The front page of a local newspaper carried a story that read, “Bride returns home after short-lived marriage”. It was accompanied by a cartoon illustration of a woman leaving with bag and baggage in hand, likely to have brought on a grin. But the story isn’t funny. It revives the perpetual question of a woman’s place in a marriage, of separating the home and the workplace and the argument of the right-wingers that women should uphold the traditional values of marriage and the family.
The story, as reported in the newspaper, is that the man’s parents had desired that their graduate daughter-in-law would be the domesticated type willing to do the housework, but apparently she was not. Their constant mantra was – a woman has to bear children, take care of her husband and his parents – basically telling her to give up being a working woman and be a fulltime housewife. She disagreed and walked away.
So what exactly is a married woman’s role? The answer is obscure and difficult to define and will always be so.
Nevertheless, we have grown up with the knowledge that the status and the role of the two biological sexes has been defined and delineated by society through the ages. Socialisation ensures that the male and the female mature with a deep sense of consciousness of one’s status and role at different stages in life. This way, society achieves the equilibrium it desires and the procreation of generations continues uninterrupted. The woman is expected to bear children within the institution of marriage, which means she is the chief caregiver, while also the cook, the cleaner and the dhobi, oftentimes the fetcher of water from the well, the wood from the forest, in addition to stocking up the home. The husband – the provider receives priority. He gets to eat first, followed by the children. If there are members of the extended family, then they too require attention. The woman – the perennial hostess, like the Cinderella story, fulfils incessant demands and chores. Fairy god mothers of course flutter only in fairy tales, so then, there’s no rescue in real life. This isn’t a woman’s fate though, but it’s the role she is groomed for, at least that’s what we were made to internalise growing up. This does not in any way undermine the work done by millions of women in the past and continues to be done by millions of women even today. This is the lived and living reality of women in the world.
Feminists are not whinging about marriage and family, and neither is this an attempt to undermine its importance, but it is cause for concern when housewifery is relegated to ‘invisible’ work, while ‘real work’ has come to be identified with receiving a wage. Such a status robs the housewife of the respect and acceptance she deserves for her unpaid work, resulting most likely in disillusionment and lack of purpose in one’s role. Because happiness in marriage then becomes lopsided, there’s no reason to continue. The marriage implodes.
Today, people will argue that in many households, inventions and facilities have made life easier. And because married women employed outside the home has increased, there is most likely to be shared work, including hired help and outsourcing of childcare, although the reality is that at household level women almost always shoulder the main responsibility for care of the home and are expected to cook and conduct all household chores even after returning from work. Moreover, with access to education, women are qualifying as professionals and graduates and have access to vocational training and other qualifications, enabling them to be more empowered and become economically independent. But that has not reset the culture button on blurring the gender-role division. Despite feminists’ efforts, scholars have described a backlash of sorts where men maintain the domination of women with ‘fervour and dedication’, which helps maintain economic, social and cultural inequalities.
The story of the single-parent household, mainly headed by women is another narrative that demonstrates the extent to which the gender role division gets intensified. The challenges of a single parent are manifold; raising children to doing household chores, experiencing society’s judgement, discrimination and harassment at different junctures, which extends to the workplace where men and women with power can choose to stymie her progress. Often, the single mother does not have the choice of walking away, because the partner already has.
A marriage works on the basis of many points; mutual respect, shared love, sacrifice and communication being important. Either partner cannot relegate the role of the other while elevating one’s own, which will lead to inequality, discontent and abuse and result in a dysfunctional family unit and collapse of marriage, like the woman who walked away after a short-lived union. Sometimes circumstances force couples to make choices, a choice that may result in a woman sacrificing a well-paid job, but that sacrifice must not translate into a state of limitation and disempowerment, while the sole economic power should not lead to inequality within the family. In marriage there are no heroes. When spouses are equal in status it becomes a win-win situation. Otherwise, it’s just two or more broken people, like in our real-life story. One can bet for certain that for the foreseeable future the woman’s role in the family being equally shared is most unlikely to happen. At least, not until everyone thinks from the same page, and we experience a deep cultural and political shift.
But, women can’t twiddle their thumbs, grin and bear the burden of asymmetry in the gender-role division until this illusive change sweeps over. Women have to be the agents of this change as they stand at the threshold of marriage. Take a stand and be resolute, do so with love and respect.
Jennifer Paldano Goonewardane