The bane of contraception
We, the married couple, were arguing about contraception and chicken decades ago at the dining table of our second-floor flat, overlooking a narrow lane in a middle-class neighbourhood in Small Town, India. The argument started about contraception, but ended about chicken. Our flat’s balcony leaned out into the darkness and narrowness of a working class mohalla (neighbourhood) on the other side of the lane where houses were stacked next to one another with no breathing room.
We were a highly educated couple so we argued only after putting the kids to bed. Little or no sex was happening between us and this was the bone of contention. How can a happily married couple go on living happily without sex?
“Why must it always be me?” I said. “Why can’t you get a vasectomy? It takes ten minutes.”
“It’s not safe to get it done in India,” he said.
“Really? You mean you’d get it done if you were abroad?”
“It would be too expensive to get it done abroad.”
“So you’re saying it’s not your responsibility? And you’re not going to get it done. Right?”
“I’m scared. We’re talking about my genitals.”
“What about my genitals? Haven’t I been put under the knife twice?”
“Those surgeries were for your ovarian cysts.”
“Ok. But isn’t contraception your responsibility too? I don’t like taking the pill. It gives me headaches.”
“You don’t have to be on the pill forever.”
“At least until menopause, I do. Or until we stop having sex.”
“We have stopped having sex.”
“I thought I’m on the pill because we do have sex. Sometimes. Why can’t you do this little thing? Ten minutes. Ten minutes is all it takes! It’s an outpatient thing.”
“I can’t do it.”
“I just go on taking the pill then?”
“I can use condoms.”
“I don’t like condoms. Have you ever tried giving up anything for me?”
“I have given up wanting sex.”
“You haven’t given up anything. You don’t even eat chicken.” I said, looking at the bowl of gravy with chopped-up bits of chicken.
“I do eat chicken.”
“Yes you do! When it’s cut up into microscopic bits and smothered in gravy so you can’t even tell it’s chicken!”
No sex was my fault. Like almost everything else was. I didn’t want to have sex. I didn’t want to be on birth control pills. I didn’t like condoms. But if I had to have sex, I wanted contraception as a joint responsibility. I couldn’t nurse my daughter if I went back on the pill, and the pill did give me migraine-like headaches. Nursing was more important than having the kind of sex that left me feeling bereft. Resisting the pill and condoms was my way of asserting some power. My way of staying away from emotionless intimacy and staving off post-sex despair and loneliness. Why go on doing it if it makes you feel dirty, used, bewildered, hurt, angry, unfulfilled?
That night I slept in the children’s room. Sleeping next to a man who knew nothing about me would’ve made me feel much worse. Desolate nights were plentiful now in our supposedly happy marriage. I would wake up in the early hours and go sit out on the balcony. After the birth of my second daughter, this became more frequent.
Mr and Mrs Right
Mr Right had found me by the time I was twenty-one. I agreed to become Mrs Right after we’d known each other for three years. I thought that was a reasonable period to figure out if one wanted to become Mrs Right. You could say it was matrimony by choice. The price I paid for this dubious privilege was too high, but this insight would come much later. In becoming Mrs Right, I came to belong to nothing and nobody. Least of all, to myself. I had no self, no country, no home, no politics, no family, no life goals, indeed no life left to call my own. The only thing I had was a vestige of my older self, which helped me muddle through my daily chores. At night, I collapsed so tired that sleep dared not elude me.
If I had drafted a resume in those days, it would go something like this:
Education: BA in Psychology.
Work experience: Self-employed nanny, wife, mother, housekeeper, cook, kindergarten teacher, unpaid sex worker.
Professional development: Years of experience running a successful marriage, carrying out multiple household tasks single-handedly. Used to working long hours without a break, seven days a week.
Monetary compensation: None.
Awards and honours: None
My prosperous, conservative and respectable Muslim family was aghast that I wanted to marry a Hindu. This was love-jihad reversed. They weren’t against my getting married. Just against marrying a Hindu and becoming a Hindu. The fact that I didn’t need to or had to become a Hindu didn’t carry much weight as an argument. I waged a lonely jihad against my parents to marry Mr Right, and they punished me by withdrawing their emotional and financial support.
You will go to hell, my father pronounced. He meant after my death.
Our inter-religious marriage became a living hell much sooner, a litany of loneliness and emotional barrenness, but not for the reasons my father was consigning me to hell. Religion or religious conversion was not the issue. It was something much more mundane. Instead of resuming my post-graduate programme in Clinical Psychology, I took up house-keeping as full-time occupation, moving across continents, keeping house wherever my husband’s career took him. I gazed wistfully at my husband climbing his career ladder while I stood at the bottom, holding the ladder steady.
I had squeezed myself in between my two children on the narrow cot in their room. I turned on the radio to a late night show. Listeners were calling in to describe their acts of personal courage. One woman called in and told the story of her widowed mother’s unflagging determination to raise her. I lay under the quilt between the two softly breathing, warm bodies. Their breath was holding me in a safe place. I imagined I was trapped, but these little souls were keeping me alive in my entrapment. Had I made any attempts to save anybody’s life? I couldn’t think of any such achievements. What I had done was to have two kids, then be ungrateful. I had a good husband, a good life, and two good children. My self-assessment as a whiner made me get out of bed and go out into the balcony.
A slender moon hung in the branches of the Shemal tree adjacent to the balcony. Her large, leathery blood-red flowers appeared black at night. I loved this tree because her fearless, crimson blossoms were a stark reminder of the dreariness of my own existence. A lone star hung to the right of the moon.
The only light on at that hour came from the drearier side of the lane, from the printing-press clerk’s house. His house was a one-room dwelling in which his whole family slept, watched TV, cooked and ate. Every night, the clerk took in his bicycle. Then everything went dark except the rim of golden light escaping from under the door. I heard muffled voices from their TV. A woman’s voice was pleading, “Nahi! Nahi” (No! No!) Suddenly the door opened and the clerk’s daughter came out. She pulled at the light string and their entire house and the lane vanished into complete darkness.
Normality, order, flawlessness
The morning after began like every other morning did: with the doing of chores. Many small and big chores that needed doing and ensured the smooth running of our home. One such chore was laundering diapers so that it was hard to tell if they had ever been soiled by a baby’s urine and faeces. Laundering them with such diligence was about maintaining an illusion of control. About maintaining normality, order, flawlessness. When the diapers were hung out to dry on the clothesline, rows upon rows of gently swaying, white, soft cotton squares, they boosted my sense of control. They reminded me of prayer flags. They were my symbols of peace and accomplishment. They made all my sacrifices worthwhile. I would lean back in the chair on the balcony and inhale their fresh detergent scent and feel contented. I would sit an hour, sometime two in the balcony in a dream-like state, delaying the doing of the next chore.
Some mornings I swallowed a little Xanax pill with my morning tea so as to make the doing of chores easier, unencumbered by nasty, anxiety-filled thoughts. Like on the morning after the contraception argument Xanax was my invaluable ally: it smoothed the gut’s heaviness into a laissez-faire, couldn’t-care-less functionality. I could then go through breakfast, nursing, bathing the baby, cooking, sterilising milk bottles, supervising the domestic helper, answering the door, putting away folded laundry, feeding the kids, story time, afternoon nap with kids, dinner prep, older daughter’s homework, getting both kids ready for bed, brushing teeth with older daughter, nursing the baby at bedtime. Wave after wave of anxiety, crashing and subsiding just below the unvarying chores. Xanax held all that crap in place. All that putrid stuff that threatened to overflow. Sometimes I wished all that stuff did overflow and drown everything and everyone including me.
I realized in some vague part of my being that the unwinnable arguments weren’t really about contraception. They were about powerlessness and power differences. They were about wanting my life to be different than it was or could be. Mutilation. Humiliation. Loss of self-respect. Invisibility. Lack of decision-making. Refusing to have sex was about as much of an assertion of power I could make in a life of near-total powerlessness. But when it came to things that really mattered, I didn’t matter. The things I had power over were inconsequential. Launder diapers on a Wednesday or on a Thursday. Cook channa daal or mung daal for lunch. I could hire X or Y to wash the dishes.
Xanax is good for snuffing out bottled rage. I didn’t know what agency meant. My lack of agency hit me only when I turned forty. It happened while I was attending a week-long workshop on Gender and Sexuality. All I knew until then was that I was inexplicably lonely and exhausted and wanted to end my life, or get a new life.
Where or how would I get a new life? Serves me right! My parents weren’t taking me back. Actually, I never told them anything was wrong with their rebellious, blasphemous daughter’s life. They had predicted my marriage wouldn’t last. I was determined to make it last, or at least make it look like it was lasting. Even with deep cracks threatening to make everything come apart, I was determined to keep all cracks glued together with whatever it took.
Xanax and the balcony and journalling was what it took. I took Xanax. I sat on the balcony. I scribbled in my journal. One such journal entry reads:
To die would be to find peace. But you can’t die that easily. The marriage might have been exhausting and crumbling, but outwardly nothing was crumbling. That was the trouble. There was always reconsideration, reconciliation and reassurances. There were the children. My baby girl was heart-breakingly cute and I was hopelessly in love with her. When I lay my face next to hers there was nowhere lovelier in the universe I wanted to be other than next to her, inhaling her milky fragrance. She was five months old and recognized four words. Papa, pankha, dudu and didi (father, fan, milk and older sister). I loved pointing out different objects to her and say their names repeatedly and watch her listening. I lay between her and her older sister in the afternoons and told them stories and sang nursery rhymes till the three of us fell asleep. Those were my most tranquil moments of the day.
Diaper-stains resembled, but were not as bad as, my heart-stains. Diaper-stains could be removed. I wonder if that’s why I took this stain-removal business so seriously. I rose to the task like a detergent-commercial mom. My laundered diapers had to be the whitest. Didn’t those stark white diapers set me apart from other women? They who failed to attain such perfection? Why was an educated woman devoting so much time and effort to laundering diapers? Somebody else could’ve done them, but I wouldn’t let anybody else. They just wouldn’t take time over stain-removal. It was a personal challenge, because in reality there was little else that challenged me, or set me apart from the other women in my building. They had children. I had children. They had husbands. I had a husband. Their husbands went to work. My husband went to work. They took care of their homes. They cooked. I took care of my home. I cooked.
But the trouble was, somebody inside me needed something more. I chose to stifle that somebody and laundered diapers instead. Such whiteness! Such perfection! One woman on my floor envied me so much she asked me for my secret stain-removal formula.
Stain-removal was about using the right ingredients in the right proportion. Detergent, washing soda, bleach and Dettol in half a bucket of warm water, and into this cocktail submerge the soiled diapers. The Dettol-detergent-bleach-washing soda and sunshine formula was fool-proof.
From the soaking bucket, the diapers went into the washing machine, swishing and swirling and rinsing for close to an hour. I listened to the rhythmic and predictable whimpering of the washing machine. It comforted me, the cyclic repetitions: the buzzer’s siren, the groan of the motor, the swishing of water, such lulling sounds.
At university, I had been a hard-working student, excelling in most of my courses. I was now a hard-working mother and wife. I had clearly mixed up my priorities in transitioning from college to marriage. What sort of married life had I envisioned for myself? I didn’t really know. Like most young women of my generation, I hadn’t thought all this out very well. Fuzzy thinking and fuzzy planning had made me end up with Mr Right in the unrealistic hope that together we would make the best of things. When the white diapers flapped like helpless moths—all bright and white, they vindicated the many wrongs that I hadn’t been able to set right.
I had foolishly imagined that my married life would be different. It wouldn’t resemble the kind of mindless drudgery my mother’s married life had entailed. What led to such wishful thinking? Why, education! I had seen what Ammi had endured in wife-ing and mothering. But she wasn’t educated. In reality, education didn’t make that much of a difference. My life wasn’t vastly different from my mother’s.
Unacknowledged, unrewarded work
I am dragging the diaper bucket to the washing machine. I remove the big blue plastic lid, plug my nose, hold my breath. The sharp, acrid vapours make me swear. “If I have to do this once more, I’ll go crazy.” But in the very next breath I’m praying, “Dear God, please don’t let the electricity go before this load gets done. Please don’t let Suroor wake up before this load gets done.”
Diapers on the clothesline are a stiff line of nuns filing out of a monastery—radiating virginal peace and piousness. I feel a sensual joy in running my hands over them. There’s a palpable joy in folding them into neat little rectangles. They are solid and tangible things one can believe in. Life will go on just like this, week after week, they reassure me, just as long as I launder the perfect diapers.
Skilful, diligent, dutiful me. Running a home efficiently on my husband’s limited salary. Even managing birthday parties and an occasional dinner party. I have learnt to do it all so well. Why then is my self-esteem scraping the bottom of the barrel? Each household hardship I overcome doesn’t stop me deriding myself.
It would be many years before I’d realize the work I did at home was valuable but because I didn’t get a paid at the end of the month, nobody, including me, valued that work as work. Most women I know who gave up paid work to do unpaid work in their homes feel the way I did: Unvalued. Unacknowledged. Unrewarded.
Why had we, to quote from the Radicalesbians manifesto, “internalized male culture’s definition of ourselves … [which] consigns us to sexual and family functions….the slave status which makes us legitimate in the eyes of the society in which we live. This is called… ‘being a real woman’ in our cultural lingo.” ?
Why was I not proud of working hard and using cloth diapers instead of resorting to disposables? Wasn’t I contributing to a cleaner environment by using cloth diapers? Wasn’t I saving the earth in some small way? As well as saving money?
When my daughter was toilet-trained, I no longer needed to launder diapers. But when I found out that using cloth diapers was not such a great intervention, it made me look like an idiot. Cloth diapers were just as wasteful as disposables, because laundering one load of cloth diapers was the equivalent of flushing the toilet 15 times a day. So all that effort was for nothing? It didn’t make for ecological sense? I felt deeply disappointed. What good had I done? All I had done was to waste water in order to prevent some landfills from filling up with disposables. An average baby in the developed world uses up 8 -12 disposable diapers in a day. That’s 2900-4300 diapers per year per baby. At least I had saved myself from the sin of harming the environment a little bit?
Here’s a journal entry from March:
I am doing a good thing, I feel, by using cloth diapers. The intense winter days are over and the sun is getting stronger. Diapers now dry in a few hours instead of days. My stress levels, little lower. I used to get anxious. I had to iron them to dry them. But by the time it’s the end of March, they will be drying in just a couple of hours.
Thrifty use of time and money are resumé-worthy skills. They helped me survive in Small Town. I wasn’t earning money (since housework isn’t paid work) so I didn’t feel justified in asking my husband for money for my needs. I felt guilty even thinking about disposable diapers. They were expensive and not easily available in the mid-nineties. There was one upscale store that stocked them. I allowed myself one pack a month, for use at night. If the baby pooped in that disposable diaper, it made it worthwhile the next morning. A pooped-in disposable diaper justified the expense and the environmental harm, if it saved me the labour of scraping poop.
I admired pure whiteness. I wanted pure white diapers. I wanted them dried and folded a certain way to put away in a corner of the dresser – this was a job I could delegate to nobody. Was this OCD? Did I have nothing worthier to obsess about? No political-environmental-feminist activism? Would my daughter’s development have been hampered if I didn’t wrap her bottom in stainless diapers? In retrospect, my diaper-washing obsession was irrational but it kept me going. It was easier to go on obsessing about diapers than to open the floodgates to life’s larger questions. What had gone wrong? Why had this marriage turned so sour? What had I done wrong? I struggled to answer the unanswerables. I filled up notebook after notebook with my musings.
Wondering, solitude, time
I made breakfast for my husband, packed my older daughter’s lunchbox, and got her to drink her glass of milk and get dressed for school. Then I nursed and bathed and diapered and the little one and put her down for a nap. Then I sat out in the balcony and stared at the still, dust-speckled mid-morning air and the chaotic maze of criss-crossing electric cables. Then gazed upon the prim flower-beds of the ground floor gardens. Quietness. Order. Perfection. The gardens symbolized the kind of order I was incapable of attaining. My muddledness threatened to undo everything. The chaotic cables were like me. The fluttering torn paper-kites stuck in the shemal tree were me.
In the narrow houses on the not-so-nice side of the lane lived many unloved beings, or that’s how I thought of them. The printing-press clerk’s house looked the most unloved with it lichen-covered walls and peeling paint. I wondered what the other-side people thought about us. Did they imagine our life was hard when they lay down to sleep in their one-room homes? Wondering is a luxury. Solitude is a luxury. Time is a luxury. I had all three, and yet I complained.
On the rooftop of one of those houses, a little boy hopped near his mother, she holding a baby swaddled in a cherry-red blanket. A younger woman rubbing oil on the bent back of her grandmother. On a more distant rooftop to the left, a young woman, her head covered with a black shawl, absorbed in her thoughts. What’s making the young woman so pensive? What’s making that bent-backed grandmother complain so much? I wished to forge some connections. But there was much that separated us. We belonged to different sides of a lane, two different worlds. There was an agreeable sameness and slowness to their days, the sort of slowness and sameness I sadly lacked. I sensed their resignation. It wasn’t tinged with bitterness like mine was. My part-time helper lived on that side of the lane. Every day I let her in with mixed relief and resentment. I was relieved to see her arrive but resented her for interrupting my solitude.
Marriage and love have nothing in common
Even to associate the word ‘writer’ with myself filled me with despair. I dared not call myself a writer having sunk my brains in marriage and kids. I hadn’t read anarchist philosopher and political activist, Emma Goldman’s 1914 essay on Marriage and Love yet:
Marriage and love have nothing in common; they are as far apart as the poles; are, in fact, antagonistic to each other… Marriage is primarily an economic arrangement, an insurance pact. It differs from the ordinary life insurance agreement only in that it is more binding, more exacting. Its returns are insignificantly small compared with the investments… If … a woman’s premium is a husband, she pays for it with her name, her privacy, her self-respect, her very life… Dante’s motto over Inferno applies with equal force to marriage: “Ye who enter here leave all hope behind.” That marriage is a failure none but the very stupid will deny.
Had I read Emma’s essay, would I have been stupid enough to enter and leave all hope behind? Would I deny or feel ashamed about the failure of my own marriage? Would I have recurrent suicide fantasies (which I now know were classic symptoms of depression), would I blame myself for being so wishy-washy that I couldn’t even bring myself to kill myself? I wanted to save such a marriage! To save my faltering marriage, I asked my husband if I could have two afternoons a week off, away from home and kids.
He: I usually have meetings in the afternoons.
I: Do you have meetings every day?
He: No, but I never know when they’ll schedule a meeting.
I: I need some time for myself.
He: What can we do? We have two small children.
I: I know. But they’re your children too.
He: Don’t punish me for your mistakes.
I: My mistakes? Are you saying the children are my mistakes?
I was so incensed I couldn’t speak. Maybe he was right. The kids were my mistakes. Not his. He had warned me kids would disrupt our lives. I was the one running to one gynaecologist after another when I couldn’t get pregnant. I was the one who went into depression after my first miscarriage. I was the one who wanted not one but two kids! Indeed, they were my ‘mistakes’. He had predicted, “You’ll have no time for yourself once you have a child.” He offered to help with increased work but there was no question of going fifty-fifty. When he was home on weekends, he took care of the kids for a few hours, but that’s it. If I wanted to go off to write, I would have to make sure the food was cooked and all the other chores done before I left.
I started going to his office at the research institute on weekends. It wasn’t possible to go every weekend. When I did go, I found myself mostly sitting for hours at his desk staring at nothing, and then taking the bus back home.
After many years I did finally get what the feminists were going on about when they said most women under patriarchy were oppressed, and that the personal is political. I understood how the modern woman’s personal life was affected by politics, why even the educated woman was still oppressed, how her life was derailed by patriarchy and the politics of the patriarchal state. The idea of the modern, companionate marriage was a scam to fool educated women into voluntary servitude. An educated 21st century woman had not been able to use her education or her innate intelligence to stay away from the scam. Nor had she managed to merge her deeper intellectual and creative cravings with her marital duties! And for this gross misalignment, she only blamed herself. If she could only juggle things better, wouldn’t she have been able to write and be a good wife and mother too? After all, didn’t other women do it?
Years later, another piece of reading I would come across would be Holy Matrimony! by Lisa Duggan. It sure as hell connected all the dots between the personal and political! Not only men, but governments derived enormous economic benefits from women’s unpaid work, so of course they’d be pushing the traditional marriage agenda. What Lisa Duggan basically says is that the campaign to preserve gendered (heterosexual) marriage with different expectations for men and women has some rational basis, as a politics of privatization. Women and children depend on men for economic support, while women care for dependents – children, elderly parents, disabled family members etc. (relieving) the state of the expense of a wide range of social services. More specifically, the unpaid labour of married women fills the gap created by government service cuts. (Italics mine)
Lisa calls such a model of marriage “sexist, out-dated and unrealistic.” Guess what? This sexist, out-dated and unrealistic model of marriage is the very model in vogue in our part of the world. Such a marriage model that should make parents of about-to-enter-matrimony women lose sleep, but this is the very model most parents are eager to shove their daughters into. Indeed such sexist marriages are the cause for over-the-top, days-long celebrations: i.e. the big, fat, horrendously expensive desi wedding.
The Lisa Duggan article, originally published in 2004, exposed why US politicians (both democrats and republicans) were reluctant to legalise gay marriage. Gay marriage, by virtue of being more democratic and less lop-sided in terms of the division of labour, threatened to undo the heterosexual marital template. Worse, it could undo the enormous economic benefits that men and the state derive from the free labour of married women. Thus the religious, moral, and cultural, pressures to preserve family values and to limit marriage to that between a man and a woman.
Desi men are doing 28-31 minutes of unpaid care work a day!
To get a sense of the enormity of economic benefits accruing to the state and family from the unpaid labour of women, check out these 2018 stats from the International Labour Organization (ILO):
- Women spend 4.1 times more time in Asia and the Pacific in unpaid care work than men.
- Globally, 16.4 billion hours per day are spent in unpaid care work – the equivalent to 2 billion people working eight hours per day with no remuneration.
- Were such services to be valued on the basis of an hourly minimum wage, they would amount to 9 per cent of global GDP or US$11 trillion.
- Globally, women perform 76.2 per cent of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men. In Asia and the Pacific, this rises to 80 per cent.
- Men’s contribution to unpaid care work has increased over the past 20 years. However, the gender gap in the time devoted to unpaid care responsibilities declined by just 7 minutes per day over the last two decades.
- In Asia and the Pacific, men perform the lowest share of unpaid care work of all regions, with 28 minutes in Pakistan and only 31 minutes in India (7.9 per cent of men’s total working time). (Italics mine)
Seriously? 31 minutes per day of unpaid care work is done by Indian men? And 28 minutes a day by their Pakistani counterparts? And this is so much more than they did 20 years ago. Good God! Indian and Pakistani women, we had better prostrate ourselves at the feet of our men for reducing our daily drudgery by a full 28-31 minutes. Thank you, men.
Education alone does not emancipate
Twenty years ago I was a classic case of low self-esteem. I had no theoretical lens to see my oppression as part of the larger picture. The politics and economics of delineating women’s work as their primary cultural duty while at the same time not valuing that work keeps women suspended between dejection and duty. Women who transgressed these bounds were not good women. My good husband told me as much. “Your problem,” he said, “is that you are impatient. You don’t adjust well to your life.” My problem was that I didn’t acquiesce, didn’t bide my time better, didn’t make peace with insipid, exhausting domestic drudgery.
Education was not my emancipator. College education hadn’t turned out be a magic wand. Nor was it a wand for most women of my generation. Education was meant to free us to live creatively, expand our life choices. Grant us agency. It was to be our highroad to freedom, the enabler of self-realization. I had married a man who believed in the value of education and creative freedoms for all, but only as long as it didn’t interfere with his own choices, freedoms and progress.
The progressive men of my husband’s generation had no concept of what true egalitarianism translated into in the home. My husband was not a bad man. He took, just like all good men, his entitlement for granted. His needs and priorities came first. The primary responsibility of housework and childcare was mine. Bringing home a salary was his part of the deal. He got paid an academic salary (not much) for work that was his passion and priority. I got paid nothing for work that I didn’t particularly enjoy doing. But my work enabled him to get on smoothly with his work. You-do-what’s-your job and I’ll-do my job kind of deceptive equality made it easy to believe that we were equal partners. This unspoken and unchallenged plan was the politics of most family structures. It has devastated many a woman’s creative life and ruined her mental health, particularly if she resisted participating in the plan.
Ensuring freedom and equality is inconvenient as hell. It’s certainly not the agenda of capitalist-heterosexist-patriarchy. Equality demands conscious and inconvenient commitment to change. Lifestyles, values, daily routines, child care, housework, everything has to be re-imagined and re-designed. Male entitlement and privileges have to go for a toss. Cooking, cleaning, laundering and all the rest of the drudge work that defines women’s routinely performed unpaid work have to be equally shared. How many desi wives can make their husbands give up their male privilege? How many desimen are willing to give up such privilege? The much easier and much less conflict-causing way is, given the pools of cheap labour available in South Asia, to offer to outsource this work to (mostly underpaid) domestic helpers. I think one major reason middle- and upper-class desi marriages survive is thanks to cheaply available domestic help.
Even if I were granted my afternoons off, how would I use them productively? What would I do? Where would I go? There were no public libraries in Small Town and nowhere safe I could go and sit in solitude. There was my husband’s office and I had started going there. But I had no grand novels brewing in my head, no creative ideas that would justify this time off. I had no vision of an active writing life. I wasn’t even sure I was a writer. After all, it was such a flimsy, vague, calling. Whereas, his work was well-defined. His work paid. He published papers. He taught courses. He supervised PhD students. His work appeared far more important than mine was to him or to me. Of what practical benefit was writing? If he had to take time off regularly, would he say he was going home to babysit his kids so his wife could go off and write? His male colleagues would snigger. Most of them had wives who were devoted homemakers. Even the ones that had outside jobs were devoted homemakers. None of them made such weird demands. No cultural templates existed for legitimising afternoons off. So my perfectly reasonable demand for me-time appeared impractical, selfish and self-centred to him.
I felt guilty. I internalised my husband’s estimation of me as an angry and impatient woman. Where were the emancipated women in Small Town who wanted marriage and children along with personal freedoms and time? I didn’t know any women like that. How can one make such demands and also lead a happy and contented married life? I knew of no men who acceded to such demands and none who believed their wives were justified in making them.
Like all oppressed people not fully aware of the nature of their oppression, I would often daydream of a saviour. May be a messiah would grant me a better, more liberated life. The desire to set myself free from the unsatisfactoriness was a persistent wish. But my wish altered drastically after a few years of observing men around me. None was qualified to be a saviour. None appeared even interested in being a saviour of women in my sense of the word. None was so emancipated that he was dying to liberate himself from his entitlements.
So my liberation fantasies changed from a saviour to me, myself. I had to quit my marriage. I couldn’t bring myself to do it though. A more independent and self-reliant woman would perhaps have done it. But I was economically, emotionally and psychologically trapped.
I couldn’t save myself. As long as the basic inequitable structure of heterosexual marriage remained, old patterns would be repeated. No man could really relieve my domestic drudgery. These insights were at first simply inchoate intuitions. But that bit of intuitive clarity about good men’s tokenism to gender equality saved me from wasting time and energy on another relationship with another man.
Since I couldn’t save myself, and I didn’t want another relationship, I wondered why I wasn’t grateful for what I already had. To an outsider, my middle-class life appeared ideal. I often dismissed my own rants as signs of impatience and ingratitude. I couldn’t pinpoint anything specific so I put down my persistent dissatisfaction to the aftereffects of being too educated, too modern, too bratty.
Guilt and fear often led me to apologise to my husband after a fight. I would go out of my way to cook something delicious a couple of days after an argument. This good man claimed to be my friend and ally, and he would always forgive me. He was the only adult I knew that I could call a friend or a relative in Small Town. I had nobody to turn to. No family. No friends. No relatives. No crèches. No community centres. My apologies were accepted and he would add magnanimously, “You have to be a little more patient.”
“More patient? How long?”
“A few more years. Till the kids grow up.”
How would I survive those few more years? He said there would be plenty of time to write and do whatever I liked when the kids had grown up. I would repeat his mantra. Be patient. Be patient. Be patient. On good days, I was very patient.
On bad days, I was purely and simply angry. So damned angry. Most of my loathing was directed at myself. I would silently scream at myself for having been such an idiot. No! No! I screamed. To hell with patience! Why had I said yes to marriage? Why had I moved wherever his career needed him to go? Why had I said yes to being a full-time home-maker diaper-launderer? No. No. No. I did my best to calm myself. Why had I never managed to run away or do anything really rebellious? Why was I such a damned coward? I was dying a slow death. Was it because I was oppressed? Me? Oppressed? No way.
I hadn’t read Merilyn Frye’s crucial essay, titled Oppression. I would come across it years later in a Women’s Studies course I took when my children were older, and my husband ‘let me go’ to graduate school in the US, while he stayed with the kids. It would be still many more years before the real meaning of the word oppression in my own context would dawn on me.
Frye says, “The root of the word ‘oppression’ is the element ‘press’. The press of the crowd… to press a pair of pants… printing press… Presses are used to mould things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk; something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility.”
Oppression can be so subtle. The barriers are so related, (marriage and motherhood and unpaid work) you won’t even know you are being oppressed.
The inner-wiser self
Despite my lack of knowledge of contemporary feminist theories about oppression, my inner-wiser-self was getting tired of me not listening to her, so she decided to show up in a dream. She hurled herself at me out of my Unconscious. Popped up in a dream where she was calling out to me from the toilet bowl she had fallen into. I didn’t know who she was. I was writing about this dream in my journal and suddenly I realised – she was my lost self. I had given up on myself but she hadn’t.
She: Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
I: Nothing’s right with my life.
She: But you’re not doing anything to make it right either.
I: What can I do? Can’t you hear all the women crying, “Nahi, nahi, nahi” ?
She: You can’t help them. Help yourself first.
I: All you tell me is I should change my life. How? Goddamit. How?
She didn’t disagree, nor did she agree. She didn’t point a way out. She just heard me out. She departed, whispering, “If you don’t do it, nobody else will do it for you.”
It seems passé now in post-feminist times, to write about those resignation-filled diaper-laundering days. My recollections might sound like a privileged woman making a big fuss about the routine life that is part and parcel of marriage, wifehood and motherhood. Did I want it all without having to give up some things? Does a woman get kids, home and husband without sacrificing her self? Why are all those women yelling and sobbing into their pillows—Nahi! Nahi! Nahi! Countless women like me, still unaware of, or in denial of their oppression, are minefields of emotional, psychic and physical wreckage – thumbing wistfully through withered family photo albums, once the children that held them back grow up and leave. Hoping something, someone, might tell us we did something right in sticking it out for their sake, our sake. Hoping we won’t be jettisoned as unfeminist relics from a distant past.
But, my self-pitying stance aside, can the female half of the planet really radiate wellbeing if most of us are waking up every day to dull, drudgery-filled days simply because we happen to be women? The colossal, unacknowledged, on-going global exploitation of women’s time and labour, the massacre of women’s creative dreams and desires….why is it not worthy of front page news? We, the women, have not yet figured out our own politics to remedy our tragic lives.
Meanwhile the world of men run by men is hurtling on as if women’s lack of self-fulfilment and self-realisation is at best a women’s issue, or at worst, not an issue at all.
Women’s opportunity loss is not a GDP loss. The marriage crisis is not on par with political, economic or climate crises. Will the marriage crisis ever be on par? Why should global leaders care when the global economy benefits enormously from women’s unpaid work done in the name of love and duty? Women’s oppression is so normalised it’s not even considered oppression by women themselves. Women’s labour is not worth reporting except in ILO and WHO and NGO publications and conferences.
When do women make headlines? It’s when they are exceptional achievers, or exceptional victims of heinous violence that men inflict on them.
Unless feminist women (and the few feminist men there are) value women’s emotional labour and address their lack of creative fulfilment more than the fiscal wealth of nations, unless we reward (not just with praise and protection) millions of women cleaning, cooking, teaching, nursing, laundering diapers (as underpaid and unpaid work) can women’s unrewarded labour, a planetary tragedy equivalent to the tragedy of climate change and the devastation of forests and oceans, and the melting of glaciers, be mitigated.
Until such a time comes, how must women live, resist, agitate, cooperate? We have to intentionally and pridefully become women-identified-women. What does it mean to be a woman-identified woman? It means to be a woman who is conscious of, and resists her oppression and that of other women; who does not participate in her own erasure; who is not afraid of being perceived as “mean, bitter, angry, dangerous, difficult or unpleasant to work with” especially if the bitterness, anger, difficultness and unpleasantness are required tools to end her oppression.
Let me quote from Woman-Identified Woman by Radical Lesbians, their 1970 manifesto, a must-read if you want to find out how cool it is to be a woman-identified woman. It’s one sure way to make sense of the expropriation of women’s unpaid sexual, emotional and domestic labours, and their resultant inexplicable disquietude.
This manifesto, without mincing words, states: “We have internalized male culture’s definition of ourselves … (which) consigns us to sexual and family functions, and excludes us from defining and shaping the terms of our lives … As long as we are dependent on the male culture for this definition, for this approval, we cannot be free … we must create a new sense of self. That identity we have to develop with reference to ourselves, and not in relation to men. This consciousness is the revolutionary force from which all else will follow … for this we must be available and supportive to one another, give our love and our commitment, give the emotional support necessary to sustain this movement … our energies must flow towards our sisters, not backwards towards our oppressors. As long as women’s liberation tries to free women without facing the basic heterosexual structure that binds us in a one-to-one relationship with our oppressors tremendous energies will continue to flow into trying to straighten up each particular relationship with a man, … leaving us unable to be committed to the construction of the new patterns which will liberate us (my italics).”
The list of oppressors include husbands, the state, society, culture, family and marriage. The commitment to construct new patterns of living that liberate us and other women from heterosexist-capitalist-patriarchal-domination will take long and laborious years. Years of learning and unlearning ways we internalise male-devaluation of us and our work. It will take conscious effort to recognise and value the heaps of unpaid, unrewarded care-work women do. And, this process of unlearning and awakening must begin with an awakening to our paradoxical role as oppressors. We too are oppressors when we benefit from the underpaid labour of other women (and men) labouring for us.
Where do I stand now?
I’m jotting down notes for this essay when I get an email from my older daughter, Afreen, an undergrad at Smith college to help her edit her adaptation of Ibsen’s Doll’s House. In her rewrite, Nora is a 21st century Indian Muslim woman. And she doesn’t leave her husband’s house to go on a journey of self-discovery. Instead, she asks her husband to leave. The house they live in doesn’t belong to her husband. It belongs to Nora. She exercises her property rights. This ending is a symbolic gift from my daughter. Her Nora is self-assured, independent and a self-determining subject, a 21stcentury woman.
I’m not Nora. But I too have stepped outside the prison of domesticity. I could have bypassed all those years of fruitlessly trying to squeeze myself into the mould husband and society wanted to squash me into. But everything takes time. We are all selfish. If I delve into myself, I see that I’m selfish too. He wanted things his way, and as he had society’s sanction, he got his way.
Ultimately my oppression fuelled my liberation. I feel blessed by all that didn’t happen. And blessed by all that did happen. The sum of what didn’t and did happen are my Collective Blessings.
What are my blessings?
Not missing anyone too much, not consciously seeking anyone’s approval, not feeling lonely, not shouldering any obsessive thoughts about failed relationships, not knowing where life is taking me but trusting that it is taking me wherever I need to get to, not feeling anxious about achieving goals, not getting upset about unachieved goals, not worrying too much about future goals, not hating myself, not looking forward to nor dreading the future – it’s a whole lot of blessings, this!
It’s about becoming myself, accepting who I am, and validating my feelings. It’s about dropping imposed labels, and welcoming absences, spaciousness, emptiness.
How can I not be grateful?
Note: A much shorter version of this essay was published in The Dhaka Tribune, in October 2019.
 Jihad is an Arabic word that has several meanings: a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam; striving for a praiseworthy aim; to promote what is right and prevent what is wrong; the spiritual struggle within oneself to eradicate the ego.