The most subversive thing I ever did during three years living in Kerala was wash my girlfriend’s laundry.
I’ll never forget the look on my friend’s face when I told him that I had done this -- and not just once, in some desperate circumstance, but many times, too many to count. His face responded in two parts: first a freeze, with eyes fixed on me and breathing temporarily paused, as he processed this profoundly new and unfamiliar piece of information. Then he furrowed his brow and looked down, away from me, the corners of his mouth dropping a little in disgust.
“You shouldn’t do that,” he said.
I smiled, somewhat insensitively, at his shock. “Why not?”
He paused for a moment before responding. “It shouldn’t be that way,” was all he could say.
To me, his reaction seemed a little unfair. It isn't that there's anything inherently wrong with partners in a relationship or marriage taking on clearly defined roles, whether or not those roles are divided along traditional gender lines. If both adults knowingly consent and nobody is getting hurt, it generally isn’t anyone else’s business.
Likewise, though, I don’t really think it’s anyone else’s business if partners choose not to divide household tasks along gender lines. My girlfriend and I earned about the same amount of money, cooked dinner with similar frequency, and saw nothing wrong with equality in laundry duty. For two twentysomethings who had grown up with washing machines, it was a particularly arduous task: you had nothing more than a bucket and some soap with which to banish a day’s worth of accumulated sweat and red dust from tired, fraying garments. Splitting the job between us made sense.
“Who washes your clothes?” I asked my friend, trying to get a better understanding of the norm in Kerala.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he replied, a little sheepishly. “Nowadays, it’s probably my wife.”
He is occasionally irksome, this friend, but I love him dearly. He listens well, and he tells you what he thinks without sugar-coating it. Being his first ‘saip’ (white man) friend, he took the opportunity to ask plenty of questions about my life in Kerala, and as such, he provided a lot of support whenever I was struggling to cope for one reason or another. He remains among my closest friends, one with whom I expect I’ll retain a bond for life even if we lose touch for years at a time.
However, it seems we don’t see eye to eye on the role of women in a relationship and in society at large. He was after all born and raised in Kerala, way down at the southwestern tip of the Indian mainland, which remains relatively conservative in regard to gender roles. Thiruvananthapuram district, the southernmost region of the state and my home for those three years, is particularly conservative even in Kerala. It is not so intensely patriarchal that girl children are routinely shunned or denigrated, as can often be the case in other parts of India, but if my experiences of two years ago remain current, you won’t see many women out in public in jeans or skirts there (as you might in the somewhat more cosmopolitan Kochi to the north). You also won’t hear of a husband washing his own clothes, let alone those of his wife. Ever.
A recent Manta Ray comic titled ‘New to the Night’ offered a fantastical possibility: an India in which men are under curfew from 11pm to 5am each night, giving women the freedom to walk dark streets without fear. The author, Parismita Singh, skilfully manipulates familiar words and phrases to subvert gender roles and create an unrecognisable, almost unimaginable atmosphere. One phrase stands out for its reflection of a progressive reality:
It’s true. Times are changing. Many women are having both kids and a career, while many men are increasingly happy to play an equal part in running a household. The children of some Indian homes, therefore, are growing up without the clear gender roles Indian society has built itself upon for so long.
“All men are not rapists or molesters. Some even make tea for their wives, look after children. Times are changing...”
I wonder, how broad is this shift towards gender equality in India? Could it extend as far as southern Kerala? Might it even extend beyond cups of tea, and child-rearing, to laundry duty?
My friend did not actively seek to subjugate women and would never condone violence against them, but the idea that anyone but a woman might do laundry was completely foreign and strange to him. Now, with a resurgence in feminism in India in the wake of one particularly shocking act of violence against a woman, I wonder whether scrubbing dhotis could become routine for all men and not merely the preserve of mothers, wives, and dhobiwallahs.