A Room Of One’s Own: Why Women Still Struggle For Their Space

In upper-middle-class and affluent Indian homes, there always used to be (and still is) an exclusive room called a Study. Historically, the Study was used as a room for reading, writing, paperwork, occasionally holding officious or serious conversations and importantly, for solitude or creative time. However, conventionally the Study was used as reserved private space for the male head of a family for his exclusive use. Rarely did women of the family had unhindered access to it or had an exclusive private room of their own for themselves.   

With changing times, our houses have undergone many changes and women have conquered several spaces. But when it comes to their own space in their own house, it’s still a struggle. Women usually take up the responsibility for the upkeep and cleanliness of all physical spaces in the house and yet, do not have their exclusive space. It’s as if, they have a house but they do not have a room of their own. 

Earlier in joint families, female camaraderie used to flow and flourish in large kitchens where women used to spend most of their time. It used to get extended to the courtyard, veranda or terrace. But it was usually a group of family or neighbourhood women and their hands were always busy. Cooking, cutting, cleaning, pickling, drying, soaking…chores which they learnt to enjoy being in the company of other women. It was only in highly educated, emancipated households did one find women enjoying their solitude. Listening to music or reading undisturbed while sipping a cup of tea.  

The bedroom, of course, is a separate space for married couples which both men and women inhabit. A place where a typical Indian female housemaker is lucky enough to get some respite in the afternoons after most of the chores are done and domestic responsibilities are met. But again, it had unlimited access to the children and at other times well, for fulfilling one’s marital obligations and sometimes pleasure.   

Over the years, women may have had it better as compared to their earlier counterparts with improved access to physical space, particularly with joint families giving way to nuclear families and enhanced standard of living.  However, privacy for women in India – in terms of physical personal space, solitude, discretion and freedom – is still something which they are yet to attain, claim or enjoy. And continue to crave for. 

Feminist author Virginia Woolf in her essay A Room of One’s Own, writes: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” In a wider sense, it means women must have their independence, space and freedom to think, express and enjoy freely. 

The lives of most women, wives and mothers, in particular, are dictated by domestic chores, nurturing and caring responsibilities. Though working women get some respite from the domestic setting being away from home, they have to slog doubly to keep the wheels of domestic order well-oiled. In general, women are perpetually tired, overworked, and struggle to multitask and balance the scales of a hugely unequal world. 

And if they need to catch a breath, enjoy a hot cup of tea or a drink, listen or dance to their favourite music, wish to write a few creative lines, yearn for a bit of space and me-time, want to finish a book that they are reading, long for leisure of their own or simply get away from the mundane for a few moments – it’s not always easy. There’s always someone in the family- children, spouse, parents, family members, domestic help… – who needs them or wants something from them.

It’s not uncommon for women to shut the doors feigning a headache or locking themselves in bathrooms to get away from it all. Women nowadays go for that walk or drive when things sometimes get too much to handle. But to take a breather in your own home without someone judging you? Well, you don’t have a room of your own for that. 

The COVID pandemic has exacerbated the condition as whatever little space women had, was impinged upon with work from home and children and spouse being at home constantly. Now, there is an extra domestic burden, shrinking physical and mental space, constant interruptions and also work which is to be seen through from the confines of home. Whatever common physical space was available seem to have been claimed by other family members and women have been displaced to some other corner.  

All women – married, single, divorced, widows – especially in India, have always had to grapple with the lack of individual space and privacy, both within the house and outside. Mainly due to socio-cultural norms perpetuated by patriarchy. It is either perceived as unthinkable, unnecessary or simply selfish on the part of women to expect it. And when they learn to claim these spaces as their own, in both personal and public spheres, they often invite stares, judgment or wrath of the society and family members. Interestingly, most Indian languages do not have a word for privacy! Indian society thinks they don’t need it.

One reason why many women, despite the daily jugglery, love going to their workplaces is to relish the separate time away from household responsibilities and relationships.  

All women crave privacy and value the right to be left alone as much as men. But when women express a need for it, it is frowned upon. They are traditionally relegated to the private world of domesticity, childbearing and rearing, with little access or opportunity to personal privacy.

With their social conditioning and their own internalisation, women often feel guilty for expressing their need for personal space or demanding privacy. So much so that they themselves feel uncomfortable doing something on their own and not sharing it with family members. Even bolting the door of rooms is considered inappropriate in some families and no part of a woman’s life is hidden. 

Ironically, a women’s actions and behaviours are always analysed in the context of their ‘safety,’ ‘protection’ and also morality in general. Their conduct is also perceived to directly affect a family’s honour and reputation. So, they are often safeguarded, meaning their movements and actions are restricted, monitored and remarked upon. Besides, setting boundaries or telling ‘no’ is usually comprehended negatively.  

It’s also largely to do with the notion that women do not have a life of their own. Their worth is defined by their dedication and to their household responsibilities and taking care of their family members. There is always a need for family members to see their women around in the house, to find the women constantly present and available for others – fulfilling a demand, completing a task or taking care – no matter how obscurely. So, their absence, when they are taking a short or long break, a breather or enjoying or controlling their own time, is usually not received positively or encouraged. 

I have often wondered about creative women. Writers, dancers, singers, painters and women pursue other creative pursuits in their challenging domestic spaces without a formal and separate workspace.  I understand they may be conflicted too, stunting and postponing their bursts of inspiration to flow at a later time when all is well and calm in the house.  And then express their creativity without any hindrance or questioning from others. I know of women authors who despite being wearied by the day’s banality and drudgery, continue writing deep into the night. Of painters who continue to paint with babies on their laps. Dancers practising in quiet hidden corners of the terraces. This may not be ideal, but I deeply admire these women for creating their own rooms despite not having one.  And we women, each one of us, should seek or fight for a room of our own. 

Elisa Patnaik

Media professional.

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  • A very in-depth analysis of the situation...
    Its something which women themselves are unable to acknowledge due to their social conditioning Very well written ❤️❤️

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