Gender Division of Labour: A Martian’s Travelogue

Qurban Ali

“Ironing? What a nonsense! A husband warns his newly married spouse “do you want me to be a henpecked? Remember! It is not my job.” Another voice comes— where a sister-in-law laments “No, I cannot do it as a woman…if it had to be washed, I would have done it.” Our society is full of such utterances both household and outside work that are segregated within gender. This article tries to analyse such an issue which has its cultural underpinnings for centuries. It focuses on gender inequality in so-called masculine and feminine works/tasks which have emerged due to human socialisation. In this article, an imaginary creature Martian’s travelogue is visualized who visits Earth and writes a travelogue on returning back to Mars focusing on Gender Division of Labour (GDL) in a particular context of the planet earth. Via the Martian’s voice, the article tries to convey a message to the intelligentsia for counteractions towards equality in societal works. The story by the Martian is narrated in his own words:

Qurban Ali
Qurban Ali

“When my flying saucer landed on an unknown planet, which I had never visited before, many strange creatures gathered around me. One kind (male) was closer to me while another (female) was far further in a different fascinating dress. The first observation I came across was the curiosity of the strange people who wanted to know whether I was a male or female! This made me conscious in using gender lenses for this travelogue.

During my stay on Earth, I was able to visit its different parts and looked into many issues but I alert you about only GDL. Luckily, I was able to speak many languages of this planet, make some friends and study literature on gender written by gurus working for gender equity and equality. I was astonished that it was still a burning issue on Earth—while, you see, Martians have resolved it a long ago!

Once, I was visiting through a village with my friend and saw that some people were busy in harvesting a wheat crop. I noticed that men and women were doing different jobs, though they all were working in the same wheat field. For example, men were cutting the crop with sickles while women were making bales. Then two women brought lunch accompanied with two little girls. When a boy tried to make the hands washed, his father scolded him saying that it was girls’ job and soon yelled at the girl “what are you gazing at? Do your job…don’t you see brother is doing your job.” I anxiously asked my friend what was happening. He told me that it was notion of the context that women would do different jobs from men which he called feminine and masculine work. Further, he explained that it was culturally considered unpleasant if one group did other’s work—especially if males do females’ work! That was what father scolded his son on doing a womanish/feminine job.

I was curious to know more about other biasness in GDL and, finally, made the following list of tasks divided into gender. I also knew that the division was result of ‘nurture’ by the society rather than ‘nature’ (Booth & Nolen, 2009).

Women will

  • Clean house
  • Bake bread and kitchen related work (fetching water, washing dishes, arranging  meal)
  • Wash clothes
  • Rear cattle( indoor)
  • Set beds
  • Grow vegetables
  • Weave wool and make domestic handcrafts,   like socks, sweaters, handkerchiefs etc.

Men will

  • Manage food, wood and others which come mostly from outside
  • Watering crops
  • Collect wild harvested food for cattle
  • Labour physical as able-bodied men
  • Cut wood for fire
  • Make baskets, rags etc.
  • Purchase and sell goods

These tasks were so segregated that people religiously accepted them. Most of the work division was in line with what Harry (1980) finds in Trinidad where women do weeding (100%) while soil preparation (100%) is done by men. Similarly, it also implies that men undertake heavy physical labour while women carry out the repetitious, time consuming tasks (Momsen, 2010). Many questions came in my mind, such as: why are tasks divided into groups of gender? what are underpinnings of this division of work in the society? are these realities or myths? can these be removed and how? Perhaps, to find answers to these questions was somehow easy because I had studied this issue from Earth’s own literature. So, I came to know that GDL was totally socially constructed which had been transferred from generation after generation based on the notion that men are the bread winners and women are home makers (Kirk & Okazawer-Rey, 2007). This notion encouraged men in doing hard jobs; facing with challenges and taking risks while women were nurtured in the way they could remain within char diwari and perform caregiver role.

Yes, to remove gender inequality or division, a lot of efforts have been done over the last few decades which are appreciable. When I compare my friend’s experience, some 20 years back, with today’s, I see a gradual shift in the area of GDL in his context. Since, my friend shared that women had entered into participating masculine work and vice versa. A family in his village had a tradition where men would do all the outside work in the field and did not let women into fields. Now, most of the work is done by those women in the fields. Similarly, women would only opt jobs which seemed to be domestic but few years ago many girls in that context joined police which created criticism on their families in the name of Asmat. Look! Doesn’t it seem a “gender-blind culture?—where individuals may not recognize that gender is an essential feature of life.”(Leach, 2003, p. 22). Should women only be models of asmat?  Why men are excluded from this virtue? Perhaps, the ‘gender blind’, ‘gender-neutral’ and ‘gender-sensitive’ are so-called concepts in the society which need to be altered.

            Another tyranny related to GDL is that a work done by men is thought of high status (Skelton, Francis, & Smulyan,). I observed that women’s work is mostly unwaged (so devalued). Passing by a small village-shop, it pinched me when I heard of devaluing unwaged work done by women at home. I was surprised when I listened to a sarcastic dialogue between a professional male sweeper and a henpecked.

Henpecked: Yes…I know what kind of work you do…sweeping…a woman’s job.

Sweeper: But I get salary…not like you working with your wife in preparing food for cattle and cleaning cattle shed…for nothing.

It implies that instead of doing cleaning, the sweeper was of the view that doing women’s job at home is minor from that doing in an office for money!

I started putting my part in this regards. Hence, recognising my interest and intellect, an NGO invited me to speak on this issue in a conference. Here is what I addressed to a large gathering of people:

“Dear Earth-fellows! There is an obvious difference between gender and sex which you are mixing up. Gender is cultural and refers to socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes while sex is biological and physiological which refers to the characteristics that define men and women (PMAPA, 2010). Any task, neither instinctively nor naturally, is assigned to men or women but you have skewed it according to your understanding which has impeded your familial development and financial wellbeing.  Recently, according to Kabeer and Woodroffe (2013), countries with greater gender equality in employment and education have displayed higher economic growth and human development. You know, women make up half the world’s population, but don’t nearly share half of the world’s wealth, well-being and opportunity (Son, 2010). How can you expect a desirable development if there are more consumers that producers? I am proud to share that on Mars we have no concept of ‘women’s work’ or ‘men’s work’ that is why we have fifty times more development than you have on Earth!

To conclude, I would reinforce you that the kind of work that you have divided is purely socially constructed and have inverse effects on economic and educational development as well as harmony among women and men. For better social life, gender equality is vital and can be developed. I would suggest you to rethink on the prevailing culture where GDL is segregated within the gender. To achieve this target I will work by conducting awareness programs before I leave to Mars. Please, help me to evacuate the society from stereotype trap of GDL into which many people have fallen (Begley, 2000).”

The contributor is studying at the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Educational Development, Karachi. 

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  1. Reflecting true image of our society…… I truely apprecite your critical analysis!

  2. Well- thought out and comprehensive way to touch upon the emerging issue like gender. This article indeed challenges prevalent socio- practices which marginalized the society in two so-called segments. I hope you always be in the front seat to raise issues which increasingly creating social imbalance.

  3. Very welddone and well articulated and mind boggling article indeed. i also liked your action oriented conclusion however, i would suggest rather to go for conducting awareness sessions we need to go for action oriented work to sensitized others just beginning from ourselves first and make it infectious to others and ultimately to cover the whole world… I am sure and humbled and inspired to have this article and i am confident that this will be helpful in CRACKING THE HARD CUPS!!!!!!!!! Didar Panah Director Academics FEMT

  4. The author has articulated the real image of the society in a superb way. Most importantly, the educational implications of such stereotypes is worthy to be noticed. Thank you for sharing it.
    Zaheer Abbas, Aga Khan University, Institute for Educational Development, Karachi.

  5. Very truly said, I liked it, here I am agreed with Didar Panah in sensitizing theory….

  6. Indeed! very well written and fascinating piece of writing depicting and reflecting gender discrimination in our society. It puts forward some questions for all of us and provides food for thought to take some actions at individual and institutional level to change traditional gender perceptions and practices so that we could have gendered balanced society. I feel that it would be better if you discussed the implications and gave some recommendations. In short, it is an interesting article with powerful messages.

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