x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

When is a woman's work also a man's?

Housework is not a domain to establish power and hierarchy. Rather, it's a gender-neutral task that allows people to show each other mutual respect.

On a recent flight on Virgin Airlines in Australia, a female passenger was hit by a piece of falling baggage from an overhead locker opened by one of the flight attendants. The woman is now suing the airline for injuries. In fact, she says she is so debilitated that she can no longer carry out the housework.

This has led to untold emotional trauma, she claims. As a woman from the Middle East, she says she has great guilt that her husband and son have been forced to take over the domestic duties. Now she is seeking US$36,000 (Dh132,000) to compensate her husband, and a further $7,000 for her son.

I admit I don't particularly enjoy housework (does anyone?) but regular household maintenance is critical. Everyone needs to participate. Men should not be exempted from housework, let alone paid handsomely for having to suffer it. No one should ever feel guilt about sharing vital domestic tasks. I don't.

But sadly it's socially acceptable for women to feel that housework is their sole responsibility and that men should not be troubled by such things. This attitude tells us something profound and ingrained about our beliefs in the power status in households.

Men are put on a pedestal, seen as above cleaning or preparing meals. But what would happen if every woman took the same day off in protest? Men would go to work wearing unwashed and wrinkled clothes. They'd tote empty lunch boxes. And snotty children would be running around rampant in their unchanged nappies.

Women might cheer the idea of raising the value of housework, but they share the blame for the attitude that housekeeping is a menial task.

Like our airline passenger, women themselves denigrate the value of housework and the value of the person doing it. This hierarchy is even more perpetuated in cultures where domestic help is commonplace. The fact that women don't want to delegate the housework to men, but are more than happy to pass it down to maids, only emphasises this point. It is not just in the Middle East where this perception persists, it happens in all cultures around the world.

Whether it's wives or maids, the point is that housework is still seen as "women's work". This view is baffling, given that more and more women are entering the workplace out of need rather than choice, sharing in generating the household income. And yet men are not reciprocating by sharing in the housework.

Men might want to reconsider their attitudes. Why? Because as a recent Cambridge University study found, men who do more housework are, in fact, happier.

Housework is not a domain to establish power and hierarchy. Rather, it's a gender-neutral task that allows people to show each other mutual respect.

And it doesn't hurt that it also leaves us cleaner, better fed and fitted in properly ironed clothes.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk