#Opinion

On Oxygen Support, But Never Off Duty: How Indian Families Pass Off Women’s Slavish Labour As Love

woman does kitchen work on oxygen support
Woman does kitchen work on oxygen support. Imagine the history and intensity of systemic gender imbalance that has gone into making people believe that such a reality is alright, even condoned. No doubt, motherhood comes through in the most complex situations. A mother’s love is unique, unconditional, forever pushing limits. But to what extent must this love be tested? And why are we still okay with passing off patriarchal oppression of women in Indian households as love?

In a time when the discourse has stretched to the point of considering pay for women’s housework, photos like the one below are simultaneously doing rounds on the internet. A woman does kitchen work while on oxygen support, possibly infected with or recovering from COVID-19, and her labour is passed around as a pamphlet of what a good mother is expected to do in the name of “unconditional love.”

Have a look: 

The mere thought of someone standing in the kitchen and cooking, while attached to medical support that is enabling her to breathe – she’s on the edge of life, literally – is both pathetic and alarming at once. There is, of course, wide criticism from the online public for such gross romanticising. But does the critique survive beyond the internet?

Woman Does Kitchen Work On Oxygen Support: On Whom Does The Blame Fall?

That such an image of a woman even exists in praise is proof of a living reality that exists simultaneous to the alternate, sanitised, ideal one on social media. Don’t majority women still languish in kitchens through fevers and cancers and depressions? Do they find anything faulty in the way their world is or do they view their near-slave work status as morally, dutifully, righteously bounded? So much so that even catching a wink of rest – leave alone days of it during a health crisis – will leave them feeling guilty?

Those who cannot work their hands to cook are the ones who have fed women these lies. 

Generations of men (some women, but hardly) have weaseled their way out of basic sustenance duties – cleaning, cooking and the works – conveniently pushing all the load, even their own share, onto the hands of women. How do they justify it? With token reassurances that patronise and cajole women as “goddesses” and “strong” and “devis in human avatar” and “supermoms.”

The genderisation of work and the fear of emasculation, and even sheer laziness to learn, seems to have guided male behaviour so strongly that cooking is written in stone as a woman’s duty in most Indian households. So dark are these spaces that any light of sensitivity, constructive love, basic human decency isn’t allowed to seep in.

“What if she did it out of her own love?” It’s a weak argument and fundamentally flawed. The notions we form, the beliefs we hold as “personal” stem from the systems we live in. What is then falsely perpetrated as “her own love” is what she has been taught is becoming of her and that nothing lesser will do. So deep-drilled is this nature that she will be driven to self-guilt for laying in bed, even if afflicted with a life-threatening disease, in abdication of her “duties.” See how viciously the cycle works?

Where does our outrage go? Towards men who have crafted and enabled a system of patriarchy so airtight for centuries that women cannot find a way out and ultimately have to resign themselves to it? Or towards those women, grandmothers, mothers, sisters, friends, strangers who succumb to the conditioning without recognising it for the oppression it is? Or towards they who, despite their own educated sensibilities, are indifferent to passing on tools of knowledge and resistance to the subjugated? On whom exactly must we pin anger?

Views expressed are the author’s own.