What the making and unmaking of one of India’s most celebrated foods tell us about traditional female roles, unpaid labor, and revolution*


*This article was originally published on Futuress.org︎︎︎

I grew up watching the women in my family making countless hot Roti and serving the men at the table as they kept on ordering “Aur laao!” (“Bring more!” in Hindi). Roti is a circular-shaped, unleavened flatbread made from wholewheat flour and water that dates back over 5000 years ago to the Indus Valley Civilization. Since then, it has become a daily staple in North India, within its diaspora, and in neighboring Pakistan.

Having grown up in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state in north-east India, within a traditional Indian family of Hindu heritage, I learnt from a young age that women are to cook and serve the men. I have seen my mother, aunts, and grandmothers bringing food to their husbands and families as a duty of love and care. They were praised and glorified in return for keeping the tradition alive. As I got older, I wondered if there was a cost to sustaining one’s heritage. What kind of oppression and concessions hide underneath the bright facade of food and love?

Making a Roti, or the Socialization of Women
Though always present, Roti itself is not depicted as the hero of an Indian dish. It accompanies other dishes like curries or dahls and is often used to scoop up the food. Making a round Roti is not easy and requires mastering a specific technique of rolling. Roti is also called Chapati, which literally means “something that comes out of slapping” in Hindi. The name refers to the traditional way of working the dough into shape by smushing and beating until one hears the right sound, like that of slapping thick skin. Then, the dough is divided into fistful-sized balls and flattened out with the rolling pin in a circular motion. Once it achieves the perfect roundness and thinness, it is flipped onto a tawah (pan) and put over the flame. Only if it rises proudly over that fire can one call it “a perfect Roti.”

Often, in traditional Indian families like mine, learning to make Roti is a craft and a ritual passed on from mother to daughter when they become of age. When that day comes and the girl is called into the kitchen, she swiftly and officially transitions into adulthood. She is now expected to serve hot Roti to the men of the house; to carry out her duty as a woman. In a typical Indian household of five persons, each consuming three meals per day, a woman might make
up to twenty Roti per day — not to mention the additional effort of making all the other dishes to complete the meals. All the beating, slapping, and fire-testing required to make twenty perfectly round and thin Roti reminds me of how aggressive and relentless gender socialization can be.

“When girls grow up to see that women’s duties tend to lie at home and are centered around cooking, raising children and taking care of the family, they learn that their realm of action is limited to the domestic sphere.”

In Social Role Theory, U.S. social psychologist Alice Eagly argues that gender stereotypes stem from the division of labor between men and women and are reified through repetition into differentiated roles. She states: “Seeing one gender primarily engaged in a particular social role leads perceivers to assume that men or women generally have personality characteristics that make them especially suited to perform that given role.” When girls grow up to see that women’s duties tend to lie at home and are centered around cooking, raising children, and taking care of the family, they learn that their realm of action is limited to the domestic sphere. As they come of age, this is accompanied by various restrictions on leaving the house. Boys, however, are encouraged to carry out activities in the public realm, such as pursuing education and employment. In the meantime, women are prepared by their elders for marriage, of which making Roti is part of the training. Being bound to the domestic entails a loss of agency and thus of power and status. Accordingly, women are gradually disciplined to occupy a subordinate position to men, just like a Roti is to curries and dahls.

The woman faces the tandoor and shapes the bread with her hands as she nurses her baby, Watercolour by an Indian artist, dated between 1800 & 1899

The Imperfect Roti, or the Bad Women
One of the primary religious texts that lay down the duties, rights, laws, conduct, and virtues of caste and status of men and women in the Hindu society is the Manusmriti. The Manusmriti dates back to 1250 BCE and was originally written in Sanskrit by Rishis (Hindu sages) in the form of Shlokas (verses). Chapter 5 lays down some of the laws with respect to women:

Even in their own homes, a female—whether she is a child, a young woman, or an old lady—should never carry out any task independently. (5, 147) As a child, she must remain under her father’s control; as a young woman, under her husband’s; and when her husband is dead, under her son’s. She must never seek to live independently. (5, 148) She should be always cheerful, clever at housework, careful in keeping the utensils clean, and frugal in her expenditures. (5, 150)

Although this text is ancient, many of these norms are still prevalent today in Indian society as a measure of how a “good” wife should be. In this way, the more she is capable of taking care of others — while also being subordinate to them — is a signifier of both her value and of patriarchal norms. In fact, up until very recently, a woman’s ability to make a perfectly round Roti was an indication of her eligibility for marriage.

In 2017, Kwality Walls, an Indian ice-cream brand capitalized on this association to advertise its product. The television ad shows the daughter-in-law of the house presenting her young daughter who has just made her “first round Roti” to the rest of the family sitting at the dining table. As a reward for having made the perfect Roti, the family decides to celebrate with ice cream. The ad underscores old patriarchal norms regarding the wifely responsibilities expected of women, and it is also a testament to how such duties should be accepted and celebrated by both men and women alike.

The fixation on a woman’s obligation to make the perfect Roti is also critical across the border in Pakistan. In 2015, in the city of Lahore, there was a case in which a 12-year-old girl was beaten to death by her father and brother because she was not making round Roti. In response to this event, Pakistani writer Hareem Deeba drew attention to how many women in Pakistan are taught to become “Roti-making machines” from a young age. She explains that no matter their professional qualifications beyond the household, this is an ongoing practice: “By choice or by might, we are forced into the kitchen to become
an expert in making beautifully shaped Chapatis.”

The 2017 National Family Health Survey in India revealed that 52% of women and 42% of men believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife under one or more of these seven specified circumstances: if she goes out without telling him, neglects the house or children, argues with him, shows disrespect for her in-laws, refuses to have sexual intercourse with him, if he suspects she is unfaithful, or if she doesn’t cook “properly.” This violence trickles down through generations: men who witness their fathers beating their mothers during their childhood are more likely to condone and commit acts of violence against their own wives.

“The devaluation of women in media, political affairs, workplaces, and society overall leads to socialization that enables men to be dominating and women to be submissive.”

In her thesis on “Hinduism as a Political Weapon: Gender Socialization and Disempowerment of Women in India,” researcher Aindrila Haldar argues that young Indian men grow up perceiving differentiated practices between men and women within the household, and they see this not as an unequal distribution of roles, but rather as an affirmation of their place in society. She further discusses other foundations (including the Household) that impact such socialization, like Religion and Politics. She argues that “many of the principles and practices of social and religious aspects of modern Hindu civilization use [texts that have portrayed women as extremely submissive] as a premise.” Haldar explains that in the current political climate of India, the Hindu nationalist government continues to use “patriarchal ideology of Hinduism and neoliberal gender logics” which promote the idea of an “idealistic Hindu Indian woman and mother who sacrifice their choices and autonomy to hold their families together.” Hence, the devaluation of women in media, political affairs, workplaces, and society overall leads to socialization that enables men to be dominating and women to be submissive — Indian women are expected to be compliant, adapting, polite, and giving.

Indian author and professor Nivedita Menon argues that bringing in fundamental human rights into the family endangers the very existence of the family as we know it. She notes how the family structure is based on clearly-established hierarchies of gender and age, where an adult male has more authority and value than an older female. The patrifocal function of the family, she says, “is to perpetuate [...] patrilineal forms of property and descent, where property and the family ‘name’ flow from father to sons.” It therefore becomes difficult for one to bring in an argument for free and equal citizens in an institution that is based on inequality.

Roti’s status in a meal
And the status of a woman in our times
Is there a relation by any chance?

If a Roti is not made round and thin
It does not cook properly,
If a girl does not look ‘beautiful’
She cannot get married to a decent family.

It is always a matter of delicious curries
Roti’s presence is a given,
As she does not stay Anita anymore
Throughout her life, she is to be called Mrs. Sinha.

For a Roti, we knead the wheat into a dough,
Like we teach a girl the norms of womanhood.

A Roti is finally served after it rises over the fire
Like a girl after a certain age is ready for marriage.
Like how we break it with our fingers
Dip it in the curry and chew it under our teeth
So soft that it dissolves in the mouth,
A woman is also made in a way
That she does not raise a voice,
Just keeps on doing what she is supposed to do.

Hey woman, are you a Roti?

Socialize, Discipline And Punish”: A commentary Pallavi Keshri made using Roti to depict society’s harsh treatment of women.

Love or Exploitation?
In his opinion piece about Roti, British Pakistani writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif describes an old man’s particular way of eating Roti: “He would take a morsel from the center of a Roti to dip into his curry, and by the time he was ready to take his next morsel, a new hot Roti would appear on his plate. He left a pile of barely eaten Roti, with the centers missing.” Speaking of “apparition” is not an equivocation, but rather Hanif’s way of calling out both male entitlement and women’s invisibilized labor that is taken for granted.

Likewise, results from a survey I conducted in my hometown of Ranchi in 2021 with a group of 50 males and females between the ages of 13 to 26, showed that in 80% of the interviewees’ families, it is women who always do the cooking. Of this group, about a quarter said that gratitude is never expressed explicitly, half of them said it is expressed sometimes, and only a quarter said that it is always expressed.

While equally in terms of labor, the “domestic’” and the “professional” role in kitchens are purported to be two drastically different things. Women account for only 10-15% of all professional chefs in India today. This means that food items including the giant quantities of Roti sold every day in restaurants and food stalls are mostly produced by men — a kind of labor that is not only socially acknowledged but also monetarily retributed. Conversely, according to Oxfam’s latest report, Indian women and girls put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day, contributing at least ₹19 trillion a year (equivalent to ~233 Billion Euros to the Indian economy.) So where is the line between love and exploitation?

If one were to search “how to make a roti” on YouTube, about 80% of the first results would be DIY videos featuring a woman in her kitchen. However, only a few seem to be actively capitalizing on their knowledge and the stereotypical role laid upon them. In another rather disturbing series of videos that YouTube has now removed, a woman from a village in Pakistan is seen performing different household chores, including making Roti. But this was no tutorial. From her body language and how the camera focused on certain parts of her body, it was clear that the purpose was mere sexual titillation — one that would come from the domestication of women. Where is the line between playful eroticism and oppressive fetishization? And, how does reinforcing gender stereotypes contribute to women’s agency or lack thereof?

Roti is Revolution
In a feminist workshop I attended, I was asked questions nobody ever had asked me before:

- When was the last time you said no to something/someone, and it felt great
- When was the last time you wanted to say no, but you didn’t?
- How do you think feminism and saying no are related?

As I reflected, I could only remember the many times the women in my life and I have chosen — and still choose — only to satisfy others. The answer from a fellow participant caught my attention: “By setting a resistance to a process, one is reclaiming agency. [Saying] “no” [...] is a pause in a well-oiled process. And when it comes to saying no to processes that have stood for a long time [...], it means putting the whole chain of approval in question.”

In early 1857, something quite mysterious started happening in many villages in North India. Fresh batches of chapatis started circulating from hand to hand among locals, who were instructed to cook more and keep the spreading of chapatis going at an unprecedented speed. Though the origin of “the Chapati Movement” remains unclear, there are many theories. Some historians argue that it was a way of warning each other about upcoming storms; others believe there was a political motivation behind it.

“If Roti became a symbol of colonial resistance, could the same also liberate Indian women from the gender imperatives imposed by patriarchal norms?”

A hundred years before this event, large sections of the Indian subcontinent were occupied by the British Crown under the rule of the East India Company (EIC). The EIC controlled half of the world’s trade of commodities coming from the Indian subcontinent and had its own army of soldiers to uphold their power. A few months after the beginning of the Chapati Movement, the Indian Revolution against British colonial rule took place. This led many to believe that these ubiquitous yet legendary Chapatis were indeed carriers of secret messages and a call to arms. If Roti became a symbol of colonial resistance, could the same also liberate Indian women from the gender imperatives imposed by patriarchal norms?

A line from the poem “O Great Life” by Bengali poet Sukanta Bhattacharyya reminds me of what Roti represents beyond my gendered depiction of it. He writes of Roti in the light of poverty and hunger during the time of the Bengal famine of 1943: “The Full Moon appears as if a scorched Bread.” Here, the appearance of the moon becomes a teaser of a Roti which he desperately craves. In India, putting a proper meal on a plate is still a struggle for many. In such a scenario, a Roti is a signifier of food and security. A perfect Roti is carved out of a violent gendering process, and it symbolizes hope and resistance. A perfect Roti is a disciplinarian activity, and is an expression of true love and care for one’s family. So what to make of Roti now? All of what is mentioned, and yet none of it is entirely true — Roti is multiple, it is in its own rights, just like a woman. Perhaps Roti is a means to shed light on the misconception that a woman is in the service of men. She is not. She is not a service; not a supplement; not an “added value.” She is — well, let her decide for herself.
About Pallavi Keshri
Pallavi Keshri is a Multidisciplinary designer and Visual artist from India, now residing in Zurich, Switzerland. Currently pursuing her MA in Fine Arts at Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz, she has previously earned a Master’s in Visual Communication from Zurich University of the Arts. Within this academic journey she made an auto-ethnographic research and produced a memoir, “Design of the Self”, which delves deep into the nuances of her journey amidst gendered societal structures. Although her early artistry was a vocal critique of patriarchy, it has since evolved into a profound exploration of inner landscapes, further enriched by her love for winter swimming. Her evolving artistic practice, transitioning from various media to pen and paper, emphasises introspection and meditation.