It’s May Day in Switzerland and my friend who happens to be an Indian woman and a doctor by profession, is moving into a new apartment. During the final cleaning of her old apartment, her husband said: “we need to buy this exact liquid-soap dispenser.” On asking why, he replied – “it holds a lot! It never ran out of soap.” Little does he notice the meticulous labour that goes into keeping that dispenser full! This is not an alien incidence. The reason why I decided to take this example is that a few days back a very similar story went viral on Twitter. Where the husband believed that the soap dispenser was magical. My friend however, – besides working a full time job at the UN – is making sure that toiletries never run out and her husband is convinced that the holding capacity of the liquid soap dispenser is worth buying the same for their new home.
If one looks at the capital being spent on such soap dispensers, by husbands convinced of its holding capacity (or in the twitter case “magic”), the companies manufacturing these dispensers are definitely profiting from sales – and the factory workers get paid accordingly. Now, how much does my friend get paid for her labour at home? Nit. Zero. Yet, when I asked her the same, she replied, “he pays with his love”.
This discourse of “he pays with his love” is a performative imposition of love between married couples, a moral socially-acceptable discourse of love as opposed to a socially-inacceptable form of love where the man would labour at home to keep things running smoothly. As it is, Indian women are substantially less likely than Indian men to participate in the labour market, and once they do participate – they are also less likely to find well-paid jobs as men. Not to mention wage gap is a persisting issue in gender gaps, along side taste development and habitus that structures personal preferences, socio-economic constraints, and gender role conformity as facts driving gender gaps in the labour market. Most importantly, religions embody a complex system of values that extends to gender roles when it comes to workingwoman. The status of a workingwoman is often frowned upon in extreme patriarchal societies and certain cultures – such as in India. Yet, the work done at home by any given woman is not frowned up on. On the contrary it is taken for granted that a woman, especially when she is married, has to be capable of singlehandedly managing “house”.
Often arranged marriages are made on the basis of how well the girl cooks, cleans, sings, dances, stiches, and so on. Remittance of this dancing-singing cooking-cleaning labourer is “love”. Even “love” isn’t always the case, as it entails disciplining the wife and punishment if she does things wrongly. Sexism becomes a dominant issue located in the household where it maintains a sexual division of labour, ensuring that non-waged activities (of the woman) subsidise waged-work of the man. Even a domestic worker gets a salary, which a housewife misses out on; as the notion is this that housewives do not work hence they can’t contribute to surplus value.
There are innumerable Bollywood movie references that can be made this case. From Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) to Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001), great Indian sagas are revolving around idolising and glorifying women’s work as an invisible and (taken-for-) granted labour at home. Thus, gender inequalities and hierarchies in the private sphere reduces home as a space where financial calculation needs a new kind of understanding, especially that of the wife as a non-waged domestic labour.
Domestic labour done by housewives should be rendered visible (not simply magical) and awarded with more than just a payment of “his love” or gratitude. If only there was a system where housewives could log their work data and the government (or the imposing in-laws and husband) would have to pay them a taxable minimum wage for toiling day in and day out at home… *sigh*