Kashyapi Ghosh - Gender Equality
The kitchen is a space where multi-modal discourses open up. Most of the conversations that take place at the home space centres around the dining table where all the members come together for a stipulated period of time. The kitchen table is often claimed to be “the vortex of activity and therapy of nurturance, catharsis and renewal”(Duruz, 2006) As a scholar working in the field of gender, I often thought that there were not enough discourses centralised on the kitchen space. The kitchen as a space was not given much importance by sociologists, anthropologists, ethnographers and even the emerging discipline of food studies until Marie Elisa Christie introduced the term “kitchenspace” in her ethnography study on Mexican women. Despite the sloganeering in favour of “kitchenless homes” and the clarion call for women to abandon the space, the space is essentially gendered.
It has been called “ invariably offstage” , “heart of the home”, “ safe space”, however sometimes work done in the kitchen or household chores in general are equated to the worst form of repression. Household labour, a major part of which revolves around working in the kitchen has had multifarious dimensions.Many thinkers and gender theorists have given an alternative way of looking into the kitchen space Maya Angelou talks about the kitchen being a women’s “safe haven” where she can express herself and create an alternative communication.Maria Guadalupe Escobedo opines “If it is true that it is impossible for women to escape domestic chores, cooking in particular, it is equally true that the kitchen allows the woman to be on her own, away from the vigilant eye of the male members and older women of the family.”
Yet in and around March 2020, human predestination changed.
Realigning with the pandemic
The previous year and the ongoing one saw an unprecedented pandemic, recurring in waves- first, second, third...yet amongst all the new and old words that got added to our vocabulary; “lockdown”, “isolation”, “quarantine” , there was one more that caught my attention while scrolling through the social media platforms , the United Nations declared 2020 as the year of the “Shadow Pandemic”. In the United Nations Development Programme(UNDP) brief on “Gender Based Violence and Covid 19”, emerging data has clearly detected an intensification of violence against women and girls especially domestic violence. A report in the UNSDG (United Nation Sustainable Development Group) web page reads: “Beneath COVID-19 is the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence. “Confinement is fostering the tension and strain created by security, health, and money worries. And it is increasing isolation for women with violent partners, separating them from the people and resources that can best help them. It’s a perfect storm for controlling, violent behavior behind closed doors,” UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in a statement calling the violence against women and girls “a shadow pandemic.”With restricted mobility and limited access to essential services, the rise in violence is often hidden. We must deal with both of these crises.” The crux of all such awareness remains that the idea of a safe home looms in a question mark. The woman on her own in the kitchen/home is no longer safe. This unrecognised crisis becomes important in the common perceptions of home and safety. How, then, do we understand the idea of home as safe, secure and away from the ensnares of contamination and crime? The concept of a lockdown forced individuals to stay indoors with a manifold increase in household labour much of which was undivided. The pandemic saw the world moving into a different and ‘new’ direction often called the “new normal”.
Picture Credit: UNDP
The world within the ‘home’- The new “normal”
This new normal was/is albeit a different world with a stringent set of rules and regulations in terms of mobility and interaction. A reluctant conjugation of the home and the world, a forceful union of two disparate elements. The kitchen as a space then attained a different dimension. The flurry of activities shifted from restaurants, public spaces to the home, the dining space and the kitchen. Women and men both engaged in domestic labour; cooking, chopping, cleaning. Remote workstations, online classes, cloud meetings became a part of routine lives incorporated with household activities like cooking, cleaning, and doing the dishes. With an increase in the number of family members staying at home, the amount of work required in the upkeep of the family increased substantially. In the Indian family setup, the women, whether a part of the workforce or a homemaker , cannot escape the burden of household labour. The lockdown restrictions left the global economy in ruins resulting in mass unemployment, job losses and bankruptcy. These multiple factors exposed another side of the pandemic, the ugly truth. Despite the cooking and cleaning and chopping, women were subjected to violence in the same space which was supposed to give “varying degrees of freedom and self awareness”. In this new normal, keeping the pandemic at bay, there was an increase in violence against women especially in the form of domestic violence. The inability to secure one’s finances, restrictions of movements and other such similar frustrations were vented out through violence. The National Commission for Women received 13,410 complaints of crimes against women between March – September 2020, of which 4,350 were domestic violence. Middle class and the lower middle class- the worst affected in the pandemic were equally hit by the shadow pandemic.
Picture Credit: Aveesh/Medium
The Divide and the Liminal
The pandemic created a rupture in the society, dividing it into two parts, the elites and the marginalised.The home as well as the kitchen space witnessed this divide.There was a section of the society which created a different discourse of voluntary participation, shared household labour and equality. These individuals flooded their social media timelines honing their cooking skills, trying the latest fad dishes like banana bread, Dalgona coffee and worked towards shared household labour. Celebrities were seen participating in household chores. However, there was also a section of the society which didn’t have enough food on their plate, resulting in violence at home and cohabitating with abusive partners.These multiple strands of negotiations and interpretations forces one to re-define the understanding of the kitchen space to a threshold space, a transitioning space which is at a critical juncture. I call this critical juncture- the “liminal” space. Liminal Space has been described as “betwixt or between” by Victor Turner.The corpus of arguments which claims the kitchen space from the binaries of oppressor and oppressed to a more in-between space.Van Gennep’s theory states that this period of liminality is transitory, temporary and can be an anxious time where, for example, known norms, behaviours and identities are suspended thus giving way to uncertainty.This is where we can practically position the kitchen space amidst the ongoing pandemic: in this in between, this slippery ground where nothing can be said in exactitude, where it stands at a curve and the direction of the movement is beyond conjecture.
Keeping aside these binaries and the numerous ways in which the kitchen space has been theorised, interpreted and re interpreted, the kitchen space stands redefined amidst such situations. Moving away from the discourses of victim-perpetrator, oppressor-oppressed, patriarchal-feminist the space can be identified in the archway of transition from being a woman’s place to a forced participation of all the members of a household in the absence of helping hands as well as a space where violence is meted out if and when ‘required’. The idea has been reiterated in social media handles strewn with a massive number of write-ups, wall posts, video blogs featuring the centrality of the kitchen space. However, redefinition in theory doesn’t directly apply to the society, unless it is practised in its entirety. In such an alternative opinion the space stands problematised and questioned? How do we see the space as one that it formerly was, or the new version it has attained in correspondence with the new normal? How do we read it differently in high income family groups and low income family groups? It is important that these pertinent questions be posed to policy-makers and thinkers. Whatever the answer- the woman’s position in the kitchen space is a liminal space with no definite wholesome answer- good,bad or ugly.
Kashyapi Ghosh is currently working as a PhD scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Tirupati. She completed her Masters in English Literature from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. She loves poetry and is fascinated by languages.