Having read a series of articles on how decluttering facilitates mindfulness and better mental health, I resolved to first and foremost declutter my SMS inbox as soon as possible. Eager to see the effects decluttering would have on my mind, I embarked on the journey to get rid of the one thousand and something messages, the very next day. Interestingly, like every year a sequence of these text messages reminded me of how every year, once a day, I along with multiple women across the world, suddenly become ‘important,’ ‘worthy’ and ‘magical.’ As I began sifting through each of these messages, I was particularly intrigued by one message. It read:
‘Free drink for every woman at XYZ tomorrow! Walk-in to get any drink of your choice.’ Happy Women’s Day.”
The offer seemed tempting, and why not? Who doesn’t like free goodies, right? But my mind moved away from this string of words, and I fixated explicitly on the word ‘choice,’ wondering what the word truly means for a working woman (at home or in an office) in India today?
Thinking about the section of women in India who serve selflessly at work and return to a heap full of clothes, a bag full of vegetables, and a place full of expectations lined up for them – often taking on the role of a ‘superwoman,’ I have often seen them being glorified. Don’t get me wrong, by no means is this argument against women who have no option but to grind or those who enjoy the grind – hats off to them. In fact, my argument is not even against women. In reality, I mean to speak to the population that conforms to their ascribed gender roles and expects women to be perfect human beings fulfilling dual roles today. In that case, do we think women have a choice? Have we asked them what they experience as they manage both work and other care-taking responsibilities? In reality, this toxic ‘superwomanity’ or glorification of women who get it all done may only be reinforcing the gendered division of labor at home and the workplace! The woman is essentially ‘supposed’ to be the caretaker, and if she chooses to step out and work, she is still solely responsible for everything.
This very reality came to light during Covid19, where women who have traditionally been responsible for caregiving duties experienced a challenge balancing their daily responsibilities and work lives. For instance, Deloitte's study showed that women’s caregiving responsibilities grew to 48% during the ongoing pandemic, directly impacting their mental health and well-being.
In a patriarchal society like ours, where gender norms are so firmly attached to one’s identity, conditions and contexts perpetuate the idea of superwomanhood; where a woman more often than not has no choice but to manage different roles perfectly. When she does, she is often termed as a superwoman and if not, she is seen to have failed. Perhaps, we need more humane men who realise that caregiving and household responsibilities are gender-neutral survival skills that are not solely reserved for women! Women should indeed be glorified for all that they have achieved and how far they have come, but not to reinforce unhealthy gender norms that can wreak havoc on women’s mental health.
On the other hand, women who wilfully choose to lead a life that does not fit in the box of any gender norms or the so-called ‘rebels’ are more often than not vilified for not being enough of a woman. For instance, a woman with ambition is often seen as the household’s villain because of whom neither the children are fed well, nor will the man fend well! This is reinforced even further by television shows, movies, and mainstream cinema that so many of us consume on a daily basis. But why does the onus of bringing up children or looking after the household, the parents only lie on the woman? Why do we only view women or at least want to consider women as carriers of feminine traits of warmth and affection, without any space for ambition or opinion?
Far ahead, on the other end, if a woman does choose to become a homemaker, she will still somehow be condoned by few for not having any ambition. So tell me, do women have a choice? From a woman who aims to make a name for herself in the business world as shown in Ki and Ka, to a homemaker who is nothing in the eyes of her family as seen in the movie English Vinglish, women never really have the freedom to do what they want, without the interference of public opinion and societal judgment.
But why so much hula hoop around choice? Is it such a big deal? Yes, it is! Choice or the autonomy to decide for oneself, to live a life based on one’s own decisions facilitates greater mental health. The lack of thereof is associated with higher levels of emotional stress and physical strain (Schulz et al., 2012) and has proven to impact one’s quality of life negatively (Markus & Schwartz, 2010).
So, is there something we all can do differently to make choice not just a privilege reserved for a few? Yes, we can:
1. Gender norms can create lifecycles of inequality, which could lead to a rise in mental health concerns. Therefore, we can continuously work individually and collectively towards dispelling the many inequitable gender norms we experience and see around us.
2. Give women or for that matter every individual on the face of this earth the autonomy to choose. Everyone including women should get to make decisions that are personally empowering, and nobody should say otherwise!
Women deserve far more than a free drink of their ‘choice’ – they deserve a world where choice comes free to create a life they want for themselves!