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'In Indian culture, there's still a sense of shame if women aren’t accomplished in the kitchen.'

It was recently Diwali! I hope those celebrating this Hindu festival of light had joyous celebrations.

But as I reflect on yet another year of Diwali in Australia, a festival I’ve observed evolving since childhood – particularly as the South Asian community grows in pockets of Western Sydney – I can’t help thinking there’s something being blatantly overlooked.

That is – who makes the sweets in your home?

At these auspicious occasions, it’s a “must” to have delicious homemade treats being offered on rotation to all the guests. We feel we must entertain in our beautiful new outfits in our spotless homes. The tradition of it, the ritual of sharing in Diwali sweets in each other’s homes, seems so familiar and comforting. It’s an opportunity to indulge in sugar and ghee and deep-fried delights, a chance to splurge on new clothes or get around to that spring clean.

Diwali-sweets-1
Diwali sweets. Image: Supplied.

Rarely, however, do we consider to whom the responsibility of executing all these tasks falls.

Make the sweets – Mum (or grandma). Buy clothes/gifts for the family – Mum. Dress the children (and often their father too!) – Mum. Do the deep clean of the house and decorate it beautifully for guests to enjoy the festivities – Mum. Who does the pooja (prayer) preparation – Mum. Importantly, who does the cleanup? – Mum.

While these traditions may be rooted in days gone by, in which women were primarily in the home with a clear mandate to tend to these matters, while the men worked outside the home and made the important decisions (you know, the ones not pertaining to ‘frivolous’ things like how one dresses or gift-giving), this is clearly not the case now.

Today, women work outside the home in jobs as demanding, if not more demanding, than their husbands. While they also do a much larger load of daily household chores and childcare. To still expect women to be carrying the load for making these celebratory sweets as well as the other tasks associated with a successful Diwali celebration – seems to counteract the spirit of community and familial love.

It may have traditionally been women carrying these rituals, but it’s 2019, and it’s time to question the gender disparity of these customs. Not to throw them out – but collectively reimagine them for today. Why can’t we buy sweets, hire a cleaner, order clothes online and have the whole family involved in decorations and hosting duties?

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I realise this solution may be a privileged one. Not everyone can afford to hire a cleaner, but everyone can pitch in to clean and decorate the house! Everyone.

Spring cleaning on the agenda? Check out this video.

Video via MMC

Also, often buying sweets can be cheaper than making them. Women’s time and labour (and the stress of producing delectable treats year on year) needs to be valued too.

The true cost of ‘homemade’ is far higher than meets the eye. This misplaced patriarchal pride in the domestic abilities of the women of the house, especially their cooking prowess, is, in fact, a veiled shackle. A backhanded compliment. Tying women’s value to their domestic abilities, to making the perfect ladoo and dressing their children beautifully, is reductive and infantilising.

Men will gather at these same festivals and talk politics and discuss their work or sport – enjoying intellectual debate - and the women will be left to do the serving and topping up of snacks and tea and engage in some talk about their recipes or how exquisite their jewellery is or how exhausted they understandably are!

Nobody is stopping them from discussing politics, but there’s a tacit social pressure to not join the discussions that fall in the ‘male’ domain.

How often are South-Asian parents proud of their daughter for her accomplishments at work as long as they are coupled with their talents in the home?

I never sense any parents hesitating to heap praise on their son if he’s ‘only’ successful at work and couldn’t name three ingredients that go into a ladoo, let alone make one. These double standards need to be questioned.

Why do we feel a sense of shame if women aren’t accomplished in the kitchen? Why isn’t Diwali just about celebrating family and community?

A Diwali gift of sweets
A Diwali gift of sweets, made by the women of the house.
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Importantly, if we have these expectations, then they need to be shared by all the adults in a household and not fall on the woman.

Why does this matter? Because there’s an opportunity cost. To expect women to be cleaning, decorating and cooking is to take time away from other things they could be doing. While the wife is measuring flour and sugar and frying gulab jamuns in the evenings, what are the vast majority of their husbands doing? Working, watching TV, reading, sleeping… basically having some work or leisure time.

Why should women’s leisure time be spent differently?

Nobody ever looks expectantly at my husband for his batch of ladoo when we arrive at Diwali. But conversely, if there are men out there keen to try their hand as amateur pastry chefs, they should be encouraged to pursue their interest and passion.

Of course, there are women who genuinely enjoy making sweets and decorating their home beautifully. This isn’t about saying those women are somehow regressive or can’t choose to continue to do that.

Ultimately, it’s about evolving beyond seeing women as the ‘pride of the home’ and expecting them to all be domestic goddesses. It’s a question of freedom of choice and being mature enough to respect women and men for choosing differently than traditional gender roles. A woman’s worth is not tied to her abilities to host a perfect dinner party, just as much as a man’s isn’t.

Next year, instead of asking the woman of the house what she’s making or made – try asking the man. See if a simple act of placing the expectation on men as well as women can help future generations of women be free from the weight of these outdated and unnecessary responsibilities.

As Christmas approaches, it’s worth considering on whom the rituals of gift buying, wrapping, cooking and hosting will fall. Why not aspire to enjoy these rich cultural and religious festivals without the gendered expectations?

We can be the change.

Rani is of Indian heritage, born in Fiji and raised in Australia. With two sons under four, she is a keen observer of motherhood and particularly the inter-cultural and cross-cultural dilemmas it presents for women of colour raised in Australia.

Who prepares food for festive occasions in your house? Do you think things need to change? Let us know in the comments.

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