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?