by Awanthi Vardaraj
It was a flat box, not very long, and it looked worn out. My mother took off the lid and handed it to me. Inside, nestled in faded tissue, was a silver rattle. It has my name engraved on it.
That silver rattle was specially commissioned — and paid for — by my grandmother. It was to celebrate my birth; I was her first grandchild, and the entire family was celebrating.
But what my mother didn’t tell me until I was a little older was that my grandmother had paid for that rattle by scrimping, saving and putting money away from the funds my grandfather gave her on a monthly basis for household expenses. Like far too many Indian women of her generation, my grandmother was a wife and a mother; she worked within her home for her family with everything that implies. She was taken for granted by a society that didn’t value her contributions as much as it valued my grandfather’s because the work she did was invisible to them. She raised my mother and my uncle, often single-handedly, kept her little family fed and healthy, made sure everyone was loved and guaranteed a clean home, washed clothes and order.
My grandmother is not alone. Many women — in India and around the world — are in the same unenviable position of being unseen, unheard and completely unappreciated.
I remember a conversation at a table next to mine in a restaurant a few years ago. I was with my then-boyfriend, eating dinner, and a raucous party sat at the next table. It seemed to include at least six couples who gave off the impression of having a rare child-free evening to themselves. My partner and I couldn’t help overhearing some of the chatter at the table. As we were waiting for dessert, one of the men loudly proclaimed to another that his wife “did nothing at home all day.” I turned around to look at the woman next to him, and she rolled her eyes and smacked his arm playfully before turning back to her own conversation. “How does she stay married to him?” I asked my boyfriend in wonder.
The problem is that too many women hear such words from their husbands and communities, and they either give up on correcting the presumptions and let them slide, or they start to believe it themselves. Maybe when you hear something for the umpteenth time you start to question the veracity of it, or maybe there is a little guilt there for not contributing to the family in a way that they clearly consider more tangible than their own contributions. Maybe when your value is constantly questioned, you start to question it yourself, or you acquiesce with the people who are assessing you and deeming you unworthy.
This was a problem that the Women and Child Development (WCD) Ministry of India tried to address back in 2012 when it decreed that it should become mandatory for husbands in India to pay their wives a portion of their income every month as a means of promoting the “socio-economic empowerment of home-makers.” Then-WCD minister Krishna Tirath is quoted as saying that “the work that women do at home is also economic activity but it goes unaccounted,” and that “a mechanism can be devised to quantify and calculate the value of work that women do for their families.” The minister went on to add that “if a portion of the husband’s income is allocated as the wife’s share, it is likely to be spent on better food for the children, on their education and on the overall quality of standard of living of that household.”
This proposal seems to have never seen the light of day, but my research did bring up some disturbing related searches, including “how much is an Indian housewife worth” and “housewives should not be paid salary.” Men’s rights groups across India objected, and a foundation that represented over forty of them wrote a letter to the WCD minister, demanding that the proposal should be withdrawn. There appears to be some rather disturbing logic applied to their petition, including a demand that they should be allowed to “audit” the work of their wives, and “fire” their wives if their work was below par. It’s unclear exactly what they mean by firing their wives, but images of divorce courts loom in my mind.
Frankly, the entire kerfuffle had me reeling. Nobody can deny that marriage is — or ought to be, at any rate — a partnership. When one person is financially dependent on the other person, within the confines of a marriage or a domestic partnership of any sort, it makes sense to me that they would be supported in that way by their partner. Surely I’m not alone in feeling that way, I thought as I read on, fascinated and repulsed in equal measure. Surely, I reasoned to myself as I delved deeper into Google, surely people realise that it’s important to share the work and share the money, to raise each other up and, in doing so, raise the entire family. But I was wrong.
There are no signs that things have changed. Recently the Indian government has begun a demonetization drive; in an effort to rid the country of the evils of black money (the jury is still out on whether this has been successful, because it’s still early days) the government suddenly cancelled the 1,000- and the 500-rupee notes and introduced a new 2,000-rupee note, followed a couple of days later by a new 500-rupee note. This move propelled the country into chaos mode (that is ongoing as this article is being written) as people queued outside banks in an effort to exchange their money for the newer notes. In the midst of all this brouhaha, this piece appeared in one of the newspapers, pointing out the perils of housewives who had squirreled cash away from their husbands.
The article states that many women have “confided” in their husbands, while others are much too “afraid” to confess to their husbands that they’ve saved some money out of what was given to them to manage their household expenses. Fear certainly has no place within a healthy partnership, and social scientist Bernard D’Sami is quoted as saying that “even when the woman is earning, it is the man who still makes all the financial decisions.”
Supriya Raj, a teacher, says that her husband doesn’t “like” it when she spends money on her relatives, so she saves a little money from her salary every month without his knowledge so she can buy gifts for her family whenever she visits them.
Miral Bai, who works as a maid, also saved money from her own salary and hid it amongst her clothes so she could buy something for her grandchild. Her husband, an alcoholic, has to be kept in the dark about the money, according to the article, and she’s in a quandary. The article is illustrated with a picture of a woman holding a wad of cash behind her back with a smile on her face as she tells a grumpy-looking man that “it’s been growing, and yes, it’s yours.” She’s not referring to a baby, but to the money she’s holding.
I’ve always known how I want things to go when I get married: I want my own bank account and I want my husband to have his; apart from this I want a third account for both of us that we’ll both have access to for household expenses and any expenses that benefit or affect us both as a couple, our home and our kids. In conversations with a few of my friends, I’ve discovered that all of them have the same arrangement. “I have my own money, he has his and we have a joint account for the kids and the house and everything else,” says Kavya Murthi. “It’s the only way this would work out.”
Revatii Upadhya said more or less the same thing. “I make my own money, and spend it as I see fit, but I consult my husband about investments, and he consults me. It’s funny, though, I know folks who still keep separate accounts. As in expenses where they borrow from and repay each other. I guess it’s different strokes for different folks.”
Although I realize my friends are a very small focus group, and certainly not even remotely representative of all Indian women, I found myself hoping, after the conversations I’ve had, that more and more Indian women will, in time, achieve true economic independence, whether or not they work within or outside their homes. I also hope that they will be truly appreciated for the work that they do. Appreciation need not only take the form of words and affection; cash and kind are both wonderful and necessary gestures as well. It is my opinion that there is no check that is large enough for the partner who chooses to stay at home and work for their own families; in India that is referred to as “women’s work” (house husbands are unheard of here), and as with most things that are referred to as “women’s work” there is an element of selflessness to it. It deserves to be recognized for what it is, and it deserves to be celebrated and rewarded.
When I was a teenager I read Mary Wollstonecraft’s wonderful book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy; one of the quotes has always stood out for me: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.” Knowledge is power, as we all know, but money is also power. Perhaps it is this power that some men in India seem unwilling to share, but as Roseanne Barr so eloquently put it, “The thing women have yet to learn is that nobody gives you power. You just take it.”