Beggars, Speculators…and Housewives

I never miss Swaninathan Anklesaria Aiyar’s columns in the Times Of India. He knows the art of keeping it simple and avoiding jargon. His columns are relevant and well-argued. In fact,  Aiyer, Jug Suraiya and Bachi Karkaria are the reason why I am unable to let go of the TOI despite its journalistic standards being in a free fall –they’ve been featuring on TOI  for as long as I remember and I cannot imagine not reading them on Sundays.

It is precisely because I have been such a long-time admirer of Aiyar’s writing that I was left scratching my head in bemusement by this column of his, in which he cautions speculators and housewives to go easy on gold at the moment. The reference to housewives comes not once but twice in the write-up.

I find his words of caution ludicrous on two counts. One, speculators are notorious for not listening to the advice, doubtless well-meaning, of erudite economists of his ilk. They have their own channels of information and an unusual appetite for risk too. Surely Aiyar knows that lecturing them on the virtues of restraint is a pretty futile exercise. Second, while the reference to speculators is at least in context, I struggle to understand why Aiyar mentioned housewives in the same vein. Does he really believe that housewives make enough gold purchases to affect the price of gold? Okay, maybe the socialite housewives–wives of industrialists, actors, sportsmen, politicians–do, but certainly they are too few in number to be taken to represent the whole group!

Perhaps, when he said housewives, Aiyar was alluding to women as a whole. It is true that in India a staggering amount of gold is bought in the form of jewellery–India being the biggest market for gold jewellery–and most of this jewellery is meant for(worn by) women. Women also do generally play a role in the choosing of any jewellery that is bought, regardless of whether or not they have a say in when or how much is bought. Most women are very fond of jewellery but my point is, are housewives apt to be any fonder of jewellery than working women?

I suspect Aiyar shied away from referring to  ‘women’ as a whole lest he be accused of misogyny, and picked on housewives instead because hey, everyone makes fun of them anyway. Coming down on housewives is the in-thing these days–it is taken to mean a support for working women and hence the sign of a progressive, egalitarian mind.

Digression: How I hate this term housewife– sounds like the woman is married to the house.  I don’t quite like the alternative term homemaker either, because that to me sounds kind of defensive.  SAHM too is not very apt , because not all housewives are mothers. I think Unemployed Married Women or UMW fits the bill better than most. What do you think?

Lets stick to the term housewife for this post, though, and analyse the negativity associated with it in sociological as well as economic terms. Not too long ago, housewives found themselves being clubbed with beggars in the census report, because they are not engaged in any economically productive activity. For the record, this group also included prostitutes on the grounds that the service they provide and get paid for is illegal and hence does not count as valid economic activity. By that logic, smugglers, thieves, robbers, bootleggers and all manner of criminals would make it to that group. Housewives sure have some interesting company!

The chief grouse against housewives appears to be that they do no work– in any case less work than working women who juggle housework and careers. Well, I have to say I feel for these housewives. No, don’t worry. I am not about to launch into a lecture about how the work they do is priceless, and how there is no job in the world greater than bringing up kids yada yada. I feel for them because most of them didn’t choose to be housewives–they were very gently nudged and steered into it by those around them.

Here are  a few things I have noticed by my interactions with a lot of middle-class housewives over the years.

One, and no surprises here, a vast majority of them are untrained professionally, which means they are unlikely to land up a decent job even if they were inclined to have one. The only job most of them can get easily is that of a primary school teacher in the neighbourhood school which pays you peanuts in return for slogging eight hours a day, six days a week. In terms of prestige it is only infinitesimally better than being a housewife.  I won’t judge them for not wanting to take up just about any  job they can, especially if there are no financial compulsions.

(Now, why are they untrained? Because they were married off early, without being given half the chance that their brothers got.  Yes, the brothers of almost all housewives I’ve known are doing reasonably well for themselves career-wise.)

Two, their spending habits are very much aligned to those of their husbands and their  families. It has been my experience that a dependent wife learns unerringly to be thrifty if married to a careful spender and vice-versa.

Three, nearly all of them are not exactly happy with their ‘dependent’ status but have learnt to live with it. Most of them have resented the subtle barbs and taunts that they are forever at the receiving end of. Many of them have self-esteem issues.

The most they can be accused of is not having been assertive enough when it mattered,  not having had the courage to rebel, taking things lying down, submitting to their fates meekly. Yes, perhaps they are guilty of all of that, but I would say having to play second fiddle all their lives is punishment enough. Indeed, the only person who suffers due to the choices they made, or rather the choices they did not get to make, is they themselves. Why must they be derided, caricatured and scoffed at? Why must insult be added to injury?

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12 Responses to Beggars, Speculators…and Housewives

  1. Agree, Scribblehappy. The various names and presumptions around a woman at home makes me uncomfortable too. Some women give up their careers and stay home when they have kids – taking care of kids and home is like a full time job in itself. Very few women stay home without kids – unless they haven’t been given the opportunity to develop skills. So many women are ‘taught’ that taking care of one’s husband and kids is a woman’s primary job – even if they’ve been given an education, it’s not oriented to any real world career.

    • //even if they’ve been given an education, it’s not oriented to any real world career.//

      Exactly. This happens all the time, and it is potentially crippling. The thing is, if you are not assertive enough to demand opportunities to develop your skills , you’re also likely to be meek enough to agree to an early marriage, early kids and so on. It’s like getting caught in a trap once and for all.

      Women who give up established careers to bring up kids have it better socially, especially if everyone is aware that its a temporary break. Sure,they end up with gaps in their resume which hurts their careers big time but in my experience they are spared the sniggers reserved for ‘good-for-nothing’ housewives.

  2. That was good to read.

    I echo all your thoughts and opinions.
    TOI was my favourite paper too, once upon a time.
    I still stick with it for want of anything better.
    But I now feel they should rename the paper “The Advertisements of India”
    For years at least their front page was safe from commercial considerations.
    Now even the front page has been relegated to an inside page.
    What stares at you is a giant sized ad on the front page.
    In the good old days, the paper was full of news and articles with ads here and there.
    Now it is full of ads with some written matter here and there.
    I suspect many of these these articles or news reports are paid for by some one.
    You must have heard of the paid news scandal some years ago.
    Almost all newspapers are guilty.

    The present owners (Samir Jain?, Vineet Jain?)are quite frank about what they want out of this paper.
    Journalism is not their objective. They are now a media business.
    They are in it for the money and to hell with journalistic standards or principles.

    Jug Suraiya (a great writer and a personal favourite of mine) tells you in detail in his autobiography “The Times of my Life” how he moved from his earlier paper to TOI and why and how he has adjusted to the new objectives of the paper. I have been following him all the while right from his early years in Junior Statesman, or JS as it was called in the sixties.

    I like Bachi too, when she writes in seriousness.
    But I feel she sometimes overdoes the punning.

    I too read Swaminathan’s column with interest but they are few and far between.
    Shoba De occasionally comes up with something really readable.
    TOI has practically nothing of value to read during the week days.
    I wait eagerly for the weekend for the TOI Crest edition which is full of reading matter and with very few ads.

    As regards housewives, yes, during my younger days and for generations before, it was desirable to have at least half the women stay at home as housewives and manage the household, take care of the children and keep themselves occupied with hobbies and social work during their free time. That lifestyle was common, socially approved and not many women were dissatisfied with it. Lack of higher education among housewives resulted in fewer frustrations. The wives took pride in their husbands’ progress and in their children’s accomplishments.

    But in these times, that is a luxury. Two incomes have become necessary for many families, as the husbands don’t earn enough for today’s needs and expenses and commitments. During our time, education cost practically nothing, all the way up to to graduation, compared to what it costs today. Housing is unaffordable with just one income for nearly all middle class families. Modern women are vastly better educated and staying at home as a housewife often results in frustration and unhappiness.

    A good compromise in my opinion would be for a housewife to have a part-time job, or a job that involves fixed hours and lower levels of responsibility so that they can more easily manage both job and household. Of course some of you will ask why men can’t opt for such jobs, why should only women seek such jobs? I have no answer except to say that if the man is willing, why not? But I know my gender. No man will be willing to play second fiddle to his wife!

    Incidentally, I have now become a “house-husband”. I retired last year.
    Keep writing. I look forward to your posts.

    • LOL on Bachi Karkaria’s excessive punning putting you off. I agree she overdoes it sometimes.
      You’ve been following Jug Suraiya since when he started out in the sixties? Wow!
      The Times of My Life sounds like an interesting read. It’s been on my bucket-list for a while now.
      I also like M J Akbar’s (fortnightly?) columns in the STOI.

      Agree with you that a general lack of higher education amongst housewives in the previous generations led to fewer frustrations. Very true. Of course things are vastly different with this generation where housewives are better-educated, know very well what they’re missing and end up feeling shortchanged and frustrated. Add to it the general condescension and patronisation that come their way, which is kind of poignant when you realize that most of them never really chose to be ‘ just housewives’.

      Part-time jobs might be the solution in some cases but not everyone is enthused by this option because part-time jobs tend to be ill-paid. Positions of low responsibility are also low in job-satisfaction, so some might not see the point in taking one up at all. Of course that is one way of looking at it. Ultimately, the fact remains that something must be better than nothing at all.

  3. Ashwathy says:

    Lack of access to opportunity (even via parental restriction or spousal restriction) is many a time a cause for the “home-maker” to remain so. At other times it is also conditioning… that women are expected to give home and family the first priority. I feel like screaming sometimes. What about the life outside home and family? Why does nobody even mention that!

    • Agree. Conditioning does play a part, and this is most obvious when very qualified women decide to take a career break ‘so they can be with the kids . Because one never, or very rarely, sees men take a break to be with the kids.

  4. R's Mom says:

    Errr..if he feels that gold is not a good investment, why tell it to the ‘housewife’ I am not too only housewives wear gold?? My mom is ‘not’ a housewife, but she wears gold…Jeez! I need to tell her this eh?

    Sarcasm over!

    I loved what you wrote SH! Its funny how married women who dont work are categorized! actually its not funny..its really sad! I wonder if anyone from the census realised how hard it is to stay at home and do all the housework!

  5. Amit says:

    I think an average Indian male wears more gold that his ‘housewife’ wife nowadays – a gold chain, 4 gold rings, a gold bracelet, a gold watch.
    And no sane man/woman wants to wear gold in public nowadays, unless you want a ‘man’ to snatch that away on a speeding bike.

    • Hehe true. Men have made rapid progress in exercising their right to wear as much jewellery as their wives 😉 I remember a time when men wearing chains and bracelets attracted disparaging comments, though a gold watch and a ring or two have always been considered acceptable. Four rings, though, still look a bit excessive, don’t you think? 🙂

  6. Deeps says:

    Agree with Ash..a lot has to do with conditioning. A housewife is never questioned or pointed fingers at for ‘choosing to be one because she is ‘expected’ to stay at home and tend to her family whereas a husband when, so much as even talks of quitting and staying home, is often discouraged because he is afterall the provider and ‘expected’ to bring in the moolah. So any change in the set-up is scoffed at, I feel. This bracketing is what needs to change.

    BTW I am a housewife and I have no interest or inclination towards gold or jewellery whatsoever! Why, I didnt even know the gold prices had crashed! 😀

    • Yeah, it’s pretty much a given that if somebody absolutely must stay home to tend to the family, it must be the woman by default, though her conforming to such social expectations doesn’t really make the society any more respectful of the stay-at-home wife. Far from it, actually, and that’s the irony.

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