Gloria Steinem once said, quoting Irina Dunn, that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle—in other words, doesn’t. Following Asma Jahangir’s demise many words of praise were said about her husband, and how he was to thank for her great success as a lawyer. One often finds similarly successful women attributing their success to the support of their spouses. It’s wonderful, if it were true. One can’t speak for men around the world, but the typical South Asian idea of a “supportive” spouse is vastly divergent from what one generally supposes. Men who work can expect the support of their wives; it’s a given that women will pack up home and family and move wherever the husband’s career or aspirations take him. Women will organize the networking dinners, make small talk with the wives of colleagues, buy and wrap the gifts for weddings and make sure your socks are clean and shirts pressed. Women run households that provide the support men need to be able to work successfully, and that is why they also say behind every successful man is a woman: because it is true.
But somehow when we speak of supportive men, the yardstick suddenly goes from miles long to miniscule. All men need to do to be supportive, apparently, is not interfere. That’s it. The amazing supportive desi husband is not the one who bails you out of jail or drops lunch off at your office during a fiendish day, but is one who “allows” you to do things, because grown adult women need permission to do anything. “He’s never stopped me” is a common refrain, and it really makes one pause for thought. That’s all it takes for a man to be considered supportive—not saying no? A supportive woman basically jumps through a hundred hoops of fire, but all “supportive” men have to do is to take a passive backseat to their partner’s ambitions and dreams and down showers the praise. Take a bow, patriarchy, as I slow clap for this genius move.
Passive non-interference is not support. It is at best not actively meddling and at worst, a complete disinterest in participation. Supporting someone is hard work. It means putting your own needs and wants aside so you can be available to help someone you care for in a meaningful way. Supporting your wife’s work means stepping up: taking the kids to school, to the doctor when they are sick, to birthday parties when she has a meeting. Support is hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up participation in the things men delegate to women ostensibly so the men can work: childcare, household chores, emotional responsibilities. When it’s women’s turn to use their talents and brains for something other than planning dinner and helping with homework, then support means that husbands and brothers and fathers actually take back some of that burden. When they don’t, then it’s what always happens to working women: you have to pay the massive price of juggling.
Juggling means doing the children and the home and the office: multitasking. Any woman who is trying to do something for herself, whether in an office or not, knows the frustration of this burden. If you want to work—creatively from home, corporate in an office, anything—then you have to schedule your life to the last minute so you can fit everything in, and more often than not, you can’t. It isn’t humanly possible for one person to be able to do any meaningful work and also choose thoughtful birthday presents and also put lovely meals on the table and also know the names of all the teachers in your children’s classes. And yet, there are millions of women who are managing these immense burdens, practically single-handed, all the time. Instead of always looking to include the men in everything it would be nice for once just to applaud the women who move heaven and earth every day instead of the men who just sat back and watched it all happen. Would successful women be that way without the “support” of their menfolk? Yes, they would, because more often than not that “support” is a veneer, something polite to say during an interview or at dinner. Successful women are successful because of themselves and their hard work, and it just won’t do to let men take the credit for being bicycles in a story of fish.
The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.