The changing nature of urban homes and women’s lives
In the backdrop of International Women’s Day, amid the continuing global pandemic, India needs a discussion on reimagining the idea of home. The notions of stay-at-home and work-from-home dominated the narrative with the pandemic, and with it began the discussion on the increase in violence within the home.
It was interesting to see that the Supreme Court recently proposed fixing a notional income for a homemaker, indicating that the law and courts value the labour, services and sacrifices of women. Domestic spaces have been transformed in multiple ways in the last few decades in Indian cities. One could go back to the sociological studies of the 1970s to 1990s on urbanisation, migration and nuclearisation of families to understand changes in the domestic space, from stay-at-home women performing all the household work to women shouldering the double burden of paid employment and housework. Over time, with grandparents or other relatives leaving the shared domestic space, middle and upper middle class urban home started hiring part-time domestic help.
Education remained the one tool for social mobility, but women were still expected to use fairness creams to be marriageable. While many of these changes were sociologically explained as arising from emancipation, neither the Towards Equality Report of 1974 nor the Shram Shakti report of 1989 reinforced the transformation. In fact, gendered hierarchies and the sexual division of labour in Indian families became important areas of anthropological exploration.
In the past 20 years, the number of women opting for higher education has increased to 48.6%, according to the All India Survey on Higher Education (2018-19); the average age of marriage for women is 22.1 years as per a 2019 report of ministry of statistics and implementation. As per Census 2011, only 5% of Indian marriages are inter-caste, while 93% respondents of a Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy-administered study of 2018 said they had arranged marriages. Finally, as per a 2016 BBC report, the divorce rate in India is less than 1%. These figures have to be read simultaneously with the 2019 National Statistical office survey that states 92% women in India take part in unpaid domestic work in homes in comparison to 27% of men.
At least three sociological analyses can be made from these numbers. First, marriage and domestic arrangements still remain deeply caste endogamy-based or arranged despite processes of urbanisation or more mobility for work purposes.
Second, low divorce rates do not necessarily indicate happy marriages, but rather the deep economic and social pressures which create the inability to leave a marriage. For women, it is connected as much with stigma as with economic insecurity and the absence of housing if parents are unwelcoming.
Third, equal sharing of domestic responsibilities remains a far cry in most households and women still continue to bear the burden of child and elder care, caring for the sick and the disabled, besides cooking, cleaning or gathering.
When we look at all this along with the data that only 22% of women participate in any form of employment activity, we understand how serious the situation is. While the government initiated the Smart City Mission in 2015 to promote inclusive cities, urban planning in terms of safe and accessible transport and affordable and liveable housing remains unfavourable for women and trans persons. Since getting into the formal workforce is a distant dream for most women, the pressures of marriage-based security are real. Heterosexual marriage still remains the main source of legal entitlement for women and any other form of domestic intimacy does not find much space in official policies.
This pandemic highlighted the gendered implications of work-from-home and stay-at-home — in terms of increased labour and violence. The home remains a nuclear, heterosexual, marriage-reproduction-based space. A renewed political discussion around housework is needed as much as a re-articulation of what relationalities constitute this home.
Rukmini Sen is professor of sociology, School of Liberal Studies, Dr B R Ambedkar University
The views expressed are personal