The following questions are for the men reading this article: have you ever cooked meals to feed yourself and others? Have you ever cleaned an entire house? Have you ever washed and folded your clothes, as well as the clothes of your family members? And finally, have you done these chores regularly for months and years? If you answered yes to all or any of the preceding questions, I can virtually guarantee that you are cognizant of how arduous and demanding these aforementioned tasks can be.
On March 8, we celebrated International Women's Day all around the world. It is a momentous occasion to remind ourselves to continue working toward achieving gender equality. Staying faithful to the age of advancing social justice causes through hashtags, the theme for International Women's Day 2019 is #BalanceforBetter, calling for a more gender-balanced world. As I am currently living in an entirely new country, neither the country of my birth nor that of my upbringing, I am encountering unfamiliar conventions and norms in society, many of which are embedded in gender roles and expectations. In light of the International Women's Day, I have been reflecting on what the occasion meant to me, a man.
In the United States, where I lived most of my adult life, one of the most fundamental women's rights issues is gender inequality as it pertains to wages. This phenomenon is called the gender pay gap or the gender wage gap. In simple terms, it means women receive lower compensation for the same work they do as men. In fact, the gender pay gap is a recorded phenomenon occurring all over the world, developed and developing world alike. Even after considering hours worked, occupations chosen, education, professional experience, and various other factors, the wage gap continues to persist.
This article, however, is not about the sources or impacts of this gender inequality. Rather, it is about honouring women who work without any monetary compensation. I am referring to the housewives of Bangladesh, and I am sincerely hoping this would not give anyone ideas to create a reality television series called “Housewives of Dhaka”. I am not advocating for women to be paid for household chores; my suggestion is much simpler and easier to implement.
As I contemplated women's rights in Bangladesh and South Asia, it was not difficult to think of a plethora of grave socio-cultural issues that are impeding our progress. There are the overt and patent injustices and inequalities, such as childhood marriage, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and lack of educational support in many areas. These are by no means limited to Bangladesh or South Asia. No society on earth is a utopia, and each has its own fair share of problems. I happily acknowledge the positive strides we have made as a country for women's empowerment, but I am also adamant on speaking out on social issues that continue to persist.
There is an irony in this article: when I write about women who don't work, I am actually describing women who work the hardest, just in a different context. In our capitalist culture, we have limited the connotation of the word “work” to only refer to paid labour. Working is seen as glorious, and staying at home is seen as being less or not enough. In fact, even dictionary.com offers a caveat when searching up the word “housewife,” indicating the word is “sometimes perceived as insulting, perhaps because it implies a lowly status”. As a consequence, we tend to overlook and ignore the massive contributions by women who stay at home. Their contributions are taken for granted, and the essential role they play to sustain our social structure and familial fabric often gets erased. Without women at home—our grandmothers, aunts, mothers, sisters—our society, as we know it, would collapse.
Growing up, when someone would ask me about my parents' professions, I would say “My mother has never worked”. As I matured and began to see the world through my own refined lenses, I realised how inaccurate that statement was. My mother is one of the most hardworking people I know, and I have spent almost two years working on Wall Street, with bankers toiling away for 15 hours daily. Without the women in our lives who fed and raised us, we would not be where we are. Now, if anyone asks me the same question, I make sure to respond, “My mother is a housewife; she stayed home and raised three sons.”
This would be an appropriate moment to point out that in no way am I endorsing women to become housewives. A woman should and must be able to make her own decision on whether to work or stay at home. What I do hope is to give a voice to the women who are left out of conversations on women's empowerment as the country modernises and more women increasingly join the labour force.
Let us be inclusive in our usage of the term “work”. The most committed, dedicated, and selfless people I know work all day, without a break, for no pay. Let us try our best to acknowledge and appreciate all the sacrifices they continue to make for all of us. Simply altering the manner in which we frame our conversations can have a massive impact on our future generations. If we want to raise our sons and daughters to be just and fair, we must deconstruct and reframe the ways in which we converse. Let us start with acknowledging and appreciating the incredible contributions and sacrifices of the women in our lives.
Rifat Mursalin is a Bangladeshi-American currently pursuing a Fulbright grant in Malaysia, who is deeply passionate about social entrepreneurship, education, youth empowerment, and international development.