W is for Women's Work

            My six year-old granddaughter wanted to be on the majority team when eating ice cream and was told by an impatient adult, "You can stand for elections when you grow up and try to get the majority of votes." Quick as a wink the little girl replied, "I can't. Women don't vote or stand for votes." As family members turned to her in surprise, she realized she had made a mistake. It had arisen from her owning a book about Suffragettes. She had been read to about women struggling to get the right to vote. She had imbibed that lesson and forgotten—or never known—the date of the story. She was quickly reminded of the apparent truth, that women are technically the equal of men, but escaped, for today, knowing the actual truth, that women are in fact disallowed or discouraged from doing many kinds of work. 


            All girls, from the tiniest age up, are in danger of knowing the truth, and then of discovering its many configurations as they grow up: that gender matters in work. Workers are unequal according to how their bodies look when undressed. Work itself is unequal. The work that most women do regularly, housework, cooking, and mothering, is all rated lower than the work more associated with men, that is, all work outside the house. This is surely changing, but gradually.  


            In these columns we have discussed nation, religion, community, and social class, and the critical thinking that is needed to be taught to deconstruct all these divisions. The very first, most basic, strongest line of division, however, is gender. There is no society that is not patriarchal. There is no society in history that has not been patriarchal, the tales of Amazonia notwithstanding. 


            Yet the tales of Amazonia are difficult to "not withstand." The 2017 version of Wonder Woman is difficult to not watch, re-watch, and enjoy. An example of the superhero genre, the heart of "Mythopoetics," or the telling of symbol-laden stories that advance contemporary political, social and moral discourses, Wonder Woman puts very artfully a woman in place of a man as a leader who is supremely powerful, indefatigable, and compassionate. This is both the message that we want to give little girls, and little boys, and growing girls and boys: a woman can do everything a man can. This is also the message we want to avoid: you need to be a superhero to do that.  


            Wonder Woman is a glamorous woman who comes from a civilization peopled only by women and has no father, but a god. She has had intense training since childhood and has proved her mettle. She comes to human societies, like other superheroes, to address the entanglements of evil thought and practice that humans unleash. She is innocent of human folly and believes that an evil villain or curse has to be responsible for the destructive tendencies in human societies. Humans are basically good and deserve to be saved. 


            In all this, superheroes are like the gods of Hindu mythology and worship. We Hindus tell the story of the goddess Durga who was propitiated by the most powerful male gods to go to earth and fight the demons terrorizing humans. The male Holy Trinity are themselves inadequate in fighting and defeating the demons. Durga is a warrior, The Warrior. She rides a lion, wields a sword and spear, and is invincible in the battlefield. Throughout she remains feminine, indeed someone's daughter, wife and mother, and is worshipped by Hindus as such. When depicted iconographically, she is the epitome of female attractiveness. The same criticism can be levied here against the desire to link beauty to power, as if there was a logical relationship, that is directed against the attractiveness of the actor Gal Gadot who plays Wonder Woman. Could a more ordinary, unglamorous person not have similar powers? Or at least be not that supported by cosmetics, or accessories, as are Western actors and Indian images? 


            To return to the debate about women's work. If we all agree that women can do everything, and note that both religious hegemonies and capitalist markets are willing to promote this message for their own interests, how do we best teach children about equality in work? Adults have failed to resolve gendered disputes about the control of one's body, about property and inheritance, and about the relative value of different jobs. While the most obvious of women's work, housework and mothering, go uncompensated, thousands of other kinds of work done by women, such as the supportive work for weaving in a brocade handloom workshop in Varanasi, is likewise unrecognized as "work." The most pernicious of all is the ongoing, everyday fact of the cheapness of women's labour, their sheer availability as workers, their silence about their skills and self-worth, and the depths of the discourse that of course biology determines destiny.   


            As always, we must have a three-pronged pedagogic strategy: intellectual, technological, and performative.  In the intellectual one comes leading and inciting students to question the so-called "facts" that comprise their syllabi and the world around them. My favourite W words are What, Who, When, Where, and Why. Through the magic of these tools we can both lubricate the insatiable curiousity of students, and fulfill the teacher's dream of mastering the material. Because the question words are indeed magical. One question can be  overturned by the other. For instance, 


            What are the statistics on women's work? 


            Only 40% of the women work in __ place compared to 85% of the men (notionally). 


            Who has reported this? What were their definitions of "work"? 


            It was a non-democratic government with poor, ambiguous definition of work. 


            Where and when did they take their survey?  And so on. 


            Questions can be used to deconstruct any artifice set up by society. The teacher has to be skilled and consistent and not stop with fear at where the questioning might take the students. 


            Equally, the technology of the classroom has to be cleverly set up to fulfill the goal of gender sensitivity. Technology refers to
all the processes that go on under the school roof (and outdoors) from who sweeps and dusts with what implements, to the uses of language, space and time. The more skilled the teacher in making sure that Kindergarten girls go into the blocks centre and boys to the dolls, the more successful the teaching that gender matters, because it ultimately doesn't. 


            Finally, I wish to promote the use of theatre games and exercises, to break down normative identities, get out of mainstream socialization, and reveal hidden potentialities. Theatre work restores the fluidity with which we humans are naturally bestowed. As research in child development and psychology shows, we repress this fluidity as we grow out of childhood, in order to fit in, and soon forget it, deny it and further suppress it. Theatre work restores our freedom to be the beings we were meant to be and might want to be. 


            Let's end with a necessary gesture to Wind and Water Power, crying to be harnessed particularly in today's world. If teaching could be designed on more ecological lines so that children observe and experience their environment and are knee deep into projects questioning and ameliorating issues around them, tomorrow's world has a better chance. Here's to the we in each I! 


Nita Kumar

Hon. Director, NIRMAN

Brown Family Professor Emerita of S Asian History


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