Growing up, I never heard anything about who belonged in the kitchen. My mother didn't stay any longer in the kitchen than was necessary. She put food on the table though. And books in the library. When she visited home a couple of times a year, she remembered to take small gifts of cash for her own mother.
If You’re a Woman, Please Learn How to Make Dal
My grandmother was in the kitchen a lot. She never went to school but even from her, I never heard anything about women and kitchens. She was hoping I'd become a doctor or a bureaucrat. Future in-laws were never mentioned. In all my years of schooling and college, none of my teachers – male or female – ever hinted that girls belonged in the kitchen.
Still, now is a good time to think about kitchens and a woman’s place.
At this fine moment in our nation's history, the former chief minister of Gujarat and current governor of Madhya Pradesh has been telling female students that they must cook tasty dal to appease their mothers-in-law. In fact, they might as well start right away by helping out in the hostel's mess kitchen. While she was at it, she also advised girls not to cut their hair short, else the in-laws wouldn't let them into the house.
The Ogre of Patriarchy
These threats about in-laws' acceptance are real to a young girl. She knows she is not welcome, beyond a point, in her parents' home. She may be needed by a husband – for sex, for labour, for the care of the elderly – but the home is not one she owns. It is a place she occupies cautiously, taking nothing for granted. One wrong move, and she will be accused of breaking up a family. One wrong haircut, and she might be turned out.
Anandiben Patel’s reminder to girls of their tenuous position in the world is not the last thrashing of a dying philosophy.
It is the ogre of patriarchy crushing the few heads that are starting to hold themselves higher. Instead of reminding young girls of the hard battles fought over the last two centuries by our fore-mothers – for the right to own and inherit property, to not be the legal property of fathers and husbands, to be educated, to earn and enter professions formerly barred to them – Ms Patel seems to be saying: There's no climbing out of the abyss of the past. In the kitchen, without a wage, is your destiny.
Oh! To Be an Ideal Bahu!
I'm not sure what Anandiben makes of the government's official campaign to “save” daughters (that is, not kill them before they are born nor immediately after) and to educate them. Perhaps it is with her blessings that the Barkatullah University, one of the bigger ones in the state of Madhya Pradesh, announced a three month 'adarsh bahu' (ideal daughter-in-law) course, allegedly to “prevent families from falling apart”.
Such courses are polite reminders of a woman’s “place”. This place is nowhere secure or familiar.
Nowhere is she mistress of her destiny. Instead, she must first imagine a future in which her life is organised around husband and in-laws. Then the university offers her training so she may bend to a politics intent on stealing her freedom and the fruits of her labour.
A 'bahu' is many things but above all, she is a worker in a job that she cannot easily quit. The most common advice given to a bride is to work hard and pose no challenge to members of her marital home. An ideal daughter-in-law fits in like sugar in a cup of milk.
There is no such thing as an ideal damaad (son-in-law), of course. No university teaches sons to adapt to in-laws; they don't have to live with them or meet the expectations of strangers. They visit like honoured guests. The men who do live with their wives' parents are often derided, either because they are not earning enough to move into an independent home or because they must do what women do: adjust, fit in, not call the shots.
What Older Women Should be Teaching Younger Women
In every family, there is potential for friction, for stress and emotional harm. But who carries the greater burden of trying to avoid friction by ridding oneself of one's own personality and constantly pleasing others? Indian women, especially married women, commit suicide in great numbers.
Over 36 percent of the world’s female suicides are Indian.
That's worth thinking about, as our leaders ask young women to please in-laws and future husbands. What are they asking? Older women, especially who have themselves drunk deep at the fount of power, ought to have the grace not to tell younger women to toe the line.
Instead, they ought to be telling them to chase dreams, to grow into the fullest possible version of themselves, to not shy away from conflict, to not bend backwards for anyone, lest they break.
(Annie Zaidi is a playwright, short filmmaker, writer and documentary filmmaker. She tweets at @anniezaidi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)