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City City Bang Bang, Columns

The orphaned housewife

It seems a bit harsh. It is one thing to think of a housewife as not working, but quite another to lump her along with prostitutes and beggars as a member of the unproductive class, as the Census seems to have done. In some ways, the fact that these three occupations are clubbed together is by itself quite revealing. Now, while it is relatively easy to argue that begging is an unproductive action (something that may not stand up to intense scrutiny in that the beggar trades his misfortune for our guilt, and a transaction that is discretionary and mutually rewarding does take place), why is prostitution described as such? There are many adjectives that crowd prostitution’s door, but lack of productivity should be the least of them. Prostitution takes an immense toll, both physically and emotionally on the service provider who delivers an economically measurable service. The problem is really that prostitution is too productive, and exploits the sex worker in a variety of ways.

The label of unproductiveness seems to a catch-all tag for all those occupations that fall outside our conventional understanding of what constitutes socially legitimate work. Thus begging is really an institutionalised form of idleness and prostitution is entirely illegitimate and hence their inclusion in this category. But even by this logic, considering housewives as part of an unproductive class is difficult to explain. In a purely technical sense, the work that housewives perform has an economic value which becomes clear when a substitute is used. But the intangible worth of a housewife’s contribution is infinitely greater.

The real issue may well lie elsewhere. In some ways, the housewife is today an ideological orphan, having no one to champion her case. In the two weeks since media carried reports about this classification, there has been very little discussion about this staggeringly offensive anomaly. At a time when any little infraction or politically incorrect slip-up becomes a raging controversy, it is interesting that this episode has passed virtually unnoticed. No outraged panel discussions on television, not a peep out of any women’s organisations, no editorials lamenting this oversight.

In the cultural matrix of the day, the housewife is a formulation that is an inconvenient embarrassment. The idea of a housewife seems to re-inforce stereotypes and undermine the narrative of gender equality. It locates the woman inside the house, and appears to keep her concerns focused narrowly on the immediate world around her and serves to keep her in her socially appointed place. The housewife seems too well adjusted, too comfortable in her unselfconscious acceptance of her role for those who are battling to overturn historical gender prejudices.

Which is why the housewife becomes an ideologically expendable idea. Even in everyday life, a woman is asked if she works or not, quite ignoring the fact that a typical housewife is hardly sitting and filing her nails languidly all through the day. A housewife performs a complex series of tasks that span the functional, emotional and spiritual. She allocates fixed resources efficiently, taking care to cover a variety of needs, both immediate and long term. She is referred to a manager of the home sometimes, but this almost always in jest, quite forgetting that she plays precisely that role in pretty much the same way as managers elsewhere. Apart from which she functions in most households as the emotional centre of the family around whom the very notion of a home is constructed. She is a manager, counsellor, accountant, provider and cheerleader rolled in one. In both form and content what she does is work. And yet, we ask a woman if she works or not. And the politically correct version of the question- do you work outside home, is seldom employed.

The one section that does take the housewife very seriously is the world of commercial entertainment. The success of the soaps has a lot to do with understanding the housewife in the context of her lived reality and giving her the ability to imagine a heightened role within that world. However much critics might bemoan the regressive nature of these depictions, the truth is that they succeed because they speak to the needs of the woman without passing any judgement on her. To these serials, she is not ‘only a housewife’, but a person with a complex and not fully articulated set of yearnings who needs to be communicated with. To be sure, the world these serials depict tends to be by and large steeped in the ways of tradition but there is one important difference. The woman here is at the centre of the universe; she is the heroic figure battling demons and slaying dragons. New questions are asked of her and even if her answers are age old, at least they appear to be hers.

Gender is one of the most fiercely protected sites in today’s modern world and for good reason. The biases are so strong and run so deep that without a constant battle, change would never be allowed. The distaste for the institution of the housewife that exists in the educated and vocal elite is not difficult to understand. But to see the woman in her role as a housewife only as a victim or an embarrassment is to reduce human beings to causes. Women face many difficulties throughout their lives, and being a housewife carries with it, its own set of formidable challenges. Being labelled as unproductive or being lumped with prostitutes and beggars is bad enough. Not raising a voice against that vigorously is inexcusable

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