3 Women, 2 Generations: Finding Agency In Their Domestic Spheres

by | Nov 10, 2021

The view from Preeti’s* home

Hamara gaon bahar se bohut sundar hai lekin andar se utna hi alag hai” (Our village is very beautiful when seen from outside, but from inside it is very different), said Preeti* while talking to us. The way she said it made an impact on me. We had been with Preeti and her family for about two hours when she made this statement. Since we had met her, we had been praising her village and saying how different and lovely it is, as compared to the cities we all came from. That’s when she said this, to make us realise that her village is a lot more complex than we can imagine and in order to actually understand her life, it is important to first understand this complexity. That’s what stayed with me.

Slowly, through our conversations with Preeti, her mother Gauri bai* and her sister in-law Sheila*, it became evident that it was quite a fair representation of the lives they individually and collectively lead. Each of them has managed to find some agency within their domestic spheres. Their determination motivated me. An assumption that I had carried before entering the village was that all the women would be engaged in domestic chores. While it was not entirely refuted; Gauri Bai, Preeti and Sheila presented a new-age outcome of this domestication of their lives and that was interesting to observe.

Preeti was the first one we met from this family and we spent a lot of time with her. She confidently told us, while giggling, that she has fought with her husband because she wanted to spend some time at her mother’s place and wanted freedom from the domestic chores that she is usually engaged in, at her in-law’s place.

While we were there, she helped her mother and sister-in law prepare food and wash dishes; but through the conversation, I realised that she finds her agency when she chooses to be the daughter of this house versus being the daughter in-law in another house. Despite doing household chores in each, for her, doing it in her own house has a different meaning.

This detail that she gave us about the conflict with her husband seemed to be something that she hadn’t openly discussed with anyone back home. She whispered about it and further mentioned that the community members pass comments and degrade married women who come back home, away from their husbands or those who spend quite a lot of time at their own house without returning to their in-law’s place. The idea is that despite being married or un-married, women should not speak with strangers and stay in the seclusion of her house.

It was quite evident that these comments had come her way occasionally, but she still chose to talk to us outside her house, discuss the situation of girls and women around education, safety and dressing up. It did not matter to her at that point that people around might be looking and listening. Instead, her focus was entirely on talking to a group of complete strangers who she treated like guests at her house. She spoke to us at length and only left when her mother called her back, not before sharing her Instagram ID with us.

Gauri bai is much older than the other two women at her house. Her entire focus at that time was the food being prepared and how she will feed us, her guests. It was simply through this that she proved her agency of being the head of the house and constantly gave directions to Preeti and Sheila on how to do the chores. Even towards the end, when Preeti wanted us to share each other’s numbers, it was Gauri bai who took charge and made sure that we only shared numbers with her.

Gauri Bai interacted with us, fed us, made us feel at home, all within the purview of her domestic responsibilities but she had it in her to take complete charge within that house and she respected herself for that position.

Even Sheila appeared to be playing the role of a daughter in-law by preparing food, laying out the plates and taking care of her child. However, through deeper conversation, we realized that she found her agency by virtue of choosing this life and this family for herself. While we were all huddled around to take a group photo, she told me that she married her husband by choice, and that they found each other on Instagram. She looked quite content with life. For an outsider, it may not seem much but it is important to highlight that she made the choice for herself and that makes all the difference.

Coming back to the statement that Preeti made, “Our village is very beautiful when seen from outside, but from inside it is very different”, it was definitely a remark on the village but it also summarised their lives. For the society, Gauri Bai, Preeti and Sheila represent the perceived “ideal” women doing the work asked of them. But in their space, they have rebelled, found agency, empowered themselves and continue to do that. It could be because of the fear of being targeted by other people, but here they have managed to find their comfort.

For the younger two, Instagram has played an immense role in providing that agency while for Gauri Bai, her age helped her do that. Here, it is important to mention that during the time we spent with them, the men of the house were not present and we may assume that the roles may change a bit when they are around. But the more important aspect is that with or without men, they have found joy in limited opportunities and that’s something that is not only noteworthy but also immensely courageous.

*Names changed to maintain confidentiality.

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