Cooking: A Choice or Obligation for Women?

Alyson McPhee/Unsplash
Alyson McPhee/Unsplash

“Your rider has picked up your food.”

If I had to choose my favourite sentence from circuit breaker, this might just be it. Anticipating the arrival of my food ā€” whether for lunch, dinner or dessert ā€” is a joy I thought little of until the nationwide lockdown descended upon us early last year. It may seem dramatic but when Phase 1 was implemented with its many restrictions outside, many were stranded indoors with mainly two options for food: DIY or delivery.

As a self-confessed nonstarter in the field of cooking, my choice was clear. Two words: Foodpanda and GrabFood.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, something else was brewing. The circuit breaker period had sprouted many a home baker and chef. With the monthslong confinement, suddenly there was time to discover a hidden passion, a curious hobby, even a lifelong dream. Newly formed home-based businesses cashed in on this, putting their creative and entrepreneurial skills to the test, all while making decadent and tasty food for others.

Despite my general disinterest in making any kind of food, even I was taken in by the allure of attempting to cook something during that time. And as I flirted with the idea of making more meals for myself and weaning off the food delivery apps for a bit, I questioned this seemingly innocent undertaking: was I trying to work on an important life skill I knew I lacked or was I compelled to do so, bound by traditional gender roles?

Who belongs in the kitchen?

Women have long been associated to roles in the kitchen. In most households historically, food preparation and cooking were tasked to women because men were expected to go to work and earn his family’s keep.

However, recent findings have shown that while the participation rate of males in the workforce has remained relatively stable from 2010 to 2019, the female workforce participation rate has been on the rise throughout the past 10 years. According to Singstat, the workforce participation rate for men in Singapore was 75.4 per cent while that for women is 61.2% in 2020.

With more women already opting for work outside the homes, distribution of household duties would naturally require some adjustments. Child-rearing and other household chores aside, who then is in charge of food preparation and cooking? In a heterosexual, dual-income family ā€” as many in Singapore as forced to adopt ā€” is the female still be expected to primarily take the lead in the kitchen?

Gen X-ers weigh in

According to 61 year-old Mrs Lee, being able to cook basic dishes is a given as woman. When she married, her husband expected that of her, as did her in-laws. She, too, believes that as a wife, it is “a must to know” how to cook well. While sympathising with the difficulty some women face of holding both fulltime jobs and having to cook, calling it a “double office at home and at work”, she still hopes that her son who is currently in university and has a longtime girlfriend, will receive regular homecooked meals when he eventually gets married.

She says of her future daughter in-law: “It’ll be a bonus to have homecooked food regularly. A couple times a week is enough. [It’s] not a dealbreaker if she is busy and doesn’t have the time; [they] can buy food or have a domestic helper. However it’s not okay if [she] is lazy and refuses to learn to cook.”

Both Mdm Umavadi, 52, and Mdm Ramlah, 59, seemed to have undergone the same experience as Mrs Lee with respect to cooking, in-laws, and husbands. However while Mdm Umavadi expects both her son and daughter to know how to cook, Mdm Ramlah believes that is an ideal scenario and highlighted that daughters “should at least know how to cook some basic dishes, e.g., plain rice, fried eggs etc.”

When asked if it is fair for women who are holding full-time jobs to also be expected to provide home-cooked meals on most days, Mdm Ramlah says yes.

She shares: “It is fair as itā€™s a duty for women to provide healthy home-cooked meals for their family; may not be most weekdays but at least weekends.” Like Mrs Lee, she too hopes her son’s future wife will be able to cook regular homecooked meals as making an effort in doing so will lead to a healthy marriage life. “As the saying goes the way to a manā€™s heart is through his stomach,” she adds.

Gen Y- and Z-ers speak

Meanwhile Mdm Umavadi’s 26 year-old daughter, Revathi, who cooks when she wishes to try out a recipe, believes cooking is not a gender restricted role and that anyone in the household may take up this duty should they have the desire and ability to do so. And it appears that most youths and adults from Revathi’s generation hold similar sentiments.

In a straw poll of 20 Gen Y-ers (born between 1981 and 1996) and Z-ers (born between 1997 and 2005), 75% were females of which five admitted to not knowing how to cook. All unanimously agreed that there are other options readily available like buying packed food or getting food delivery hence learning to cook is no longer a pressing need. For the rest who did know how to cook, the most popular incentive was to be able to cook for oneself and also make food for others.

What was interesting to note is that 85% of the total polled felt that in a heterosexual marriage, cooking duties should be split between the two parties. The top two reasons were linked to self-sufficiency (e.g., “cooking is a skill necessary for survival”) and finding a the right balance between the couple (e.g., “depending on who works more/has more time”). A majority also cited that the expectation for women to bear the role of main cook in the family came from gender roles that’s no longer in line with the times and borne out of a patriarchal system.

Where does that leave us?

While coming to a compromise with their partners seems to be preferred for females of the younger generation, mothers tend to lean more towards daughters or daughters-in-law in accomplishing this kitchen duty ā€” requiring at least a minimum in basic cooking ā€” leaving a tricky landscape for these young ladies to manoeuvre when they eventually take on both the roles of wife and daughter-in-law. But one thing seems to be clear, this generational gap will likely close in time if the responses from Gen Y- and Z-ers are any indication; outdated gender roles are making their way out and young women are readjusting daily family needs alongside career obligations.

The bottom line I discovered is this: these women wish to be approached on the subject of cooking as a choice rather than an obligation. While once upon a time women could not move an inch from the kitchen where they were said to have belonged, now women are choosing where they want to belong ā€” whether that includes the kitchen on the weekdays or just on the weekends, making simple or extravagant meals.


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