By Mina Malik-Hussain
September 21, 2015
Having recently had a baby and on hiatus from my mainstream job, I look back on the past month and think to myself, imagine going back to work tomorrow. That would mean being up all night feeding a tiny baby, then dragging oneself out of bed at the crack of dawn, getting ready for work and then spending the next eight or so hours being productive and efficient and not befuddled with exhaustion and creaking joints. Then coming back home and looking after a baby for the rest of the evening and night, and then back again to work. I consider all of this, and then I silently thank my stars I don’t have to do any of it and can spend the bulk of my day looking after an infant and eating Jalal Sons French hearts (because you know, I deserve a treat). Unfortunately, most women do not have that luxury, all over the world, and it isn’t getting any better.
Given the wants and needs of the average modern family, the two-income household is increasingly common. But the household with children is the one that is the trickiest to navigate, and in spite of all the progress women have made in the workplace, it is still an environment inherently unfriendly for the working mother. Abroad, working mums still have the benefit of laws that force employers to provide paid maternity leave (shockingly, that great Valhalla, the United States, still has no such laws in place) and a private, comfortable place for nursing mothers to pump. Many offices have crèches where babies and children can be left for the time their mothers are at their desks.
This isn’t some grand favour companies are doing for working mothers. This is the bare minimum they should be doing in order to keep half of their workforce efficient and intact. Statistically, women who drop out of their careers to look after their children and rejoin the workplace after several years suffer a drastic decrease in earnings. How is that in any way fair? Why should it always be that same, tiresome biological argument that because women give birth it’s their primary responsibility to look after the children?
We often say that that’s how we do things here, in our South Asian culture. That the men look after their families and the wives work as a hobby, a little side thing that earns them some pocket money. It’s almost cute, the ‘working mother’ who teaches at a school or does a few clothes here and there. Even women don’t take their work seriously—many of us prioritize our husbands’ work lives and their work commitments, and when it comes to ours, find ourselves making rueful excuses. When the kids are sick, Ammi is the one taking time off from work to dole out Panadol every four hours and sit for hours in a doctor’s waiting room. Abba is at work, because his work is more important.
What defines important? Units, for one. Dependency, for another. Whoever earns more is the winner, and the irony of that vicious cycle is the fact that society makes it hard for women to work, and then employers make it even harder for them to continue. Women already make less than men for the same kind of work all over the world, and having children becomes another nail in the coffin of their working lives. When people ooh and aah over how nice it is to be a mother, nobody mentions that it will be at the cost of your financial independence and the career you spent your youth studying towards. Call to mind all the MBBS-pass girls, qualified doctors, who never make it to specialisation or practice because they all get married off the minute they sit their last viva. If I had spent five years being ground in the doctor-mill, I would be fighting tooth and nail to continue being a doctor. I don’t think one can compare the intensity of medical training with a B.Com at all, but I digress—the point is that we seem to be educating our girls only so that we don’t look like terrible backwards jaahils, so that the girls have something to do before they get married and also to pump up their value as a Good Educated Girl. In our part of the world, “job karna” is either an insult, as if you were some kind of chaaloo girl living life in the fast lane, or an indulgence granted to you by your parents/husband/ in-laws to show how progressive they are.
What we forget is the massive class divide that allows us the luxury of not taking work seriously. The woman who looks after your children or is washing the bathrooms doesn’t have the privilege of maternity leave or, most of the time, bringing her child to work. Children are placed in the care of a relative and women are off to earn a livelihood. Most of them have no choice—their husbands work too, or many times are either dead, diseased or addicts, which makes women’s work even more vital. And yet, the same way we are not enabled in the workplace at all—even schools don’t have crèches for working teachers in Lahore—we don’t enable the women who work for us either. I know I wouldn’t be very happy if my cleaning lady brought her toddler to work, but after musing this for this column, I think it’s high time we started righting the balance, woman to woman, for each other.
Mina Malik-Hussain is a feminist based in Lahore.