Since June 8th, I’ve been in India, taking care of last minute preparations for an English language and cultural exchange program that I founded for international volunteers. The program doesn’t officially begin until June 19th so until then, I’m staying at my grandparents’ house, getting over my awful jetlag, listening to my aunt tell me about how she’s going to find an Indian boy for me to have an arranged marriage with (excuse me, what?), and sweltering in the unbearable summer heat. In less than a week, I have been taken aback several times by strictly defined gender roles. The last time I was in India, I was only 13 years old and quite unaware of feminist doctrine. Now, after four years of high school and two years at Georgetown, India is a whole new world to me. Influenced by many people, trips abroad, and now a feminist identity I hadn’t yet tapped into at age 13, I am cognizant of the way women are treated in India and how differently feminism manifests itself here.
I’ve raised my eyebrows at multiple situations already but, perhaps, the most humorous/confusing/upsetting thing happened just yesterday. My grandfather told me that between now and when I leave at the beginning of August, I have to “take control of the kitchen like a good young lady.” Hold your laughter. Every time I’ve heard anything along the lines of “women belong in the kitchen” in the past few years, it’s been a joke and/or the person saying it knows that they are offending someone somewhere. Furthermore, anyone who says something of that nature to me knows I would not agree and that they will subsequently have to deal with a fiery Omika.
The truth is that I believe skills learned in the kitchen are important. It’s undoubtedly useful to know how to cook and clean. But the problem arises when the kitchen becomes a place marked by gender divisions.
This time, it was my grandfather who told me to go to the kitchen; I had to be respectful and control my sass. At first, I was completely taken aback but after a few moments, I know he didn’t mean it offensively. In fact, what he said is entirely commonplace in India. Learning to work in the kitchen is a rite of passage for young women, a mark of responsibility. Still, I cringe every time my male relatives directly ask their wives and daughters to take their dishes back to the kitchen, when the men could easily do so themselves. What I perceive to be rude is apparently ordinary: women belong in the kitchen and men belong everywhere other than the kitchen. What scares me is that these thoughts are not challenged. The kitchen is such an ingrained part of the life of an Indian woman that it is often unimaginable, unholy, and unnatural for men to help out. While not all Indians think the same way, I know that if someone back home were to say the same words my grandfather said to me, they are more likely to be aware of the implications.
I’m most saddened by the reason my grandfather told me to take control of the kitchen: to fit a certain gender expectation. This summer, I won’t be taking control of the kitchen because I should be a “good young lady.” Instead, I hope to learn to cook some new Indian dishes out of interest and learn new quick cleaning techniques so I can keep my apartment organized next year. I sincerely hope that as more Indian women enter the workforce, they will share responsibilities with their partners and the Indian kitchen will become a place where everyone can take ownership of their work.