Mother’s Day and the Silencing of Working Women

Last Wednesday, Egypt celebrated Mother’s Day. Men and women from all walks of life took at least a moment to  celebrate, remember or acknowledge their mothers.

Special consideration was given to the work they put in raising their children. A number of cakes, celebratory cards and gifts all featured scenes of women cleaning, cooking, or doing other household chores, asking them to “take a break for the day.”

And this is the one day in the year that housework is even brought into the conversation.

But when it is, the assumption is that it is a natural duty of all mothers and that this one day is their chance to “relax”  before they resume their family duties the next day.

Multiple studies have been conducted attempting to calculate the amount of hours working women spend caught between their paying job and day-to-day housework.

On average, working women clock about ninety-eight hours a week doing the two: the  equivalent of 2.5 full time jobs, according to a 2017 study published by Welch’s in CBC News.

And somehow, our Mother’s Day celebration cards seem to suggest that this is natural. Their brief respite is limited to a single day, but soon enough they will have to resume these duties.

These objects – gifts, cakes, cards – all contribute to the creation of an affective economy that justifies the over-burdening of the working women, guised under the token of gratitude and appreciation.

Affective economies, a socio-anthropological term, refers to how emotions are circulated in societies to organize, align or even disrupt certain patterns of behavior.

Mother’s Day is a clear example of how  the larger neoliberal enterprise seeks to invisiblize this work.

The emotional labor working women extoll in raising children, as well as the physical labor they exert in managing households is pushed under the rug.

Instead, a single day is dedicated to these efforts, presented as evidence of their recognition, but in fact engaging in a double move whereby this work is naturalized.

Many will argue that this work is natural; women are supposed to rear the household, raise children and provide the means for family life to sustain itself, they say.

But this argument has its roots in a very  gendered understanding of what family life ought to look like.

It is empirically and anthropologically inaccurate to say that women have always been relegated to the household.

In fact, throughout history women have not only contributed to  the workforce but have time and again assumed active roles in leadership and governance.

The sexual division of labor that is now apparent is more so the product of modern times, coming to the fore with the consolidation of the nuclear family and the need to ensure a stable domestic life  during the industrial era.

As such, it is not that women have always carried out familial functions. The notion that it is the man that should earn his family’s income reinforces very patriarchal gender roles that ignores a long history of female entrepreneurship and leadership.

Even more infuriating is the argument put forth by religious zealots, who similarly ignore women who used to work during the classical and medieval periods to justify their enclosure within the household.

Religion, culture and “history” are articulated as structures designed to silence, sideline and suppress women engaged in housework.

And this is partly because there is at least an implicit awareness that the work women do is so crucial to society.

Contemporary feminist scholarship has called this ‘social reproduction’ and it entails the work required to reproduce society: it is the work needed to produce families that can enter the workforce themselves.

Social reproduction is at the heart of a productive society, but acknowledging this work would mean coming to see it as work, as labor that merits not just recognition, but renumeration.

In the 1970s, a movement spearheaded by a certain group of feminists demanded  wages for housework, having come to see that the existing division of labor was not only unjust but also unmerited.

Although the movement’s ambitions did not materialize in the form of policy reform or concrete results, their contribution to feminism should not be underplayed.

At the very least, we owe it to these women not just to recognize the labor they perform on a single day, but also understand the implications  of this work on a daily basis and work against it.

Mohamed Kouta

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