food corner

How women use food to negotiate power in Pakistani and Indian households in the UK

A new study provides a more nuanced understanding of the role food plays in healthy eating and family life.

When it comes to healthy eating, policies and advice tend to focus on improving food knowledge and cooking skills. But food is more than just a source of pleasure and nutrition, it is also a medium for expressing family relationships. Almost everything from the order of serving food, portion sizes, meal timings and types of food can act as an expression of love, intimacy, distance or disdain.

Those who do the cooking and serve food can communicate their authority or resistance through food – for example, by reducing the amount on a plate, or by altering serving and seating orders. Family members can exact punishment by not giving food when it is expected, or not accepting food when it is offered.

My new research has found that in order to encourage healthy eating, we need to understand the nuanced role that food plays in our relationships. For my latest study, I spoke to 84 South Asian women of Indian and Pakistani background who live in Britain, India and Pakistan about the links between their access to resources and the way food is prepared and eaten in their households. There is some evidence to suggest that unhealthy diets among South Asian populations are contributing to health inequalities in the UK.

Healthy food choices

Although many women I spoke to were happily married, others found themselves trapped in loveless marriages with conflict. For them, food was one of the most potent mediums through which to express their anger and negotiate. One example came from a first-generation British Pakistani woman who knew fish was important for her children’s health, yet she refused to cook and eat it at home:

I go with whatever my husband wants … but I don’t like fish and don’t cook it … the look of it makes me nauseous.

In households where couples had harmonious relationships, women reported little dispute around food, and said the men were amicable when it came to healthy food choices such as daal, made of lentils. One British Pakistani woman, Nasreen, said she was happy to feed her children and husband healthy food at an ideal time:

I cook his food separately. I’m trying to keep my husband off the curry, because he needs not to eat all the calories … so if I make daal for him I make something else for the children. I eat whatever, their food or his food. The time they need to eat is too early for him … so when he’s ready for his dinner I’ll prepare mine as well, and then we eat together.

Making food budgets go further

To get her husband to share some of the household responsibility, a Pakistani woman in the UK called Noorjahan encouraged him to do the food shopping. He agreed after eight years of argument. Noorjahan told me that she later regretted her decision as her husband spent too much money and bought non-essential and less healthy items. She tried to regain control of shopping but was unsuccessful.

Noorjahan then had to use her child benefits to top-up on fruit and vegetables and other essential items. Although she mostly cooked her husband’s preferred choice of food, sometimes when she was angry she cooked what she wanted.

He doesn’t like daal but we argue about why I have to make his choice all the time. Last week, he did not like the food so ate out and paid with my money [child benefits].

Out of fear that her husband would use more child benefit money on eating out, after several such incidents, Noorjahan decided to mostly cook food of her husband’s choice.

Other women I interviewed said their husbands sometimes brought home food treats to show love, especially on pay day. One Gujarati woman in India said she felt cared for by her husband through his shopping: “He brings whatever I like to eat … I don’t have to tell him.” In these households, women reported being able to amicably resolve any issues around healthy eating. Some women also said they had adopted healthy food choices on encouragement from their husbands.

Who gets to eat what

In several households, women ate after feeding their husbands, in-laws and children and managed with whatever was left, often smaller pieces of meat, fewer vegetables and little or no milk or yoghurt. Some men insisted that women finish feeding the elders and children first, and couples then ate together – although women still prioritised husbands’ portions. But in several other households, conflict meant that sometimes women were left with very little food. In response to these marital conflicts, women sometimes showed their resistance by altering the order they served food or portion sizes – for example, by giving bigger portions to grown up sons instead of their husbands.

My findings show that knowledge about food and healthy cooking alone is not enough to encourage healthy eating. The power imbalance between men and women within these South Asian families when it comes to the household budget and cooking responsibilities plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy diet.

Although this study focused on South Asian households, the link between food and patriarchal value, and women’s tactical use of food within the household, is also relevant to other cultures. This means that to encourage healthy eating, we need to engage with both men and women, as policy responses such as healthy cooking courses often delivered to and attended by women, may not lead to transformative changes if men refuse to eat what is cooked.

Punita Chowbey, Research Fellow, Sheffield Hallam University

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.