The Shocking Truth About Gender Discrimination In Women’s Food In India

A staggering 70-75 % of Indian women between the ages of 15-49 are anaemic. Cultural taboos around women's food and other traditions play a large part in this.

A staggering 70-75 % of Indian women between the ages of 15-49 are anaemic. Cultural taboos around women’s food and other traditions play a large part in this.

Recently, my family attended a dinner function organised by a Muslim friend hailing from a Nawabi lineage. As was the norm in their family, men and women were seated in separate rooms.

Some of the mothers thought it would be best to start dinner for the children and they started serving their children dinner. I took my daughter as well to help her serve herself. When it was her turn to eat, the men walked into the common dining area. Immediately, the hostess took charge and apologised to the male guests for starting before them. She asked us to stop and started serving the male guests instead. My daughter looked at me and asked “Are the men being served first because women are supposed to only cook, clean and do all the work?”. The hostess patiently served close to nine male guests greeting each one of them with a warm smile and covered, bowed head. When it was my daughter’s turn, the hostess returned to the living room to let us help ourselves.

This incident made me think and explore how food plays an important contributing factor to gender bias and prejudice in our homes.

‘Men First’ policy

In India, it has always been a ‘Men First’ policy when it comes to food.

Women’s food is a Pandora’s box in a country where female infanticide is still a grim reality. The birth of a male child rings in celebration while the birth of a female child is lamented by the family. Sons are given better nutrition while daughters are relegated to step-motherly treatment in their own homes. There is a saying in Telugu which translates as: “Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbour’s garden”. The situation becomes worse after marriage where the male family members get the lion’s share, whether of property or the daily morsel of food.

‘Good’ Indian women cook for the entire household, serve warm food: men first, children next, and women last, has been the norm of a typical Indian family. This is more pronounced in rural areas. This puts Indian women at a serious health risk and nutritional deficiencies. In the larger picture, this slows down national economic progress.

Women’s food restrictions and taboos

If daughters are given the short end of the stick right from birth, the situation reaches alarming proportions as they grow older.

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Pregnant and lactating women

Pregnancy is the time when a balanced nutritious diet is necessary. But in India, pregnant and lactating women are expected to abstain from some essential foods as a part of traditional food habits.

Foods that pregnant Indian women are prevented from eating include papaya, banana, pineapple, grape, guava, jackfruit, yam, green leafy vegetables, egg, fish, poultry.

While consumption of saffron by is believed to result in the birth of a fair skinned child, consuming chillies or coffee is believed to result in the birth of a dark skinned one.  In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, it is believed that consuming pineapple causes bleeding from uterus during pregnancy. People in Tripura believe that consuming any attached twin fruit results in the birth of twins.

Because of so many conflicting and baseless restrictions and taboos on women’s food, there is serious deficit of nutrients in pregnant women and subsequently their children.

Religion and women’s food

Religion too has a role in women’s food taboos. Widows are subjected to an ascetic diet in many communities – usually a vegetarian food diet devoid of onions and garlic, as they are supposed to incite sexual desires. This is to make sure that they don’t ‘betray’ their deceased spouses even in thought, let alone action. Bengali widows are put on a strict vegetarian diet and barred from having parboiled rice and lentils are they are believed to be detrimental to celibacy.

Indian goddesses show the way to lesser female mortals. The prasad (food offering) in Bengali communities for goddesses Durga, Kali and Laxmi consists of paantaabhaat (leftover rice) and cheaper fish in than what is offered to the Indian gods. Even here, the women settle for a lesser quality and quantity of food, sacrificing the best for their men.

Fasting is for women and feasting is for men

As if eating last and eating less wasn’t “proof” enough of their love, respect and loyalty, Indian women are subjected to fasting for the male members of the family. And, the best way to inflict this atrocity on Indian women is under the garb of religious festivals.

Hindu women fast from dawn to dusk without food or water, while carrying on their domestic and professional duties as usual. Be it Karva Chauth, Savitri Puja, Karadaiyan Nonbu, Savitri Nonbu Vritham, Karadaiyan Nombu, Vat Savitri Puja, Mahashivaratri, Gangaur Pooja, Hartalika (the day before Ganesh Chaturthi), Varalakshmi Vratham, Vat Pournima, Atla Tadde in Andhra Pradesh, Savitri Nonbu Vritham observed in Tamil Nadu, Kokila Vrat observed in Gujarat, Mangala Gauri Vrat observed by newly married women in Maharashtra or Hartalika, one of the three days during Teej. Virgins who desire a good husband observe the Solah Somwar Vrat, which is fasting for 16 Mondays in a row. When wives fast for their husbands, how can mothers be left behind in the rat race for proving their love and devotion? Ahoi Ashthami (Mata fast) and the the Chhath Pooja is observed by mothers for the welfare of their sons.

Can you beat the fact that all this baboonery is romanticised in our movies? How can one forget the iconic Bollywood “Pativrataa Patni”, dolled up in a bright saree, heavy jewellery, thick make-up, mehendi, and glass bangles, whose idea of romance is to starve for her husband!

So, what do Indian men do? They feast and enjoy the perks of being treated as a semi-god – the aarti utarna, touching their feet by the wives, seeking their blessings et al. While, the Pati (husband) is seen as the Parmeshwar (God). the Patni (wife) is seen as the dispensable daasi (maid/devotee).

Why don’t we see parents, husbands and brothers who fast for the longevity of their daughters, wives and sisters respectively? Is respect the privilege of the Indian male, and relegated to mythical Indian goddesses only?

It doesn’t happen only in India

Recently Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi made the below remarks in her recent episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast. Yes, she is the same lady who categorically stated a few years back that “Women can’t have it all,” subtly implying that men can. In her podcast interview, she spoke about her plans to launch a feminine version of chips.

“Women don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously, and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavour into their mouth.” insert eyeroll

When food advertisements world-wide are already laden with subliminal stereotyping messages, that certain foods like fries, burgers etc. are masculine while some like salads, fruits, chocolates are feminine, it is disappointing to see such gender discriminatory remarks being reinforced by women leaders themselves. These erroneous messages are a direct reflection of deeply ingrained traditional patriarchal belief systems. It spells disaster for the health of both men and women alike.

Men don’t need to feast like beasts and women are not born with a bird-sized stomach, depriving them of vital nutrition.

Header image is a still from the movie Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

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Tina Sequeira

Author, poet, and marketer, know more about Tina Sequeira here: read more...

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