Women and invisible work

Updated - November 28, 2021 10:06 pm IST

Published - January 26, 2017 12:02 am IST

A still from the movie “Dangal.”

The Aamir Khan film Dangal , now the highest grossing Indian film ever, is already much celebrated. In a State such as Haryana, where the most egregious forms of patriarchy operate, it is indeed exhilarating to see women, in Dangal , beat men in wrestling, a combat sport considered a male bastion. And in a nation such as India, where women’s bodies are subject to perpetual surveillance and shaming, it is definitely liberating for women to vicariously participate in the sporting triumph of Dangal .

Yet, the film throws up many interesting questions around women’s empowerment, which obviously, cannot be resolved in the context of the film, or a single film. Besides, it is illogical to expect a commercial film backed by Walt Disney Studios, the world’s largest film studio, to deal with the complexities of women’s liberation.

A critical scene in the film is Mahavir Phogat instructing his wife that the daughters will not do


chulha-chowka (household work) any more, but will henceforth devote time to wrestling.


However, the pertinent question is that in the real world, outside the film, who is going to do the work that the girls are liberated from?

Can we consider household work — cooking, cleaning, fetching water over long distances, caring for children, the sick and the elderly — or what is called as unpaid care work performed by women/girls as an optional service? And, which could be forsaken at will, without having an alternative in place?

Can we have women’s liberation without questioning the fundamental division of labour that drives patriarchy—women primarily burdened with unpaid care work, and confined to the home and the hearth, the private sphere?


Can we break the public/private binary by women competing in a man’s world as a man, by following the rules set by men, in a world made for men?And can we break the man-woman binary not by making it irrelevant, but by simply bringing a few women on board to the male side of the division of labour?

The threat is that in the guise of breaking the public/private binary, the resistance against a male-dominated world is co-opted, by women being offered a slice of the pie. In this process, what is problematic is not women losing ‘feminine’ traits of long hair, or the female body participating in a ‘masculine’ sport (for these are constructed binaries), but the erasure of female labour, and contribution to sustaining human life.

Not accounted for

This labour is looked down upon in the world, and is not part of national accounting or Gross Domestic Product. But ironically, it is what sustains the economy. In material terms, women’s unpaid care work is huge. It is estimated that women perform 75% of the world’s unpaid care work. In India, women perform 10 to 12 times the unpaid care work of men. Even in the West, women’s share is much higher. A paper by Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka put the unpaid care work at 63% of the Indian GDP, and 40% of the Swedish one.

It is because women cannot give up unpaid care work that their access to paid work is severely limited, which in turn leads to a vicious cycle. Even when they find paid work, it is mostly low-paid, precarious or temporary work. Paid work also does not liberate women for often they are now saddled with both paid and unpaid work, leading to what is called as “double burden”. But it is well-established that women’s employment outside the home is absolutely crucial to women’s well-being.

Women’s labour keeps the planet alive, for women perform not just unpaid care work, but also subsistence production of goods. And largely unknown to the world, women perform agriculture work. In the developing world, women constitute nearly half of the agricultural labour force, and 60% in Asia and Africa. Despite this, women own less than 20% of the agricultural land of the world. Women and girls also constitute 60% of the world’s chronically hungry.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that if women farmers had the same resources as men, it would have led to 150 million fewer hungry people. Thus, the elimination of hunger and malnutrition are crucially dependent on women. As scholars such as Amartya Sen have shown, the empowerment of women is the key to improving human development for the whole society.

Women need to access all arenas, including sport. Participating in sport, especially in gender iniquitous societies, can be liberating for women. Further, it overturns established gender norms, particularly when women enter hitherto male-dominated sports. But it is also not a straightforward story of women’s liberation. As sports researchers in western cultures tell us, women are faced with the female/athlete paradox: even when they become athletes, they are forced to conform to dominant notions of femininity. This leads to gender binaries in sports and the severe shaming of women participating in “gender-inappropriate” sports.

This is because the larger society is still suffused with patriarchal values, and sport, while liberating for women, still operates within this larger culture. The commodification of global sport through corporate control, and its attendant features such as the sexualisation of women’s sporting bodies further compounds the issue. Thus, even when a minuscule number of women athletes such as Serena Williams breaks the mould of femininity, it is still made possible by the logic of capital. Crucially, the entry of black women into sport, and their glorification through the market has not necessarily changed the general condition of African-American women in America.

For an anchor

That is why women’s liberation has to be based on concrete material foundations. It is women’s unpaid care work, which makes work and sport outside the home possible. Even when some women break out of the private sphere and enter the public sphere, the unpaid care work falls upon lowly-paid women domestic help from the most marginalised backgrounds, and poor immigrant women in developed countries. Large numbers of women, especially in the Third World — as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters — are unsung heroes, but who are systematically marginalised unless they bring home a medal or moolah , to prove they are of equal worth as men.

Women’s empowerment is not merely about women becoming wrestlers or fighter pilots, which are, of course, important symbolic gestures. But for real equality, it is imperative that women’s care work be given its due material recognition. It would also mean a thorough reordering of gender norms, not by a few women entering the men’s turf, but by men entering women’s turf, and taking on ‘feminine’ unpaid care work, which is what will allow women to secure paid employment.

Ironically, despite economic and educational growth, female participation in the labour force of India has fallen to 24% in 2011, from 31% in 2004. India is 11th from the bottom in the world in women’s labour-force participation rates.

For the real equality for women, along with the Mahavir Phogats, we need the likes of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man who revolutionised women’s health by inventing cheap sanitary napkins.

Anu Pandey and Nissim Mannathukkaren teach at Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie universities in Canada respectively. E-mails:;

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