not all. Housewives continue facing severe violence, usually from their dearest. Denied proper education, dignity or rights, many slip into depression, some opting out of life altogether, proving that even as India modernises hugely today, there are areas of deep contradictions that tantalise and trouble together. Nothing illustrates this as colourfully as the life of the Indian housewife.
And that’s just one reason why she is ‘relevant’.
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