Leisure cannot really be measured, though it can be a measure of the quality of our lives. Time spent winding down or on activities we enjoy has a positive impact on health, productivity, creativity and wellbeing—and just as inequality pervades every other sphere of life, it exists in our relaxation as well.
How women spend their free time is tightly controlled in India. Leisure and violence seem to have little in common at first glance—yet both are governed by a desire to regulate women’s behaviour. Indian women know that being outdoors—or even in shared spaces indoors—comes with its own rules and social control, and that they have to find their own ways to negotiate, compromise and bend these rules.
There are often penalties for women whose leisure, especially in public places, isn’t within the norms of “decent or appropriate behaviour”, the most recent example of this being the harassment of two women bikers by an elderly man and his lawyer son on Bengaluru’s NICE Road when they stopped by the highway to relax and drink water after a long ride.
Constraints to women’s leisure include having to shoulder more household, caregiving and childcare responsibilities, patriarchal attitudes, lack of pay parity, having to accommodate the patterns, behaviour and working hours of male relatives, and the absence of public transport. Many of the factors that contribute to gender inequality in society and the workplace are the same ones that don’t let women have fun.
India’s 2019-2020 time-use survey indicates that men spend more time than women on employment, socializing, sleeping and eating, while nearly 20% of the average Indian woman’s day is consumed by unpaid domestic work or caregiving. Global studies have shown that quality of women’s leisure time is poorer than men’s, and that it is usually worse in places with more traditional gender norms, little access to formal caregiving and childcare networks, and lower levels of women’s representation in politics.
Inequality of all kinds is usually maintained just by allowing, rather than necessarily enforcing, certain practices and belief systems. Our relationship with leisure complicates this inequality further. Leisure is seen as somewhat hedonistic, a demonstration of a lack of discipline, an extravagance that should be accompanied by guilt.
Leisure isn’t just the antithesis to productivity in the Indian context; it’s also in the realm of being a ‘bad girl’ if one enjoys watching cricket instead of making tea for the men watching the match. Attitudes to leisure spill into the workplace too and play out in various forms, such as resistance to the idea of period leave—women cannot rest, even if they are in pain, they have to pull through. In men, oddball hobbies pursued to the point of obsession add interesting dimensions to their personality; in women, it’s just plain wrong if you are not of a prototype.
Policy changes could also play a role in improving the quality of women’s leisure. These would include access to dependable and good childcare and elderly care, child support benefits, and flexible work and leave policies for all genders. It also requires us to see leisure as integral to living well, and recognizing its emotional benefits for society at large. This cultural shift towards tolerating rest might be hardest to achieve. It makes both women and men uncomfortable to hear that thinking about fun is part of feminism and equality for people of all classes and incomes. When access to education, equal pay, work, healthcare, safety and more remain issues, fun seems so frivolous. Yet, fun doesn’t only mean ‘Galentine Day’ parties, pink balloons in the office, and Women’s Day discounts; it’s also being able to sprawl on a bench and read a book, daydream on the metro, and use public spaces without fear or hesitation.