My cousin and his wife were visiting us for the first time after their marriage. She was a lovely girl and good to talk to and they both seemed happy to be together. The first meal they shared with us was lunch. She wanted to help with the laying out of the dining table and with the serving. She made my husband and her husband sit at the table and started to serve them.
Surprisingly she did not ask me to sit down for lunch. Later I realised that this is how she has been groomed – to eat after the menfolk have eaten so she assumed that I followed the same diktat. This has been drilled into women for so long that they find it very natural and accept this without a murmur.
I had never seen my mother do this nor does my husband or his family expect it from me thankfully. But apparently, in most Indian households this is a common occurrence. And they are made to believe that it’s followed by womenfolk from ‘sanskaari’ families. Most argue that it’s a way to show ‘respect’ to the men in the family. But what a way to show respect, which leads to gender inequality.
Under the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16), the India Human Development Survey (2011) survey interviewed married women aged 15-49 and found that one in five women in Delhi and half of the women in Uttar Pradesh said they ate after men did.
There are many factors why this happens and what is the outcome of this prevalent practice.
Women Always Eat Last: Discrimination starts at home
Sadly for women, gender biases start at their maternal home. First, she has to fight to be born. If she manages that, then the food and nutrition distribution which is critical for a woman’s overall development is unequal. The male child will always get first preference and so the best portions and extra quantity is served to him. After the male child it’s the men in a family that are given preference, then comes the turn of the women and girls of the family.
Isn’t it ironic that the same women and girls who toil in the kitchen get to eat last and that to leftovers?
And why is this followed by families? Because women and girls are perceived to be and treated as second-class citizens, that’s because men represent the continuation of the bloodline or ‘khandaan’. Men are seen as the future decision-makers and natural leaders while women and girls have lesser social status despite sharing a higher workload across all facets of household chores.
Patriarchal set-up lowers the status of women
In India, deep-rooted social biases act against women even before they’re born, reducing their numbers at birth and their chances of survival throughout their lives, depriving them also of adequate food and nutrition to enable a healthy life.
Patriarchy plays a major role in keeping the status of women low in all possible ways. It ensures that women’s requirements are not given importance like the right to education, the right to work outside the house, be economically independent, get help from their partners in child rearing, making household chores, especially the kitchen lies the sole responsibility of women, what women can and cannot wear, what they can eat not eat are all but some examples. Eating together is a sign of equality, so why will a patriarchal society allow this?
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What these biases can lead to
It is not surprising that as per the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16), 53 per cent of Indian women aged 15-49 years are anaemic, as compared to 23 per cent of men in the same age group.
The same data shows that undernutrition is widespread nationally: close to one-quarter of women in India are underweight, with a body mass index score of less than 18.5 kg/m2. Undernutrition has negative consequences for the women who experience it, as it leads to lower levels of energy, and more frequent sickness due to compromised immunity. Undernutrition also has important intergenerational health consequences: women who are underweight before pregnancy are more likely to have babies who are small, and more likely to have their newborns die within the first month of life.
So, with these food biases, we are endangering the lives of women.
What can be done?
It is totally up to the men to take the initiative to break this social bias at home. The families should also understand by providing low nutrition to women of their families they are playing with the lives and health of their future generations as well. In a family everyone is equal – and there is no better way to prove this than by making the women sit at the table and share their meal with them.
Views expressed by author are their own.