‘Maa ke haath ka khana’ (food cooked by mother) is a statement of utmost sentimental value in Indian culture and a source of exhibiting love and affection. This emotional connection between mother and food can be argued to have a patriarchal aspect. Similarly, one can analyze the same about the tradition of ‘Pehli rasoi’ (first cooking) of a new bride where she is expected to cook a sweet dish for her spouse’s family members and get ‘shagun’ money as blessings from elders. There are numerous such practices and traditions in patriarchal societies such as India where the production, distribution and consumption of food can be analyzed to have aspects of gender inequality.
Analysis of the intensive work done by Arlene Voski Avakian and Barbara Haber on the question of Women and food, informs us that food practices are a tool as well as a depiction of female subordination in a patriarchal society. While food as a subject garnered attention from anthropologists and other disciplines and interdisciplinary fields as early as the mid-twentieth century, it wasn’t until the last decade that the study of food from a feminist perspective began. Although anthropologists like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mary Douglas had used food to construct their theories about culture and the sustenance of group identities, (Avakian, Haber, 2005: 3) it was in only 1997 and 98 that Avakian published the anthology ‘Through the Kitchen Window: Women Writers Explore the Intimate Meanings of Food and Cooking’, which pioneered the work on ‘varied and complex aspects of women and food.’ While female subordination is not a new subject, providing it with the perspective of the sociology of food produces interesting insights. The same is done by Avakian and Haber who attempt to depict the power relations between males and females within the food aspect of culture and answer how the process of producing and cooking food came to be gendered practices.
Drawing from the work of Mary McFeeley and Sherrie A. Inness, it can be deduced that traditional values of household and ‘popular media’ constructed the narrative of “kitchen work as ‘naturally’ rewarding to women both emotionally . . . and aesthetically” (Avakian, Haber, 2005: 14). Such examples can be seen in advertisements where kitchen appliances and food-related items use the narrative of women or wife in kitchen or cooking to sell the product. Avakian and Haber, while citing Becky Thompson (1994), highlight how standards of beauty, social injustice and sexual abuse induce eating problems and disorders among females. Also, women are expected to ‘maintain’ their bodies while fulfilling ‘domestic responsibilities,’ while doing a paying job simultaneously, which negatively impacts their overall health (Avakian, Haber, 2005: 20-21). While women account for fifty per cent of food production work, there is an enormous disparity between males and females when compared based on food security, reasons being ‘discrimination in land rights, limited access to credit, education and training.’
Lévi-Strauss associating ‘raw’ with nature and ‘cooked’ with culture shows how food practices are an integral part of developing norms and values in any society and how the status of individuals can be analyzed through the study of their position in the process of production and consumption of food. The sociology of food is an analysis of the consumption of food as a social act.
The aim of this work was to explore the relationship between women and food and its patriarchal roots, with focus on the fact that while domestic cooking is seen as a duty or obligation for women, public or commercial cooking spaces are owned and dominated by men. While one can simply observe this in daily life, a research quoted in Deccan Herald in an article authored by the founder of a culinary arts school confirms this by stating that ‘men make up for 80 – 90% of chefs while women hold only 10% of executive chef positions, earning nearly 22% less as against their male counterparts.’ For this project, the interviews were conducted among college students. And when asked about what comes in their mind hearing the phrase ‘Ghar ka Khana,’ almost everyone answered ‘Maa ke haath ka khana’ or some specific dish cooked by their mother. But when asked to name a chef, all of their answers included male chefs such as Sanjeev Kapoor, Vikas Khanna or Gordon Ramsay. Also, during a photo walk in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, we observed that almost all of the shops and thelas and tapris are owned and operated by men. For a man, cooking is deemed as a skill which they must appropriate for money while women’s cooking has only ‘emotional value.’ Thus the question became how are these standards set and why is there such a gender disparity in public and private. It can be argued that this is a mechanism of patriarchy and not a random consequential occurrence of events.
Patriarchy has intelligently used food as a tool for female subjugation by traditionally confining women to the kitchen, where household work is considered of minimal or lesser value. Uma Chakravarti in her book Gendering Caste argues that by assigning less value to work done by women and lower caste, and ritually restricting them to household work and manual work (respectively), Brahmanical Patriarchy has achieved subjugation of women and lower castes, with lower caste and Dalit women suffering the most as they lie at the bottom of brahmanical patriarchal hierarchy. Household work has been consistently considered of lesser importance which provides no monetary benefits but it is argued that performing duties for her family satisfies a woman emotionally.
It is also very common in middle class families that during any get-together, women can be seen in the kitchen preparing meals and men can be seen relaxing and chatting while waiting for the food to be served by women or children. Revolving around the same scenario, a short film Juice was released on YouTube which I showed to my middle aged mother, who is a teacher in a rural primary school, and her only response was ‘this has always been our reality.’ Even in the modern times, women are expected to maintain balance between house chores and paying jobs and if a man does both, he is highly praised for being extraordinary.
Learning to cook has been traditionally a necessity for women to serve their family. For a man, cooking food is deemed a special skill which can or cannot be appropriated for earning money. This reflects the financial as well as social and emotional position of a woman which is of dependent being.
Modern time does not come with revolutionary changes in gender mindset. A study published in the scientific journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, compared data from 195 college students in 1983 to data from 191 adults in 2014, and found that gender stereotypes are not only just as strong today as they were over 30 years ago, but that people are now even more likely to believe that men avoid taking on “traditional” female roles like housekeeping, cooking and child-rearing. And this also results in the poor position of women in terms of ‘Food Security.’ Due to reasons such as ‘Discrimination in Land Rights, Limited access to Credit, Education and Training, Financial and Social Dependency’, women are more food insecure than men.
An analysis by humanitarian organization CARE shows that across 109 countries, as gender inequality goes up, food security goes down which leads to hunger and malnourishment. The gap between men and women’s food security is growing worldwide. As many as 828 million people were affected by hunger in 2021. Among them, 150 million more women were food insecure than men.
Complex relationships between women and food are not limited to poor health due to food insecurity but women also face health issues due to other social constraints.
The effect of social beauty standards was also reflected in the answers of female respondents during this project, where they said that girls often fail to recognise the difference between slim and fit. Body shaming is a part of everyday life and unmarried girls are victims of it as they are not seen as ideal brides, not only fat ones but very slim ones too.
Thus women and food are much more related than one can expect and this relationship is full of complexities but every thread of it knit a toxic world for women.
It would be ignorant and dangerous to say that every woman is affected equally by aforementioned issues. Not all women are impacted equally as each individual lives in a different set of conditions. Taking in the view the diversified backgrounds of women with respect to caste, class, religion, race etc, the aforementioned issues deepen as we move down the hierarchy. As an example is included in the fourth paragraph that lower caste and Dalit women suffer the most as they lie at the bottom of brahmanical patriarchal hierarchy.
Food is an essential part of our lives and is a main component of our social being. How it is produced, cooked, consumed and perceived is a matter of sociological concern. And in the question of women’s social position, food plays an important part. It is evident that Patriarchy is everywhere, it is fed with the food served on our plate. And a drastic makeover of the menu is important for developing an equal and just society.
- Avakian, Haber. (2005). From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food. University of Massachusetts Press.
- Avakian, Haber. (2005). Through the Kitchen Window: Women Writers Explore the Intimate Meanings of Food and Cooking. Beacon Press
- Beardsworth, Alan. & Keil, Teresa. (1997). Sociology on the Menu. Routledge.
- Gendering Caste – Exploring women subordination in the Indian context, in the second chapter, Chakravarti emphasizes the importance of understanding the relationship between class and gender as well as caste and gender. Connecting Gerda Lerners’ work on women subordination in early Mesopotamia to Indian context, the author explores ways in which female subjugation was achieved.
- Juice – Directed by Neeraj Ghaywan and starring Shefali Shah, this movie’s set-up is a middle-class family hosted get-together. While the men enjoy their drinks and discuss various topics, the women toil hard in the hot kitchen to keep the party going for them.