For Surabhi Yadav, the idea behind the Instagram page, ‘Basanti: Women at Leisure’, started with a desire to document her mother’s life after her passing. While talking with her friends and relatives, she came across shades of her mother that surprised her. They gushed about her goofiness, singing, and dancing, memories that were not part of Surabhi’s life.
We live in a society where we have normalised the controlling, restricting, and manoeuvring of women’s lives, from their bodies to their being. One such camouflaged form of everyday oppression, one that we overlook at home, is the denial of the right to leisure.
The more Surabhi waded around the idea of leisure, the more strongly she felt the currents of patriarchy, capitalism, caste and class. And so, to explore leisure in depth and to document more women, she started the visual project as an Instagram page in 2018, and named it after her mother Basanti. “It started with a deep longing to know her and more women like her,” says Surabhi, currently based in Kandari, Himachal Pradesh.
Through the page, Surabhi creates awareness about the language of leisure. In a capitalistic world, production and value go hand in hand, and leisure is misunderstood as ‘rest to work better’ or as a reward. “Decoupling leisure and productivity is crucial to understanding its importance. Leisure is about taking time for yourself. You don’t need to earn it,” says Surabhi.
Access to leisure is limited by gender, caste, class, and financial worth. There are socio-political reasons for keeping a woman constantly engaged in production. This is especially true for housewives, who are constantly told that they are not being productive, specifically in a monetary sense, implying they are worthless. This argument is used to justify denying them power and a role in their households, often even becoming grounds to justify abuse.
Housewives and burnout
A recent National Statistical Office report revealed that an average Indian woman spends 243 minutes on unpaid domestic work or caregiving, which is almost 10 times the 25 minutes an average man spends. This shows the disparity in the time left for leisure or rest. Yet, there are no conversations about housewives and burnout. “How much labour are we taking for granted? Are there stories of mothers burning out, giving up, and if not, why not?” Surabhi asks.
It’s so common to see a man reading a newspaper in the morning that the image is commonly used to portray a patriarch in cinema. But something so common seems like rebellion when women do it. Physical space and time have to fit in perfectly for women to engage in leisure. It has to be on a balcony or terrace, after lunch but before dinner. “If a woman sits on the terrace in the morning, she will be questioned, looked down upon, painted as irresponsible,” says Surabhi.
Women are not expected to be seen in public spaces, especially at night. “Women’s presence in public spaces need not be intentionally disruptive, but the outcomes are, because they are in places they are not ‘meant’ to be in, eating street food after work or heading to the beach,” says Aparna Parikh, assistant teaching professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University, who conducted research on how women engage in leisure at night, focusing on women working at call centres.
Insidiously, the question of ‘safety’ is often used to control women’s presence in public, restricting their space and time to socialise, exercise, or just walk. “There’s a failure to understand that women’s presence in public spaces, especially at night, makes other women feel safe and comfortable,” says Aparna. The next question is, how much are these normalised restrictions about safety and how much about honour. For very long, respectability politics has weaponised honour to cage women.
There are restrictions defined by caste and class too. “Often, especially in villages and small towns, caste defines whom you can talk to and how. If two women talk in the middle of the road, savarnas will say, ‘Women of our households don’t do this.’ Honour and prestige are attached to basic actions,” says Surabhi.
Baggage of guilt
Conveniently, there are limited ‘approved’ places, such as religious establishments. “It is a socially approved place where women can gather. For some, it might be religion that draws them in, but for many, it’s also the opportunity to be in a space without the baggage of guilt,” she explains.
The Insta page, meant to be a visual storytelling of women and leisure, has now become a platform to reflect on the deep-rooted sexism of social constructs. With growing awareness about the language of leisure, people are now realising the lack of it. Surabhi talks of how it’s become a gentle nudge. “I don’t ask anyone to reflect on their contribution towards gender equality, but they end up assessing their relationships with the women around them anyway. They talk of their childhood, how their fathers spoke to their mothers, how they took their mothers’ work for granted.” The project is sneaky feminism, she says, and it works.
The page has also become a way to share personal moments that often surprise you. Be it two women sharing a joke amidst the calm after a funeral prayer or a mother writing obsessively after the loss of a child. “These are moments heavy with emotion, which people feel like sharing to show what leisure can also look like,” says Surabhi.
Having access to leisure is powerful in itself. “For instance,” says Surabhi, “a trans person spoke to me about leisure as an identity. If you haven’t come out, if you’re still unfolding your identity, then you’re looking for spaces where you can do that. Safe spaces where you can just be.”
The independent journalist specialises in gender, culture, and social justice.