Women and Domestic Spaces: Finding the Self
The film Lipstick Under My Burkha revolves around four female protagonists who live in an age-old Hawa Manzil in Bhopal. It captures how their middle-class lives take different turns when they choose to explore their desires. One of the protagonists Leela (played by Aahana Kumra) is a young beautician who runs a parlour and Shireen (played by Konkana Sen Sharma) often visits the parlour to get her armpits waxed and their conversations run beyond that, sometimes metaphorically. While the film portrays the lives of ordinary women living in urban and suburban cities in India, the story it captures is true. An aspect that particularly interested me was how do such women navigate their domestic spaces in India?
While it is convenient to think that many domestic households curb their freedom, it is important to reflect on how women tend to use their households to create their identity. A common occurrence in tier-1 and tier-2 cities is that women end up using their houses not only for shelter but also for income generation through informal work. This includes them taking up gender-role based jobs and entrepreneurial activities. Being a part of a global market, India provides several opportunities for women to excel in setting up and marketing their business and work and this is conceptually termed as ‘backyard employment’. Businesses such as selling pickles, chutney jars, embroidery and tailoring clothes and agency work such as running chit funds and selling Tupperware thrive on skills of the word to word and pyramid scheme marketing, for which homemaker community suits very well. The usage of the home as a place to work also helps in saving time and space, while one ends up catering to spatial, societal and familial needs. Such a phenomenon has evolved with time post the industrial revolution as homes before this served as domestic industries for commodities. With the advent of capitalism and people migrating to urban areas, the classification of industries and residences became more pertinent.
In the present times, one needs to think critically of the transformation of domestic spaces into areas of economic activities as it also puts the concept of privacy or private space under a blind spot. This could be extended to even addressing the idea of “me-time” of homemakers which enables one to self-reflect and look at themselves beyond the role they have dawned upon.
The homemaker community in India appears like a collective on the surface; they don’t see themselves as a community while they end up building one for sharing their personal stories and shortcomings. However, this community also helps in setting up a structure for the sale of their business or products. Often, spaces in their bedrooms, kitchens, storerooms become mini-warehouses for things they wish to sell. Some of them even provide demonstrations by using the commodity themselves.
While these home-based jobs could be a means of survival strategy for some households, more often than not, it also provides some means to have an identity that is beyond catering to the family. Financially, it also enables a broad class of women to generate income and buy goods and services for which they don’t have to ask their husbands. Having been a part of conversations that surround buying items in and from my neighbourhood in beauty parlours, temples and bangle stores, I was surprised to see that a lot of women I met did not mind spending more on products and services that they wanted but could not ask others to pay for, simply because they had their own money.
In this entire process, these women end up negating their own domestic spaces as shared spaces – they are familiar but not private as they end up working informally. Thus, they develop a spatial relationship with their domestic space that does not cater to their privacy.
However, places such as beauty parlours end up becoming a space for private conversations, reflections of experiences they had during the day with people they interacted and met while engaging with their business and family. Since there isn’t necessarily a method of feedback and a conversation would be based on reflections of their own experiences, it ends up being a place for women to comfort and empathize. These spaces are also not limited to sharing stories and buying services but also become places where they further gain penetration to a market and users to scale up their business or even come up with new ventures or methods to monetize their credits.
In this way, the idea of finding privacy to self-reflect (introspect) or of finding seclusion becomes difficult for women who spend a majority of their time in domestic spaces. There is hardly any provision for such women to account their experiences and stories as mere reflections and individually engage with their lives. And this, I suppose cannot be brought about by conversations as it gets narrowed by our relationship with the homemaker, but sitting down with them and reflecting on privacy as intrapersonal as much as it is interpersonal would help gauge a better means to understand themselves. Perhaps have this conversation in a beauty parlour or at a bangle store?
Written by: Prerana N