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Subjugation of Women: The Case of Unpaid Domestic Labor

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

“Were men born incapable of doing any house chores?”

Asma asks herself this question each time she looks back on her life from birth until today. Thirty-five years of misery that began the day her mother passed away. As though losing her mother wasn’t hard enough, her father also deprived her of kindness and tenderness, or any emotional or financial support. She no longer felt that she had a place in her family, other than being a housekeeper, having been responsible for all chores since a young age.

Asma’s father had charged her with cooking, housekeeping and fetching water for whoever needed it, in addition to completing her studies, and without assigning any work to her brothers. And her father would beat her if any of his many guests complained about her cooking or if she refused to wait on her brothers hand and foot—her brothers who were taught to never lift a finger around the house. A male, in her father’s opinion, must never be expected to pour his own water, so it was up to Asma to obediently meet her father’s and brothers’ demands at any time. Asma had also been denied an allowance by her father, while he gave his male offspring money for their many recreational activities and luxuries that he did not think girls or women would ever need, including his daughter. According to Asma’s father, a woman’s only job is to serve her family.

Asma’s life did not get better after her marriage. Her burdens, in fact, doubled. In addition to her job as a teacher in one of the rural schools, she was also charged with chores typical for a country woman, like walking long distances to fetch water and firewood. She also takes care of her husband and his family, their five children, and the daily chores in their home, such as cooking, cleaning, sweeping, laundry, feeding whoever gets hungry and taking care of whoever gets sick, as well as preparing anything one might need prior to traveling or going to work.

Although the patriarchal society around her treats her like a machine, devoid of thought, feelings and awareness, Asma is aware that what is happening to her is injustice and an encroachment on her rights. She believes that family members, regardless of gender, should work together to complete the various daily chores. And by doing so, they would get in touch with their humanity and their sense of cooperation, and the family would become a home for them, a safe haven away from the burdens of life. But she lives in a reality where women are treated as unpaid maids born to serve men who are taught from a young age that doing housework would weaken their manhood. This is what Asma considers to be the main problem: what children are taught by their families against what they are taught by society. For, even though she tries to treat her three boys equally to her daughters in terms of rights and duties inside and outside their home, in an effort to break the cycle of unfairness she was born into, she finds that the values of equality and cooperation she instills in her sons are challenged, ridiculed and belittled by others. Asma fears her boys would become social outcasts if they were to live according to the concepts of equality she has tried to instill in them. However, if she were to let them fully integrate in society and adopt the values and practices that result in gender inequality from cradle to grave, she fears her sons would grow up to be like the many men in her family who spend their lives waited on by the same women they scorn and subjugate.

Artwork by Rashad Al-Samei

Unfair division of labor harms women and men

The mere attempt of initiating a conversation about the possibility of women receiving help with chores from their husbands or brothers or sons is not only considered a disgraceful act but it is also seen as a questioning of the social rules that must never be debated or discussed. The issue of division of labor according to Yemen’s social norms is essential to establish men’s dominance over women and girls and to control every detail of women’s lives, including the social and economic. Questioning this authority subjects women to various forms of violence, including verbal, psychological and physical violence that the Yemeni law does not protect women from, according to gender specialist Wamidh Shaker. Society does not realize that this violence results in women being stripped of any merit beyond doing household chores, which harms not only women but also men, since building a family in this unequal way leads to women experiencing severe psychological disorders. This affects their relationships with themselves as well as with those around them, including their children, who may become a means for these mothers to vent their feelings of injustice and helplessness. In other cases, feelings of helplessness may drive these women to harm themselves and others. Following years of work as a psychologist, Dr. Najla al-Afif noted that “men themselves are not spared from this cycle of violence that gives them power on the one hand, while simultaneously and unconsciously stripping them of it”.

This system of labor division that treats women as domestic workers in forced labor is the same system that reduces men to mere wallets and sources of money, whose merit and value is determined by their income. For when men exercise their dominance over women, women in turn extort men financially and lay on them heavy economic burdens. Women take on the role of dependents, only good at cooking and cleaning in response to the unfair social roles determined by gender, according to a scholar at the University of Aden, Arwa al-Shamiri.

The city is no better than the countryside: service outside the home and exploitation and violence in the home

Women in the city are not faring much better than the women in rural areas. Their situation is almost identical in terms of division of domestic labor. The husbands return home from their jobs to rest, while their wives return home from their jobs to cook, clean, take care of their children and tutor them, all in a race against time until they are finally able to rest at night. Then the cycle resumes the following day, with unending work that makes life a hell, with difficulties that are not lessened through cooperation or solidarity within the home. These working women provide financially for themselves and their family members in addition to taking on the housework that would have otherwise cost them a lot if a paid service had been brought in.

The same Yemeni society that demands a female doctor treat women and a female teacher teach girls, with respect to its customs and values, is the same society that places unending obstacles in the personal lives of these women that ultimately keeps them from doing their jobs. And even though there is a growing need for working women to help bear the economic burdens that have increased since the war, whether Yemeni society admits it or not, employed women continue to be looked down on and financially taken advantage of.

Dr. Faten, a twenty-seven-year old doctor, works in a profession that is considered one of the most essential in Yemeni society, especially during the war that has immensely affected the health sector and made the jobs of health workers much more difficult. Dr. Faten returns home daily from her job, which demands strenuous physical, mental and psychological effort, to prepare lunch as soon as she arrives in order to feed her unemployed husband who spends his days sleeping. Dr. Faten prepares lunch every day before her husband wakes up, but one day, not long ago, he woke up before she was finished making lunch, so he dragged her by her hair and beat her until he nearly broke her hand. When she sought refuge with her family, they turned her out, justifying her husband’s behavior as his unquestionable right to be served by his wife. And if she were unable to meet his needs, her parents said, then he has the right to take a second wife.

Except for a few, an illiterate man does not differ from an educated man and a rural man does not differ from a city man. For all types of men see women similarly, and they often resort to violence, in its many varieties. The Yemeni woman who lives in the city goes to work every day and returns home too exhausted to do the housework; even if she is a contributor to her household expenses, her housework responsibilities remain the same. For, according to the firm social traditions of Yemen, a female worker is not excused from her household duties.

Artwork by Rashad Al-Samei

Traditions that surpass legal texts

Men in Yemen believe that serving them is a duty entrusted to women by society, even if there are no laws dictating that a woman must be a maid to her husband. So he, as a Muslim man, does not bother to learn his duties and the limits of his authority over others according to his religion. Muslim jurists argue that it is not obligatory for the wife to serve her husband, but it is a matter of care and affection on her part and not imposed as forced labor and servitude. Sharia law also states that the husband, in return, takes care of his wife and provides her with a home, affection and kindness, which are translated into love and respect.

The schools of Islamic jurisprudence go beyond this to state that a woman has the right to ask for financial compensation for her breastfeeding. It also states that it is not the wife’s duty to serve her husband’s family, not even his parents. For, according to the Sharia law, everyone must serve themselves. And in principle, the law forbids the distinction between men and women in treatment and judges both equally according to their deeds, for they would both bear the consequences of their actions, be they good or bad. The law also states that it is the duty both of men and women to take care of their parents, and anything else provided by women is merely an act of good will on their behalf and not an obligation, like acts of righteousness and benevolence, honoring their brothers or husbands and any such good deeds. And in turn, the man does what is required of him, including being down to earth with his family member, helping them and taking care of them in a manner in parallel to the righteous deeds required of the woman, for which they will both be rewarded.

Violence against women as a result of unfair labor division and the role of human rights organizations

There are no statistics that show the accurate number of abused women in Yemen, for women are weary of seeking protection from the police or human rights organizations out of fear of causing a scandal. But despite the lack of accurate statistics, specialists confirm the rising rates of violence against women, especially since the beginning of the current war. An example of the typical violence that results from unfair divisions of labor is a recent incident in Ibb governorate, where a man murdered his sister in cold blood for refusing to serve him dinner. The parents dropped the charges against their son so he could go back to living his life normally, as though nothing had happened.

Some civil society organizations undertake the important role of supporting abused Yemeni women to the best of their abilities within the limits of set laws. Fawzia al-Muraisi, the case manager of a Livelihood Improvement Project implemented by the Yemeni Women’s Union for the protection of abused women, explains: “One would begin by listening to the woman’s story to determine the type of violence she was subjected to, then determine whether she needs legal protection, health intervention, psychological support, economic support, referral to a safe space or a complete relocation to one of our partner organizations if needed. The union would also provide legal protection by informing the proper police branches that deal with such types of violence.”

Recent years have shown a clear rise in Yemeni women seeking freedom, independence and equality with their male counterparts with the help of human rights organizations, and such efforts may bear fruit in the future despite the silencing of these women’s voices and the societal oppression to remove their right to life as human beings and their right to lead a healthy and dignified life free of abuse and discrimination. So can the Yemeni woman prevail? Or will she forever languish under male violence and discrimination, generation after generation?

Munira Al-Tayyar

An independent journalist who has published several blogs and is a human rights activist who supports women’s rights.
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