Maid of honour – Antara Dev Sen, Deccan Chronicle


There it goes again. Our well meaning but terminally goofy government has come up with yet another curious proposal. Apparently it is now thinking of ways to get husbands to pay wages to their stay-at-home wives. Oh well, not a salary, said Krishna Tirath, Union minister for women and child development (WCD). “What can you call it, may be honorarium or some other name.”

The discomfort is obvious. Do you, the majestic lady of the house, the imagined goddess of your husband’s heart, the awesome superwoman-cum-good-witch to your children, the difficult-but-dutiful daughter-in-law, and the benevolent-but-demanding memsa’ab, wish to be reduced to a salaried domestic employee of your husband? Perhaps not.

But, to be fair, the proposal isn’t really for people like you. It is for the millions of disempowered housewives who dedicate their lives solely to their family, keeping house and raising children, and get nothing in return. Who are neglected when old and infirm, have no savings, nowhere to go, often having gifted their property to the very children who shoo them away.

So yes, financial independence, as we all know by now, goes a long way in empowering women. There have even been attempts in India to establish a housewives’ trade union. But the general demand for salaries for wives is not new. In 1925, the silent Hollywood comedy Wages for Wives showed how much work a housewife does and why demanding half her husband’s salary is quite justified. Besides, for decades women’s rights activists have been demanding salaries for housewives. So why shouldn’t we be delighted with this proposal?

Because instead of empowering women, it may further disempower them. First, because a wife is supposed to be an equal partner in a marriage, reducing her to a paid domestic help is not just insulting, it seriously changes the power relations in the family. Moreover, she does not even have the freedom that a maid has. She is more like bonded labour — who can’t quit, can’t shop around for better options, and whose fate is inextricably entwined with her master’s family.

Second, as an equal partner in a marriage, a wife is entitled to half the earnings and property of her husband, and giving her just a fraction of the husband’s earnings would be cheating.

Third, in India, earnings do not ensure freedom or empowerment for women. Husbands routinely appropriate the wife’s earnings. And the wife still has no decision-making authority even within the home. According to a 2005-06 survey of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), only 20 to 24 per cent of married women control their own earnings. For the rest, that is almost four out of five women, her earnings are controlled either solely or largely by the husband or others.

Fourth, the very idea of getting the husband to pay a part of his earnings to his wife for services rendered is flawed. When the husband retires, the wife’s salary stops, but her work continues. Now she is older, working is that much more difficult. In a salary structure, the wages cannot arbitrarily stop (or dwindle dramatically if you take a fraction of the husband’s pension as her salary) while the expectation of the work continues exactly as before.

Fifth, a market-driven approach to non-marketable commodities is unfair. How does one monetise the dedication, affection, the overwhelming sense of ownership of a wife and mother? Calculating the cost of buying domestic services is hugely flawed, and even opportunity costs for women who have given up jobs to become homemakers would be grossly inadequate. These would not take into account the full scope of her duties. The emotional and mental effort that goes into the physical work that wives and mothers do would never be addressed.

Sixth, by definition the wife would never be able to earn as much or more than her husband, or as much as she would have in say, a corporate job. So while assuming that all is fair and square, we would be actually keeping homemakers forever squished under a low, home-made glass ceiling. She would be forever inferior to her husband, forever underpaid, forever unpaid for the host of intangibles that she offers as a good wife or mother.

Seventh, for financial independence of women their dependence on husbands needs to be reduced, not increased. Elementary, what?

So were the feminists demanding wages for wives all wrong? Let’s get some clarity. The feminists’ hollering about monetisation came out of a desperate need to be recognised as useful contributors to society and the family. The need to be seen, counted and respected. A woman’s work is never done, yet it is never acknowledged either. It was about entitlement, about legitimacy, not about money per se. It was a fight against invisibility, denial of rights and social neglect. It was about money only so far as money gets you dignity and the freedom to make choices that affect yourself and your family.

For financial empowerment of married women we need to ensure that she has equal right — and access — to the husband’s money, investments and property. And the same goes for the husband of an earning wife. Marriage is about equal sharing, where the family earns as a whole, one partner holds up the backend and the other the front office.

The government could help by improving the situation of women in general. By raising awareness of equal rights, by ensuring equal pay for equal work by men and women. By pushing women’s literacy. By ensuring that laws to protect women are used efficiently.

For example, why is it that of the almost 15,000 cases of domestic violence registered in New Delhi, there has not been a single conviction?

For a monetary push, the government could offer tax benefits for joint accounts of spouses, or investments of housewives. It could even suggest that salaries of a married person, man or woman, would be paid into their joint account with their spouse. The focus should be on equal rights and equal access.

But more importantly, we could revive the once accepted “honorarium” for vital unpaid services, like the role of the wife or mother as an enabler and partner in social and economic activity. It was called gratitude. It involved appreciation, respect, honour, dignity and a place among the family’s decisionmakers. In short, we could side-step monetisation and relearn to value stuff that make life worth living.

The writer is editor of The Little Magazine. She can be contacted at sen@littlemag.com

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