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It's 6:30PM and my brother and I huddle outside our home, ears perked to catch the evening azan or call to prayer. Inside, a delicious spread awaits us. Juicy chicken kebabs lie next to freshly baked breads. Crispy samosas and cutlets filled with tender meat sit beside loaded sandwiches and pizzas, accompanied by fruit drinks and milkshakes to down the feast with. After the prayer call blares and then recedes, we head inside. We automatically gravitate to the dining table, and we start demolishing that large and succulent feast, almost entirely made at home.
The tired hands that have prepared this delicious meal - my mom’s - wait patiently while my brother and I grab our portions. My mother has been doing this for the entire month of Ramadan for decades now. Long hours spent in the hot and stuffy kitchen, cooking, and later, cleaning up after the rest of us have had our fill. Like women in many Muslim homes, she does this with little help from others. She’s often the last one at home to taste and eat the very food she’d have spent hours behind.Only now, when I look back, have I become acutely aware of how day after day, from noon to evening, she’d stand in the kitchen and painstakingly cook us elaborate meals – while fasting herself – so that the rest of us could have a grand Iftar (the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset). The fact that fasting means one wouldn’t have to bother preparing breakfast or lunch does not diminish the amount of labour that goes into cooking as it’s usually overcompensated by the evening Iftar preparations. Of course the number of dishes on the table through this month far exceeds dinners on usual days.The sad part about this is that I only noticed my mother’s labour when I myself was expected to do my bit. As I, a woman, grew older, some of the Iftar responsibilities and expectations have started trickling down to me. However, the same cannot be said about my brother.
This discriminatory handing down of chores, although inconsequential compared to the hard work my mother puts in, makes me want to scream. We had a disagreement recently when I confronted my mom about why she wouldn’t ask my brother to participate in housework. I knew the answer, but I still wanted to hear the words from my mom herself. After relentless egging, she conceded. “Because it's expected to be done by girls,” she sighed. It didn’t surprise me but hearing it sure didn’t comfort me either because, in that moment, it was years of internalised patriarchy speaking. When asked why, my mother didn’t have a reasonable answer herself. All I got in response was, “It’s just like that. It’s always been.”
This is true for almost every Muslim family I know when it comes to Ramadan. However, to be fair, it’s true for most of my friends’ households too who belong to different faiths. While women toil, the men lay back and enjoy other activities. During Ramadan, they get called just in time for Iftar. Once everyone has had their meals, the men retreat while the women stay back to tidy up and wash the dishes. Those from joint families have it even worse, with hands multiplied but chores and expectations soaring exponentially. “It's kind of like having a dinner party,” my friend Alisha, a 25-year-old consultant who lives in a family of 12, told me. “Except, you need to host it for 30 days straight, no questions asked. It's a horrifying affair for my mother and aunts”.
A meal that is eaten and enjoyed by all, unfortunately, does not bring the same number of helping hands. Coming from a small, not-so-conservative nuclear diasporic family originally from Kerala in the south of India, I am privileged enough to not really experience the full force of what many others do. Just before Ramadan, I had come across an eye-opening post on Twitter where several women recounted the horrors that awaited them through the holy month. I got talking with one of the girls, 22-year-old Safa, from Lucknow in northern India. “On most days of the month, we have several guests over,” she told me. “My mom and I need to cook, clean, and host tens of people all by ourselves. Just thinking about it depresses me.” Another woman, 31-year-old Aafa who’s a mother of one, added, “What irks me the most is the audacity of some men to complain that the food isn't great or luxurious enough when they don't even take their own plate back to the kitchen after eating.”
This is the price women pay during Ramadan. Hours spent in cooking while also fasting, with no one to offer a helping hand, often even having to deal with demoralising criticism. A month that should bring joy and happiness, unfortunately, only brings exhaustion, burnout, and poor mental health for many women. The picture-perfect posts on social media of tables laden with sumptuous Iftar food fail to tell this side of the story.
The same can be said for all Indian festivals, be it the myriad sweets and intense house cleaning sessions before Diwali, the biryani and kebabs for Eid, or the numerous cakes baked for Christmas. What often gets ignored is that these delectable meals don’t present themselves magically. It’s the sacrifice of women that makes the festive season’s celebrations grand and enjoyable for others, all year long.Often, even the most progressive desi families don’t expect men to find their niche in the kitchen or with the household work. Men have, for so long, taken advantage of these gendered roles that have excused them from doing any unpaid housework because it’s considered “a woman’s job.” But it’s incorrect to say that only men are responsible for this. Women have been indoctrinated to believe that it is their sole responsibility to cook and do housework too, confusing this gesture for love. Boys are infantilised by mothers and given slack under the garb of “they don't know how to” or “they can’t do it well,” as if girls on the other hand were just born skilled in these chores.
At times when I'm too tired to be outraged, I find these reasonings laughable. It always baffles me why basic chores such as cleaning up after a meal or doing the dishes are gendered given that the only body parts in use are one’s hands and feet.Of course, the path of resistance and change isn't an easy one. Challenging social customs that have been around forever may seem like blasphemy to many. But it's the 21st century, and we have gone long past the time when we would quietly and helplessly accept this to be our fate. While I do my part to help my mother for the last few days of this Ramadan, I hope for change the next time around to break this toxic cycle of sexism that believes that cooking and housework are “a woman’s duty”. I can only imagine how many women around the world would find this month more enjoyable and less stressful if men lent a hand or two. Follow Reniya on Instagram.