Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Home Truths on a Certain Career Husband

I recently read Chetan Bhagat’s recent article on the recently released film ‘Cocktail’. (That strange sentence is just a tribute to the opening line of Bhagat’s article, believe it or not!). But this blog is not about how discomforting it is that the highest selling author in India can’t really write!


If you haven’t already read the article, you can find Bhagat’s ‘Home Truths on Career Wives” here.  

Bhagat takes off from the film ‘Cocktail’ (its regressive plot already blogged about enough) to talk about why Indian men should marry working women rather than choosing “hot phulka” making housewives. More irritating than the completely arrogant tone of his entire article, is his assumption that he’s got it so right when it comes to women!

Bhagat starts off about the male lead in the movie setting the wrong example by settling for the demure, domestic woman over the promiscuous, adventurous career woman.

While the movie was fun, such depictions disturb me a little. When successful, strong women are portrayed as finding salvation in making dal and roti for their husbands, one wonders what kind of India we are presenting to our little girls”, writes Bhagat.   

Thoroughly concerned about the plight of the young women of our nation, Bhagat goes on to give a list of reasons why a working woman is “better” than a stay-at-home wife. (I am not even getting into the basic fact that demure, traditional, promiscuous, successful, strong, and the other adjectives that can be used to differentiate the two female leads in this film are not all mutually exclusive).

Bhagat’s reasons range all the way from working women being able to contribute financially to the household to being able to understand “organizational issues” better than a housewife. Of course, since running a household requires nothing more than making hot rotis, how can a housewife understand something as intelligent and multi-dimensional as working in the outside world, right?

I am offended because some of the smartest and most open-minded and open-hearted women I know are stay at home moms. My own mother chose to start working when I was in high school but I am sure, much before that, she was just as receptive towards the work issues that my dad must have brought home.

The assumption that a woman (or a man) is only able and worthy if s/he is earning an income is flawed.  Studies have been conducted on the cost to a household and a country that a stay-at-home wife absorbs by doing unpaid work for her house. Moreover, it has been proven that unpaid domestic work gives the economy a boost. 

According to an article in Forbes titled Putting a Price Tag On Unpaid Housework: “If this work were incorporated when measuring GDP, it would have raised it by 26 percent in 2010.”

And the article ends thus:  This isn’t to neglect the enormous addition women have made to our economy by leaving some of those tasks behind to take on paid work. That can be quantified too: if they hadn’t flooded the workforce, our economy would be a quarter smaller than it is today. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the incredible value the unpaid household work women – employed outside the home and not – do every day for our economy.

My problem begins (and doesn’t have an end) at Bhagat’s assumption that there are two types of wives in India: the working wife and the housewife. What would he then call the majority of Indian working wives who leave for work after having single handedly finished all household chores and come back home only to do more chores before going to bed?

Bhagat’s disregard for housewives is extremely disappointing and goes to show that he obviously has no idea how much skill and effort goes into running a household efficiently. More importantly, someone needs to wake him up to the fact that there is nothing menial about doing work around the house.

I would have been slightly pacified if at least once in his piece he had shared that it’s about time men stopped sitting around while their mothers, sisters, and wives did all the work around the house. He, of course, gets out of this slippery situation by stating that his COO wife is not condemned to making hot rotis for him (kudos for being such a good husband?) and their domestic help does all that.  Easy for him to say, as one of the highest paid writers in India with a COO wife who probably earns as much! What about the majority of couples who cannot afford help? Or are these home truths only for affluent men who can compensate for their decision to “allow” their wives to work by arranging for domestic help?

Thus the under text of the entire article is that as husbands, men should decide if their wives should be working or not. You can almost hear him patting himself on his back for having “kept his massive, fragile egos aside to see women as equals” (his words not mine!) as he writes this article.

Perhaps, Mr. Bhagat hasn’t thought of the fact that women work because they want to. Not because being a working wife makes them a more desirable and valuable wife than being a house wife.  He needs to realize that men are not being magnanimous by settling for colder phulkas and one subzi instead of four (take a look at his other brilliant insight into the plight of Indian women here). 

It is obvious from his article that he has no idea about the realities of the gender dynamics that play out inside and outside of domestic spheres.  He needs to understand that life is not a swayamvar for men to breeze through as they pick out wives with the best qualities.

Besides, the dichotomy of the working woman versus homemaker doesn’t really make sense. A woman who is a homemaker today might choose to work tomorrow, or the other way around. What if a man chooses to marry a working woman and a few years down the line she feels she wants to stay at home? Wouldn’t that be a damper for a man doing himself and the nation a favour by choosing to marry a working woman!

Not surprisingly, Bhagat doesn’t once talk about the advantages or disadvantages of a working versus stay at home husband. Is that not a choice Indian women have? What if a husband prefers to stay at home and take care of the house while the wife earns? Does Bhagat feel this wife should be proud or ashamed of her husband for making her hot phulkas when she gets back home? Or is that a scenario that didn’t even cross his mind? Ironic since in his case, as a writer, one would think he must be the one staying home more often than his COO wife.

Bhagat’s argument about choosing a working wife is as simplistic as his novels. But stepping out of his juvenile storylines, his speeches and blogs on “real life issues” are problematic because they are read by young girls and boys and are perceived as… well… home truths! Unfortunately, regardless of my perception of him, a youth icon he is and the truth remains that many young people will be influenced by the things he says and writes.

Alternatively, he could have used this opportunity to tell boys and girls to introspect about gender roles and not make decisions about marriage on such insignificant issues as who makes dinner. He could have talked about how important it is for parents to teach boys household chores so when they grow up they can contribute efficiently to the household so that a wife’s desire to work is not burdened by the added responsibility of running the household herself. He could have told them that there is no shame in taking care of your own house. And that wanting to be a stay at home husband /wife, if one so prefers, is a personal choice that shouldn’t depend on your gender, as long as both partners are together able to manage household expenses and chores.

He could have taken some time to read what other saner minds are saying about matter at hand; such as Annie-Marie Slaughter’s much talked about article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All . Here Slaughter bravely and rather controversially says something that many of us have not had the courage to accept: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.

Slaugher argues that for women to truly be able to do everything they want to do (including being promoted and hold high positions while being a wife/mother), the environment within which we function needs to change. Women shouldn’t have to choose between work and home, just like men shouldn’t have to either. How many men do we know at high positions today who are also able to be as involved with the household and family as they would like to be? But if we as a society stopped looking at women as successful only if they are good mothers and wives and men as successful if they are able to financially support their family, maybe both husbands/fathers and wives/mothers will begin viewing marriage, family, and household as factors that make them happy and motivate them to do better, rather than barriers to what they really want to achieve.

As for Mr. Chetan Bhagat, it’s safe to say he’s just a few-points-something  below the level at which these discussions are taking place to really contribute positively to the situation. All I can hope is that people, especially younger ones, won’t take the things he says as seriously as they take his books!