Remains of the Day: Food and Waste

Appetizer + Soup

In an earlier post on Feminism and Cooking, I spoke about the layered relationship we share with food and the people associated with feeding us: Mom’s love is tied up the food she cooks for her children. In this post, I want to explore our feelings towards food, once we have consumed it.

Foodwaste

Foodwaste

In my traditionally conventional Indian household, I observed that a “waste plate” would always be placed alongside our dinner plates and serving bowls. The plate, an innocuous plastic dish, had only one stand-out feature: it faded into the background of the steel utensils, gleaming cutlery and china plates. The plastic dish served the purpose of holding the remains of our food. The chewed bones left off from goat curry, the succulent bits of chicken legs ripped bare off its fried flesh, the stubborn fat that refused to dissolve from the meat, the unwanted curry leaves, the pasty remains of tamarind, the squeezed-out pulpy remains of drumsticks — all this was flicked with neat precision into the waste plate.

The gory part came afterwards. Once the plate was piled high with waste, and we were done burping and licking our fingers, someone had to pick the plastic dish and toss the contents into the bin. My brother and I were filled with disgust: chee, we said, whenever mom would ask us to carry the plate to the kitchen. “Chee” , as in “Yuck!” “Gross!” “Disgusting!” A plate that held all our “waste” would certainly not be handled by our clean hands! It would either be mom or dad who handled that chore and we were happy to cart the utensils, spoons and dinner plates to the sink. That was how we “helped mom”. We were good kids like that.

Years later, now that I am married and have a family of my own, I am responsible for serving food and yes, taking care of that innocuous little “waste plate”. It’s not my burden to take it to the dustbin, dump the contents – with my bare fingers – and clean the morsels or pickings of rice, curry leaves, whole pepper, or chewed but spat-out green chillies that dot the table (sometimes) or floor mat (usually) we sit on. I had to consciously work out the disgust from my face and gestures in the process of taking over the task of cooking, serving and clearing the remains of the day.

In traditional families, it’s the woman who is expected to serve and clear away the table, and while I co-habited with my parents-in-law for a few weeks, I was expected to uphold this tradition. It was the toughest and quickest lesson for me in overcoming disgust. From never having cleared the waste plate in my maternal home to having to clear the plates off my new, extended family. I had to display a fierce need to clear away the waste, there by proving that I had adopted the new family as my own – bones, curry leaves and spat-out seeds included.

This made me think. The “this” being the ritual of waste plates and food clearance. Why was I so put-off by the idea of handling the waste plate and inadvertently touching the juiced-out bone? An obvious reason is pathological: the mind operates with extreme caution when it comes into contact with external body fluids: semen, saliva, blood, phlegm, and mucus. From an evolutionary standpoint, these fluids are all mediums for transmission of disease-causing germs and pathogens; it’s instinctive to shy away from potentially life-threatening things. See: The Omnivorous Mind: John S Allen (Harvard University Press; and Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics: Caroline Korsmeyer (Oxford University Press). 

Within a span of 30 minutes, food that was once hot, tasty and appealing turns into waste, something to be handled with reluctance, disgust or distaste, and disposed off as far from the site of consumption. No visual pointers remain to remind us that the stale leftovers and foul residue was once licked right off our collective forks and fingers.

Another reason is socio-cultural. In most cultures, traditional or modern, the cooking and serving of food is handled by women. Popular culture portrays women as bustling about in the kitchens and taking extra pains to ensure that food courses, tableware and seating arrangements are impeccable. Once food is eaten, the men simply push the plates away from their self, throw down the napkins, rise up and wash off their hands. The act of rinsing, sometimes aided by the women, kids or household help / maids, signaling the final frontiers of their association with food.

As a child growing up in a Muslim household, with plenty of relatives visiting us for weekly feasts and sit-down dinner celebrations, I learnt that men join in the activity of cooking only as consumers. The women had to cook, serve and clean. Since waste was never handled by the men in my family, I also began to associate it with disgust. If you didn’t have to handle waste, you were high up in the pecking order.

Back home, alone with my husband, the honor of clearing the waste plate falls on both of us, mostly. I have learnt a nifty trick to avoid post-dinner clearance: Once I am done with eating, I take hold of both our dinner plates by the right hand and the rice or curry vessel in the left, leaving the husband to balance the water jar on his left hand and the still-plastic-in-character waste plate by the right. Notice the fact that “waste” is held by right hand – used to eat food — and the same will be used to clear the waste into the bin, and then you wash that right hand thoroughly with Lifebuoy Liquid Soap, of the pink colored variety (for soft and gentle hands). This saves you from having to dip the left hand under the running water of the tap and wasting extra squirts of the Liquid Soap on a hand that was otherwise not required in the ritual of fine dining.

Main Course

In the time that I was an undergrad student studying History, Literature and Psychology and up until the time of my marriage, I had turned from a staunch meat eater to a Vegan. It only took me about 10 minutes, following my History professor’s reading out in class of Maneka Gandhi’s seminal book to know that I would never be able to touch meat again. Or any food item or product that came from an animal, for that matter. I had become a Vegan.

I switched to wearing jute slippers and carrying a jute sling bag; wore pure cotton tunics; threw out Colgate and got a Miswak (100% Vegetarian toothpaste); and gave up my beloved cheese-chocolate-cream-goodies troika of heaven. Camera reel contained fish bone powder, so I gave up my photography hobby and regular soap contained animal fat, so I switched to vegetarian soaps such as Medimix. The motto was to cut out the excesses of daily consumption and rely on what was strictly necessary for a decent life.

Ethical eating and ethical living is a highly subjective issue; it’s impossible to pick sides and declare judgement on the other camp (meat eaters, eggitarians, et al). But there are several communities that take the credo of co-existence with nature and non-violence to a heightened degree. The Jaina community, for instance, have strict prescriptive regulations pertaining to not just diet, but also to the very act of breathing. Read More on their Way of Life.

A very interesting point about their diet revolves around the belief that all organisms – including plants – are sentient beings that will feel pain when they are harnessed, to consume as food, for instance. Plucking vegetables, shoots and roots from the earth causes harm to more than just the plant; it also impacts the micro-organisms that thrive on the vegetation, killing them in the process. Therefore, strict adherents of the Jaina code of conduct have specific directions to pluck, clean, cut, cook, and serve food. Now, here comes the most interesting part, the remains of the meal.

Jainas don’t leave behind any waste on their plate, no food morsels or tidbits, not even their saliva, as they believe that sentient life can take birth in the saliva and by a conscious act, they cannot be responsible for its birth and death. (Bhagavati Aradhana – Gatha Nos. 781-937).

What an excellent way to navigate through the excesses of modern day consumption and waste generation, while maintaining a simple (no doubt difficult) way of life that’s in harmony with the world around. Of course, eating vegetables does involve harm to the plants, but according to Jaina beliefs, this involves the least amount of violence necessary to sustain human life. The conviction that we need to consume only as much as is required, and not as much as we desire supersedes all sensual (of the senses) stimuli.

Dessert

Usthad Hotel is a Malayalam-language film (2012) and revolves around the love affair of Indians with Biryani. Well, that’s not all the movie is about. The film weaves into its narrative the love for well-cooked food, the disparities between the rich and poor of our country, food wastage, poverty, and also, the overarching idea that there is grace in feeding someone, when you cook and serve food that “not just fills someone’s stomach, but also their hearts”. Grace that comes out of love.

The movie is supposedly based on a true-life incident of a top-notch Indian chef who worked in a five star hotel years ago. One morning, while driving to work, the chef caught a glimpse of a poor, street dweller sitting on the side of the road. What he saw made the chef wretch: the poor man was eating his feces! The chef decided to get out and ask the man why he was doing such an abhorrable thing and the man replied: I am Hungry.

The chef had a life-turning moment. Working in a five-star hotel where food is treated as a luxury item to be ordered, bit into and disposed off, here he was confronted by poor people who had nothing to survive on, not even water, and had no means to take care of themselves. Their survival itself was doubtful. The chef quits his job and starts a food-donation organization, cooking meals to feed the poor.

Watching the film, interspersed though it was with songs, dance, romance, and parent-child drama, shook me up. I had given up my Vegan life 5 years ago, and had resumed a life of excess. Cooking extra quantities of meals in a day, only to dispose it off in the garbage at night is a regular affair at home. Consuming “Happy Meals”, 1,500 Rs gourmet-meal-for-two, storing the leftovers in the fridge and giving away three-day old curries to the maid is normal. It’s the way of life for not just me and my family, but for millions of households in India. There is something alarming in a world where we don’t feel anything about kids dying routinely for not being able to get three chapatis, two bowls of rice and three cups of lentils in a day. There is something scary about a world which allows an old man to eat his own feces.

After Dark: Mint

This brings me back to the premise of this post: waste and disgust and the rather complex relationship we share with food and its remains. We need to teach ourselves to view food as something beyond a plateful of desire or a commodity of consumption. Bones and shells, unpalatable and non-chewable items will be a part of the menu for most of us, but what is waste for some, is a luxury for millions of others. How many of us have seen poor people scrounge around in the municipal waste bins of the street for that rotten, half-eaten banana, or for curries that are disposed off in takeaway containers. While this might sound abhorrent to many, here’s something I have begun doing recently: there are times when I am unable to physically go to a poor person and give them the remains of my daily meals. Or if there is an excess amount of food in the fridge and the maid doesn’t take it, my only option is to throw it away. So, I place this in a plastic bag or disposal box and throw it in the garbage anyways. Because, I know for certain that when my rubbish is dumped in the bigger utility bins, it will find a stomach to feed. Crazy logic? You need to think about that poor man in the movie who was reduced to eating worse than this.

So, this is a pledge. A Pledge to be the change that I want to see around me. A pledge to begin cutting down the excesses of / in my life. I want to redefine the credo of “less is more” to mean “less is more than enough.”

Dear Readers, do you have any food-related habits you would like to change? Share your stories of excess in the comments below and also help with the Reading List.

By Nilofar Ansher

Reading List:

1. What’s Wrong with Technological Fixes? Interview with Evgeny Morozov by Terry Winograd at Boston Review

2. Mas vs. Food – TV Show hosted by Adam Richman: Disgusting and Filthy

3. About 90 million tonnes of food is wasted annually in Europe

4. One third of all food fails to make it from farm to table

5. Resource: Portion Planner and Handy Tips to Keep Food Fresh

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Ritualizing Disgust: On Menstrual Taboos

Thousands of years should have been a good time frame for us to get over our collective aversion to menstrual blood. However, communities are increasingly seeing – and colluding – towards an attitude of rejection of this daily occurrence. Evolutionary Biology and History offer clues to our notions of disgust.

From Cave Man to Mother Goddess

The aesthetics of human emotions are physiologically classified into the six broad affects of joy, anger, sadness, fear, however, two would do just fine in categorizing the breadth of experiences we undergo: disgust and delight. Both these emotions have shaped much of our discourse on what is taboo and acceptable, universally and topically. Take food, for instance. Many of us reject insects and bugs in our diet – the repulsion is physical, even though we know that it is a vital part of the diet for communities and populations across the world. The reason bugs are held as repugnant is not because by itself they are disgusting – otherwise, they wouldn’t be food for millions – they become so by virtue of the fact that we (certain groups) don’t consume them. Xenophobia works on the same principle, those who don’t belong to our group (religion, race, community, linguistic family) are by default alien, and therefore, to be feared – which is an emotion on the same spectrum of affects as disgust, anger or hatred.

Menstrual Lunar Calendar by vivalacraft

Does menstruation act as a stimuli in this affective spectrum? It makes sense from the perspective of Othering the female sex and her unique bodily functions, including overt physical changes on puberty, pregnancy and menopause, and the associative somatic and psychological changes that herald these biological stages. Carolyn Korsmeyer, author of  Savoring Disgust, offers compelling evidence from an evolutionary perspective in her research on our relationship with disgust: “in the case of the highly sensory disgust response, natural selection has programmed us for quick, protective recoil from things that smell or taste foul or are repellent to touch, and where ingestion or contact may be dangerous or noxious. Evidence for this can be surmised from objects identified as disgust elicitors across the globe, such as feces, pus, sexual fluids, and parasites, are also disease-bearing substances…this, what appears to be an irrational aspect of disgust, namely, that its range of objects far exceeds those that are truly infectious or toxic, is in fact, a kind of protective umbrella with an important adaptive function.”

So, are we to believe that historical progress and the intervening years did not have a civilizing effect on man’s innate aversions? Well, History and Science show that we have been able to adapt from a purely instinctual learning pattern to one that is more controlled, thoughtful and perceptive, especially when it comes to understanding natural phenomenon. This is especially true when you study the history of the ancient civilizations, beginning with Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq ) and Indus Valley (India). Thousands of years ago, these advanced cultures practiced goddess worship and the cult of fertility superseded that of even the sun. In ancient Egypt, menstrual blood was used as part of medicines, in ointments and drugs (Petra Habiger). Cultures that place emphasis on the curative and sacred powers of menstrual blood, like the East African Warundi, do “segregate completely the menstruating girl,” but would also get her to “touch every object in the house to confer magical protection on it” (Jenny Kien, The Separation of Women’s Bodies from the Cosmic Dance). Janice DeLaney writes of the ancient Indian expression for a girl’s first menstruation as “flower growing in the house of the god of love” (The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation), signifying a powerful and positive affect related to menarche and menstruation, associating it with rebirth, reproduction, sexual awakening and bodily autonomy. How did we go from worship to aversion?

Bearer of Meaning, Not the Maker

Pre-Christian and much later, Medieval attitudes towards menstrual blood help us understand how the sacred affect came to transmogrify into disgust and pass on as a universal cultural code that summarily dismissed women’s bodies as a site of something dirty. In Aristotle’s own words: (Women’s) lack of vital heat also meant that women could not be as intelligent as men. “…this made Aristotle believe that the Greek social structure that kept women strictly under men’s control was justified by women’s anatomy…he believed that a child was produced only from the male’s seed – the woman was a passive vessel in which the seed was planted, and the women’s pleasure during sexual intercourse was irrelevant” (Joyce E. Salisbury, Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World, 2001).

This line of thought that began with the Greek philosopher, reached its ascendancy with the Christian Church. Take the manuals of confession and pastoral care, written by clerics educated in the theological and law schools between 12-14th centuries. Thomas of Chobham, in Summa confessorum, insists that “it is dangerous to sleep with a menstruating woman because from such a union leprous offspring are born, and it is most shameful to lie with a puerperal woman while she suffers a flow of menstrual blood” (Becky R. Lee, The Purification of Women after Childbirth: A Window onto Medieval Perceptions of Women, FLORILEGIUM 14, 1995–96).

As we move towards the modern era and peek into the traditional American communities of the 18th and 19th century, we find that there is growing disconnect between the domestic realm and the medical profession. Housewives considered it taboo to enlighten (and initiate) their daughters into the first steps of being sexually functioning woman, where as clinics and hospitals reduced the monthly cycle to a physiological occurrence, with a focus on hygience and sexual reproduction. Conservative mothers did not think it appropriate to broach the subject with their pre-pubescent daughters, believing that “such things were not talked about and also not thought of”. While this may seem like an abdication of maternal responsibility and a clear indication of Victorian sexual repression, the relucatance to talk appears to have been a pervasive maternal strategy related to the middle-class mother’s desire to preserve her daughter’s innocence. As Constance Nathanson rightly observed, the suppression of sexuality was defined in the 19th century as necessary to the health development of a young woman’s reproductive capabilities” (Health in America, 2nd Ed.: Historical Readings, edited by Judith Walzer Leavitt).

This cultural trope materialized in fiction as well, as seen in an essay on American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804-1864) The Birthmark, where critic Jules Zanger “explores the implications of the curious red mark (a tiny hand) on the heroine, Georgiana’s cheek.” Zanger traces the meaning of Georgiana’s imperfection to nineteenth century menstrual attitudes, demonstrating that because of its tabooed nature, menstruation demanded a set of euphemisms. The monthly euphemism is an evasion of menstrual reality” (DeLaney).

Bloody Horror
When I experienced menarche, my first reaction was one of horror. This had nothing to do with the patchwork bloodstain on my white slip, or the cramps, or acclimatizing to your own mutating body. It had to do with how, all of a sudden, I had to become this girl who had to learn about appropriate physical boundaries with her brother or father, or the neighbors. We are taught to be alert about who is looking at us and the self-learnt mantra of our body being something to be kept safe. Having your period meant your body could now be violated, because it was now a body capable of sexual intercourse. We are taught how to dress appropriately in consideration of the visible breasts; the legs need to be covered as well as they now incite feelings in men. I couldn’t keep up with the litany of do’s and don’t’s my mother impressed upon me, never overtly as diktats, but in subtle head shakes and shrugs, in the admonitions passed on by the eyes, in the visible frowns and thinning of the lips – I was just not learning to be a suitable mature girl!

Traditionally, a ritual celebration accompanied the menarche of girls in my community. There would be a feast, a couple of hundred relatives and close friends would be called, we would stage a mock ritualistic marriage between the menstruating girl and another girl who has not yet hit puberty, and basically let the entire world know that a rite of passage has been achieved. I used to wonder whether this rite of passage was benevolent; after all a ritual that celebrates the coming of age of a girl must obviously mean that the community has a progressive outlook towards a woman’s body and the naturalness of her bodily fluids. However, this ritual – now mostly practiced in the village and not much in the cities – marks the commencement of the reproductive readyness of the girl. Having your period means it’s time for the family to get the girl settled with a boy of suitable age – the sooner the better. It reminds me most disturbingly of the ritual slaughter of animals for a festival, where the sacrificial creature is first venerated, fed good food, paraded in the community and then, following holy words and prayers, cut open in front of its god.

Describing the taboos of modern day India, particularly in towns and villages, Rose George, spoke to girls post their menarche and the horror, seclusion and fear they undergo every month in the name of tradition. She writes in The New York Times about the injunctions that young Indian girls from a particular community receive from their mothers or elders: “when you menstruate, don’t cook food because you will pollute it. Don’t touch idols because you will defile them. Don’t handle pickles because they will go rotten with your touch…The taboo of menstruation in India causes real harm. Women in some tribes are forced to live in a cowshed throughout their periods. There are health issues, like infections caused by using dirty rags, and horror stories, like that of one girl who was too embarrassed to ask her mother for a clean cloth, and used one she found without knowing it had lizard eggs in it. The resulting infection lead to the removal of the girl’s uterus.”

Remedial Prescription

Menses by itself is not disgusting, but the practices that led to the isolation and segregation of women during their menstrual cycle got codified into ritualistic codes. The construct of tradition works just like an Infinite Loop, “a sequence of instructions in a computer program which loops endlessly, either due to the loop having no terminating condition, having one that can never be met, or one that causes the loop to start over.” These codes are not only entrenched, but are regenerative, as can be seen by how each one of us subscribes to a prescriptive model for behavior based on our family traditions, religious affiliations, national identity, and the meta-narrative of culture. These subjectivities form part of our tradition and act as a navigational compass guiding our performance.

If a mother’s response to her daughter’s period is one of anxiety, disgust and prudish codes of conduct, then it sets a precedent for others in the family and community to emulate that affect. It becomes ritualized behavior, something that is not questioned but performed. Laura Mulvey beautifully captures this transmission of code when she categorizes women as “the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning”. Yes, our learned affects don’t make sense most of the time because a million years of mangled evolutionary code separates our current affect from our evolutionary past. It’s easy to connect the dots backwards and understand how we have precriptions for clothes, for body art, religious practices, rules for social participation, for rites of passage, marriage and burial rites, and so on.

It also explains why it’s so difficult to reset ritualistic codes and throw off the yoke of tradition. What we fear the most is losing our sense of bearing and rituals act as signposts in our daily iterations. “Rituals reveal values at their deepest level…men express in ritual what moves them most, and since the form of expressions is conventionalized and obligatory, it is the values of the group that are revealed. I see in the study of rituals the way to an understanding of the essential constitution of human societies” (Victor Turner, 1969). Anthropology offers an insight into our pre-historic affects. So, while it is true that modern society has sanitized and deoderized the more visible aspects of the human stain, people have yet to examine and unlearn their learned aversion to menstrual blood.

Unlearning is a gradual process and it must first begin with us, women ourselves, and our rejection of this monthly cycle. Let us question the narrative of hate, of refering to it as a curse, and using euphemisms and puns while talking about ‘it’as the red sea, or the floodgates having opened, or it being that time of the month. Let’s step back from the reification of our biologies, the thingification of what is natural. It’s only then that we would be better placed to construct a positive affect of our living body. Anne Frank writes: Each time, I have a period – and that has only been three times – I have the feeling that in spite of the pain, the unpleasantness, and nastiness, I have a sweet secret, and that is why, although it is nothing but a nuisance to me in a way, I always long for the time that I shall feel that secret within me again.” Perhaps the time will come, when we have evolved neutral affects; not celebratory, neither derogatory or shameful.

Feminism and Marital Name Change

Choosing to take on your husband’s name after marriage doesn’t bode well for a budding Feminist, at least that’s the impression I get from the heated debates that have been criss-crossing the web diaries of Feminist writers in the quarter that just went by. On the one hand, we have Feminist debates that focus on identity politics. In ‘Why should married women change their names? Let man change theirs,’ The Guardian writer Jill Filipovic writes about how societal expectations for a woman to change her last name post marriage play into patriarchal injunctions against women’s selfhood: “The cultural assumption that women will change their names upon marriage – the assumption that we’ll even think about it, and be in a position where we make a “choice” of whether to keep our names or take our husbands’ – cannot be without consequence.”

Identity is also something that drove Claudia Maittlen-Harris to stick to her maiden name. She writes in The Huffington Post: I couldn’t part with the identity and history I have attached to my name, and I couldn’t part with who I believe I am with this name. Jonathan Jackson (nee Jonathan Jones Camery-Hogatt Jackson) reflects on the backlash he received on his decision to go against tradition. He writes in The Huffington Post: “Our society needs an overhaul, and this last name choice won’t make a huge difference by itself. We know that. It’s quiet. It’s subtle. But it still undermines small power asymmetries. In that sense, our last name has the potential to stand for something much, much bigger: It symbolizes our relationship with society itself.”

Indian bride

The kick-off point for my own exploration of why I gave up being a Miss Haja to become a Ms. Ansher began with three of my good friends getting married recently: forget hyphenating their last names, the thought of giving up their surnames didn’t even enter their minds. While one of them is an avowed Feminist, the other two aren’t. For them, the question of taking on their husband’s family name was a moot point; why should marriage preclude women from holding on to their individual identities, and not place any such expectations on married men?

The narrative of associating our names with identity runs strongly through all the articles I mention above. Filipovic even mentions how Patriarchy conditions women to treat their names – and therefore our identities – as temporary, something which will soon be appended by our true, permanent and real names. This is something I understand and can trace to my own childhood spent day-dreaming with cousins about the possible romantic surnames that we would all have, post marriage. In the Tamil Muslim community I come from, married women take on their spouse’s first name post marriage – and not the surname, family-, village-, or clan name as is the case with the country’s multitude of ethnicities. So, for us, it was doubly exciting to contemplate getting married to a Salman, or a Zubair or an Armaan, and not bother too much about the Khan, Syed or Mohammed addendum.

What I was very clear about was not adding the prefix of Mrs to my name. To me, this more than anything else placed more emphasis on a woman’s marital status and projected her as a wife first, and a woman later. In the lead up to the wedding, my fiance was least concerned about what name I would take up post marriage. It was I who had to bring up the topic. With three months to go for D-Day, I went ahead and signed up for new Facebook and Google accounts, shutting down my old ones and generally making a fuss about the impending nomenclature change. My friends thought it was an excellent way to announce my new status in life and none of them questioned why I chose to drop my father’s name.

What I didn’t anticipate was that in the course of my marriage, I would also grow to recognize and embrace the Feminist in me, and this certainly made things uncomfortable for the smug Ms. in me. I questioned the implicit social expectation that required women to disassociate their married selves from their maiden lives. The reason why this act of rechristening holds so much power is because we invest so much of our emotions, memories, selfhood, and character in the names chosen by our parents. I also began to understand the agony of some of my other girl friends who wanted to stick to their maiden names, but couldn’t.

****

It’s been five years since I took on a new last name. Today, despite being aware of how chauvinism and misogyny operate, I don’t feel anything less than a complete woman, or anything less than what I was before marriage. In fact, marriage has added to my journey, to my successes and to my discourse of being a Feminist. I cannot exhort my husband to consider changing his name because he never asked me to change mine. And by the very same standards that chauvinism thrives on, if I expect my husband to change his last name for my sake, to prove his love, or in the name of tradition, I would be playing into the same constructs that Patriarchy thrives on.

I have also come to believe that our given names are not sacrosanct and christening your children brings into play the Patriarchal construct of parental authority over offspring. Not choosing to take on our husband’s name, but choosing to keep our father’s surname, is what I would call “same difference”. The act of holding on to our maiden name doesn’t strike a blow to the bogeyman of tradition and favoring a male name as the carrier of heritage and genealogy. We invest so much of who we think we are in our given name that the only way you can dismantle this specific tradition is when you voluntarily choose your own name, either when you become a legal adult or perhaps by fomenting new traditions that allow children to christen themselves as they wish and making it legal. As Jessica Grose writes in The Slate, citing a 2004 essay written by Katie Roiphe: “Our fundamental independence is not so imperiled that we need to keep our names.”

road less traveled

As it is, with my new found awareness of how Patriarchy functions, I am still comfortable going around as Nilofar Ansher. I don’t feel subsumed or shorn of my selfhood, neither is there more emphasis on my wifehood merely because my last name is now associated with my husband’s. The sense of love that pervaded my decision does not warrant second-guessing and neither should women who choose to go my route face censure from Feminists. Jen Doll, who writes in The Atlantic Wire, sums up this sentiment: “…whether or not one takes a husband’s name upon marriage is no big deal, really; everyone should do what they want, and may the best name win. Judging someone for doing whatever it is they decide to do for themselves is the problem.”

What is really at the bottom of this issue is the fractured idea of empowerment we each hold. To me, empowerment could be the very act of breaking away from my pre-marital family narrative and willingly taking on that of someone whom I chose to adopt as my family: my husband. In doing so, I have not given up who I am, but instead have added to the narrative of who I hope to be. Some day, in the future, it will no longer be necessary to justify our choices, either in the name of Feminism or Love. For me, both aren’t mutually exclusive constructs.

Follow me on Twitter @culture_curate | About Nilofar Ansher

This post appears in UltraViolet. Do check out their blog.

Another version of this post first appears on The Feminist Wire. Go the TFW’s webpage.

Also read: Women Aren’t Perfect (And We Shouldn’t Expect Them to Be)

Feminism & Me: Feminist in My Kitchen

The age-old trope of drawing parallels between woman and cooking needs to be dismantled, especially since loving one’s family has nothing to do with mastering the skills of putting together a meal.

Nilofar Ansher

The Romantic Tedium of Cooking
Our notions of love and nurture are bound with the flavor, texture and warmth of food cooked and served by our mothers. It’s the leitmotif of my childhood in the late 1980s: the children busy with homework and heading off to school, dad reading the newspaper and hurrying off to work, and mom marking her presence in each room – the bedroom for dressing us up, the kitchen to cook and pack our tiffins, the hall to send us off – with the main door threshold marking the limits of her influence.

This has been a constant in most Indian homes. The daily pattern of women tending to the household and the men heading out is a typical middle class phenomenon and has been projected as part of the narrative of an Indian women’s grihasti. It presupposes division of labor: husbands handle livelihoods, while wives nurture lives. You won’t find a single imprint of this domestic structure in the homes of the lower middle class or poor families. There, women head out along with their husbands to earn a living, as daily wage laborers or workers in small factories and cottage industries. But cooking remains a woman’s fixture, no matter which class society imprisons you within.

The measure of our worth was also calculated by the day’s menu – the more special the dish, the more mom loved us. And Sundays were reserved for an extra helping of her boundless love, as witnessed by the biryanis, ghee rice, fried accompaniments and dessert. Days when ordinary meals were served meant mom didn’t love us enough to take an effort to cook our favorite items. Simplistic? Yes. But that’s a child’s way of making sense of the ritual of cooking and associating tasty food with love. We connect the dots – rather incorrectly – equating the action (cooking) with intention (love).

Our notions of love and nurture are bound with the flavor, texture and warmth of food cooked and served by our mothers.

Even though we lived next door to a household where an aunty worked at a bank, she was still expected to finish the cooking, supervise the maid, pack the tiffins for her children, do the same for herself and her husband, get ready and rush to catch the 9 am bus. What sets my family apart from her and other neighbors and relatives is that my father is an able cook himself and helped mom with kitchen work whenever he could, in the morning and after returning home from office. My brother and I were never asked to help with even the simplest of chores, like washing or peeling vegetables, or preparing tea, and we took it for granted that cooking is a woman’s domain with occasional assistance provided by men. My assertive, outspoken and opinionated mother never highlighted that father helping out in the kitchen was an uncommon practice and as a girl, I grew up with the notion that while cooking would be my lot, I would be ably supported by my partner when I commence my marital domesticity.

Outsourcing Domesticity
On our yearly pilgrimage to the southern part of India, at my parents’ native place, I experienced another aspect of domesticity. Houses in my village are large affairs, with kitchens dominating the entire backyard and a cotery of maids, errand boys and cooks to manage the household. Here, cooking was not strictly the domain of the women of the house; they had to supervise the cooks and manage the chores; they were not physically responsible for shucking the peas, stirring the curries or cleaning the entrails of the chicken. Hired cooks were not necessarily women and on festive occasions and ceremonial functions, when vats of food had to be cooked, served and distributed, male cooks were the obvious choice for the job.

This notion of the privileged, landed gentry in the village following a different, but familiar pattern of domesticity is echoed by an extract from the periodical Lakshmibai, a Malayalam women’s periodical published in 1908: ‘We all know that the periodical Lakshmibai is published for the particular use of women. Though there are various issues women should know that are discussed here, I have yet to see anything written on the science of cooking—something women should necessarily know…I do not think anyone will object if I say that women should have the knowledge of cooking. Like caring for one’s husband, tending one’s children and supervising the household, this too is important. I do hope that readers do not misunderstand and get ready for battle with me. The essence of what I say is not that women should, like servants, go to the kitchen and slave. I am only saying that women should know enough to ensure that their servants work as desired. It is the housewife who has the burden of ensuring the health of the husband, of the children and of herself. If she has to carry out this responsibility adequately, she has to have a decent knowledge of cooking.’ (Sharmila Sreekumar, Writing the Culinary in Early Twentieth Century Malayalam, in The Writer’s Feast, Orient BlackSwan, 2011).

It’s elementary then, to deduce that economic status has much to do with setting domestic norms and expectations. But we know that differential financial backgrounds don’t really alter traditional gender roles – they instead shift the degrees of expectations. Take the case of American women in the post-World War II era, which saw an increase in purchasing power and consumerism. This was the time when ‘women-friendly’ electronic appliances and household gadgets flooded the markets, and blatantly positioned as a means to escape “from the shackles of household chores”.


 Vintage 1950s ad for household appliances - Hoover vacuum cleanerVintage 1950s home appliance advertisement - Washing Machine   Vintage ad for kitchen appliance - oven

These vintage advertisements dating to the 50s and 60s, seem to suggest that technology has finally resolved the age-old conflict of who will do the dishes. With the aid of appliances, household chores were now a relaxing activity, one to pursue in between all our reading and tea time. Women smiling cheerfully, raising their eyebrows in pride, looking over their shoulders at their husbands with a smirk, intimating the reader that they have managed to bring order to the home without breaking into a sweat.

But the reality was much different, as expounded by Betty Friedan in her seminal work The Feminine Mystique (1963): The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “is this all?” Friedan makes two points here: the sense of ennui experienced by American women because of their endless chores, and the dissatisfaction that arises out of being tied down solely by chores. The technology that was supposed to give women more time outside the kitchen and our homes, ended up restricting us within.

In her critique of civil engineer Samuel C. Florman’s book, Blaming Technology: the Irrational Search for Scapegoats, individual anarchist and feminist Wendy McElroy explains how Florman – himself a champion of engineering, modern science and technology – was forced to comment on the increasing tension between the scientific community and feminism, with somewhat bewildered amazement: “The development of household appliances, for example, instead of freeing the housewife for a richer life as advertised, has helped to reduce her to the level of a maidservant whose greatest skill is consumerism. Factory jobs have attracted women to the workplace in roles they have come to dislike. Innovations affecting the most intimate aspects of women’s lives, such as the baby bottle and birth-control devices, have been developed almost exclusively by men. Dependent upon technology, but removed from its sources and, paradoxically, enslaved by it, women may well have developed deep-seated resentments that persist even in those who consider themselves liberal.”

Transmute this power equation to Indian shores, and we are looking at a majority of women who don’t have access to any of the more expensive contraptions, and rely on their self-labor to complete their chores. The only two options we are presented with – by the system – is: earn enough to buy appliances that will end up burdening you more with their setup and maintenance, or, hire a maid or cook for pittance and commence a cycle of exploitation. Outsourcing as a model of altering domestic patterns doesn’t seem to be ethical, pragmatic or foolproof. What do we need to change this equation then? Well, where have our better halves disappeared and why haven’t we involved them in adhering to the idea of equal division of labor?

Re-discovering the Kitchen
Up until I turned 22, I was not compelled to learn cooking. Understanding that academics and extra-curricular activities were more relevant to my life in college, my mother let me be. But the fact that I would have to eventually learn how to wield the tava and spar with the spatula was not far away from my thoughts. And this was not something I dreaded or frowned upon. Rather, the years of reading romance novels and being fed on a diet of cookery shows on Doordarshan and Star Plus, and movies across the language spectrum filled me with the romantic notion of cooking for my husband. Fiction and popular culture drive home the point that it doesn’t take too much to win the love and appreciation of a husband and his family, which required only that we learn to navigate their circuitous intestines! Love, affection and being a dutiful daughter-in-law is consistently associated with being a good cook. The ritual of the pehlirasoi in Hindu households, where the newly-married girl is supposed to cook a dessert and offer it as sacrifice to the goddess, followed by cooking a variety of dishes that cater to the 10-member family’s tastes is captured in fuzzy, warm tones of delight in our saans-bahu serials.

traditional indian mealPlump with this diet, I approached my own domestic life on a Dopamine overdose of enthusiasm and determination. My husband’s praise was the prize and the race involved multiple tasks: prepare meals on time, plan menus with variety, serve dishes in style, keep the kitchen clean, don’t complain about the effort it took, and lastly, don’t appear too eager for praise. I agree, this soap opera kept me satisfied and lulled for a few months, until I got myself a full-time job. Now, the goal was not just to manage the home, but also external chores and the demands of a multi-national schedule. My family encouraged me to embrace the woman in me, who was supposed to be capable of great feats of juggling (this has now become a running joke, with my husband sometimes referring me as Goddess Durga, with her ten hands!). Cooking became a bone of contention: is it alright to get a cook or do we change our eating habits and order out? Neither option seemed the best, especially since I couldn’t find a reliable maid and second, I loved the taste of my concoctions too much to cede control to another person. With no promises forthcoming from the husband to enter the kitchen and support my labor, I realized that the odds were stacked against me. I could either spread myself thin, in a bid to prove that I could ‘have it all,’ or be honest with myself and accept the truth: the system is rigged against me – against all of us women – and it’s time to call show.

It is in patriarchy’s best interest to step on the pedal of tradition, cloak it as love and drive women into a guilt trip. John S. Allen, in his book The Omnivorous Mind (Harvard University Press, 2012), draws up a complex story arch with food, gender and the agents of memory playing key roles, referring to the enactment of the traditional Thanksgiving meal in American homes every year: Even with some breakdown of traditional gender roles concerning the preparation and serving of the Thanksgiving meal, it still provides opportunities to display aspects of gender. Sreekumar succinctly captures this anomaly in her article: “…the act of cooking and the home in which it was imagined as taking place were in fact fictions designed to support one side of the debate, ongoing in Malayali society of the time, over what exactly was the woman’s role in the house, and indeed what the categories of ‘wife’, ‘husband’ and ‘family’ ought to mean.”

Deconstructing our association of home-cooked meals with mother’s love is also a journey in ownership of domestic life, for both men and women. Domesticity in general and cooking in particular don’t have to be phenotyped by their historical gender orientation. What is required is a recalibration in how we approach tasks within the realm of our homes. For instance, can we try to deconstruct our relationship with waste: transform the disgust associated with taking out the garbage into a chore that is necessary to keep the kitchen free from germs and diseases. Language once again plays a significant role. Did you know that the word ‘menial’ has its origins in the Middle English meinial, meaning belonging to a household. So, the very idea of anything related to domesticity has been systematically constructed as pertaining to servility. Deconstruction works by cleansing the stigma associated with all our chores – think about how we refer to cleaning the toilets as ‘disgusting’ but don’t mind our women cleaning the same. I do see the winds of change in my generation, beginning with my maid who says that in her home, her husband is in-charge of cooking “as he’s good at it and I am not”. The age-old trope of drawing parallels between woman and cooking needs to be dismantled, especially since loving one’s family has nothing to do with mastering the skills of putting together a meal..

This article first appears on The Feminist Wire, March 2013.

Nilofar Ansher
http://www.about.me/nilofaransher

How do Visitors to the Museum Decide on Artifact Authorship?

Here is a research – education initiative I am trying to pull off independently. If you are a museum staff and can put me in touch with your organization, please do so! Email: nilofar.ansh@gmail.com

1. The title and definition of the project

Authorship through the Eyes of a Child: How do visitors to the museum make sense of the identity of the artifact maker?

Definition and Scope:

The project aims to gauge the attitude of children (who visit a museum) in a specific area: Primarily, the question of “identity” behind the artifacts on display. Do children think about “the who?” of an object, besides the “what, where and how”? Are they able to visualize the communities, artists or artisan responsible for creating the objects they view? This would largely depend on the level of communication and interaction planned by a curator through labels and captions, signage or obvious displays.

Within this issue, the project also aims to understand if the museum is a “gendered” space. Do the kind of objects on display and the manner, in which, they are displayed convey any sense of gender or a lack of it?

Please note: My project doesn’t include a study of whether a museum’s collection reflects a particular gender identity. It only concerns itself with the children’s perception of the identity and gender of the artists or artisans behind the artifacts.

2. Why the topic interested you?

As students of art history, we are constantly plagued by the issue of authorship of artworks that we study, especially when it comes to ancient art, with not a single “signed by” found on any of the sculptures, murals, or friezes we admire, preserve and study. Within a museum, the question of authorship gets further lost, distorted or taken out of context, as the artifacts are displayed in isolation of their original environment and context. While academics and students of art history have the leisure to speculate about the plausible identity of the artist, the casual museum visitor has no such training or motivation.

Take the example of a Mughal Miniature in the Prince of Wales Museum in Western India. Plenty of folios are on display within glass cases, with labels such as: “17th century Pahari, King Todar Mal hunting with his ministers, Dimensions of the Folio.” No where is there a mention or signage elucidating the nature of the Mughal karkhana (artisan guild, workshop in the Mughal court), the well-known artists of that period, the communities involved in painting a Miniature, etc. “Artist unknown” seems to suffice for the question for authorship. Such a label doesn’t motivate a visitor to think about the art work beyond its physical presence in a glass case, and they only appropriate its aesthetics (beauty and physicality, rather than its provenance and history).

This issue is important because an inadequate or neutral representation of an artifact leads to a distorted sense of history, or in perpetuating misconceptions about the role of men and women in the history of art.

For example, how do we educate visitors about the gender neutrality or inclusiveness (depending upon the way you see it) of artifacts such as jewelery, pottery, costumes, or household décor such as baskets or mirrors. They are made by either men and women artisans and craftspersons or both, depending upon the community, region and nature of the craft. It would be interesting to find out, however, if the visitor perceives or assigns any gender identity to such artifacts – considered to be typically the domain of women by those unfamiliar with the history and tradition of Indian craft. When more often than not, the gender identity of an artist is not conveyed, does it lead to the perpetuation of certain misconceptions or stereotypes?

I wanted to survey children, specifically, for this project because I would like to understand if the stereotypes associated with gender are extended to works of art, and artifacts, in a museum. I would like to speak to and engage with children between the age group of 6 and 12 (rough age span). I hope that they wouldn’t just depend on “logic” if I ask them a question like, ‘Who do you think has made this huge stone sculpture?’ and answer ‘Obviously, a man’. Because, I daresay, the same logic can’t be applied if I ask, “Who has made this delicate china porcelain?’, because the answer is not obviously “woman”!

So, another important point to keep in mind is the kind of artifacts I might choose to base my questions on. Should I choose artifacts that have an ambiguous gender identity or should I choose displays that are sure to have obvious gender defined authorship? What will be particularly interesting to note here would be the children’s “reasoning” behind how they decide whether an artifact is created by a man or woman, and how, if at all, that reflects contemporary perceptions of a man and woman’s role and identity in society and across professions and role play at home.

The project also aims to engage children visiting museums to take a keener interest in the objects they interact with, either through the guided school tours or during an evening out with parents.

On a personal level, I hope this project turns out to be a catalyst for furthering my understanding of the potentialities inherent in a museum as a space to educate different demographics, in this case, children.

Would it be possible to envisage a time when a fairly sensitive and well-read visitor to the museum would not just ask the following two questions when s/he faces an object: 1) Subject of the work 2) Object of the work, but rather, goes beyond the physicality of the display and interpret the work according to how much it speaks to her/his sensibilities.

For e.g: If a series of figurative paintings have been displayed in a gallery: The questions to consider would be: 1) Male artist or female artist 2) If the subject of depiction are male or female figures/setting. 3) What is the style/composition of a painting if a female artist has painted a woman’s body, similarly, how is this painting different from the artist’s depiction of a male subject/character/setting; 4) How would a male artist paint a woman as his subject, and conversely, how would his depiction of male characters/figures be different from how a female artists depicts male characters.

3. How will you go about doing it?

The project involves conducting a survey of at least 500 children in the age group of 6-13 (roughly, Class 1-6). I will also closely work with the education / community outreach department of the museum to understand and document the methodology through which an intertwined narrative of history, gender and identity is presented before the visitor. I would particularly like to focus on Indian Art, as it would serve the questions the project wants answered better.

I have previous experience in interacting and interviewing museum visitors. In 2005, I had interned at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai (now the Chhatrapati Sivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahlaya) and in the course of a month, I had conducted a survey of 100 visitors (adults) to ascertain their responses on the artifacts on display with specific reference to the label/captions, lighting, display aesthetics, way finding and signage in the museum. The survey allowed me a peek into visitor psychology. Interacting with people from across the country, each coming from a different cultural, linguistic and educational background gave me a hands-on experience and allowed me to draft practical guidelines for the museum towards better design aesthetics. I am comfortable interviewing people, including children.

4. How much time will the entire thing take? – Time line for the project

A year. Detailed break up of module will be submitted later.

5. Which are the areas covered?

Museum studies, museum visitor’s psychology, Gender Representation, Children’s interaction within a museum, Display and design aesthetics in a museum, survey and report making.