The Indian march, with the hashtag #IWillGoOut, was prompted by reports of the mass molestation of women in the southern Indian state of Bangalore on New Year’s Eve. In response, the organizers wished to take on “this … misogynistic culture of questioning women’s right to be in the public sphere.” The march was billed as the start of a discourse on “how women must bear the burden of several socio-cultural expectations in order to be deserving of “safety” — wear a dupatta, cover the cleavage, sit with legs crossed, don’t talk loudly, get home before dark.”
But in a country of around 586 million women, only thousands turned out for the women’s march, as opposed to the half a million who turned out in the United States, whose female population stands at a little over 162 million.
I may know why the turnout was low. I wanted to march that day, but I couldn’t. Many of my girlfriends could not either. We were all at work. And after work, we all had “things to do at home.” Like many Indian women, we are expected to take care of all of our domestic duties at home, even with full-time jobs. My child-care system is basically my network of girlfriends; we rely on munificence and availability to babysit our children on the occasions we absolutely cannot avoid being out late. I do have domestic help, but none of the workers can stay late even for double the pay, because they too have no child care.
My girlfriends, domestic help staff and I all belong different social and economic classes, but we are bound by an unshakeable truth: India’s feminism movement will fail us if it doesn’t address the problem of overworked women.
Betty Friedan, the American feminist, defined “superwomanhood” of the 1980s as double enslavement of women, both at home and at work. In the West, the superwoman syndrome is often synonymous with having it all. In India, men do not contribute to housework. Indian women do 9.8 times more care work than the men — if this work were to be valued and compensated, it would add $.3 trillion to the Indian economy. Indian women must navigate the complexities of managing home, children and care for elderly family members with almost zero social or familial support. We are doing it all, and we are doing it alone.
The overwork may also be killing India’s women, literally. According to India’s national crime records bureau, more than 20,000 housewives killed themselves in India in 2014; a rate higher than India’s overall suicide rate and about four times that of farmer suicides, which have roiled the public discourse in the country over the past few years. But this unusually high number of suicides by housewives has been largely overlooked. The suicide rate in Indian women aged 15 years or older is more than two-and-a-half times greater than it is for women of the same age in high-income countries, and nearly as high as in China.
A BBC report quotes Peter Mayer, author of “Suicide and Society in India” with co-researcher Della Steen, who found “female literacy, the level of exposure to the media and smaller family size, all perhaps indicators of female empowerment, were correlated with higher suicide rates for women in these age groups.”
Despite this deadly overwork for women, labor force participation of women in India is also often misreported. “Although most women in India work and contribute to the economy in one form or another, much of their work is not documented or accounted for in official statistics. … women’s labour force participation remains statistically under-reported,” according to the International Labour Organization.
In 2011-2012, 35.3 percent of all rural females and 46.1 percent of all urban females in India were attending to domestic duties, as compared with 29 percent and 42 percent respectively in 1993-1994, according to the report. As the numbers of women who engage in so-called domestic duties increase, how does one differentiate between a housewife and a working woman to address the rising rate of suicides?
On the other hand, the drop in labor force participation could be a warning sign that India’s women workers are backing down on their hard-won freedom, unable to cope with the demands of work and family. It is an alarming situation for a growing economy such as India’s, which has the potential to add “$700 billion of additional GDP in 2025, upping the country’s annual GDP growth by 1.4 percentage points,” by raising women’s workforce participation by just 10 percentage points — around 68 million women — in the workforce.
And this is why the superwoman syndrome cannot afford to remain absent from the Indian feminist discourse any longer.
Yes, there is an urgent need to reclaim public space and fight against violence and inequalities and call out public oppression. However, there is an even greater need for Indian women to be made aware of the accepted forms of oppression that patriarchy imposes on them at home. Indian feminists will have to start by reshaping gender roles at home, where inequality starts and is perpetrated.
There is also an imminent need for a policy push for lawmakers to recognize the work Indian women do and for building up a social system — replacing the support system of the joint family structure that has been disintegrating over the years — including counseling support and a more extensive child-care program, especially for disadvantaged women. India has a little more than 1.34 million anganwadis (state-run day care centers) for children up to the age of 6 covering around 102 million children and just over 23,000 crèches for underprivileged mothers who work in the organized sector.
The feminist movement in India has gathered momentum in the past few years, especially after the infamous Delhi gang rape, which is a good thing. But for every woman who marched on Jan. 21, there was more than one who didn’t, and more who couldn’t. And until these missing women make it back into India’s feminist discourse, such protests may remain mere symbolism.