“You are a girl. It is not appropriate to just sit around all day!” mother would say. And, I would fly into a rage. My first trial with being a woman started when still in school. My mother, a conservative woman, thought it her duty to prepare her daughter for the expectations of the future. This would mean helping her with household chores like cooking and cleaning – things that I had absolutely no interest in. My mother was not unreasonable. She only expected me to help on holidays and ensured that her requests did not interfere with my studies. But, I viewed these menial tasks as an imposition on my free time; time that I wanted for my own pursuits. This was the biggest bone of contention between the two of us; a difference of opinion between women of two generations on the expectations of their gender. Very often, the fights would end with either or both of us in tears. My mother had my best interests at heart. She was only trying to ensure that I was not caught unawares when these responsibilities fell on my shoulders later in life. But, the fact that the same expectations did not exist for my brother made me mad. It was my first taste of how unequal the world was.
As I completed my education and stepped into a male-dominated industry, these differences became even more obvious. To begin with, everyone questions your merit. It is assumed that you have either been hired because of your looks or because the company wants to promote gender diversity. You have to work doubly hard to prove that you are as good as or better than any other man in the team. This, in an industry which measures a person’s worth more by how long they work than how efficiently the work is done. When women finish their work and leave on time, they are not considered as hard working as men who take more time to complete the same job. I remember a conversation with a former colleague a few months after I’d moved on to a new job. He said they had a discussion recently where someone remarked, “I have never seen any girl work as hard as Norah”. Another replied, “I haven’t, even, seen a guy work as hard as her”. My colleague intended this as a compliment. Instead, my anger caused me to retort with, “Should I be flattered? Do you think women don’t work as hard as men?”
Women are not expected to be ambitious. I, even, had a male colleague remark to me that I did not really have to worry about higher education or a good career because, as a woman, no one expected it of me. When female colleagues get married or have children, people speculate and say, “Well, she won’t be staying back after office hours now!” In a society, where women are still expected to cook a meal at the end of the day and take care of the children, how can a woman possibly win?
As time went by and I interviewed for new jobs, the interview always included questions about my marital status. When I was single, these questions were: “Are you married?”, “When do you plan to marry?” When I got married, these questions became: “Do you have children?”, “When do you plan to have them?” People seemed to be more concerned about my personal life than I was. Sharing personal details and plans with people, whom I barely knew, was uncomfortable to say the least. Especially, when all I wanted was to find a job that I liked and do my best. I was assured that they were equal opportunity employers and this would not have a bearing on their decision to hire me. But, if it is not important, why ask?
When I got married, I was constantly asked by relatives about my cooking skills. No matter how much I had achieved in my professional life, it was as if I was not good enough if I could not prepare a decent meal. When I complained to a relative about the amount of time I spent travelling to and from work on a daily basis, she said, “Why do women need to work? It’s such a needless hassle!”
I enjoyed my days of freedom when I could work for as long as I wanted and come home to a warm meal prepared by my mother. I had no other cares or worries. All I had to focus on was work.
Now, when I drag myself home after a tiring day at the office, a mountain of household chores awaits. When there is no one to share the burden, it becomes a cause of frustration and friction. Resentment breeds when there is an inequitable division of labour or when the expectations of shared work are not met. There are days when I just don’t want to get home because of what’s about to come next. Not that my family expects anything of me. No one would object if we were to eat out everyday. My concern for health, however, makes me loath to the idea.
I wonder about the fate of women who don’t have a supportive family. I remember a married friend waking up early to cook breakfast and lunch before leaving the house for work and then having to cook dinner after she reached home no matter what time it was. Though she lived with her in-laws, she couldn’t hope for any help. The family is happy with the money her job brings, but will not make her life easier at home. What is her quality of life? There is no concern for the long term impacts on her physical, mental and emotional health. I have heard worse stories of women, with good-for-nothing husbands, who work in menial jobs to make ends meet. They return home in the evening only to be beaten and have their earnings snatched by the drunk or gambling spouse. My mother was amazed at the dedication of these women who, despite their troubles, would take care of their men, pray for their long lives and wish for the same companion in their next life. My life, in comparison, is a walk in the park.
When I stay back at the office, after working hours, I wonder how I will manage to cook a meal in the little time I have after I get home. Some days, when it gets really late, I constantly worry about my safety – a fact that most employers don’t even consider. Instead, they choose to question your commitment.
My aunt is a qualified teacher and the most educated of her siblings. After marriage, she gave up her career to take care of the home and raise her children. I never knew how she felt until, one day, she remarked, “It is as if, after marriage, I have lost my identity”. In some ways, I can totally relate. As a woman, I have always taken pride in my work and aspired to be more than someone’s wife or daughter.
This is not to say that women who don’t choose to have a career are, in any way, inferior. My mother is a stay-at-home parent and is very happy to be one. Personally, I believe being a homemaker is a full-time job and women who care for the home are not valued enough.
I only wish for every woman to have a choice. They should neither be forced to take up jobs nor be confined to the house. And, if they choose to have a career, they should be given all possible encouragement to follow their dreams rather than be bogged down by unrealistic expectations.
No matter what their role in life, women are simply not given enough credit. As housewives, they are taken for granted. As working women, they are caught between two worlds. When a man lends a hand around the house, people sing glorious praises about how lucky his wife is. When a woman manages both work and home, no one bats an eyelid.