When in Oslo to collect an award, Nadia al-Sakkaf, the editor of Yemen Times and a 36-year-old mother of two, said that for any woman to have a career and care for family, “you have to have a good support system; otherwise, you are fighting two battles at the same time.” Notwithstanding the external pressures that women around the world face in the corporate arena, Al-Sakkaf’s comment about the indispensability of a good support system at home strikes as a universal truth for working women, whether in Europe, Africa or Asia.
Of course, men too appear to do rather well in their careers when supported by an able woman back home; several cultural proverbs testify to the fact that behind every successful man there is a woman, and that once a man gets married, he invites Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, into his home. The ancient Indian belief may have roots in the reality that a man’s personal chores and family duties are mostly handled by his wife, or at least shared, and he has the freedom to delve wholeheartedly into his profession once married. (Yes, there are several successful bachelors who’d be exceptions to this truth, but I’d argue that they probably live with their mothers.)
For women, who have only been venturing out into the paid working force for the past 100 years or so, the question of support often decides whether they can work at all. In the West, husbands chip in with housework and childcare (or are expected to), and often with career support: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s partner Tim Mathieson gave up his salon and real-estate businesses once she assumed office in 2010, taking on unpaid, charitable, behind-the-scenes roles. Hillary Clinton’s husband and former US president Bill Clinton is one of her biggest campaigners. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s scientist husband Joachim Sauer has given a different kind of support by staying out of the public limelight and as ‘invisible as a molecule’, allowing all media focus to stay on her.
In conservative nations such as ours, if the husband and his family do not give their consent, the wife often cannot have an independent career at all. And support is not just moral – it is physical too. Since the domestic was once the woman’s domain, who else can ensure the cleanliness of her kids’ hands, the health of her fridge, and the dust-free smoothness of her tabletops in her absence? If the wife has to work outside the house, she needs a ‘wife’ of her own back home!
In India, a husband who shares domestic duties is a much-revered rarity. In a joint family, the mother or mother-in-law may fulfil that role. Women without that luxury rely on nannies, helpers, sisters or friends. Some work from home or part-time, trying to balance the act. Others, like me, try to be superwoman at the circus – juggling grocery lists, children’s school calendars and an equal workload in office – and end up burnt out every now and then, highly susceptible to lifestyle ailments. In any case, an Indian wife or mother who wants to work finds herself with limited options. She is never completely free to choose.
Supporting the working woman is of pressing importance today, when it is increasingly clear that women’s health and wealth is linked with the health and wealth of a nation. It doesn’t matter if that support comes from men or other women; it’s time for all of us to pitch in.