Nilanjana Bhowmick: ‘Middle-class homes are secret laboratory of patriarchy’

Multi-award-winning journalist Nilanjana Bhowmick’s book, Lies Our Mothers Told Us, shines light on uncomfortable contemporary realities

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Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Thu 21 Jul 2022, 5:59 PM

Nilanjana Bhowmick is an independent multi-award-winning journalist based in Delhi. She has worked for some of the world's leading media publications over the past two decades. She is a former BBC producer and a TIME Magazine correspondent based in Delhi. The focus of her work has been on gender through the intersectional lens. Her work on gender and social justice has been awarded by the European Commission and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. She was featured by the National Geographic Magazine in their 2019 Women of Impact issue. Her book Lies Our Mothers Told Us examines gender inequalities inside India’s middle-class homes.

wknd. spoke with Bhowmick to get a sense of how Savitribai Phule, Mahasweta Devi, Amrita Pritam, Medha Patkar, Kamla Bhasin, and countless others have, since the 19th century, fought for and won equal rights for Indian women in diverse walks of life — universal suffrage, inheritance and property rights, equal remuneration, prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace, and others.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Explain how your book is a close look at the gender inequality that forms the bedrock of India’s middle class?

Lies Our Mothers Told Us digs beyond the loose top soil of middle-class India’s ‘progressiveness’ and unearths the solid rock of the patriarchy and persistent inequalities hidden underneath. I come from a middle-class family, and I grew up believing this garb of progressiveness. I did not find it problematic that I was “allowed” to do certain things. I didn’t find it problematic that there was always an underlying, unsaid narrative that I must be grateful for those freedoms – which by virtue of their definitions should not come with any preconditions of gratitude or pay-back. Middle class homes are a secret laboratory of patriarchy — it is where patriarchy has thrived and continued to thrive. It has escaped the scrutiny that was required because the lives of middle-class women are not interesting — it’s average. They have everything and yet nothing, but they hide the nothingness well. They have some frivolous freedoms for which they accept patriarchal impositions on their lives — they willingly drop off schools and the work force (or accept low-paying jobs with flexible timings) to look after the home, they submit to marriages arranged and approved by their parents, and then submit to various abuses – emotional and physical in their marriages, and so on. We have had many occasions to turn the spotlight inside middle class Indian homes – but we haven’t. We have ignored the suicides – something that the Lancet called a public health emergency. Thousands of women are killing themselves in our country every year – but where is the outrage? These faceless women are the face of the gender inequalities inside middle class Indian homes.

Tell us more about the suicides.

Indian women accounted for 36 per cent of global female suicide deaths in 2016. In 2018, the Lancet had called this a public health crisis. In India, as elsewhere in the world, the number of men who die by suicide are higher than the number of women but there are two distinctive factors here. One was identified by the Lancet study that while the proportion of global suicide deaths in India since 1990 has increased for both sexes, it was more for women than men. The other was identified by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in its annual accidental and suicide deaths reports. In 1997 and again in 2007, the NCRB had noted that while the reason for men’s suicide deaths were mostly owing to social and economic causes, women’s suicide deaths were almost always attributable to emotional and personal causes. The reports also consistently reported large number of deaths among married women – something the Lancet pointed out too – especially over dowry or physical violence. It was in the mid 1990s that the NCRB began to track housewife suicides as a separate category because the numbers were growing at a steady pace every year. In any other country, these would have led to solid data collection, studies and reports and solution hunting — but in our country they have just remained annual statistics on pieces of paper, hoping some would take note before it’s too late. Many experts have told me there’s no quality data on depression or suicides among women in India. If we were ever to have that data — middle-class women would probably emerge as the largest group of victims (given the size of the class and the simmering but well-concealed inequalities inside these homes).

What was the inspiration behind writing this book?

I observe life around me very keenly – as a storyteller, that’s my inherent calling. I guess it all began with trying to understand my mother, her life and to just figure out why she never laughed or smiled. And then it just became a part of me — trying to read emotions and understand not so much what is being said, but what is not being said. I have always been surrounded by strong, passionate women but also women who are struggling to keep it all together beneath the veneer of strength. I have always been a repository of stories – women have always entrusted me with their stories. They have believed that I would tell it to the world someday and tell it in a way that would matter. I have always wanted to keep my work gender-focussed but unfortunately gender is still not a priority in mainstream media. So, although I would have liked to, I couldn’t really tell the stories that I wanted to tell and the only way to tell it was to write a book. And I embarked on this journey very unwillingly because I already had a lot on my plate — but these stories needed to be told.

How much of it is a lived-in experience?

The book is partly autobiographical so much of my own experience is in it. I grew up in a middle-class household. My sister and my mother focussed on me to have all the freedoms that my father would not “allow” them. My mother was a detective police officer — an unusual profession for a woman in those days and her work created constant strife in our home. My father tried to control her in every which way. She would hand over her salary to him and he would give her a “monthly allowance”. He constantly pressured her to leave her job, stonewalled her, gaslighted her when she refused. She was not allowed to have friends or invite her colleagues home. He was suspicious of her every move. And when I began writing the book — I wanted to compare her experience to present times and to my utter horror, women of my age were reporting the same control tactics by their partners even four decades on. In the meanwhile, my life had changed for the better — I married into a family where everyone believed in equality. My father-in-law Nabarun Bhattacharya, who was a celebrated Bengali writer, and my mother-in-law Pranati Bhattacharya, a retired political science professor, constantly motivated me to break the chains and touch new horizons. My grand mother-in-law, Mahasweta Devi, was a feminist icon. She helped me identify many of the wrongs that I grew up with. She constantly chided my father for his behaviour — and I learnt from her the importance of calling out problematic behaviour. But the most basic of my lived experiences came from my partner Tathagata — we have been married for 18 years, not even once has he ever asked me “why?” it’s always been a “why not?” The contrast in my life experiences showed me that equality in our homes was possible — that what I grew up with was not the norm, should not be the norm. And that it was time to start calling out the problematic behaviour in our homes that we are often advised not to air in public. Dirty linen and all that.

How ‘Indian women can have it all’ comes at too high a price?

It’s a myth that women can have it all — but it would be a farce to even use that term in the Indian context. In India, to even have a quarter of it, women pay a high price. Indian women are among the most overworked in the world. In 2019, a Time Use Survey found that Indian women spent 299 minutes per day on housework and 134 minutes on caregiving duties per day. Men spent only 97 minutes on household work, and 76 minutes a day on caregiving. Women in our country shoulders over 82 per cent of the domestic work and almost 28 per cent of caregiving. Men shoulder a little over 26 per cent of domestic chores and 14 per cent of caregiving. The modern Indian woman is burdened with so much housework and caregiving that they are leaving behind their hard-won financial independence, dropping out of schools, and dropping off the labour force. Then there are those women, who self-identify as housewives but are employed in the informal sector, often carry the unrecognised burden of the ‘double shift’ as the women who are part of the formal labour force. Women’s lives in India make me think of the Japanese term karoshi —literally ‘overwork death’. Indian women have been battling it for decades.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard.” Working for over 55 hours a week leads to a 35 per cent higher risk of stroke and 17 per cent higher risk of dying from heart disease. From the anecdotal evidence I gathered from women about their days —Indian women often end up working up to 70 hours every week — in fact probably more. I have met and interviewed women whose days start at 5am and finish at 10pm. Do the calculation now.

What are the primary obstacles that Indian women face to succeed in life?

Patriarchy. Male entitlement. A government that doesn’t care. A government that is run by the same patriarchal thought processes — policies and programmes that are designed by men – how many ordinary women are ever consulted before a programme is designed for them? I mean India has some of the best laws and programmes for women but are women able to access these laws and programmes? Not really. Take for example, the right to education that makes education a right for all children. And yet girls are taken off schools for housework or marriages. You cannot just empower a woman or a girl —first you must empower the homes and the community where they live. You must change normative behaviour. Make the public space — including workplaces — safe and gender responsive. Men control all resources in our country and whatever advances women have made have either come at a huge cost or through kowtowing to the patriarchy. Both are wrong. Women deserve a violence free and equal home and public space – we have neither.

How can the narrative change in the 21st century?

The narrative will only change when we change our homes; when we drop the hypocrisy and the fake progressiveness and treat equality as a basic human right, care work, including domestic chores, as just that — chores — that don’t need a feminine touch. No, women don’t “enjoy” cooking or caregiving — they are just dumped with it. They are jobs that need to get done around the home and both partners are equally responsible for it. These are life skills and not gender skills. Women in our country have become breadwinners – although they are rarely accorded that status — but men are yet to become co-carers. When our homes become equal, that equality will spill over on our streets and workplaces, too.

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