It is commonly said that a married woman has a home inside a home. The kitchen. In this territory, over which she is given sole jurisdiction, her word is final and binding. Which spices go where, how cutlery is stored, what’s on the menu - she is in charge. She is empowered, she is told.
But is this so-called empowerment anything more than eyewash? How much say does a woman have outside her ‘second home’? Does she have agency equal to the man’s, as far as domestic financial decisions go? At workplaces, on the streets, is she allowed to be as confident as she feels in her kitchen?
In many parts of India still, girls are handed ladles before pencils. From early childhood, we are conditioned into gender roles - a man goes to the office, a woman goes to the kitchen. And so, we grow up believing this to be true.
Even those who are employed know the kitchen awaits them at home once they get back from work. So powerful and successful has the stronghold of this sexist tradition been that women feel guilty if they choose to bunk their kitchen ‘duties’ even for a day.
Remember this viral picture of a woman making rotis while lugging along the oxygen cylinder attached to her? The caption alongside read: "Unconditional love = Mother. She is never off duty." While it surfaced during the brutal second wave of COVID-19 last year, reports suggested it was an old picture from 2018. Notwithstanding its timestamp, the photo was disturbing, to say the least. But it's the unfortunate reality.
Mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, aunties across India battle fevers, sweltering heat, mental health issues with only their kitchen stoves standing witness to their pain.
So is the kitchen a site of liberation or obligation?
Women in kitchens: Can we break gender roles?
Patriarchy is cunning. It morally polices women by putting them on pedestals as goddesses and devis, similarly, it binds women to kitchens by making them believe that is where they have the right to exercise their full agency. So what is the need for feminism? Who cares if bank accounts, investments, key decisions related to health and family's wellbeing are off-limits?
By giving her the ‘honour’ of being the queen of the kitchen, are we really uplifting a woman or patronising her?
‘Arey, wo toh uska department hai,’ men joke about their wives, when asked what they know about or do around the kitchen. Their ignorance is a mark of them wilfully and happily having relinquished this bit of domestic responsibility, to preserve their &t=1056s">masculinity.
If the kitchen is her supposed department, does she deserve to be limited to it? How much share are men giving their wives with regard to other departments around the house? In, say, how expenditure is distributed? What investments are being made? Is her voice heard when political affairs are discussed? Is the husband stepping into the kitchen ever to shoulder his half of the chores?
The freedom to determine how much salt goes in each dish is not the kind of empowerment women are seeking. Give us a seat at all tables outside kitchens too.
Views expressed are the author’s own.