KOTTAYAM, India — Annamma Matthews knows her way around the kitchen like the back of her hand. Hers is a tapered room in one corner of the house, overlooking a narrow canal filled with anchovies and water lilies that slithers through the sleepy village of Arpookara in the backwaters of Kerala, India’s southernmost state. She and her family have lived here for generations. Each morning, the 65-year-old pulls out the staples for breakfast: To make puttu, a steamed rice dish served in the shape of a log, she pours dry rice flour and grated coconut into a cylindrical vessel made of steel, steaming it in warm water until the mixture is soft, puffy and held firmly together. For kadala kari, a chickpea gravy, she grinds peppercorns, chilies, garlic and spices in a heavy stone mortar, making a coarse, aromatic paste that simmers in a broth of coconut milk. Every few minutes, she dips her finger into the curry and tastes it, adjusting the flavor with a pinch of salt.
By the time the rest of Matthews’s family—her husband Thomas, son-in-law Binoy and 11-year-old grandson Kevin—are ready to eat breakfast, mouthwatering aromas are wafting through the house. Her daughter Sheena joins to make kapi, or black filter coffee, and help her mother before leaving for work. Matthews, who is short with a round face and charcoal grey hair, serves the others and watches them eat, fetching water or juice, before clearing their plates and wiping down the table. Then she sweeps the floors and throws out the garbage. Once the kitchen is clean, she finally retreats to the backyard with a cup of coffee, pausing for a short break before getting started on lunch.
It’s a routine Matthews has perfected since she was a young girl, when she wed her husband—whom she’d met only once before their arranged marriage—at a small Syrian Christian church here. Her schedule exemplifies how gender roles among most married couples, not only in Kerala but also the rest of India, are distinct: The woman takes on all the housework—cooking, cleaning, sweeping—while the man earns a living.
Kerala stands out from other Indian states for being progressive and female-friendly on many fronts. Since the 1950s, it has been under the control of communist parties, achieving the country’s highest literacy rate and best-performing public health system, forming the “Kerala model for development.” Women outnumber men, and the rate of female infanticide and neonatal mortality remains low. Many have occupied prominent positions in civil service and politics. Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, the state was lauded for flattening the curve of Covid-19 cases under Health Minister K. K. Shailaja, one of two women in the state cabinet.
But strict gender roles dominate even here because while women have contributed to the development model, according to sociologist Shoba Arun, the model itself has not incorporated them. “Women are still seen through the lens of domesticity and sexuality,” she said.
Recently, popular movies have brought more attention to this dynamic, and politicians responded through campaign promises, prompting debate among Indians about why women are still subject to doing unpaid housework. Some see it as part of a gradual reckoning that could help equalize the domestic burden among younger generations, even if it will likely be an uphill climb.
Historically, a legacy of matrilineality—where lineage is traced through women—existed in certain parts of Kerala, particularly among the upper-caste Nair community. Women lived in joint families in large mansions called taravad, and property was passed down from mothers to daughters. They also held various decision-making powers, along with autonomy over their sexuality and reproductive rights. Historians attribute this transfer of power to men having been heavily engaged in warfare between small kingdoms across the state in the 13th century. But once these wars ended and men began integrating back into family life, the system started fading over the following centuries. Matrilineality was formally terminated by Kerala’s Legislative Council in 1925. The final death knell sounded in 1976, when the joint family system was abolished altogether in favor of the nuclear family.
Today, some Nair families still pay homage to the old system by carrying the mother’s name over the father’s, although men typically remain the legal guardians of their families, operating under the influence of an all-pervading caste system. Women from the Nair community say they exercise no more power than most women in other parts of India, despite belonging to one of the uppermost castes. “Nair women may be allowed our freedoms but we’re taught that ultimately it’s our duty to look after the home,” said Mythali Nair, a 21-year-old college student.
Growing up, Mythali watched her grandmothers embody the idea of “strong women.” Both were educated and held administrative jobs, which was extremely rare for women in the 1940s. On her paternal side, Mythali’s grandparents even practiced matrilineal customs that went down the family tree for over 250 years: Her grandfather was part of the last generation of men who moved into the wife’s house after marriage. At the same time, however, they also carried certain ideas about a woman’s place in the household, restricting Mythali’s mother from studying or working until she was married.
Despite growing up in urban environments in Mumbai and Singapore, Mythali’s family still believes in age-old customs that impose on women’s freedoms. When she was 14, she was confined to a room alone for seven days while menstruating because a male relative was visiting on a religious pilgrimage. The sequestering, known as theendari, is common in parts of Kerala even today. Mythali remembers eating her meals alone and feeling shunned, as if she were a disease. When she brought up the incident to her mother recently, they shared a sense of remorse: “Neither of us knew we had the power to speak up,” her mother told her. Mythali says it’s a reflection of a broader trend: “Matrilineality has been reduced to name only.”
Many historians have questioned whether women, even in matrilineal structures, ever held any genuine power. Historical accounts suggest that on a practical level, the most senior male member—usually the oldest brother—was in charge, having the final say in matters like property ownership and inheritance. “Kerala may be different in many ways, but when it comes to women, it’s the same,” said Arun, the sociologist.
Chauvinism has been subconsciously fed to us, like an IV drip into our brains.
A study by the International Labor Organization found that on average, women around the world spend 265 minutes per day doing unpaid household work while men spend only a third of that time doing the same kind of work. In India, that number is 297 minutes a day for the country’s 160 million homemakers, compared to just 31 minutes for men.
Matthews never took up a formal job after she graduated from college and got married, considering housework to be a natural extension of her responsibilities in marriage. Negotiating the unequal division of labor with her husband would be seen as both unconventional and undesirable. Arun describes this as “female and feminine capital”: Women are key within households for their education, status and class. At the same time, they are expected to conform to certain feminine roles, such as submissiveness, purity and caretaking.
Like many other scholars, Arun argues for establishing wages to recognize unpaid domestic work. “Women have come to do men’s jobs, but men have not come to do women’s jobs,” she said. However, while securing income may help women who do not have assets or property ownership, the issue lies in changing mindsets. Integrating household work into the economy rather than seeing the home as parallel to the workplace, she said, would also encourage men to take on shared responsibilities like childcare without feeling like they are “helping” women.
The neighboring state of Tamil Nadu provides an example of potential change. One political party, Makkal Needhi Maiam (People’s Justice Center), founded by the actor Kamal Haasan, recently pledged to pay housewives a monthly wage as part of its campaign for upcoming state elections in May. Although the party’s manifesto does not specify how the initiative would be implemented, Haasan has signaled that it would finally give visibility to the issue—although critics believe it could do the opposite by further confining women to the domestic sphere.
“Subsidizing the household renders women’s labor even more invisible and marks them as welfare recipients even as their claims to equitable wages are not acknowledged,” wrote V Geetha, a social historian and activist, in The Indian Express earlier this month.
It may come as a surprise that Indian courts have awarded compensation for the domestic work performed by women for more than 50 years—but only after they’ve died. Prabha Kotiswaran, a professor at King’s College London, found that India’s judges assigned a value to the unpaid work of women who were killed in road accidents, awarding compensation to their families in some 200 cases between 1968 and 2021. To reach concrete figures, they considered what the women gave up in order to work at home, along with other factors such as age, qualifications and number of children. Last December, a court in the western state of Maharashtra awarded 17 lakh rupees, or $23,263, to the family of one such homemaker, calculating her salary at 5,000 rupees per month.
These judgements can be used to recognize the unpaid work of women across virtually all circumstances, Kotiswaran told the BBC in January. “The focus seems to be on how to get more women into paid work… but is not asking the big question here about labor performed within marriage,” she said. Recognizing the economic value of women’s labor in the household could also boost the declining female labor participation rate in India.
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The topic of unpaid labor received fresh attention recently after the release of “The Great Indian Kitchen,” a Malayalam-language film that captured audiences in Kerala for its realistic portrayal of a newlywed housewife’s struggles. It has also forced men to have conversations with the women in their family about renegotiating the burden of looking after the home.
For 27-year-old Sreejith Nair, whose family moved up the Indian coast to the industrial town of Ankleshwar in Gujarat, the film was an uneasy reminder of the way his mother had toiled away in the kitchen when he was growing up. “It always felt like that was what she was supposed to do,” he said. But when he was 15, Sreejith’s mother developed diabetic neuropathy, a nerve condition that prevented her from performing many of the household chores. Upon seeing his father in the kitchen, he immediately felt compelled to share the load—but also experienced something of a reckoning: “At that point, I realized I’d never felt this empathy towards my mother,” he said. After watching the film, Sreejith apologized to his mother for bearing the brunt of the housework without any help. But she laughed, he claimed, telling him that she was just performing her duty.
Still, Sreejith feels perceptions are changing for his generation, albeit slowly, because women are increasingly determined to be both educated and employed. Later this year, he plans to marry the woman he has dated for four years; when he proposed, she had an important condition: “I want to work for as long as I want to work.” Sreejith agreed, but also knew some of his friends would never do the same. “The chauvinism has been subconsciously fed to us, like an IV drip to our brains,” he said.
Similarly, Joseph, a 32-year-old father living near Matthews’s hometown of Kottayam, said the film depicted a reality close to home. He grew up in an Orthodox Syrian Christian environment, where women are expected to cook, take care of the children and run the home. The men, on the other hand, are expected to take up respectable jobs in engineering, medicine or other fields. When he began studying sociology in university, he acquired a greater understanding of the gendered division of labor. That was unusual, he said, because “there’s very little impetus on the typical Malayali man to understand gender roles with the privilege of being a man.”
Joseph, who requested anonymity to protect his privacy, has been unconventional in many respects. Despite his religious background, he married a Tamil Brahim woman; they gave their child a Muslim name, which drew opposition from their families. The couple eventually changed the name. Even now, during large family gatherings, Joseph said his wife is expected to join the women in the kitchen and clean up after him. The situation won’t be changing anytime soon, Joseph added, at least among his friends and family, who are all well-educated. “The men absolutely see it as a ‘woman’s issue.’”
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While staying with Matthews and her family one evening, I heard the usual clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen just before dinnertime. Slipping into the kitchen quietly, I leaned against a wall to watch her at work, like an apprentice learning on the job. She was perched over the kitchen bench, carefully slicing open a pearl spot fish with a sharp knife. She smiled sheepishly as she butterflied the flesh, realizing she had an audience. She rubbed a spice mixture inside before dipping the fish in a wet batter and frying it in hot mustard oil with fragrant curry leaves. Once done, she picked up the hot pan with her bare hands, placed it on the table, unflinching, and squeezed lemon on top. Then she garnished the battered fish with fresh tomato slices.
As she paused to wipe the sweat from her forehead with a damp towel, Kevin sprang into the kitchen and hugged her from behind. He had just returned from an afternoon soccer match with friends. Thirsty and tired, he began pulling out sweet limes, chilies and a tray of ice from the refrigerator. He was going to make his favorite lemon drink, he told us excitedly. Matthews asked if she should make it for him.
Kevin shook his head, shooing her away as he sliced a lime and coarsely chopped one too many chilies before whisking them together in a blender with ice cubes and water. He poured the concoction into a glass and took a big sip. As he gulped, his eyes widened. “It’s too spicy,” he said, spitting it out. Matthews rolled her eyes and laughed. “Don’t drink it,” she told him. “Just leave it there.”
Kevin obeyed, pouring it down the kitchen sink before running off to play games on his phone. Matthews finished chopping vegetables, rinsed the blender, washed the glass and threw away the lime peels and chopped chilies that had been left behind. It was business as usual for Matthews, who would be cleaning up after the men in her family for the third time that day. For women like her, it will take a long time before the status quo in Kerala shifts. New movies may reflect an uncomfortable reality of the home, but dinner still has to be served.