Woman enough women and man enough men! [Archives:2006/913/Reportage]

January 19 2006

Woman enough women and man enough men! What does it mean? The social role division passed from generation from generation and protected and cherished by most cultures across the globe says a man is a provider, protector and leader and woman is a nurturer, carer and an obedient follower. To implement this code, men are relieved of the responsibilities that follow procreation, ie, caring for and nurturing infants and children, and repetitive essential tasks like cooking, caring for elderly and sick and those related to housekeeping. This code can be successfully implemented only if there are others to over these responsibilities. Application of this code means that men continuously devote time, full commitment and energy to remunerative work and women support them by doing all that which are unpaid and needed to keep the home and hearth going.

The labour market too does whatever it can to implement the social code. It has its own set of sub-codes that offer men better prospects. For example, biological motherhood means women would have to take a gap in their career if they want to give birth and have more flexible hours to care for the infant. The labour market uses an elimination process, based on continuity of service and fixed hours to keep women out. But then the labour market as a business constituent has a strong element of profit. It sees benefits from having greater choice in labour. So nowadays, the labour market is using more innovative ways to benefit from women's labour without jeopardizing the social code. The labour laws recognize the division of roles and responsibilities and make the sub-codes flexible so that women could supply their labour to the market while fulfilling their role of being a nurturer, carer and an obedient follower.

The labour market could have come up with set of sub-codes, which could transform the role divisions. But doing that would mean two things: First, challenging the social code and dealing with consequent social resistance, and second, losing out free compliant labour at home. The labour market does not like turmoil and strife. It plays by the code. In the process, the labour market re-assigns and prioritizes the social role entrusted to women and thereby reinforces and strengthens the roles division and the social code. In the process, it has also done its bit to rearticulate the notion of a woman. It has given birth to the notion of a 'new women' – a woman who is devoted to home, hearth and hubby but also has the skills and stamina to help the family survive better or live in more opulence by sacrificing her own leisure and stretching herself to extra-ordinary long multi-tasking hours. There is some tentative talk to encourage men to contribute to the unpaid reproduction process but then it is a matter of choice for them. They can easily choose not to be a 'new man'.

The social code has its own place in the aspiration of women and men as well. A woman is expected to aspire for femininity – gentleness, coyness, beauty, patience, soft-spoken, emotional fragility, and so on. She has to aspire for wifehood and motherhood. The higher the price she pays to be these the more woman she is. A man, on the other hand, is expected to aspire to be masculine – emotional and physical ruggedness, success in career, public recognition, daring, and so on. He doesn't have to do much beyond these to be man enough. So imagine the acrobatic adjustments a woman or a man would have to do if they do not wish to be seen as deviating from these aspirations but have to take on responsibilities which the social code has reserved for the other. The 'new woman' aspires to maintain her femininity and fulfil her biological and social roles while being active in the labour market by taking recourse to meticulous manoeuvring, incredible self-control, sacrifice, pushing stamina to extreme, and being reliable and flexible even in the most testing times. This combination of femininity and extra-human abilities are taken for granted or ignored in some societies, encouraged in some, and sometimes recognised by being identified as the ideal woman, or the modern day version of Shakti (female power base good enough to be worshipped).

Now one might question women's desire to stretch themselves, especially if there is no financial compulsion to do so. Why can't they stay put where the social code and generations of socialisation dictate them to stay? Tough questions without efficient and universally acceptable answers. Some women say that they have an inner drive that pushes them do things beyond mundane household or unpaid chores. Some say that if they don't do this they would not be valued by their family members. Some say they would not have self-worth if they do what every other woman does. Some say it gives them some financial independence. Some say it is needed for their security, especially if the social relations were to fail them. Some say it is needed to build up security for the family, especially in the time of hardship. Some women give a combination of these and other reasons.

The next question that comes to mind is that if there are so many good enough (at least to the woman concerned) reasons to be part of the labour market, why do these have to be this 'new woman'? Why can't they just be part of the labour market? Now these questions are not easy to answer either. An inclination to live up to the image of the 'new woman' does not mean that women's consciousness of their situation has not altered. It does not mean that these women cannot demand equal contribution in reproductive and unpaid work from their husbands and other male family members. The social code is backed up by punitive measures. Women's capacity to give expression to their altered consciousness and demands is compromised by those punitive measures. Divorce and consequent threats of social ostracism, insufficient socio-economic security, stress of day-to-day bickering, physical and psychological violence, and many such potent factors clash with women's altered consciousness and demands. The 'new woman' is a relatively safe compromise. It is a compromise which helps women fulfil their personal desires or take additional responsibilities for the family's sake or often both. It is a non-threatening compromise for the society because it is achieved at the cost of women. It is a compromise without adequate social prerequisite, which is, a change in the social code.

Nisha is an Indian activist working in development and gender. She is a campaign and advocacy expert and has published many research papers around the world.