Mahatma Gandhi’s Bal Pothi Taught Men And Women To Do Household Work
In the context of the tragic death of a victim of gruesome gang rape in Delhi it has been suggested that women should remain confined to homes and do household work. It flows from the long held belief that household work is the exclusive domain of women.
It is primarily due to household work that women remained confined to homes and their talent could not be used for the larger work of society and nation. Most of us have been groomed in an environment both within and outside family which has fostered an enduring notion in our minds that girls and women in the family are duty bound to engage themselves in all activities of the house which include cooking, washing clothes, sweeping floors and even fetching water for the consumption of the entire family. Such training has left a deep impression on male members that they have no responsibility to do domestic work. As a result, the differences between men and women and boy and girl determined by their biological attributes have been prompting people to think that such differences assign a completely different set of activities for women in other spheres of society and nation.
The deeply ingrained thinking and habit in our minds that women have to do the household work is a byproduct of socially generated gender difference which is quite different from the biological differences between men and women. While the differences of anatomy between male and female make them separate entities, the differences caused by gender earmark areas of action for women which often perpetuate inequality between males and females and put the later in a highly disadvantaged position vis-a-vis men. Even women have grown up to think that it is their lot to dedicate themselves to household chores without which the family would not be sustained and everyone including they themselves would suffer.
It is such deeply rooted social practices and thinking which govern our understanding of women both within the fold of family and larger arena of society. These two domains, both family and society, are largely governed by customs and prevalent practices. Even if there are legislations affecting these two domains these remain largely unaffected by the provisions of such legislations due to long held social values and norms. It is rather a difficult task to change such social values and norms which often come on the way of women’s progress and their empowerment. It requires alteration of the way we look at things and decisive amendment of our habits and outlook cultivated by us as a part of our growing up process.
The Father of our Nation, Mahatma Gandhi tried to alter the mindset and the well entrenched thoughts that only women will do the household work. It sprang from his conviction of non-violence which remained central to our struggle for independence. As early as 1922 he wrote a book in Gujarati language called Bal Pothi which was supposed to be a text book for school children. This small book containing only eight pages have tiny chapters running into small paragraphs. It teaches children to get up early, brush their teeth, offer prayers, do exercise, develop the habit of spinning, maintain cleanliness and hygiene, answer call of nature in a reasonably distant place and cover the excreta with soil and use village fields to grow more vegetables and fruits. Mahatma Gandhi wanted children to learn all these valuable lessons through that book.
The last chapter of the book on ‘House Work’ merits serious attention. It conveyed the notion of gender equality right within the frontier of family. Through an imaginary dialogue among sister, brother and mother within the household, he tried to teach children that house work is a joint responsibility of both men and women and boy and girl who stay together under one roof and share unbreakable kinship. This book containing the chapter on ‘House Work’ is of enormous significance for 21st century world marked by women’s struggle for achieving gender justice and their empowerment.
The chapter begins with the instruction of mother to her son that he should do the house work in the manner in which his sister does. The son being brought up with a mental frame that house work is done by ladies only, refuses to go by the instruction of his mother on the ground that a boy plays and studies and a girl in the family performs her role to take the burden of house work. His sister protested by saying “Do we not also wish to play and study?” The brother answers her by saying that possibly while playing and studying she would like also to work at home. The mother asked her son by putting a question “Shouldn’t boys work then?” Answering that question, the son states that in general boys remain attentive to their studies to take up responsibility of life as and when they grow up as adults and earn living for the family. Hearing such reply from her son the mother teaches him that such an idea is entirely wrong and there is much to learn in house work. She explains that a child whether a boy or a girl can receive a lot of education by sweeping the house, cooking the food and cleaning cloths and utensils. She goes into details of such work and tells her son that domestic chores involve use of eyes, hands and brain without much effort. She educated him by saying that such activities in the family constituted true education through experience. The mother gave the valuable lesson to her son by saying that engagement with house work leads to acquisition of greater skill, building up one’s muscles and bodies and developing a sense of independence. She concluded by saying that the boy has to learn and do house work as much as a girl does in the family.
This book Bal Pothi teaching children to do household work regardless of the gender constitutes a vital lesson serving the cause of gender justice and women’s empowerment. The British Government did not permit Mahatma Gandhi to publish it. Even many of the colleagues and associates of Mahatma Gandhi expressed the opinion that Bal Pothi would bring about rebellion in the family. However, Mahatma Gandhi maintained that he wanted to create a good society by reducing the load of household work on women and making them free to avail of other opportunities beyond family.
I had the privilege of visiting Japan in 2008. In every prefecture of that country a Gender Equality Centre has been established. One such centre set up in the Kochi Prefecture has prepared a text for children to teach them the idea that everybody in family, be it men or women or boy or girl, has to share household work. This idea is not only confined to text book but also getting adequate coverage in the electronic and print media to bring about a change in the minds of citizens who grew up with the view that it is entirely the responsibility of women to perform the duties of cooking, cleaning and washing cloths at home. It is due to such efforts that the Japanese people are slowly changing their mindset and now men have come forward to join womenfolk in the family for doing household work. After I saw that book, I conveyed to the authorities of that Gender Equality Centre that what the Japanese society is doing now was recommended by Mahatma Gandhi in the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century. They were astonished to know that Mahatma Gandhi had written a book for school children to educate them about the value of household work and the necessity of both men and women in the family sharing it.
It is important to make Bal Pothi part and parcel of our school education. When I referred to the text of Bal Pothi in one of my lectures in Hyderabad on 30 April 2010 many women showed keen interest on it and wanted a copy to translate it to Telugu. In the year 2007, when I delivered a lecture in Chilkagaon, a village in Maharashtra, and referred to the text of Bal Pothi one lady Mrs. Renu Dandekar, a founder teacher of a school, approached me to learn more about it and later translated it to Marathi after obtaining a copy from me. She even discusses with children about Bal Pothi while teaching them in her school.
It is interesting to note that in Orissa, Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das wrote an article on education for women around the same time when Mahatma Gandhi wrote Bal Pothi. In that particular article Utkalmani regretted that women were not getting enough opportunities to pursue education due to the heavy burden of household work on them. Such reasoning explaining the lack of spread of education among women testified to his commitment to the issue of women’s progress. It is rather unfortunate that neither Bal Pothi nor such radical ideas of Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das is included in our school education. It would be good for society and nation as a whole if we can refashion our school syllabus and education by incorporating these ideas which are now being followed in many of the developed countries. We can pay tribute to those leaders of our freedom struggle who while fighting for our independence were also fighting for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Their legacy endures. We need to live upto it for giving justice to women on whose strength the future of India will rest.
By Satya Narayana Sahu
(Former speech writer of the President & Prime Minister, the author is Joint Secretary at the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.)