“This dish was made by him!”
Twenty minutes into dinner, everyone at the party was praising me for my cooking. Malayalam Actress Rima Kalingal once said that a fish fry made her a feminist. Well, that night, cooking a tray of Spaghetti Bolognese made me realise something else: Women can’t really do what men can.
Are men and women equal?
Yes, it’s a very vague question. Equal in what way? The definition of the question and the final answer varies depending on the person who is responding.
A patriarch, a chauvinist, and a misogynist will all lean towards one end of the spectrum. They will say men are stronger, smarter and more capable of leading individual families and whole societies. So women need to be protected, instructed and controlled. Which naturally means girls cannot venture out of the house alone or make decisions for the family. Instead, they are supposed to focus on taking care of the children and the household. Change diapers and serve chapatis.
Over the past fifty years, this collective ideology has waned in popularity and prevalence, yes?
However, depending on your upbringing, culture, religious beliefs, level of education and overall life experiences, you will have a different answer to this question.
Are men and women equal?
“There are some things a man can do, and some things a woman can do. Neither can live without the other. So yes, they are equal. But different.” – That’s a popular, highly acceptable answer given by a lot of Malayalis. It’s safe. It’s highly open to interpretation.
“No, men and women are not equal. They shouldn’t be. Men have certain responsibilities. Women have certain responsibilities. So let’s not be like Westerners and say women can act like men.” – What are the implications of such a thought? In my experience, the ones who say these words also tend to be the ones who wonder why a girl is not married by a certain age, or if married, not pregnant by a certain age, and if pregnant, not “taking a break” (ahem, quitting) from work and instead staying at home to take care of the infant for a certain period of time (undetermined and extendable).
“Bro, you know the real truth? Women have it easier than men right now. I’ll forward this Facebook post to you…” – There is a sizeable percentage of men who truly believe women have begun to oppress men in society. They will cite everything from Social Justice Warrior video compilations recorded on college campuses to the number of all female remakes that are happening in Hollywood now. Sadly, they reduce gender differences to a zero-sum game. And worst of all, they detract from genuine concerns that sensible Men’s Rights Activists may have.
“No, but they should be! Women can do anything men can!” – This is perhaps the sentiment that’s prevailed over the past century, the one that’s been met with gradual albeit grudging support from all quarters. Women who are often derisively called “feminists” have long argued that females need to be treated with the same respect and offered the same opportunities as males.
Today, more than half the rank holders in competitive exams are females. Women have entered nearly every profession. They’ve excelled as film directors, district collectors, and corporate bosses. They travel alone, live alone, and even raise a family alone if needed. Today, more than ever, women can do whatever men can.
And yet, by the time everyone at the dinner party had finished eating, I realised they technically can’t.
The menu for the party was prepared by my two elder sisters. Naureen was a successful data engineer who’d recently finished an entrepreneurship course from IIM Kozhikode. Najiya was an MBBS doctor who’d just completed her M.D. in Pediatrics. Both had young children who spent the day playing around the house, enjoying their vacation in Kerala.
The two of them tackled four dishes each. Fried Rice, Chapati, Butter Chicken, Gobi Manchurian, Paneer Tikka, Seekh Kebabs, Russian Salad and Custard Pudding.
I volunteered to make a small tray of Spaghetti Bolognese.
Guess which dish was the most talked about?
As my grandmother hyped up my dish in front of my uncles, I realised how ridiculous society’s outlook had become. Today, hardly any rational person will bat an eye if they come across a woman who’s pursuing her Masters, working in a top MNC or living alone abroad. But when a single guy in his late 20s describes how he made an Italian dish by sautéing onions and tomatoes, before adding salt, chili powder and turmeric along with half a kilo of minced meat, suddenly everyone is wide-eyed. The surprise morphs into amusement before settling into admiration.
He knows how to cook!
And that’s how I realised women can’t really do what men can.
Here’s how I understand the changes in gender roles over the course of history. Do you know those video games like FIFA or Need for Speed that let you view and compare the attributes of two different objects? Well, imagine 3D shapes of a man and a woman slowly revolving on screen as their stats are visible.
Now think of those dudes who proudly state that men are stronger. Where exactly does that factor in nowadays? Apart from maybe swiping luggage off the conveyor belt in one quick motion, does your strength really define your life? Alter your destiny?
Over the years the capabilities of both genders have largely equalised. Men and women can study the same, work the same, and think the same. Yes, there are preferences, trends, and exceptions to consider, but isn’t it safe to say the vast majority of middle-class, educated boys and girls are equal in their capabilities?
Yet while we as a society take it for granted that women can (and sometimes should) do everything that men can, we applaud men who do just a fraction of what women have always been doing. The feminist movement hoped to get women out of the kitchen and into the workplace. Yet many women today operate in both spheres, not just one or the other. And after working throughout the day and taking care of the house at night, the glimmer of appreciation in the eyes of onlookers is reserved for the man who wiped a few plates out of sheer magnanimity.
Once the guests had left, I began clearing the table, mind dwelling on the epiphany that I had. Was I overthinking all of it? Are my relatives the only ones who disproportionately commend me about my cooking skills? Are all the other guys in Kerala quietly whipping up meals without enjoying any fanfare?
That’s when I decided to write this article. To know if I’m alone. And if I’m not, what do we do about it? I realised I wanted to someday be the kind of dad who can be seen in the kitchen wearing an apron while listening to podcasts as the iron skillet fries loudly. It dawned on me that I saw my dad in the kitchen while growing up, though I can never be sure how much or how little that influenced me.
Am I making a big deal out of this? Is this whole issue irrelevant now that we live in a world of Swiggy and Zomato? I don’t think so. The reason I want to cook is not to be a feminist hero (though who am I to stop a girl from being impressed with me because of that? I’m single, by the way). It was simply a matter of mastering a life skill, of being self-sufficient.
But now a part of me wants to cook for dinner parties simply so that I’ll someday get the chance to rant when I get the praise that I don’t deserve. Until that happens, this article has to suffice, I guess. The bottom line is, right now, women can’t really do what men can. They cannot enjoy being lauded for doing so little. They cannot expect to be admired for the minor effort. They cannot hope to be praised for the simple attempt.
My grandmother, who was staying with us, sat down for a post-party discussion with my parents and sisters. After a few comments about the other dishes, she looked at me and paused.
Three months ago, she’d showered praise when I cooked that dish for the first time.
Presently, she smiled and said, “It was good… Uppu kurachu koodipoyi, alle? (It was a little too salty though, right?)”
I laughed and nodded happily. Because I realised things were starting to get better. If I kept at it, within a few years, my family would judge my cooking as impartially as they judge my sisters’.