Assamese boxer Lovlina Borgohain made history by winning the World Women’s Boxing Championship in the 75kg category, defeating Australia’s Caitlin Parker in the final on 26th March. The entire state of Assam, along with the rest of the country, celebrated Lovlina’s remarkable achievement. Just a week later, another great news came from Assam: Nayanjyoti Saikia, an Assamese man, won the popular cooking show Masterchef India. This too was also celebrated widely across the state. When he reached his village after winning the show, a crowd of over 2000 people was waiting near his home to welcome him with a feast.
These two seemingly unrelated events prompted widespread celebration among the people of Assam as champions of breaking gender stereotypes, that they both have excelled in fields which are opposite to their gender roles in a patriarchal society. Posts which claim, “Lora jilikise paak ghorot aru suali jilikise boxing ring ot; #breaking gender stereotypes”, (which translates to: “boy has excelled in the kitchen and girl has excelled in the boxing ring; #breaking gender stereotypes”. While this should be appreciated and encouraged, the fact that a man winning a cooking show is celebrated as the epitome of achieving gender equality in 2023, made me reflect on my own journey with cooking and other unpaid household work.
I am a 26-year-old man who has been living independently, away from home, for the last nine years. The major enabling factor that made this possible is that I was able to cook and perform other unpaid household work at a relatively young age, compared to the average Indian man. My mother taught my younger brother and me cooking, among other things, at an early age of 7-8 years. Initially, she taught us to make tea and boiled rice, and as we grew older, she taught us to cook other dishes, such as daal, vegetables, and more. Other household work was also taught and often delegated to us.
Therefore, by the time I reached college, I was able to live independently, cook for myself and undertake other household work. There were times when my younger brother and I would compete against each other to see who could make a perfectly round chapati or tastier chicken curry. We both were not the exception at my home; it was our father who was our role model. Growing up, we saw him getting up at 3-4 am every morning, feeding the bullocks and making tea for himself before leaving for the fields. He would work in the fields during the day and at night, he would either help my mother cook dinner or at times, he would cook dinner for us. He would wash clothes at home and contribute towards other household work as well. During festivals, both my parents would prepare snacks and sweets (Assamese pithas and larus).
My lived experience resulted in me normalising the idea that men should and do participate in cooking and other unpaid household work. It was when I came out of my familiar circle of friends and family during university and met more people from diverse backgrounds, I realised that my family was quite an exception. It struck me that men who cook and participate in other unpaid household work are not the norm in most families in this country. It was around the same time that I had come across literature on female unpaid labour and female labour force participation which has established that there is a stark gendered division of labour in India. The Time Use in India – 2019 survey conducted by the National Statistical Office found that only 6% of men participate in cooking in comparison with 88% of women who participate in cooking. The survey helped quantify the extent of the gendered division of labour in unpaid household work.
Confronted with this disheartening reality, all I could assure myself was that I was fortunate to have a progressive upbringing. My parents deserve huge credit for this. I grew up believing that my parents are ordinary; my mother never went to college and my father had to drop out of college due to familial responsibilities. Yet now that I reflect upon my upbringing, I realise, that the fact that they inculcated these values in their children almost two decades ago, was nothing short of extraordinary.
Unfortunately, gender stereotypes and the gendered division of labour are still very much our lived realities. While it is heartening to see examples of individuals like Lovlina Borgohain and Nayanjyoti Saikia achieving success in non-traditional fields, we must continue to challenge gender norms and work towards creating a more equitable and just society. This means acknowledging and valuing the unpaid domestic work that is largely carried out by women, and finding ways to share this burden more equally. Whether it’s through education, policy changes, or simply changing our own attitudes and behaviours at home, we all have a role to play in creating a more equitable and inclusive world.
Madhurjya Deka is a Development Professional with a background in Economics. He is currently working as an Associate at IDinsight, Delhi.