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'Keep the House Beautiful, and keep your opinions to yourself'

I was scrolling through my ‘recommended petitions’ on, and I came across a petition that solicited the Prime Minister to request men to help women in domestic work during this house-arrest-like situation. I was appalled. Do we really live in a society in which men will not do any domestic work unless the prime minister of the country tells them to? Aren’t we making all sorts of progress, being in the 21st century and all that?

Gender roles- something that I can say without a doubt every girl/ women has been subjected to. I’m not saying Indian girls are still expected to be able to make the perfect ‘round roti’ by the time they are in their teens and boys are not expected to ever learn to cook. In an urban set-up, that is not the case anymore usually, but can you seriously, with full confidence, tell me that domestic gender roles don’t exist in today’s society? Can you honestly tell me that both your parents do an equal share of the house work? Can you tell me that your father cooks for you almost as often as your mother? I know I can’t.

I remember once at a family dinner, I happened to state my views on the political upheaval ongoing in the country at that time, and I was told “You don’t know what you are talking about. You are too young to understand this.” However, somehow when my cousin brother of around the same age stated his opinions on the same topic, he just happened to be old enough to understand politics. ‘Girls aren’t supposed to interfere in politics’- why? Why is this stereotype so engrained in the Indian mindset? Why is a woman so often just expected to be obedient in her sphere of domesticity- stay docile, never speak up, never have opinions?

This takes me back to a series of photomontages I’ve seen, photomontages which were created in the late 1900s and early 2000s, but yet show the same domestication of women that we continue to see in society today. Martha Rosler started her series ‘House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home’ in 1967, during the Vietnam war. This was the first war in American history that was brought to the people through the television screen, making it, what has been termed a ‘living room war’. Rosler’s aim through this series, was to shine light on the hypocrisy of the situation- the American public would go on with their daily lives, lives filled with consumerist concerns, while a war was going on somewhere far away, which they watched as their nightly entertainment. For this reason, she made collages using magazine images of the war, and those of gorgeous houses, thus perfectly juxtaposing the situation.

Even though Rosler’s primary aim was to bring forth this strange poignancy of the war through her rather satirical series, what struck me most about her works were the feminist notes in the photomontages. Several of the montages depict women doing domestic work, especially cleaning, while around them there are images of war. When I first saw this, I thought the artist was trying to say that no matter what the situation around us might be, women are still expected to be totally uninvolved in political problems, and concentrate only on keeping their home clean and beautiful. I thought it was a comment on the robotic mundaneness of female domestic work in the midst of global unrest. I think the theme of domestication of women is as striking in her work as the theme of the ‘living room war’.

We are in the year 2020, pretty far along from when Rosler completed her series in 2008. One would expect that 12 years would be enough to change the situation. If one was to say that no, there has been no change at all and society is exactly where it was 12 years ago, you can say that’s a loaded statement; but saying that society has progressed so far along that women are not given any domestic gender roles would be completely false. To me, Rosler’s photomontages are still a statement on society even today. To me, her photomontages are a visual representation of ‘girls should not interfere in politics’ even today. This is 2020, and we haven’t reached anywhere near the day when someone can stand up and say ‘gender stereotypes don’t exist anymore’.

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