By Nawami Gurung
As I do my chores and half of my leisure time is gone, the other half is always for classes
I have a look at my father who stares at me from afar
He neither says he'll help me nor does he say I can take some rest, at least
Instead, he gestures sometimes as if he is annoyed when my task isn't completed on time
I don't say a word but deep down I wonder about his guidance when he orders me to clean
He never says a word, neither do I but deep down I wish disparity didn't exist!
My grandmother's old and I see her work still!
Sorting out dal and rice maybe
My uncle tells me “men and women are equal” but at the same time he orders his wife to make tea for us all
My father proudly says “clean that mess” - the mess he spilt.
He doesn't bend or give me a rug or a small hand to help me clean.
Instead, walks by casually as if he has done his part
And I stand there, staring at the space in the kitchen, questioning if this is all that life has for me.
I do not recollect the time I wrote this poem, which feels like the result of an unfound emotion, a sense of confusion well mixed with anger and despair. These emotions swelled within me during the covid-19 induced lockdown of 2020; forced to confront the gendered realities of the space we call Home. As I stayed inside the house, co-opting the duties of my mother –cleaning, cooking and taking care - hoping that I could be of some help to her; I subconsciously adopted this routinized, normalized gendered performance of labor at home. I helped her not because I wanted to, but because I felt like it was my responsibility; my duty; so long as I was at home. And also because I was burdened with these expectations from me, after all, where my subconsciousness imbibed this desire to be a good daughter.
Aama would cook breakfast and lunch and assign duties to clean house to us, me and my twin sister. I remember performing the everyday routine- wiping the same table, the same floor and the same tiles of the kitchen wall- routinely in the same fashion every single day, after breakfast, lunch and dinner. I had never been forced to ‘see’ my home this way until I was forced to be confined to these spaces. Mundane acts of wiping the dirt coming in every time, compelled with this urge to mechanically move from cleaning one space to the other as soon as the previous one was complete, occupied and filled my time. Every time I promised to teach myself a new skill, it suddenly became lunchtime or tea time and morning turned into evening. My mother manages her job and provides for us on time. I felt I could also manage my college life (that was happening online) while contributing to my share of duties at home, too.
However, within a short span of time, I began to question my role, being a female in the house, managing the household chores and my college felt like a lot of work to me. It made me question my ability, as if something was wrong with me, that I was having a hard time balancing my educational life and my life at home. I was eventually forced to ‘see’ that kitchen marked as a space for the female; because I have rarely witnessed men cooking except as a pleasure activity. Indulging in the household chores forced me to confront the amount of energy that goes in performing the tasks of the house. In a way I can say the women have the agency to look after the house but what good is this agency for? It is always the female that needs to learn the art of managing the house, not because one has to become independent, but because she is required to learn this skill, for she will need to do this in her in-laws house after marriage, the responsibility of the household then transfers to her even though the space of the house changes all at once. A male is appreciated when he cooks for himself but women are rarely appreciated for the daily labor they put in for the family. I felt the urgent need to give voice to this unseen, unappreciated labor that is solely the responsibility of the women.
Through this performance, women are left with much less time to compete in the already competitive world outside, her life confined to the home. My grandmother is old but she still helps with the petty tasks at home. There is no compulsion for her but she chooses to do it. I hear her sighing because of the work she does. She doesn’t need to complete her tasks at all but she makes sure that those are complete. She says that it is her way of spending her time but she has also told me once that if she was a man, she would spend her time doing rounds of the neighborhood, talking to people, just like her husband would be doing if he was alive.
I could not help but wonder if my reality would have been different if I was a man and this fact troubled my mind. Every time I see women in the kitchen, I feel a sense of injustice; rendered inferior - by our position as women. The responsibility of managing the domestic spaces lying solely on a woman’s shoulder made me feel as if I was accepting something that wasn’t right. Out of these troubled confrontations which otherwise I could not see for a long time; rendered invisible by the routinely normalized gendered performance, I found peace by writing about the things that troubled me, finding my voice in poetry.
Women commit more time to domestic chores than we can imagine. The domestic chores of the house are seen as a “labor of love”, a quality essentialised as being inherent to women (Thrush, 2020). In the essay The Kitchen as a Political Space, Thrush points out that women are regarded as the ‘nurturers, one that sacrifices for the love of the other’. In the 1970s, feminists, like Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, and Silvia Federici talked about ‘reproductive labour’ where unpaid, domestic labour carried out by women had been almost invisible because of the ideology of family- ‘that made domestic labour as being in nature of the women’(Wieger, 2014).
In the visual poetry Chhori Manche, Being a Woman by Navamika Chetri, she talks about the responsibility that comes as a ‘chhori manche’ (a woman). She writes-
Chhori manche jati nai pari lekheko kina na hos,
Bhansa ghar ko jimewari ussaile uthawnu parcha re,
Ghar ko sukha shanti ko bhar uskai mathi huncha re,
(It doesn’t matter how well-educated a woman is,
At the end of the day, it is the kitchen and the household that she needs to take care of,
The well-being of the house is dependent on her conduct.)
Gender informs our way of living; demanding performed behaviour based on their biological, sexual, socio-historical and cultural realities. A male must be strong, it is his responsibility to look after the family, economically. On the other hand women must be polite, it is her responsibility to look after the household. Therefore gender can be seen as an institution of power where it positions one in an advantageous position and does opposite to the other.
There is politics in the kitchen. “Political” isn’t just limited to organisations and policy-making groups but relationships between individuals. Politics is more about how one behaves with the other (Millet, 1970). According to the French Institute of Statistics, women devote more hours for household tasks (Emma, 2017). Thrush writes that men “enter into” the kitchen whereas women are to be “already there”. I have experienced the same pressure that comes along with a sense of guilt for not helping my mother.
Why is it that only women have to devote time to domestic chores and the same becomes a choice for the male?
Millet questions the powerplay between two genders as “interior colonisation” where one is submissive towards the other. The concept of “serving food”, “serving water”, preparing the meal and eating it after “he” finishes can be regarded as power-play. Gender is an unseen force that informs every step of our lives and the normalised practice renders women to a disadvantageous position.
I am angry but I don't know whom to blame. Should I blame myself for reluctantly accepting the practice of unequal division of household chores? Or my inability to resist the practice? Or should I be enraged at my mother who teaches the same to me? Or my father who doesn’t realize my anger? Should I be angry at this society that professes that men and women are equal but cannot see the unequal division of the household chores at home? Though I was angry, I did not give up what was expected from me, for my share of the work would simply pass on to my sister- the next female in line, nor did I say anything about the way I feel.
This essay is a form of resistance- to give voice to what I ‘see’ on an everyday day- routinised spaces- the performance of gender- where choice becomes a fragile concept. I cannot now ‘unsee’ what I see around me; I see my Home as gendered and this has pushed me to question, think and engage with my everyday realities. This essay is my attempt to put my thoughts into words as I continue to seek answers.
Emma, 2017. The Mental Load, a feminist comic, Seven Stories Press. https://english.emmaclit.com/2017/05/20/you-shouldve-asked
Thrush, Ruth, 2020. The Kitchen as a Political Space, Cherwell Publication.
Julia Wieger, 2014. Kitchen Politics, Sternberg Press.
Navamika Chetri, 2020. Chore Manche | Being a woman | Visual Poetry in Nepali | with English subtitles. https://youtu.be/uPtW5M4UlM4
Kate Millet, 1970. Sexual Politics: Theory of Sexual Politics. 23- 32. Originally published: New York: Doubleday. 1970.
Nawami is a student of Mass Communication and Journalism. She is the recipient of Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Photography Grant 2020. She has worked with organisations like DLR Prerna and DarjInc.
This blog story is an outcome of the India Foundation for the Arts' Art Research Grant funded project titled Stories from Within (2021).