Soon after we got married some 17 years ago, my wife Sarah and I decided to divide the responsibilities of our brand new family. Yours truly happily took charge of the kitchen. However, my doing so was quite unusual in the patriarchal society of my beloved native country, Pakistan. It was customary for men and women to be born with specific inalienable roles and responsibilities outside and inside the house. Anyone who dared cross those boundaries could face dire consequences. So, you can imagine the controversy that naturally surrounded our decision.
After all, I was a commissioned officer in the Pakistan military — a commander of a forward post with my big guys in our big boots and even bigger machismo. Yet, at home, I would be studiously mixing onion, ginger, and garam masala in aalo gosht, daal, or our family favourite, chicken biryani.
The man-in-the-kitchen philosophy
The role of women in human society has undergone a drastic transformation over the last 100 or so years, mainly thanks to the technological advancements made during this period. Industrialisation, mechanisation, and computerisation have eliminated the need for muscle power at most workplaces, neutralising the only perceivably legitimate reason for male superiority. Modern-day professions now require education, training, and experience, irrespective of what hormones one’s gonads secrete.
Many nations have quickly adapted to this change and have brought their women right beside the men. Not only has this change effectively expanded their workforce but increased productivity many times. Unfortunately, some cultures continue to lag behind in their decision to take full advantage of this golden human resource. A sizeable chunk of their female population still faces considerable hurdles to thrive professionally due to centuries-old traditions, beliefs, and taboos.
Today’s professional world is challenging — cutthroat competition, gruelling work hours, and risky investments are prerequisites for meaningful success. As we know, most women who enter the professional world face more challenges than their male counterparts. Throw in cultural restrictions on top of everything else, and a woman’s chance to succeed is stifled significantly. After all, who would want to go into a gruelling fistfight with one arm tied behind their back? It’s an unfair battle, and because of it, many women in such limiting environments find solace within the bounds of their traditional domestic roles, spending hours and hours with their pots and pans instead of entering the workforce. It’s a waste of enormous talent.
My implied solution to this problem is simple. The harder it is for women to thrive in the outside world, the more men need to support them at home.
The UN Millennium Summit
On September 8, 2000, representatives from 192 countries gathered in New York’s sprawling 57-storey United Nations Headquarters. It marked the final of many conferences held over several years to discuss the world’s major problems and to prepare it for the new century. After years of analysis, debates, and discussions, the world’s top brains had finally identified eight critical areas that could change the world. The UN then set eight corresponding goals for the start of the upcoming century and named them the Millennium Development Goals or, in short, the MDGs.
Interestingly, four of these eight MDGs were directly or indirectly related to women. Goals 3, “Promote gender equality and empower women,” and 5, “Improve maternal health,” were entirely focused on women. Goal 2, “Achieve universal primary education,” and Goal 4, “Reduce child mortality rates,” also emphasise women.
The Millennium Summit was the first-ever concrete realisation by the world that the central path to a nation’s development passes through its female populace.
Let’s discuss several ways women’s empowerment plays a vital role in prosperity, from the household to the national level.
It’s a no-brainer that two professionals in a household would have a better chance of bringing home more money than only one. However, the economic benefits far exceed the financial advantages. Two professionals consuming shared resources, such as housing, the kitchen, cars, and children’s expenses, can save some serious money. If all or most of the population consists of dual professional households, a nation has the potential to significantly increase its productivity without a considerable increase in its expenditures.
Still not convinced? Let’s talk about women’s real power.
The real power of women
Women’s real power is all in the concept of motherhood. Let me explain. It goes without saying that children take much more influence from their mothers than fathers, not only in homo sapiens but also in all higher species. I would argue that mothers, seasoned by the rigours of real-world experiences, would be in a much better position to prepare the next generation for future challenges than moms with little or no such exposure. I’ll expand on this a bit more.
Modern professional fields are constantly and rapidly evolving. To survive and thrive in such an environment, one needs consistent personal and professional growth. Interpersonal skills, critical thinking, tech-savviness, and updated knowledge of relevant emerging realms are just a few of these abilities. On top of it all, one must take certain risks that may or may not yield results. The more progressive a person is, the greater the trials and tribulations they must endure. Such experiences make them more aware of the current and future challenges of the world.
What if such a progressive and aware person is also a mother? Say, the 24/7 mentor of her kids? And what if there was an entire nation raised by a generation of such moms? Studies have shown that the children of empowered women have improved adult outcomes and better cognitive and non-cognitive skills.
Gender equality versus equity
Let’s get into some related linguistics — the difference between gender equality and equity.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and I have two below.
In simpler terms, equity is a higher form of equality. However, a more comprehensive description from George Washington University (GWU) is provided below:
“Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognises that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.”
I dare to disagree with the esteemed GWU regarding gender equity. Women neither require extra resources nor additional opportunities; all they need is not to be bothered. Every major problem of a working woman, from sexual discrimination to harassment to plain violence, is essentially caused by people who are not women.
Mature societies have mitigated many of the above issues by taking appropriate steps. Tight regulations by the government, specific bylaws by organisations, and proper education in schools all play an essential role in promoting gender equity. Nevertheless, the cornerstone of nurturing support can and should occur within the cozy environment of homes — nurturing that will ultimately create an atmosphere conducive for women to work shoulder to shoulder with men.
Around 17 years and two daughters later, my wife Sarah has transformed from a traditional full-time homemaker in a small Pakistani town to a senior physician in a big hospital system in the United States. She also has a keen interest in the stock market. Her smart trading regularly adds to our savings. Our daughters are her biggest obsession. Spending three to four quality hours managing their education and extracurricular activities is part of her daily routine. Both girls also have exceedingly high ambitions, thanks to the living example right before them. On the side, Sarah’s social work is always going on. All this began with her not being stuck in the kitchen.
As for me, I still cook and have learned many local and exotic dishes. Despite my hectic professional routine as a director of research at a multinational organisation, I love preparing healthy meals for my family every day, especially for two future empowered, professional women.
The world is changing at a dizzying speed, and it’s only accelerating. While we all love our traditions and cultures, anything that impairs our ability to adapt to the modern world must go. Families, communities, and nations that prohibit empowering women to their fullest potential are perpetually marginalised. We already see it happening and feel its impact, but its speed will be devastating in the future.