She is not a Servant

Introduction

Conversations that ensued following the publication of The Captivity of Tribal Women in Northeast India elicited a range of feelings and opinions. While several men claim to be concerned about women’s struggles in a patriarchal society, many of them opt to remain silent on the subject. Many women are still oblivious of their own reality, let alone the possibility that they are oppressed or imprisoned by a patriarchal society. Some others thought it was a bad idea to air our dirty laundry in a local web-based newspaper that could be accessed by anyone, from anywhere in the globe. In this short article, I respond – or, if you will, provide a follow-up – to those who say Tangkhul patriarchal system does not oppress women. This is accomplished through an imagined conversation with three Tangkhul women about their kitchen responsibilities, men’s involvement in the kitchen, and why such rigid thinking persists. While the following conversation has been reimagined, the experiences are real and come from a diverse group of Tangkhul women.

Her Responsibilities

The voices captured in this short piece are based on real-life experiences. To ensure confidentiality, their names and descriptions have been altered. Hence, any similarities in the description of an individual, family members, or relatives are completely coincidental.

When asked about her kitchen responsibilities, Āyi Shim, a mother of four sons, two daughters, and five grandchildren, says it was taught to her by her mother and she accepted it as a default responsibility when she married. She recalls, “I started cooking for my husband and his family members the next day after we got married.” It was difficult at first since she makes meals under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law. She recounts an incident in which she could not find a specific spoon to cook the curry, so she used the same spoon for curry, boiled vegetables, and rice. Over the course of time, she got used to cooking for everyone. Yet, it can be difficult sometimes as her husband (Āwo, sits idle and no longer hunts or supplies) and boys rarely help her. As she has become Āyi, a grandmother, who is approaching 75 years of age, the household chores have gotten overwhelming and challenging. Here, I might add: Cooking in a stranger’s home with no idea where the utensils and ingredients are can be an unpleasant experience back then, as it is now.

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Āva Nim, a middle-aged housewife and mother of two young sons, started with what she expected to do in addition to kitchen chores. She says she is expected to remove her husband’s coat/jacket, shoes, and socks once he returns from work, as he reclines in their couch. She is encouraged to hand-wash his clothes, particularly the office wears, rather than using their washing machine, which quickly ruins their clothes. Their washing machine is left to wash old garments and heavy apparel, such as blankets, bedsheets, jackets, and overcoats, among other things. All these responsibilities fall on her shoulders, in addition to making breakfast, lunch, and supper – and snacks and tea when they stay at home during state-national holidays. She considers housework and cooking for three mouths to be a full-time job that can be difficult. Here I might add: Despite this being true, many men in our society are unaware of the difficulties that women face in running their homes and kitchens.

These default family and social expectations were disturbing to Āchon Saman, a working professional, mother of two children and a wife, who married later than her yarnao (friend’s circle of comparable age) due to her parents’ insistence that she marry a Tangkhul and the difficulty of finding a compatible Tangkhul man who understands women’s struggles. As she approached marriage, she was conflicted between the social expectation of unquestioning service to her spouse and in-laws and her own sense of self-worth and identity. She was expected not only to serve her husband like a servant, but also to change her name as if she did not have an identity of her own. This was unacceptable as it diminished her very existence. She insists that Tangkhuls are better than this. In her home, her parents treated her and her brother as equals. Both in her Sunday school and high school, her teachers taught them about an egalitarian society. Her higher studies and careful reading of the Scripture suggests that we are created equally (regardless of how that term is interpreted). So, the idea of drowning her and her identity with household tasks was simply oppressive. Such thinking is undesirable and insulting to someone who has been educated and nurtured with egalitarian thought and practise. I might as well add that as the number of educated Tangkhul women grows, there is a paucity of Tangkhul men who are educated and open-minded enough to question (or critically analyse) the established social status quo. More women are finding compatible men outside of the community.

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His Involvement

When asked if her husband and sons help in the kitchen, Āyi Shim believes that it is her and her daughter’s obligation to take care of the kitchen (one can assume that they do not help). She believes that her husband’s responsibility is to make money and provide for her family, as society expects. When asked what one should do if the roles are reversed, she believes that expecting her spouse to cook and do the dishes will be socially awkward. That being said, on a day when she is tired and sick, and as she grows older, she wishes her husband would be more helpful and interested in their daily affairs. Given the circumstances, she partly expressed remorse that she had not trained her sons to help her or their sisters.

Āva Nim reacted sarcastically to the inquiry with a typical Tangkhul expression: “Ishāwo kathi eina ringshok ra sarei āna ngachon thangva” (My grandfather will rise from the dead the day he helps). She appears to be at a loss as to how to deal with this reality. All her friends, like her, do the cooking chore, and their spouses rarely assist them. In fact, they have a buddy whose husband does all the cooking and laundry. However, their families and neighbours do not speak highly of him. They name him with various derogatory terms, including handbag, mayar makashok (not masculine), pareiva li makhayui (someone who cannot win his wife), etc. Yet, her friend and her husband do not appear to be concerned with what others are saying. A part of her wishes her husband was more like her friend’s husband. However, she is unsure how to go about communicating that wish.

In this case, Āchon Saman is very clear about her and her husband’s relationship, as well as what is expected of each other. Even though her spouse grew up in a household where males do not help in the kitchen, they have a good understanding about sharing duties. What she dislikes is her husband’s shift in personality whenever he is among her in-laws. When the entire family gathers, her attentive and helpful husband stays away from the kitchen (or abandons her). When she confronted him (raised her voice), he had the opportunity to reconsider his actions. She recognises that the realisation of egalitarian thinking and practise requires deliberate effort on the part of both parties, as well as women speaking up instead of carrying the pain silently for fear of societal shame. Both wo/men must work together to transform society

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Its Origin

Āyi Shiminforms us that things have always been like that. It is the men who go for hunting and provides the household needs, while women take care of the cultivating field and manages the kitchen. These roles did not change much even after the introduction of Western education and Christian faith. While there were some changes, it was limited to change of profession. She seems to suggest that we largely remain a patriarchal society. Āva Nim holds a similar view on confining women’s roles to the kitchen and excluding men from it. She goes on to say that people are who they are because society expects them to be. Āchon Saman has a slightly different take on the situation. While the delegation of wo/men’s responsibilities has its roots in patriarchal society, such thinking is reinforced by the teachings (or “lectures” as they are known in the Tangkhul community) of Tangkhul preachers. She recounts a recent wedding where the wedding administrator emphasised to the attendees that the husband is the head of the family – but negligently omitted to say that Christ is the head of the family (she adds). The bride was then told to honour her husband and do her best to serve him. There was no hint of teaching on companionship or mutual love and care. During the cake-cutting ceremony, her Āwo (maternal uncle) encouraged her to serve her husband, his family, and relatives, as well as his village and church. Though it was intended to be a prayer of blessing, there was no mention of blessing them with happiness and fortune as they begin their new lives. Here, I would like to add that such exhortation-prayer appears to be more of a contract for servitude, if not slavery, than a prayer of blessing. In reality, the words you hear, the expectations they place on women, or the attention they pay to women on such occasions may be exactly what Tangkhul men want from “WOMEN.” These are likely to have significant patriarchal ramifications. They may not be biblical or feature biblical facts, and they may not prioritise women as an individual either. It’s just a patriarchal imposition and an out-of-context textual reading of what they think is true.

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“Her” Appeal

As Christmas approaches, despite their different viewpoints on women’s roles and men’s involvement in the kitchen, Āyi Shim, Āva Nim, and Āchon Saman recognise that they will be doing a lot of cooking, cleaning dishes, or hosting family events. However, they will approach the Christmas season, in respect to the kitchen, in completely different ways. Āyi Shim, a traditionalist in thinking and practise, hopes her children, if not her husband, will help her in preparing a sumptuous dinner for her grandchildren during the Christmas season. Āva Nim, who is uninformed of the discussion over egalitarian society and gender neutrality in household responsibilities, hopes that family and social gatherings would be less taxing. As she washes the utensils during the frigid winter in Ukhrul, she hopes that someone will boil or heat the water for her. Āchon Saman, who is well-informed and outspoken about women’s issues, is looking forward to hosting a colourful Christmas dinner with her family and friends. Her husband will prepare the main course, while she will prepare the side dish. She says, “I love cooking and providing meals for people. But I have an issue when cooking is forced upon you and men avoid the kitchen. It becomes oppressive if it is imposed as your default duty and responsibility.” She hopes that no women (or men) feel oppressed in the kitchen, especially during the Christmas season. I would also add that it has been found in other cultures that it is the women themselves who perpetuate oppressive cultural practises, and it is not always men who want to keep women in their place. In other words, the oppressor can be either male or female. 

Conclusion

The structure of this article has been reimagined to make it more readable. However, the experiences portrayed in it are as genuine as the reason for Christmas. There have been reports of women feeling particularly oppressed over the festive season, particularly in relation to their work in the kitchen. The kitchen has been utilised in various contexts to enforce patriarchal ideals on women (see, for example, “The Great Indian Kitchen”). Here, I would finally add: Many women expressed reluctance to return home over the Christmas due to various family-social expectations to serve in the kitchen and beyond, whereas such expectations and pressures do not exist for men. If this is the path we are heading as a community, it must be rectified, and we should listen to “Her” appeal, if not their whole story.

Dr. Taimaya Ragui is an independent research scholar based in Bangalore, Karnataka.

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