The history we encounter is a narrative about time periods, written largely by and from the perspectives of men. It is an account of the economic, social, political and cultural structures that conceptualise the general morality of society. Gender is a construct of social and cultural interactions and time is a consequence of the same amalgamation.
The relationship between men and time was the norm placing women in the periphery as they experience time in contrast because society dictates women view time in relation to their bodies and with reference to others. The society has always measured time in relation to the activities assigned to men. For example, the Mughal era is divided in history according to the reigns of the various emperors.
Where does this paradigm place the question of women and their relationship with time? It is only in the last decade that this uncharted territory began to be explored by trying to understand how time itself is gendered.
Time is one of the most valuable resources, it is also deeply political. The conceptions of time have embed power hierarchies within them, that determine how much time is to be given to whom, who gets control and the basis for its distribution. For example, the amount of time we spend at work, or the distribution of resources to different cities is determined by someone who has power.
As time is also measured in political terms with reference to men and their experiences with time, the time spent by women doing unpaid labour in a capitalist society is often invisibilised and sidelined as expressions of womanly love and sacrifice.
Time: Experienced differently by different genders
People experience time by various yardsticks. There is seasonal time which is ideally associated with the changing weather. Ecological time is usually measured with reference to glaciers melting or the rise in greenhouse gases. Biological time is a concept pertaining to women, where time is measured with the onset of puberty and continues till menopause.
Men experience time in linear terms, which simply means that men measure time with reference to agency and can decide when to give time to what and in which degree. Women usually lack this luxury as they experience time in relational terms. This means that women put the needs of others before their own and thus, for them, time is defined by the relationships in their life. For example, that of a sister, a daughter, a wife, a daughter-in-law, a mother.
One of the things that comes to mind about women and their use of time is an image of a woman having many hands, holding an iron box in one, a kitchen utensil in the other, a children’s book in the third, her work documents in the fourth and so on. The image of a “multitasking” woman is so glorified that women themselves have internalised these traditional gendered roles in the home front.
It is often admired how women manage the household but no one ever thinks of sharing the burden with them. According to feminist theorists like Julia Kristeva, the way time is measured differs greatly for men and women. For men, time moves forward and they experience newer things. For example, they measure time by monumental landmarks in their lives like buying a car, getting a promotion etc.
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This further stems from a very masculine approach to the concept of time. But ‘women’s time’ is constructed in terms of their ‘biological clock’. Traditional ideas about women’s bodies as only sites for reproduction are prevalent even today. Women are thus bound by and with their bodies, resulting in the conceptualisation of their time with reference to their menstrual cycles. To cite a simple example, women who menstruate plan a trip according to the dates of their cycle. Women’s time is also structured to follow a monotonous and recurring pattern of house work.
How women spend their time: A look inside the household
The way men and women interact with time is radically different. Men have the privilege to detach themselves from their household responsibilities. Men function in relation to what is considered profitable in materialistic terms. They are employed in organisations which function according to state-sanctioned clock time, where certain signals like dongs represent breaks in time.
Women, on the other hand, have been taught as young girls to internalise their role in the private sphere as paramount and cater to the needs of their family, leaving no time for themselves to think and introspect. This is visible from the amount of work women have to do at all time when at home. This is termed as mental load.
It means that women have to remember to do things – wash the laundry, order vegetables, book appointments for the family, and so on and so forth. It is a permanent work load, and is almost always invisible. This load ensures women do not have the leisure time to think and introspect or simply to relax. Thus, women miss out on opportunities in their workplace not because they lack the creativity or the skill, but because they have never had the time.
Amidst all the physical work, women are also expected to ‘give’ their time to care for the infants and ailing members in the house, thus adding emotional toil to their list. It is clear that women devote their own time and space to others along with their mental space.
It is because of the time women devote to their households in the form of unpaid and unacknowledged labour, that men are productive in the economy. This is because their children don’t disturb them every minute while working like they do the parent who takes care of them.
This is why the equilibrium between time and gender is never maintained. It will always weigh the woman down under the burden of chores. Men, on the other hand, can sustain a pleasurable life. The impact of this is visible if one analyses the Corona virus lockdown where women did all of the work at home like cooking and cleaning along with the added elderly care work and their professional engagements.
The mental load along with the emotional burden and physical labour often leads to burnout in women, a concept that is heavily gendered and not included in our vocabulary enough number of times.
Feminists and academics like Barbara Adams are affirming the need to deconstruct time in binary terms as there exist many multi-layered conceptions of time. Scholars like Emily Apter have imagined time to break away from the gender binaries and have put forth the idea of gender-neutral caregivers to ensure the unjust distribution of time is dismantled.
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It is also important to understand how time impacts the LGBTQIA+ community. Additionally, it is necessary to come up with better tools to ensure economic justice for women who outsource their time and labour to different households in the role of domestic help.
Hence, it is relevant to think of time as phenomenon that affects genders and intersectionalities differently. We must mainstream the investigations on the distribution of time with respect to intersectional parameters other than gender to truly understand the lop-sided nature of how it affects different people.
1. Valerie Bryson, Gender and the Politics of Time: Feminist Theory and Contemporary Debates.
2. Emily Apter, ‘Women’s Time’ in Theory