Over the ages, across continents and in most cultures, one major factor that has always been strongly related to women and is inseparable from them is food. With most political, cultural, religious and intellectual invasions which India, to be specific, and the world, in general, have endured, the connection between women and food can be considered the one which has sustained all exterior influences. Food is just not food; not just a means to survive. It carries rich cultural, moral, caste, class and gender connotations and values.
A woman exercises control over the production and distribution of food. Food is perceived to be related to her love, compassion, nurture, morality, commitment, dedication and devotion to her family and society. As Sherry B Ortner states in ‘Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?’, women are usually compared to the all-providing, nurturing, omnipotent nature, and men to controlling culture. Right from household cooking to the making of special delicacies during religious occasions, women are in charge. The Gods are pleased and worshipped by means of the food made by women in the family. Here, women perform the roles of communicator of love, peace and wellbeing between God and her family through the means of food.
In rural areas, the entire work of making uple (dung cakes) to be used as fuel for cooking is done by women. In rural agricultural economies, women participate in agricultural activities as aggressively as men, especially reaping and separation of grains.
Rituals, majorly on the northern side of India, explicitly and yet implicitly, attribute the nurturing concept of gender to the females through food. During Karva Chauth, wives go on fast for an entire day for the longevity and well-being of their husbands. This symbolises the avoidance of worldly pleasures by the wife for the protection of her husband’s life. On breaking the fast, the husband provides food and water for the wife, taking on the role of the breadwinner and provider of food whereas it is the wife who takes the raw materials to the stage of edible food.
A few days after Karva Chauth, women fast on Ahoi Ashtami for the welfare and good health of their children. Unmarried women usually keep vrata or fast on Mondays for a ‘good’ husband. Here, again, a strong connection between Hindu culture, gender and food comes across because food is equated with bodily pleasure and sacrificing the same for her husband and family symbolises her nurturing identity. Interestingly, there are no established rituals and fasts for men to practise for the wellbeing of the women in their lives.
During Raksha Bandhan, women feed their brothers food made from milk products, which symbolises tender love and compassion; again, milk is more of a motherly divine product than just a nutritious food item.
In the old ages, women who chose not to practise sati, were supposed to live a life of abstinence and it was a strict rule that they cannot consume spicy or non-vegetarian food; only boiled vegetables for them. This was because it was believed that bland food can control their sexual desires and keep them committed to their deceased husbands. Tasty food, made with oodles of masala and oil, was considered as an aphrodisiac — by default a taboo for widows. Thus, women lead different social lives in the matter of consumption of food on the basis of their roles as daughters, sisters, wives, widows, mothers and grandmothers whereas in the case of production and delivery of the same, they enjoy the same status. Interestingly, when a woman goes through menstruation, she is banned from entering the kitchen. Though these days it is strictly not a norm, for a majority of the population the myths related to menstruation and food are still active, one of them being “don’t touch pickles during your periods or they will get spoiled”.
Even in the modern era, where economists and investors get critical of monetary aspects, the most important element which gets missed out of the calculation as part of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the home-based labour contributed by women in their kitchens, which is worth, on an average, 7,000 (the amount paid to a domestic help for cooking three times a day, washing utensils and cleaning the kitchen), which is, in fact, a direct saving of the same amount. Women are involved in the various stages of cooking, including processing, preservation and distribution of food, which when translated into monetary terms, amounts to a major chunk of the expenditure from the earnings of families. Again, a striking feature here is that women are sometimes devoid of and are treated unfairly in the final stage of foodmaking, which is the consumption stage. This can be seen as analogous to the haves and have-nots of Karl Marx, where the proletarians do not get the chance to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
The intersection between gender and food is so intriguing that it calls for serious sociological query and research.