The notion of empowering women in our societies has remained largely distorted, the misalignment is facilitated and exasperated by the neo-liberal capitalist mode of the economy further significantly. The prominent ingredients of the very making of capitalist societies constitute oppression, misogyny, and hardwiring of sexism in its structures and in ways of organizing production in particular and overall lives generally. The constant reinventions and enforcement of patriarchal norms have helped capitalism to thrive for decades now, whose routine this article would serve to articulate.
Conspiracy to Disenfranchise
Patriarchy’s principle demand instils in keeping women within closed premises of homes. Even if they are allowed to work, then their work should not disrupt their imposed commitments to their households, according to the imagined idealism. Capitalism introduced us to the term 'homemaker' and created an indelible distinction between 'productive' and 'reproductive labour'.
It partnered with patriarchy to keep women as underachievers or non-achievers, to maintain a pool of low-wage workers on standby. Following early marriages, unfinished education, or gaps in career owing to marriage or childbirth, when women step out to work, they are either unskilled or low-skilled and have to settle for low-paying chores. Further, patriarchy confronts various biases regarding women’s capabilities as workers and uses their natural biological functions such as menstruation and childbirth against them to devalue their contributions.
Not many women are a part of the formal sectors, but the majority of women do engage in home-based informal work (agricultural labour, domestic workers, small home-based businesses, tailors, seamstresses, and factory workers) that is often miscategorised as housework. For example, it took a year-long farmers' protest in India for women to lay claim to the title of 'farmer' and to be recognised as such. Until then, agricultural work was considered a mere extension of the housework already performed. The more women are relegated to the domestic sphere, the lower their skills and self-worth, which means corporations can get away with paying them a much lower salary than their male counterparts.
The inherent gender inequalities in a patriarchal society also translate to fewer economic opportunities for women in a capitalist setup. A limited choice pool means that women often have to opt for either low-paying home-based jobs or jobs beneath their level of certification. Even after they somehow manage to attain higher qualifications, the capitalist-patriarchal setup never fails to pull women down.
Enforcement Entitlements in Disguise of Innovations
The fact that patriarchy wants to keep women confined to domesticity works out well for capitalism. Many women in India who identify as housewives are engaged in productive labour from home. For example, some women work from their homes as tailors or seamstresses for entrepreneurs who wish to outsource their work at a low wage rate. Capitalism has never made an effort to address these inequalities by making workplaces gender responsible, giving women an equal playing field. It has rather advanced the idea of housewives (even when the work done is productive) to ensure women opt for low-paying work in exchange for the relative comfort of working from home and to better manage their reproductive labour. There is little doubt that capitalism has encouraged technological inventions like the variety of equipment that automate housework such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and microwave ovens - with the potential to make women's lives far easier.
But set against the backdrop of a patriarchal society and rigid gender roles, a majority of Indian women have no access to these innovations, not just because of affordability but also societal expectations. In our homes, for example, it is expected that women will make fresh food for the family no matter how late or what time of day. So, in many middle-class homes, even though there are microwave ovens that men can use to reheat the food, the wife or mother will still stay up to reheat it for him. It's touted as a labour of love but is just silent oppression in reality. Capitalism wins when the woman buys a microwave oven or is gifted with one and patriarchy wins when she slaves in the kitchen instead of taking a break and letting family members reheat their meals.
Preying on the Slightest of Emancipation
In her book The Gender Effect, Kathryn Moeller exposes the inherent hypocrisy of corporate investment in the empowerment of women. According to her, corporations are now more focused on women so that they could be harnessed as a means to grow their markets and profits. They are investing in existing inequities instead of transformative ones, across multiple axes of difference - gender, racial, class, religious, and geographies.
Corporations have learnt that many women are now decision-makers and possess purchasing power. Women are now consuming goods not only to fulfil their requirements but also to reward themselves. It is therefore prudent for firms to break gender stereotypes and frame their product campaigns by emphasizing the development of women's personal and social selves.
For example, Ariel India's advertisement campaign 'share the load', attempted to show the consumers that doing laundry is not only a woman's job. The message could have been widened and collectively urged that housework, including but not limited to laundry, was not just women's work. But the brand's commitment to its product is larger than its commitment to women's empowerment; the latter functions more as a marketing gimmick. To expect that advertisements such as Aerial are leading to some kind of revolution inside Indian homes is laughable. Such campaigns are mere tools for profit-making.
Image Source: thetimesofudaipur.com
Corporations, of course, are focused on maximizing profit, and when it comes to branding, association with women’s empowerment is the goose that lays golden eggs for them. Even when corporates invest in gender-sensitive campaigns, they are more focused on marketing than on bringing any serious change to the patriarchal status quo.
The Ploy of ‘Free’ Society
The ideological view of capitalism combines the ostensible even turf it offers with the structural asymmetries to construct an entirely misguided understanding of equality. According to the accustomed view, capitalism laid a breakaway from the past, where in the new reality, people regardless of gender were set free.
The core of capitalist functioning was meant to be based on contestation and a level playing field. The myth of free competition constructed by capitalism is miles away from the truth. The pre-existing inequalities were not abolished by its introduction or subsequent takeover, and not even by the advent of its offshoot ‘democratic way of governance ’. Competition in capitalist societies is not as much about money as it is about capital, but only a minority of people at the apex, monopolize the capital and compete for it. The rest masses are left to indulge in struggles to secure means for consuming its fractions. Turns out, that capital is just an instrument for domination. Inequality, in reality, is about domination. Since the structures of domination are rendered invisible in capitalist societies, very little can be done about inequality in spheres of gender, especially under its ambit.
An Alternate View
Today, there is a need to go back to Marxist literature, primarily because of its definition of women's labour, which threatens the traditionalists and invites opposition from them. The view disturbs the status quo and seeks to interfere in the family structures that have emerged as a refuge for patriarchy. Marx defined housework as 'petty, stultifying, and degrading', while Engels said that with the 'emergence of private property and class, society had begun the grouping of men as breadwinners and women as housewives and therein had begun women's oppression.
The Irish socialist republican James Connolly had said that ‘if men were the slaves of a capitalist society, then housewives were 'the slave of the slave'. While capitalism exploits every worker, the wage at least recognizes the work and grants bargaining power to women from where they can struggle around against the terms and the quantity of that wage, the terms and the quantity of that work. But housework is considered something that 'cannot be measured in qualitative values' because it apparently comes out of 'love'. This popular imposition of gender traits deprives women of all agencies and contains them in the set conduct of idealism.
Economist Shiuli Vanaja, explains that Capitalism survives by creating inequalities in the system. Only then does it become beneficial in terms of accumulation. The more equal the distribution the less the capitalist accumulation.
Capitalism is not at all interested in tearing any sort of inequality, especially in terms of gender. The bigger the gulf they'll help sustain, the smaller the burden would be on the system to be accountable. Increased inequalities in society open up further doors for the capitalist, from where they can get away by paying less to women workers. The system driven by profit-making even at the cost of oppression does not help in any way to topple patriarchy but rather draws benefits from it, helping the discriminatory structure sustain. The two-way symbiotic relationship that patriarchy and capitalism share, exploits and deprives women in all spheres of life.
By Arpit Rituraj
* Lies our Mothers told us, Nilanjana Bhowmick
* Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto
* The Gender Effect, Kathryn Moeller.