NEW DELHI – Recently the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development dealt the tottering totem pole of Indian masculinity another thunderous blow when it released a revealing chart of time-use statistics among men and women around the world.
The larger point of the survey is unexceptionable: Gender inequality is global. “In virtually every country, men are able to fit in valuable extra minutes of leisure each day while women spend more time doing unpaid housework,” according to the OECD. But the sharper point was that gender inequality is most stark in India, where the average man spends just 19 minutes a day on “routine housework” and the average woman spends almost five hours on such duties.
This made for wonderful headlines for the news media to run with and allowed lots of people to get all worked up.
Well, there’s never been a worse time in history to be an Indian man. An ominous campaign, waged overtly and covertly, from within Indian borders and without, suppressing the laws of nature, emphasizing the constructs of culture, has succeeded rapidly in making the Indian man almost a different species: Homo Indosapiens, if you will. In this demonology, he’s somehow a mama’s boy and a potential rapist-in-waiting at the same time. Even if he appears, on the face of things, liberal, progressive and modern, there is at the core of his nature something terribly prejudiced, medieval and misogynistic.
The Indian man apparently can’t even woo a woman to save his life, except by saying things like “My mother would be really happy with you.” And then, having married one with the help of a matrimonial agency or a website, after his parents have given her a passing grade on the three important counts of caste, religion and skin tone, he throws a fit if she’s seen speaking to any other man. At work, he may be efficient and focused, but then he comes home and won’t lift a finger, except to land it on the television remote. The damning statistics of the Paris-based OECD’s latest survey clinch the case for the prosecution. At this rate, Indian men will soon need their own public-relations firm to propagate a more positive picture of about 600 million of us, or a full one-tenth of humanity.
Anyway, as the head of a one-person household who cooks for himself and washes his own clothes (a maid cleans, does the dishes and supplies the neighborhood gossip), I personally have nothing to fear from a survey such as this one, other than the possibility that being first-class spouse material might someday bump me out of my blissful bachelorhood.
But even so, let’s admit that man was born tribal (as woman was born domestical) and must continue to be so if he is to remain in touch with the roots of his nature. And so I feel compelled to take 19 minutes to defend, if not entirely exculpate, my fellow Indian men by bringing up various Indian realities and social contexts (and contests) passed over by the indifferent French “monseers.” Here are four humble points to help re-situate the apparent free-rider mentality of the Indian man, and thereby rehabilitate this carefree criminal of the domestic world:
• “Routine housework” is not a gender-neutral description of domestic realities across cultures. What we think of as routine housework has two broad contexts: family and work. In societies with broad gender parity and mostly nuclear families, as in the West, it’s taken for granted that men and women ought to help equally in household chores. But in India, an overwhelming majority of single adults — 75 percent, according to a recent survey — prefer to set up new families through the system of arranged marriage, in which men and women must filter their personalities and needs through the sieves of four or more other people’s expectations, which are usually of a more conservative mind-set than their own.
This means men and women both buy into a whole set of assumptions and “traditions” that undergird the system, including many patriarchal ones about who does the housework.
For women, this means being deprived of many choices and freedoms, but it does extend their range of choices in one way denied to men: They may choose, even after acquiring a college education, to substitute marriage for paid employment.
To put it another way, an arranged marriage is a kind of deal in which gender roles are sharply separated: One side of the partnership agrees to become what in India is called “the breadwinner”; the other takes up the responsibilities of “routine housework.” When women also go to work, as they do now in large numbers, a new deal is called for, but the venerable forces of tradition have little to say about such issues. The dialogue about this — sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile — is one of the most interesting facets of gender dynamics in India today.
• Millions of Indian men do huge amounts of housework — but in single-man or all-male households. Three years ago, I spent a few weeks in Mumbai interviewing dozens of auto rickshaw drivers for a long essay about their lives. An overwhelming majority of them lived in all-male households, often sharing a single room and cooking for one another. It’s not just them. Millions of poor and lower-middle-class Indian men leave behind their villages and families every year to work in cities as daily wage laborers, construction workers, auto rickshaw or taxi drivers, security guards, fruit or vegetable sellers, waiters or domestics, transferring the small surplus incomes of their city lives into economic security for all of their dependents back in the village.
Such a man runs his own household expertly and sometimes with evident pleasure, shopping, chopping, cooking and cleaning at high speed, being ribbed by his mates all the while. On his annual visit back to the village, though, he puts his feet up and doesn’t do even the 20 minutes of routine housework that would make him above average.
• Gender is not the only major variable across which housework in India is divided. Class is just as important. Much of the time, the routine, unpaid housework performed by a middle- or upper-class Indian woman might involve supervising the paid housework of a domestic servant and herself being watched by an elder of the household, such as her mother-in-law … who herself went through the same system as a young woman. When the man of the house comes home in the evening and switches on the TV, both women — though not jointly — present to him reports about the maid, and about each other.
Sometimes in India the most draconian enforcement of ideals of housework and of gender inequities in such duties comes from women in positions of power over other women.
• In patriarchal cultures, there is a kind of heroism about men doing carefully measured amounts of housework and no more. Every middle-class Indian person knows the kind of man who won’t lift a finger at home but then decides to throw a party, whipping up a sensational three-course meal (his mother’s recipes), pocketing with a modest smile dozens of compliments for his genius.
In patriarchal cultures, men often voluntarily do small amounts of housework when none is expected of them, thereby earning brownie points both for being traditional and for being modern. Beyond a point, such work yields diminishing marginal returns, and it is best avoided until the next party comes along.
Conversely, women must be seen to be doing large amounts of housework (“I’m so busy”), or else they might be perceived as taking it too easy.
All this is, of course, only to chip away at a simplistic picture of the gender wars in India, leaving behind the substantial core of the genuinely indefensible. I have much to say about that, too, and am probably just as culpable as the next man. But it’ll have to be another time. It’s dinnertime, and I must go cook for the head of the household.
Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter: @Hashestweets.