Why sons must get into the kitchen
The domination of the Indian man over the woman will not end unless change begins at home, the source of distorted masculinity
My case for female emancipation in this wretched, wonderful nation has always been simple: Get your sons into the kitchen.
There is nothing more regressive in India than watching boys lounge around the house, being stuffed silly by—unfortunately—their mothers and being told by their fathers that their life is outside the house.
Aside from being the mother of all evolutionary advantages—the ape that learned to cook two million years ago launched humanity, as Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham famously explained—cooking, as a metaphor for domestic responsibilities, historically divided the sexes and set man on the path of dominion over woman.
That dominion is expressed nowhere better than in India.
The Indian man spends an average of 19 minutes a day on housework: the Indian woman spends 298 minutes, according to National Time Use Surveys released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2014. Even men in countries not known for female emancipation do better: the Turkish man spends 21 minutes on housework; the Japanese man, 24 minutes; the Chinese man, 48 minutes, the South African man, 69 minutes, the Mexican man, 75 minutes. It’s best not to look at the top end of the scale, such as the Slovenian man, at 114 minutes.
The Indian man sits at the bottom and is, usually, proud of being there. Only 16% of Indian men said they played a domestic role, such as cooking or cleaning, in a 2011 international men and gender equality survey.
Girls in this country are taught to cook, clean, keep house, raise the children and pamper their men. Boys are taught that it is their right to be pampered. After all, it falls on them to find a job, bring home the money and preserve that dodgy thing called family honour.
Except for some greater awareness that sexual violence is not alright—reflected in the rising number of rape and assaults reported—nothing has changed for the Indian woman since the we-have-had-enough moment in 2012. When a trainee physiotherapist from New Delhi succumbed to her injuries after being viciously raped, it shone a sudden spotlight on the larger issue of women outside the home.
There is, of course, much the government needs to do to make public spaces safer, but, the real problem that Indian women face is at home. We know that more than 90% of women raped in India are attacked by men who know them, including fathers, brothers, relatives, friends and teachers. The rapes by unknown men are undoubtedly as horrific, and deserve all the publicity they get, but compared with other countries, this rate is low. Whatever the kind of violence, it is obvious that men are defined by how they are brought up.
The distorted, privileged male upbringing starts from childhood. From there on, the case for dominance over women only grows stronger, warping even the overwhelming majority who do not rape. A majority of Indian men, as various studies have shown (the latest released in November), beat their partners and a majority of women admit to being beaten.
It is ironic that we live in an age when girls routinely do better than boys in school and college examinations. As employment barriers collapse—or, at least, open up gaps—women surge through. They fly planes, wield guns, write software and design ballistic missiles. We read and hear about these women, and we celebrate them—and then we go back to impassively watching and believing those television ads about a superwoman who works all day but returns to wash the clothes, transform herself to look like Katrina Kaif on steroids and puts hot chapatis on the table.
For every advance that the Indian woman makes, for every step forward, she is dragged many steps back by the men in her life.
The vast majority of Indian women languish on the peripheries. India is now experiencing the worst sex ratio ever recorded in its history. In simple language, it is aborting, killing or starving more female babies or girls than ever. Girls are notably sicklier than boys because their mothers reserve the best for their brothers. Indian girls are breastfed for shorter periods than boys and consume less milk, reported a 2014 study by scientists from institutions such as Oxford University, the Public Health Foundation of India and Stanford University. “India,” the study notes, “is the only nation where girls have greater risks of under-five mortality than boys”.
The biggest deterrent to such treatment of women by women is education. “In contemporary India, formal education has so far proved to be the most effective mechanism for enhancing female empowerment,” noted a 2013 study by the Harvard School of Public Health. Although female literacy has risen substantially, from 29.7% in 1981 to 65.4% in 2011 (according to the census), the gap with men is wide; the corresponding figure for men is 82.14%.
The minority of women who streak ahead find it hard to stay there. Of 131 countries, India ranks 11th from the bottom in the percentage of women who work (the labour-force participation rate). This is the worrying change in urban India: In 1983, 61% of women graduates participated in the workforce; in 2012, that figure was down to 26%, noted a 2013 study in the Economic And Political Weekly. The author wrote: “Education among women does not necessarily increase their ‘autonomy’ in substantive ways, rather it may only lead to modernization and internalization of patriarchal norms...schooling seems to inculcate discipline, self-restraint, patience, routine and obedience to authority among girls.”
So, there we have it—a logjam of patriarchy that cuts off women every way you can imagine. At the heart of these diverse strands of Indian female subjugation is the mental dominion of the male, and it cannot be broken unless it is addressed from the place it all began, unless he learns to appreciate what is considered woman’s work. That appreciation can only come from doing the cooking and cleaning. I can tell you from experience that cooking made me work harder, be more organized, more creative, more confident and above all, understand the heavy burdens that most Indian women bear. I say this without hesitation, cooking made me a more complete man.
Getting boys in the kitchen will solve the problems of Indian women? It may well sound incredible, but cooking is a metaphor—a real one—for the quiet, lonely burdens of women. We may not realize it, but for the first time in two million years, humanity, worldwide, is at the cusp of a revolutionary transformation in the gender-based division of labour. If women are to soar, they cannot be weighed down any longer. There is no better place to make a start than at home with the heaviest weight of all.
It may be too late for the fathers, but get your sons into the kitchen—and see what happens.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar also writes the fortnightly science column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of the book The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
To read Samar’s previous Lounge columns, click here.