The label ‘housewife’ has become vexed to say the least. In Britain it is often understood as a derogatory term. It can evoke images of social and political isolation, the loss of individual identity, and an over-zealous pursuit to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ through competitive parenting and property. This stereotyping is dangerous.
Housewives are not monolithic creatures uniformly ordained into a self-serving cult of domesticity. We need to make more room to celebrate, rather than robotically deride women who identify themselves as housewives and who prioritise homemaking. This unjust vision of the disconnected and insular minded housewife does disservice to huge numbers of women in Britain and beyond who are actively using this role to benefit not only those who fall under their roofs, but also wider society.
Today, America Ferrera is in Washington DC to give an award that illustrates this very point. The Ugly Betty actress is presenting a ‘Vital Voices Leadership in Public Life Award’ to Tep Vanny, a self-branded housewife, who has become a guiding light in Cambodia’s battle against forced evictions. Carried out in the name of ‘progress’, forced evictions now rank as one of the world’s most serious human rights abuses. Amnesty International defines forced eviction when people are forced out of their homes and off their land against their will, with little notice or none at all, often with the threat or use of violence. And in Cambodia, a country devastated by the pursuit of profit, it is housewives who have come out fighting against them.
In 2007, the Chinese backed private development company Shukaku Inc, was granted a 99-year lease to build on and around Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh. The company went on to fill the lake with sand, destroying approximately 10,000 residents’ homes, and submerging peoples’ lives with it. Further still are under threat. As one community member told me as part of my academic research, the government ‘are trying to eradicate poverty by displacing the poor from the city where they can hide our poverty. This is what they mean by poverty eradication. They don’t care how we will survive, if we live or die. They ruin our homes, our incomes, we are left with absolutely nothing’.
Western feminists should not lose sight of the fact that in many countries around the world, women’s role as wife and mother remains central to their family and societal status. When homes are threatened with destruction, it is women who are disproportionally affected. While women are commonly framed as defenceless ‘soft targets’ in forced evictions, Tep Vanny and her fellow housewives complicate this assumption. Harnessing softness as a strategy rather than hindrance, these women have committed themselves to a sustained campaign of non-violent protest. Worried that involving men would only encourage more extreme violence, ‘turning men into goldfish clashing with each other’, they are using their positions as wives and mothers to co-opt riot police through their songs of suffering, and morally shame them when they are publically beaten. Yet many have experienced arrest as a consequence of their activism, with Yorm Bopha still imprisoned despite international calls for her release.
In contrast to British stereotypes of the inward looking housewife, these women are committed housewives and forward thinking political activists. Their influence extends far beyond the homes they care for. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘The Whole World is Watching’, one of the women explained that with guidance from NGOs, the group has become experts of spectacle courted by the international media. Exposing their bare breasts outside the Cambodian parliament, they aimed to demonstrate the vulnerability of being left only with their bodies. And donning birds’ nests complete with chicks on their heads, they came out in defence of their role as mother hens.
Not content with these national displays of resistance, the housewives took a lead role in submitting a complaint to the World Bank, insisting that it had breached its operational policies. The World Bank admitted that its land titling project had contributed to the harms suffered, and suspended its loans to Cambodia.
The housewives of Boeung Kak are playing a critical leadership role in publically contesting large-scale losses of home that are being felt in communities sadly too numerous to name. In taking on this extra burden, housewives in Cambodia have become domestic goddesses battling global problems. While Nigella Lawson in How To Be a Domestic Goddess writes that baking is about ‘reclaiming our lost Eden’, for scores of women in the developing world, it is protest, not baking, that is being harnessed to secure ‘Eden’ – or more profoundly- basic human rights to adequate housing.
So what does this mean for the British housewife? While forced evictions are thankfully not a reality that we find on our front door steps, the courage of the Boeung Kak women is not without precedent in the UK. We only need to think back to Greenham Common in the 1980s for an example of housewife activists who fought to protect their families against the feared installment of nuclear weapons in Southern England. Both sets of women, whether in Cambodia or Britain, show the power that housewives can wield, of illuminating injustices at the highest of political levels.
Put to one side Nigella and her cake and we find other domestic goddesses at work. Tep Vanny and the women of Boeung Kak may not have won the geopolitical battle against forced evictions in Cambodia, but they have shown that housewives should not be slated, but rewarded, for their inspirational dedication to domestic life.