Gender stereotypes in India—and across the world—crush the possibility of a man wanting to be home while his wife takes on the role of the sole breadwinner of the family.
One of Hindi cinema’s more popular actors saw his career stall a few years ago even as his better half went on to create a significant place for herself in India and abroad.
Almost immediately, memes mocking him for being a failure started doing the rounds on social media. Many Indians gleefully compared him to his wife and father—one of the most admired men in Hindi cinema—and trolled him mercilessly for being less successful. He was no longer a good actor, son, husband, or father. He was just a failed man.
The jokes on social media cleverly told the rest of India that a man is judged by his material success alone, and that a woman ought not to outshine her partner by achieving more than he has. They not only made a mockery of the actor’s life but also belittled his wife’s success.
Men work, Women stay home
India has seen female participation in its workforce lower drastically in the past few decades—from 40% in the 1990s to 27% in 2012. A 2015 report by Livemint says that more women work in rural areas—where poverty necessitates the employment of women—and in places where they enjoy higher status in society. The gender gap is highest in urban areas where many women can afford to be at home.
Growing up in India, I always sensed that those around me celebrated the success of men and discouraged ambition in women. They linked male self-esteem to material wealth and female worth to motherhood, thus directing the man to earn and the woman to stay home. A neighbour in Kerala, who refuses to let his professionally qualified daughter look for work, argued that sending her away meant exposing her to a world that cared little about her dignity. I understood his worry but wasn’t convinced that safety was the only factor.
It was also about control. A financially independent woman may choose to live her life on her own terms, and that isn’t acceptable to many parents. Societal norms clearly tell us that a woman’s job is to be with the family—whether she likes it or not—and a man needs to work and earn all his life—whether he likes it or not. In its zeal to control its women, India has ended up strangling its men too.
It’s but natural to assume that the men of today have evolved to ignore social mores but new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2013) indicates that heterosexual men are more threatened by their partner’s success than heterosexual women are. A 2013 article by Amanda Marcotte in Slate tells us that the findings of this research “floats the far more likely suggestion that men have absorbed gender stereotypes that portray them as inherently smarter and more capable than women”.
Several theories exist as to why men tend to be fiercely competitive—at times, even with their own wives. A man’s desire to be a notch above his partner signals a deeper insecurity—perhaps the fear of losing her to a more successful rival. The idea of financial power shifting within the family could also be a source of discomfort for many, as with financial power comes self-confidence and strength, and the ability to make your own decisions—traits not too desirable in women but very much admired in men.
Masculinity and Material Wealth
Just as a woman gets married early or gives up her job to be home without actually thinking if that’s what she wants, a man too walks the familiar path of education, job, success and material wealth without stopping to think if that’s what keeps him happy. Men are nudged towards lucrative professions despite many not wanting to be in jobs that demand their entire lives, sometimes every waking hour of it. By the time some stop to wonder what they are doing to themselves, it’s too late. Linking a man’s wealth to his desirability also gives rise to the notion that women look for financial worth in men more than anything else. It could create an atmosphere of distrust and make men feel exploited, not loved.
A woman is seldom chastised if she throws away a job that may have earned her millions, but what about a man who wants to stay home and look after his children while his wife works?
As a stay-at-home father from India recently proclaimed on an Indian channel, India has a long way to go before it accepts such drastic role reversals in marriages. Though Indian women have evolved from being homemakers to employees and entrepreneurs, social influences have restrained men from accepting this massive transformation fully. The Indian wife marches into factories, schools, companies and call centers but the man, in many homes, still expects her to manage the kitchen and the kids, with or without the help of an army of cooks, maids, and nannies.
Yes, there are exceptional men, who cook, clean and help with the homework, but no man sacrifices his ability to earn as easily as a woman does because he is still defined by the job he holds, the house he lives in, and the car he drives.
The Idea of Househusbands
There are no clear statistics that tell us how the idea of a househusband is received by women in India but 38-year-old Rucha Sinha*—who is seeing a younger man—admitted that she may not be comfortable with someone who has no qualms staying home while she worked. A designer by profession and financially secure, she believes Indian men and women haven’t evolved enough for such a radical idea to take root. To the upper middle class and the Indian elite, it may seem progressive to have a man manage the house, but—as Indian author Gurcharan Das explained in a televised debate on househusbands—to a very vast majority of the Indian middle class, it’s a matter of great pride that their women needn’t work. That their women are homemakers reflects the worth of their men.
Ki and Ka—a Hindi movie released early this year—depicts a successful career woman tying the knot with an unambitious man, whose role model is his mother—a housewife. Though it received mixed reviews, it raked up the idea of househusbands in India—an idea that may free men and women from cultural shackles that restrain them from choosing their own paths. The protagonists of Ki and Ka cater to the modern mindset of India’s urban youth, who connect with a variety of cultures across the world and could be more amenable to change.
As the idea of marriage deviates from being a convenient arrangement between two consenting adults to the cementing of good friendships that blossom into love, Indians ready themselves for more debates on gender-neutral roles in marriages that do not seek societal approval. Swimming against the tide has never been easy but maybe it’s time to test the waters.
*The name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.
Photo: Getty Images