A Woman Like Mum: 3 Woman’s Work, how much is it worth?

Sometimes she is worn out, but who cares?

Have you ever reflected on a woman’s work? How worth is it? How far superior or inferior is it compared to that of a man? Come with me through this third chapiter of A Woman Like Mum perhaps together we can come up with some responses.

In our discussions of the women’s group, before talking about the image of woman’s work, we first spared some time to talk about the image of a woman herself. We found that how we looked at a woman determined also, in the large measure, the manner her work was valued.

Woman’s Image

Before going out of the house, the women unanimously agreed, often they look at themselves in the mirror; and they may change their clothes or put on some make-ups to look more “presentable” than they are when at home. Or when posing for photograph people sit or stand in a certain manner. Some would even want to appear in a certain dress. Why? They want to appear and so be seen and appreciated in a certain way. They want to present a certain image.

In this discussion on The Image of Women and their Work we aimed at exploring the way women and their work are viewed not just by the people out there, that is, how society in general considers them but also the way women look at themselves. Hence, the women brainstormed using a gender-blind approach, by trying to answer questions such as: what makes you feel content? What fulfils you? What are your aspirations? How would you like to be seen by others?

To be appreciated by men, to be beautiful, have good clothes, to be married to a “successful” man, have children, to be appreciated and liked by in-laws. These were some of the common echoes. And when answering what makes you feel less a woman? Most of the answers were just the opposite of what was given to the first question. So to be unable to have clothes in fashion, to be ignored by men, especially to remain unmarried and to be barren were some of the concerns expressed. Significantly, the women agreed that they would certainly go the extra mile to make themselves feel really a woman.

Society in general has its own way of presenting women. This can easily be discerned through media portrayal. In books cooking, cleaning and nursing babies have always been traditionally associated with a woman. This mentality has been extended even to toys. While a boy will be playing with a car or an aeroplane, a girl will be presented with a baby on the back or with a cooking pot or a sweeping broom. While women are getting more represented even in public functions, thanks to activism, the mentality that relegates a woman to domestic duties is still very strong.

In music, rumba videos for instance, in not just a few cases you see men dancing dressed like executives while women scantly cover their nakedness with transparent and flapping clothes that expose their bodies. They are virtually naked. Why all that?  Who is to blame? In commerce, even to sell a tablet of soap, you find a presentation of a half naked girl, well chosen. A beautiful girl is an object for attraction. This confirms what I found out after talking to a number of barmaids in Balaka – a district town in Malawi; a possible practice in other countries too. Most of them were not ashamed to tell me what it was for them to be there. As for the qualification, you must be someone who can lure men.  Men will therefore come to drink in a bar where they are beautiful girls in so doing promoting the business for their boss, leave alone the actual work they have to do. And that is not all. In these drinking places there are rooms where the same girls would literally be used as sex workers –more profit for the bar owner.


A woman is creative in her work

A woman must be beautiful, whatever that means, in order to find a job! Pity! Women are often valued by men based on the question: how beautiful? How sexy? Men who have the economic power set a woman in competition on beauty terms in order to win a man for survival. As a woman advances in age, the beauty declines. This may partly explain the high expense invested in maintaining beauty on which, apparently, depends her identity and her usefulness – or simply her humanity as a woman. What a pity! What a degradation of oneself! In this way, a woman’s behaviour is very much defined and controlled, unconsciously though, by such social expectation. This goes in the same line with fashions. Some women’s fashions, though popular and everyone wants to have them, leave you wondering what is the purpose of dressing at all. In some of those clothes women stroll in streets barely covering their nakedness or you see them struggling pulling a mini-skirt to cover themselves when sitting in public, especially on buses. You question what is running in their minds. But then you realise that behind all that there is some philosophy albeit an unconscious one. Men are still holding the reins dictating what would be good for a real woman. This is however not to say women have no freedom but it rather makes one appreciate that knowledge is power. And who is in control of this power? It can be expressed no better than the way Anne Leclerc puts it: “Nothing exists that has not been made by man –not thought, not language, not words. Even now there is nothing that has not been made by men, not even me; especially not me…”[1] The likely effect of this training or programming is that a girl grows to view herself as portrayed: waiting to see a man to put her in his care, in the name of love or marriage, where she will care for his home, bear and care for his children, cook for him… Instead of bathing and dressing for her own good or decency, she is instinctively chained to the compulsion to beautify, decorate herself not for herself, but for some man. And because her existence is aligned to some man she is to attract one. She ends up abandoning herself to the behaviour that compromises her human dignity, reducing herself to an object for sex.

What is unfortunate is that man takes advantage to see and treat a woman as an object. She is useful as long as she is beautiful –at least to him. You only understand then why, while a young lady would not mind to marry a “grandfather” so long he has money and a man well advanced in age, possibly will not go out to look for a woman of his age but a “real” woman: young, beautiful and attractive. This happens even if the man still has a wife of his age, he wants to go out with young girls because his wife has already done her days as a woman; she is finished –that is the impression you get. This may explain why some men will easily send their sick wife: Kabiyeni kuli Bamayo bakaye misungako –mukabwela ngamwapola (Go to your mother so that she can take care of you; come back when you are well again). There may be some truth in it; you are sick –not useful anymore. Go back to your mother and come back when you can be useful again; if you can excuse this exaggeration of an otherwise real case in many marriages.


 Look at her generosity in her work!

Woman’s Work

‘Cooking roti and stew, collecting fodder and cutting it, removing cattle dung and making dung cakes, sweeping up…. Enough! I work the whole day – and even so my husband says ‘what do you do with yourself all day?’ [2] (Words of an Indian woman, Zubeida)

The same low regard for women, as subordinate to men, goes on to diminish also the value of women’s work. It is not respected as of equal importance with the man’s. The woman’s work is seen as working for and helping. And this mentality has consequences. No matter how much she will do, her work will remain what it is known to be: second grade and because it is for helping, it is for somebody else. It is only unsurprising that women will not be the first beneficiaries of their work. The Document at the Final Decade of Women Conference held in Nairobi –observed among others: two-thirds of world’s work is done by women, yet the same proportion of women live in poverty –whatever happens to their work! Their work is unpaid, underpaid or invisible.

On the contrary, man’s work is valued. A Bemba saying such as Akaume takacepa (a boy is never small) is not just in terms of his ability to do things; but small as he may be what he does is of value because he is man. Take note, not as a person but as a man – the manness he shares with others. A man belongs to a royal gender, a royal group: hence, he enjoys all the honour associated with gender and not necessarily that of individual merit. It means men may not have that power as individuals but by belonging to the social category [Ala umwaume mwaume, a man is a man]. They speak with the authority of their camp.


Isn’t she sometimes overloaded? Yet the traffic police seem to ignore completely

An ordinary woman’s work is invisible. A woman may be busy during her long hours doing domestic duties, beginning the day as early as 6 am, even including her work on the family garden but she will be described in Bemba as Tababomba (literally, she doesn’t work) just to contrast against the 8-hour work of man who is described as Balabomba (he works) just because he does paid work even when it might be doing exactly the same work as a woman in a home, or even less. Degrading women’s work is not limited to domestic work –but also their work on the public platform. In fact, women are seen as assistants, the second rate quality of their work in the home has been transferred to the public as well. They are teachers, as child carers or educators; nurses as helpers to the doctors; or they are secretaries as helpers to the managers. However, today women are in many other fields as well and also holding high positions, this is a positive development. But even in those positions, known to be “a man’s field” women who occupy them are taken as “men” or special women. Often they become targets of dirty jokes and prejudice. Their competence is not readily accepted or appreciated. But there is no problem for those in the traditional women’s jobs as their involvement on the public scene is an extension of the domestic roles. Here we have a portrayal of a traditional nurse before male nurses came on the scene.


… ‘God sent women to be ministering angels, to smooth the pillow, administer the palliative, whisper words of comfort to the tossing patient… Let that continue to be woman’s work! Leave the physician’s work task, the scientific lore, the iron wrist and the iron will to men’

[Nightingale spoke of a nurse as] ‘The skilled servant of medicine…it must involve strict obedience to the physician’s or surgeon’s power and knowledge’

[And nurses came to know themselves as:]  ‘we nurses are and never will be anything but the servants of doctors and good faithful servants we should be, happy in our dependence which helps to accomplish great deeds’

[Doctors are satisfied that] ‘Woman as a nurse is the natural help of man as a doctor. Woman as a doctor is a conceit contradictory to nature.’[3]

Of course, this was said many years ago, however, it helps us to be on the alert.  Seeing women in professional jobs, no matter how important, does not solve the problem of discrimination. Hence, we need certain finesse in addressing gender equality.


A woman seems to be good at everything, just give her a chance

How Women’s work and image  are matters of gender issue?


They are a gender issue because the image the society has imposed on women and their work often has been so arranged so as to promote the interest of man; it is not the true image of who women are as human beings nor is it a true image of their work. Their gendered sex has become the filter of interpreting who a woman and her work are. That is not just. This is discrimination. For this reason it becomes necessary to revisit the notions by which we have been trained to perceive women and their work; those ideas are indeed just another field of gender activism. This invites other questions for reflection.

Can we really blame women for whatever it is that makes us look lowly upon their image and work? Are we justified when we judge women for some behaviour like prostitution and indecent dressing just because they are the ones seen physically in those acts while we ignore the context, environment, organization, mentality, knowledge and the consequent attitudes in which they live?

Without diminishing their responsibility, women are not in full control or better, what we see is the fruit of the society in which they have been brought up. Even our image of them and their work too are an outcome of societal organisation and knowledge that lead to a conditioned outlook. That is why it is not solely a matter for women, but rather the whole society is in need of self-evaluation.

 Woman, educator of society

What could be the way forward?


Women taking advantage of the education and skills available like men can help to reduce the gulf. That can enhance self-confidence in them and widen their possibilities. That nevertheless in itself does not remove the stereotypes or prejudices. More is to be done. Women should be well organized so that they no longer accept any offer understood as given for anything less than their merit or qualification. They ought to be wary against political politeness such as ‘ladies first.’ Yes, there are men who honestly say that to give respect to a woman yet still many are the men who will profit of this refined way of speaking merely to say: “you may have it just because you are woman” –whatever their conception of a woman is. Why can’t a woman stand up and accept the same terms as men? Women will do well also to act against or boycott fashions which men subconsciously impose on them? In that way women will escape being soft clay in the hands of their creator man who is intent to make out of them whatever satisfies the pleasures of his whims. One can understand why women crowned a sheep in the 1968 Miss American beauty contest in protest against being used as commercial objects.

However, all that will not change much if the conceptions that inspire and justify such discrimination remain untouched. There is need for women themselves to correct the conception they have of themselves. This does not mean women merely defining for themselves what they want. That may sound like working on a partisan line, which would not help the situation at all. The idea is to work at the image that is not interest-vested but based on the truth of who women are. Hence, who defines it doesn’t matter but openness to the truth that will also inspire not only a new organisation of society but knowledge too. There must be a new definition of reality, in this case, a new definition who a woman is. This is a deep, true and honest cultural transformation, anything less will be mere appearance.

Believe it or not, it’s just true. Oh yes, she can!

The danger is always subtle. Women may be seen advancing to gender equality politically, that is on the public scene, but may be without much difference on the personal level. This can easily be seen how women in their private life are still prisoners to male definition through indiscriminate consumption of what a male dominated market displays for them. This would just be one indication of this lurking behind at the personal level. That is why dealing with revolutionary issues like this demands a great deal of conscientisation. Women must be aware there is a problem and appreciate the need for change; only then will they find sense in working for it. Indeed, women, perhaps the whole society at large, need to realise the importance to hatch themselves from the confining shells of patriarchal definitions; to hatch out of the land of their fathers to the land of full human expression that allows them full exploration of their potentiality. Yes, women need courage in order to dare move to an unknown land. Perhaps, they are slow to leave the oppressive but familiar, known and seemingly cosy patriarchal society. Thus, they need both an inventive and adventurous spirit.

[1] Sheila Rowbotham, Women in Movement: Feminism and Social Action, Routledge, London 1992 p. 287.

[2] Mosse, Half The World Half a Chance, p. 38.

[3] Harriet Bradley, Men’s Work, Women’s Work –A Sociological History of the Sexual Division of Labour in Employment, Polity Press, Oxford 1989, pp. 194-195.

If you have a point for discussion, feel free to propose it. We shall publish it here. We can also continue expressing our different views and contributions on the space for comments below.

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