By Runjhun Noopur Feb. 24, 2021
I have been on enough all-girls vacation trips to know that planning is a science, negotiation is a skill, and a sacrificial bargain is a must. Not causing minor inconvenience to the people at home (and at work) is a priority. And everyone seems to be in on this game of reminding women of the price of our freedom and fun.
One of the most persistent on-going tussles that I witnessed at my grandma’s house was about shopping. Every single time my aunts went shopping, it became a point of endless taunts and jibes. Everything, from the number of hours spent in the market to the money they ended up spending to their “efficiency” in terms of shopping, was up for dispute, discussion, jokes, and sometimes ugly arguments.
As I grew up, this whole issue became increasingly puzzling for me. My aunts were adult women who capably managed the whole household. Shopping was perhaps the least challenging of the activity they undertook in a day, and to say that they were somehow incapable of managing their own time and preferences wasn’t just problematic. It was an outright lie.
Eventually, I realised that it wasn’t about shopping. It was about women and their time, and the fact that an average Indian household, even the one with a “progressive” outlook, did not know how to make space for women who wanted a time out from the daily grind.
I don’t remember a single picnic in my home that was not preceded by women of the house toiling in the kitchen for hours, followed by packing, unpacking, serving, and cleaning up during the picnic while the rest of the family enjoyed themselves. Chores seem to follow women everywhere including family vacations where the tea-maker in the hotel room became an instant invitation for men to put women to work and demand tea at will.
Much like solitude, recreation continues to be a right that women are repeatedly denied simply by virtue of their gender and the role assigned to them within the politics that is a household. And this is by no means confined to the women who are homemakers.
Chores seem to follow women everywhere.
A couple of years ago, Indira Nooyi recounted how on the evening of the day she was appointed Pepsico’s President, she was sent on a milk run by her mother as a reminder that she needed to “leave her crown in the garage”. The anecdote drew a lot of flak; many were appalled to find out that even someone like Nooyi was not allowed to catch a break. And that we lived in a world where men could idle at the water-cooler all day and still come back and demand to be treated like a king while someone like Nooyi wasn’t even allowed to celebrate her wins without being reminded of her responsibilities.
The truth in Nooyi’s words, however, had resonated with most women who fought pitched battles at home and work, trying to balance their roles and justifying their right to hold them daily. A woman’s time much like a woman’s body is a landmine where gender politics reveals its worst facets. Everybody seems to have a claim on our time but for us, and our worth is constantly measured in terms of our usefulness to other people. Women’s time is a family property, and to imagine they’d want to kill it or waste it on themselves is hara-kiri few of us, including the women themselves, are comfortable with.
I have been on enough all-girls vacation trips to know that planning is a science, negotiation is a skill, and a sacrificial bargain is a must (two days for the trip in-lieu of four days at the in-laws’ village my friend hates). Not causing minor inconvenience to the people at home (and at work) is a priority. And even then, the guilt follows irrespective of how far we go on our trip, and everyone seems to be in on this game of reminding women of the price of our freedom and fun.
A couple of days ago, a friend at a “networking event” gushed about how women like us did not do kitty parties. We do networking. What is wrong with kitty parties, I wondered. Except for the fact that they are rare spaces that are designed for women to chill and have fun to the exclusion of men. And perhaps, that is enough to earn a general disdain. A disdain that is rooted in the patriarchal intent to deny women a right to their own time even though kitty parties are objectively more productive and beneficial as instruments of microfinance and reliable support groups than any networking event I have ever been to.
Women’s time is a family property, and to imagine they’d want to kill it or waste it on themselves is hara-kiri few of us.
Having fun is a loaded idea when it comes to women, riddled with burdens of guilt, morality, responsibilities, and of course persistent security threats. It is expected of women to earn their right to have fun, to justify why they should be allowed to take time out, why they should even think about their priorities and happiness. Equality would mean that women are allowed to kill their time and waste it with the same impunity that men are allowed and awarded. Equality, however, is a pipe dream in most aspects of our lives. Our right to have fun is no different.
Ultimately, it is about the spaces that women are or are not allowed to occupy in both physical and metaphorical terms. From husbands who fail to understand why their wives need to go on solo trips when they can go on a family vacation instead, to women who spend a disproportionate amount of time planning their vacation and parties and alone time in ways that do not step on other people’s toes, recreation remains a feminist issue that was thrown in stark relief during the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown.
With both genders locked in the house with the more or less similar workload, the inequity of how our time is valued became much more pronounced. The pop-culture motif that glorified tired fathers too grumpy to engage with the household and mothers who never seemed to or needed to get a break was cracked open. Before the lockdown, at worse, this pattern was ignored or considered a norm. At best, it was used as an excuse to deify women and thrust their divine selves even deeper into the daily rut of chores and unpaid labour. The lockdown made it impossible to ignore the problems hidden within the façade.
The realisation was widespread and was reflected in the recent slew of woke advertisements that remind us that mom needs a break too, and that maybe Sunday should be the day when the rest of the house picks slack while mom relaxes. The sentiment, despite its capitalist intention, is noble and pertinent. The framing, however, remains a problem. The framing that makes the idea of fun and breaks for women a favour and patronage instead of what it should be. A legit, equal right.
The lockdown is over, and the world is limping back to normal. My aunt, however, still can’t go shopping without earning at least a glare from the rest of the household. But her TV time is now respected and abided by. And my uncle has stopped asking what she does in the house the whole day. He knows. We all know. To think this will change something drastically, and that women will suddenly start getting unencumbered vacations every few months is wishful thinking. But there has been a start. And one can only hope that the realisation will stick. For the sake of women, and for the sake of everyone else.
Runjhun Noopur is the author of the wacky happiness book, Nirvana in a Corporate Suit. She writes, talks, eats, and inserts oxford comma, mostly in that order. She also likes to believe that she can teach people all about happiness.