Few people outside academic circles may have heard about Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. In 1905, she wrote a short story ‘Sultana's Dream', which is probably the first piece of science fiction writing in India and perhaps the first by a woman. Sultana, the protagonist, visits a dreamland where there is a total reversal of gender roles. Men are engaged in household drudgery and observe ‘purdah', while women are super-scientists flying ‘air-cars' and inventing the most sophisticated devices. Indeed, Sultana's dream was just a dream.
The reason for male domination is attributed to a host of reasons including biological aspects like hormones, chromosomes and even brain size. But biological differences have frequently been misused for justifying male domination and chauvinism. Gender is primarily concerned with the psychological, social and cultural differences between men and women. It is a social construct and the preponderance of patriarchy has a social basis. Women have been historically debilitated due to their responsibility of childbirth, which automatically got extended to child care and ultimately domestic work. Men, on the other hand, were the breadwinners for the entire family. This historical conditioning may have led to significant differences between the so-called typical male and female personalities. But purely social processes have played a significant role in the subjugation and exploitation of women. Women in India, regardless of their caste or class, have been discriminated against on different grounds. High caste women were subjected to severe forms of social exclusion (like sati) while low caste women were ruthlessly exploited.
Fortunately, technology has been a great liberator for women. It is said that the contraceptive pill and the ignition key of the car have revolutionised gender hierarchies. But in India we still find that women, inside the family, are largely subordinated. It is true that today women working outside the family is no taboo and there is a certain level of economic independence. But they are still expected to do all the household chores, famously described by one writer as ‘the second shift'. This multiple responsibility is both physically and mentally exhausting, especially in our competitive service economy where work pressures are increasing day by day.
Radical feminists in the West, reacting to this condition of women, called for the abolition of the family and the power relations that typify it. This is an unrealistic over-reaction that may prompt us to think whether they want freedom from exploitation or freedom from womanhood itself. A proactive approach based on equal division of labour within the family is the best way to deal with the situation.
In order to initiate this social change, men should pay the leading role. They should volunteer themselves to do household errands. Emotional nucleation of the nuclear family will definitely aid in promoting this joint management of the household. ‘Sultana's Dream' talks about a “Ladyland free from sin and harm” where men are shut indoors. But rather than having a feeling of ‘he' vs. ‘she', it is the feeling of ‘us' which is more harmonious for both the family and society as a whole. It is high time men stood up and declared ‘I wanna be a good wife.'
(The writer's email: firstname.lastname@example.org)