Thoughts of a man on Mother's Day: Why should housework be 'natural' for women?

We have to demand the state to compensate all labour that goes into producing our wealth.
Updated 15 May, 2017 03:43pm

Most mornings, I am served coffee in bed. Often, the coffee is made by my mother. After drinking it, I continue to recline in bed until I am served breakfast – again, most often, made by my mother.

I eat breakfast almost in a haze – quickly and with a seriousness that suggests that I took it as an unpleasant task which merely needed doing away with. Men, in front of womenfolk in private, eat like this.

Normally, also in the house is our maid, Noor. She comes around 10:30 am and leaves around 3 pm. She begins by taking her shoes off at the entrance and putting on her work shoes.

She moves into the kitchen to wash all the dishes stacked up from the previous day. She then mops the floor, cleans the cat litter, washes the balconies and, with my mother, washes my clothes, among other chores.

While the housework is going on and I have had coffee and breakfast, I act busy. I walk upright and move around the house trying to look alert, lest it seem I have nothing to do.

But when I am in my room and out of sight of my mother and Noor, I lunge back, relax my shoulders, and log onto Facebook to 'keep up with important developments'. As I do not have to clean, cook, or wash my clothes, I have plenty of time for Facebook polemics, and in polemics, then, I spend my time.

Biological essentialism

Here, briefly, I want to explain the nature of the work that goes on in my house.

I find Aristotle useful as a starting point. He argued that being the ‘political animals’ that men are, they 'need' women and slaves to work so that free men can engage in the polis (city).

For as it is 'natural' for men to be politically involved as civic agents in the life of a city-state, it is 'natural' for women to bear children and look after the house, and for slaves to labour under both free men and women.

Is this not what is going on in my house? In all our houses?

Aristotle wrote before the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Haitian Revolution, feminist and decolonisation movements.

His are antiquated views which operate on a biological essentialism long refuted by science and philosophy.

Yet, Aristotle’s views are the same that govern our most intimate and political space: the house.

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Let’s return to my house. My mother married my father at the young age of 18. She moved into his family's house and then later to London.

She bore three children, cooked, cleaned, and supported her husband emotionally as he went on to become a successful banker.

The author's mother with her second child. Photo: Author.
The author's mother with her second child. Photo: Author.

My father hosted dinners for the political, feudal, and industrial elite of Pakistan; my mother laboured so that the food and the atmosphere worked for the business deals and networks that were being built.

After my father died at the young age of 46, my mother transferred her caring work to me and my two siblings. Her labour got my father success in his community and career, it has gotten me and my siblings pretty far as well.

Yet, her labour remains in the house and will die without recognition and compensation (like a state pension, unemployment benefits, or wages). In this, my mother shares a fate with Noor.

Work doesn't end when you go home

Noor is 48 and has two children of working age. Her husband recently died. For as long as she can remember, she has worked – mostly cleaning other people's houses, sometimes working as an assistant in a girls hostel or a mess.

These days, besides my house, she works in two other places. I ask her daily routine:

“My day begins at seven in the morning when I get up to clean my house and finish chores left over from the previous night. I then prepare my children’s clothes and their breakfast. After this, my son drops me to the bus stop on his way to work.

I start my first job at eight at the colonel’s house. I wash the dishes, wash and iron his clothes, and keep his house clean which means dusting and hoovering mainly. After that, I walk about 20 minutes to come here. You know what work I do here.

Then at three, I walk to another house about 15 minutes away. There, again, I am asked to clean. When I am done with work between 5-6 pm, I either take the bus home or sometimes my son picks me up on his motorbike.”

I interrupt her: “So, your work is then over?” She smiles and says, “No.” She continues:

“Once home, I rest a little and then start to clean my house and cook for the children. They try to help but are too tired from work. My work isn’t finished before 10 pm. I have done this for nearly 35 years. I am very tired and my body aches most days. But what can I do? I have to make a living.”

The nature of domestic work

The work women like my mother and Noor do is reproductive labour. They are not producing a visible product (‘goods’ that labourers working in factories produce such as cars) but they are reproducing everyone’s labour power.

Take only my example. With the help of my mother and Noor, I am able to reenergise since I don’t do any of the domestic chores. The energy I have comes from the labour they do. That is, I take their energy to reproduce mine.

Reproductive labour does not form part of the calculation of our country's Gross Domestic Product; the GDP only counts productive labour, that is the labour that produces a product.

For her work in my house, Noor gets Rs 12,000 per month. But were she to stop working, I would lose a lot more. If I were to do my own labour, I would not have the energy to write, read, and lecture. Losing that, I lose my whole income.

Noor isn’t just re-creating my energy; she is reproducing the labour of four households and more than 12 people on a daily basis. But while women like Noor get compensated with a low wage, my mother doesn’t even get that since, being a mother and wife, she is expected to do the work out of 'duty' and 'love.'

Produce the labouring class

When I started following my father's example of hosting dinners to build networks, I invited activists Selma James and her partner Nina Lopez – both of the Global Women’s Strike – to my mother’s house in North London for Sindhi food (Again, my mother made the food and I, being the male, played the host).

Selma taught me something profound. Let me explain what she argues and why, for it is far more sophisticated than Aristotle’s philosophy. What women do, she notes, is “produce the whole labouring class.” She elaborates:

“First it [labouring class] must be nine months in the womb, must be fed, clothed, trained. Then when it works, its bed must be made, its floors swept, its lunchbox prepared, its sexuality not gratified but quietened, its dinner ready when it gets home … This is how labour is produced and reproduced when it is daily consumed in the factory or office. To describe its basic production and reproduction is to describe women’s work.”

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The reward for this labour is shocking. A United National Development Program report from the 1970s notes that “women do ⅔ of the world's work, receive five percent of the world's income and own one percent of the world's assets.” These figures might be dated but they certainly reflect my house: Noor does ⅔ of the work, gets about five percent of my house’s income if not less. My mother gets no income.

The right to compensation

Selma and other feminists demand that women’s reproductive labour be counted in the GDP, compensated by the state, and that they be given all the benefits other labourers get such as unemployment benefit and pension.

As the dinner ended and the plates were put away for me to wash (for once), my mother and Selma exchanged recipes for pumpkin soup and my mother suggested that she would translate the demands of the International Women’s Strike into Sindhi.

My house – divided into hierarchies – is an example of the exploitation of domestic and women's labour. It is time, we as men, began to recognise the labour of women and stopped justifying the exploitation as ‘nature’ or ‘duty’ or ‘love’. We have to demand the state to compensate all labour that goes into producing our wealth.

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