Book Review: An Invitation to Strengthen the Debate on Middle Class Working Women

In a public address in August, Justice Pratibha M. Singh of the Delhi high court said that Indian scriptures like the Manusmriti have always given a very respectable position for women.

She advised working women to live in joint families so as to receive greater support for their careers. However, it would indeed be of considerable comfort to know that the Manusmriti had so much respect for working women.

But, in contrast to what Justice Singh said, the Manusmriti has no concept of working women – it is completely focused on how to successfully maintain women’s dependency on men “day and night”.

It says, “A girl, a young woman, or even an old woman should not do anything independently, even in (her own) house. In childhood a woman should be under her father’s control, in youth under her husband’s, and when her husband is dead, under her sons.”

Since there are obvious limits to a man’s capacity to guard a wife by force, or even to keep her busy with household duties and spending money, the Manusmriti says that the key is to get women “to guard themselves by themselves” through the laws of Manu.

The lives of these women – working middle-class women, and mothers – are the subject of a remarkable book by Nilanjana Bhowmick, Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden, which Justice Singh ought to read.

Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden Nilanjana Bhowmick Rupa & Co, July 2022

The book combines personal testimony with stories of other women whom the author met and interacted with, bolstered by studies and secondary data of various kinds. Middle-class families – the author’s own and several others – form the core of the book.

According to Bhowmick, this class is missing in Indian feminist agendas.

In the initial chapters, which set the tone of the book, she writes about herself, her mother, her grandmother – but also about the men in her life, especially her father.

It takes courage to be able to reveal that her loving father had also been an abusive husband.

“This is an India where even when fathers encourage their daughters to fly, they prefer to keep their wives in cages,” she says.

She does not, however, dwell much on men. It is the women like her mother whom she blames for giving the impression to their daughters that she “had it all” with her government job, when in fact she was in despair from overworking as a “mother, teacher, wife, chef, housekeeper and a nanny”.

This is the lie that gives the book its title, a lie that was repeated to her as a daughter when she was growing up.

The book has 20 short chapters with titles such as ‘Why women stay in bad marriages,’ ‘What’s a woman worth in capitalist patriarchy,’ ‘Why are women not working,’ ‘Middle class morality and the goddess syndrome’. These chapters are filled with vignettes – we hear about women who have managed to create unusual jobs in the midst of all their responsibilities, such as housewives who are vloggers with a YouTube following. Another woman runs her own mobile salon using a scooter.

Also read: Patriarchy Within Tribal Communities: How Broad Frameworks Limit Rights Discussions

Over and over again, she is told that women would not mind all the work so much if only they received some acknowledgement. She cites the latest Time Use Survey to demonstrate the depth of the gender division of labour based on the huge disparity in the minimal time given by men to any household-related work compared to women.

She has quoted figures from various surveys such as the Indian Human Development Survey and the National Family Health Survey to show that despite having a greater say in taking certain household decisions, only a small number of women could take personal decisions like attending to their healthcare on their own.

One of the chapters also discusses the suicide statistics of housewives. It’s important to note that the crime data for housewives in India is among the highest in the world.

She writes about her own and others’ experiences with getting psychiatric help. In a very interesting section, one of her interviewees talks about turning to alternative healing practices when psychiatry did not work. She mentions that it was in any case too expensive.

Bhowmick also attended a session with a god-woman, a Mataji, whose chanting seemed to speak to a roomful of women looking for divine support in their struggles with depression. In this context, she makes an important observation that what matters is that the women attending these meetings were admitting to their mental distress, something her mother never did.

The final chapters look for signs of hope.

There is hope, she says, in the younger generation of women, who, she believes, are choosing a different path for themselves. In an online sample survey of 19 “educated and smart” young women and men, the women spoke about the burden of “age-old, archaic notions of gender” that they found in their own families.

They said that the institution of marriage was outdated and was only acceptable if not arranged, and added that caregiving duties should be shared.

Interestingly, Bhowmick also found inspiration in campaigns and movements where women had played critical roles – from the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 and the Narmada Bachao Andolan to the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protests in 2020.

This is a book that struggles to name a whole range of issues that constitute Indian women’s burden. Some of her diagnoses of what ails India need more debate. For instance, she suggests that middle-class women in India have no concept of the “supermom” and the need for “work-life balance”, unlike in the West.

Also read: ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’: A Critique of Brahminical Patriarchy

Even though several chapters indicate an awareness of institutional structures like the lack of work opportunities that have deepened gender inequalities in our context, Bhowmick places her greatest weight on the systemic change within the home.

Caste is not a structure that finds much mention in this book.

The book’s protagonists are middle-class women who have been lying to their daughters. Why should they be singled out as uniquely responsible? Moreover, is there a special role here for middle-class women compared to those at the so-called “grassroots”?

It is true that compared to all the emphasis from the women’s movement and in development activism on working class and poor women’s oppression, the kind of suffering among overburdened wives in non-poor settings has not been given its due.

The author wants middle-class women to raise their collective voice about the injustice within their homes as much as the Shaheen Bagh women did when it came to their rights to citizenship.

The value of this book is that it offers poignant testimony of the enormous burdens that earlier generations have carried. Joint families are not the answer.

A new generation of women will indeed have to find other sources of support. Rather than run to the Manusmriti – which is part of the problem rather than any solution – more books like these are needed to strengthen our understanding of this subject and to make a positive change more urgent.

Mary E. John has worked with the Centre for Women’s Development Studies and is the author of Child Marriage in an International Frame: A Feminist Review from India.

Featured image: Representative image. Even though several chapters indicate an awareness of institutional structures like the lack of work opportunities that have deepened gender inequalities in our context, Bhowmick places her greatest weight on the systemic change within the home. Photo: Unsplash