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Admission forms for schools and colleges often require us to provide the family’s annual income and the parents’ professional status. For those of our mothers who work solely at home we simply write “house-wife”, “home-maker” or “NIL/ NA”. In economic terms it basically implies that domestic work makes zero money and in professional terms it forthrightly means she is unemployed. Although, even from common-sense we’d all agree she works a lot, and not only that, she does some of the most demanding, tedious and dirty/ derided works of our everyday lives, that too, 365 days of the year. For instance, cleaning the house, dishes, toilets and bathrooms, washing clothes, sometimes, strewn with infant faeces, cooking and serving three meals a day, in case the family can afford it, looking after, grooming and educating infants and so on. Moreover, female children are more than not expected and made to aid their mothers in all such chores. While at the same time their male counter parts maybe expending that time studying, playing, relaxing or socialising. But in any case children, in general, are also made to do some work for the family.
But have we ever wondered why women’s household work is never paid for? In a world which professes to pay so called hard-work, or basically any labour, how come hard working women expend their labour and time for hardly any incentive? Just the plausibility of survival cannot be considered an incentive. One needn’t do the work of all their family members for mere self- existence. This is quite evident from the fact that the majority of (adult) men don’t do domestic chores on a regular basis and yet they live. However, this has been made possible because, in general, domestic labour remains the liability of women as they are bound by the norms and conventions of our socio-economic, cultural and political system. And men on the other hand are systematically chosen to work outside home i.e. in the market. It’s this stark sexual division of labour between ‘waged’ and ‘wage-less’ labour that sustains the institution of family today. Furthermore, the latter, i.e. wage-less domestic labour, happens to be one of the most undignified works of our time. So much so that even when they are commoditised/ commercialised (i.e. when care work becomes waged) in the form of professions such as nursing, domestic help, pre-schooling and so on, men in general and people from elite sections in particular, are ashamed and unwilling to take up such professions. This is not simply because it’s underpaid. In fact nursing is quite a well paid profession in many parts of the world.
Similarly, women, whether professionals or “home-makers”, are further expected to be affectionate and caring towards their husbands, in-laws, sons and daughters, to the point that they are having to work almost 24×7. A man working at a government office is expected to be efficient but he is not obliged to be caring, affectionate and sensitive. In contrast, for instance, women are not only to prepare appetising meals but are also supposed to do so with love and care. For which they need not only know about their family members’ cuisine preferences but also each of their whims at any given day and time. However, such demand for affection is not only limited to the kitchen or until the day ends as in a 9 to 5 job. The expectation of affection from women extends into the night and onto their connubial beds. One must only be reminded that most often than not after being exhausted with back breaking work we are neither physically capable nor emotionally in the mood to be sexually active as well as enticing. Activities like loving, caring, recreational or procreative sex all demand work and are therefore aptly called affective labour or care work.
Care work, hence, whether in the form of wage-less or waged labour, are all those things women, in general, do for men or for other families respectively. It is hard work, requires skill, patience and diligence and without which human beings cannot live. Not only so, without care work, our fathers and brothers cannot be “fresh” and “rejuvenated” in the morning to go back to their dull jobs at the offices, factories or fields. In a way, capitalism would not be able to function vigorously if all women of the world simultaneously abstained from providing any care work to their families and communities for an indefinite period of time. Since women are basically the fuel on which capitalism depends for socially reproducing its labour force. Hence, men as the labour force of capitalism are basically commodities, or better said, the product of women’s wage-less labour. To be sale-able in the market, they need not only be men, but also need to be groomed, socialised and sustained as per the requirements of the market or the prospective job. It is towards this end that women’s wage-less labour is invested for free and remain unrecognised and brutally expropriated by capital. And in the process women are alienated from both their selves as well as the products of their labour.
Yet, this politico-economic system seems to have no obligations towards women’s welfare other than professing “liberty, equality and fraternity for all” merely in words. Because we all know that even when women are subsumed into waged labour their conditions remain substantially unchanged. Even in professional and so called dignified jobs there remains a visible wage gap between sexes. Then does it take much imagination to fathom that working class women are in much dire condition due to severely low wages, the dangerous work environments and the double burden of also performing care work? While women subsumed under waged labour may become financially independent and relatively more educated than their predecessors nevertheless they still end up performing care work or if affordable outsource it to other working class women and children. Moreover, as it might be somewhat apparent, it is this sexual division of labour which socialises women to perform only certain kinds of work, precisely care work, and consequently working class women are recruited only in low paying jobs. Thus, being part of waged labour may not always imply financial independence, as is the case with women tea-plantation workers of Darjeeling, Terai and Doars. Or all those women who are working in the so called “informal sectors”, for instance, at our ‘Haat Bazaars’, or those who have migrated abroad as domestic help and so on. All of such meagre incomes are expended mostly towards their family’s subsistence. And on top, they still have to do all the care work as expected.
To sum it up, the theory of social reproduction and the notion of care-work pose a critique of the patriarchal ideology of motherhood. It brings to the forefront in a rigorous, logical and rational form why, how and what for women are alienated from having an independent self-existence. In short, it is because they are pigeonholed into becoming only mothers, wives, daughters, aunts etc i.e. they are always defined in relation to men, because they are only meant to perform these roles. Women don’t become mothers because they are the sex that can bear a child. Women don’t become mothers because they are divinely or naturally predestined to be so. Women don’t become mothers because they are innately caring and sensitive. Women become mothers because they are systematically coerced into it. Institutions of Patriarchy, Caste-ism, Racism and Capitalism work in tandem to produce the “motherhood syndrome” in women. And in today’s article we have only traced how capitalism, the political-economic system of the modern world, basically depends on women’s “motherhood”, her free care work, to run itself.
In this light I would like to present the poem Mala Limbu by Bhupendra Subba:
कवि भूपेन्द्र सुब्बा
प्रेमकुमार लिम्बुको छोरी
जुन दिनदेखि मेरो बाउको हाथ थामिन
त्यहि दिनदेखि माला लिम्बुलाई भुल्दै भुल्दै गइन
आफ्नो नाउँ र गाउँको रसिलो माटोलाई
मेरो बाउको सपनाको घरको
धुरिखम्बाको मुन्तिर फेदमा गाडिन
त्यसपछि आफ्नो वैंशलाई
समयको ठूलो घ्याम्पाभित्र कोचेर
माला लिम्बू जाँड झैं छिप्पिन थालिन
माला लिम्बुको जाँडको तोङ्बा तान्न थालेपछि नै
बाउको बिपना बलियो बन्दै आएको हो
बाउले माला लिम्बुको जाँडको तोङ्बा चुस्न थाले देखि नै
माला लिम्बु आफैदेखि बिलाउँदै बिलाउँदै गएकी हो
माला लिम्बुसँग माला लिम्बु छैन
माला लिम्बुको आकाश उसको आँखामा देखिन्न
माला लिम्बुको धरती उसको खुट्टामा भेटिन्न
माला लिम्बुको बतास उसको श्वासमा भरिन्न
माला लिम्बु अर्कै भएकी छ
स्वास्नी, बुहारी, भाउजु, बोजु हुँदै
माला लिम्बु माला लिम्बुभन्दा धेरै पर भएकी छ
माला लिम्बुले सपना पनि आफ्नो देख्दिन
सधैं अरुकै सपना देखेर हाँस्नु थालेकी
रुखका जरा झैं भएकी छ
बाउको देब्रे भएर बसेकी माला लिम्बुले
वोलस्टोनक्राफ्ट र सिमोन देहरु चिन्दिनन
बाउले चिन्नेहरु धेरैले
माला लिम्बुलाई चिन्दिनन
नामबाट मुक्त निर्वाणको क्षणमा बिउँझेर
घरलाई माङहिम बनाएर बसेकी
माला लिम्बुको म छोरा हुँ।
माला लिम्बु आमा हुन्।
The narrator in the poem, the son of Mala Limbu, is a sensible and sensitive man. He not only recognises the drudgery of his mother’s work but also the self-alienation she goes through while taking care of her husband and son. While she forgets her name, her village and her dreams, and comes to live in her husband’s house, the latter, who reads Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir, gradually achieves his dreams and earns a name. She is the “tongba” (millet wine) he drinks and depends upon to gain strength and prosper. She is the “roots” of the tree- whether family or capitalism- through which her husband and son as well as capitalism grows into vibrant trees. She is the subject and story of the poem her son recites. She is the fuel of all their lives that has been exploited and expropriated mercilessly. Yet the sensible son has no solutions for his mother’s perils.
Last, but not the least, I would like to remind everyone that the notion of care work is not my creation. These aren’t thoughts I had musing over the plights of womanhood. Rather, I am merely an eager listener of the conversations taking place since the earliest utterances and movements for women’s emancipation. Hence I would like to name some of the figures whom I am indebted to for having been able to see a few connections between what they said and how it was around me. They are- Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Angela Davis, Silvia Federici, Selma James, Cinzia Aruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, Nancy Fraser, Lisa Vogel and many others. Their works whether academic or political have been both insightful and inspiring. Gender Justice Long Live!
By Abinash Rai. He can be contacted at email@example.com