Sameera and Raghu Kishore at their Goregaon home
Sameera and Raghu Kishore at their Goregaon home

With all its attendant inconveniences, the lockdown because of the Corona pandemic has also brought the gender-inequality and gender-injustice within the confines of the home into sharp focus finds Yogesh Pawar. Will we change this?

Bhanu Pankajakshan and her husband Hari are barely speaking to each other. “I'm waiting for the office to reopen,” fumes the FMCG marketing exec who has been working from home since the lockdown began.

“It's got to a level where I can feel my hair bristle when he's around. We're forever sparring over his selfish behaviour and unwillingness to help with household chores,” complains the Hindu Colony, Matunga resident who adds, “While the government has announced a relaxation of the lockdown, trains/cabs are still only accessible to essential workers approved by the government. BEST buses are far and few in between with more than kilometre-long queues. Looks like I'll have to live with this situation for longer,” she sighs resignedly.

Hari blames what he calls Bhanu's “crabbiness” to her spoilt upbringing. “She was brought up with a full-time live-in help in her parent's Coimbatore home apart from a gardener-driver and another maid who came to sweep, swab and wash the bathrooms and toilets. She finds every household chore a pain. Since our marriage, we've always had two kaamwalis one for cooking and one for the other chores. With no kaamwali bai she tries to take it out on me or our nine-year-old daughter Uma,” says the 32-year-old who teaches Calculus and Physics at a coaching class. He feels his wife's anger began erupting since his elderly widowed mom flew to his sister's Thiruvananthapuram home for her grandson's birthday on March 10th. “Amma was supposed to come back in a fortnight but the lockdown changed all that and she has been stuck at my sister's and most of the chores have now become Bhanu's responsibility. But all women do it. I don't why she cribs so much,” he smirks.

When egged on about pitching in to help he insists he is already doing his bit. “I've been washing all my plates, bowls and spoons after every meal and sometimes I wash Uma's plates too. What else can I do?” he asks.

Bhanu rolls her eyes and laughs, saying: “True. That is supposed to square up with my cooking, sweeping, swabbing, washing the bathroom, watering plants and helping Uma with her bath, tying her pigtails when I am not navigating youtube cooking videos because my sambars and dosas are not good as his mom's.” She recounts their latest argument over the laundry, adding, “I am expected to load and unload the machine, hang out the clothes to dry, fold and arrange them in each of our cupboard sections and yet while on a video call to his mom he was making it out to be like he's doing the laundry just because he was pressing buttons on the panel when needed.”

Maybe Hari has not been following how the washing detergents brand Ariel had to delete its '#ShareTheLoad' advertisement, after a severe backlash for its 'misogyny.' The ad had men sharing home chores because 'unequal division of chores is keeping women awake' during the lockdown.

Ariel had tweeted: “Times of crisis bring people closer. They push us to play roles unimagined and to be the best versions of ourselves in every little moment. Here's to all those spectacular men who've begun to #ShareTheLoad and made it a joyful, loving part in their homes.” Once the video was shared on Twitter, users called out the Ariel for “overhyping” the little a man does.

Across the city in Mumbai's suburb of Goregaon, banker Raghu Kishore is busy with the vacuum cleaner. He's done with the drawing room and calls his homemaker wife Sameera to seek approval. Though she is unloading the washing machine herself he insists she comes and sees how his efforts have left the drawing-room spick and span. “I've cleaned the fans too,” he points out and slips in a request. “Can you make me some coffee?” Sameera rolls her eyes and walks to the kitchen. The used-utensils' pile stares at her from the sink as she sets water to boil for coffee and goes back to attending to the washing machine.

Whether the high-tech mop or the vacuum cleaner Raghu uses these regularly to clean the house. “My mother raised me to help in the house and I realise that since I'm working from home I must do my bit to help, especially since there's no maid,” he says but admits he does not help with stuff like cooking since he does not know how to. Sameera quickly defends him, “He is good with gadgets and tech stuff so I leave that to him. Also unlike me, he is the sole breadwinner. I think it is only fair he only helps as much as he can.”

Household and the patriarchal stranglehold in times of COVID-19

In distant Bengaluru, the situation is reversed. Nidhi and Kaustubh Pai live off the Yelahanka suburb of the Karnataka capital work for rival software majors. “I admit I don't see household chores as my prime priority and do them only as and when. There's a lot going on at work with so many layoffs and my mind is completely caught with that,” admits Nidhi and smiles about how Kaustubh has always taken the initiative to keep house, cook and attend to any errands to buy groceries among others. “He really goes after it and wants everything to look like some interior magazine home. Even if he's cleaning and putting back a vase in place he really labours over its direction, the angle at which light will hit it and how that will affect the overall look, etc. Even when he cooks the kitchen is left glistening clean and almost looks like it was never used.”

Kaustubh, an only child, was raised by his mom single-handedly in South Karnataka's Karkala after his father died when he was only four. “Mom was a clerk at the local state transport depot and raised me to help out with everything, right from plucking vegetables and flowers in the garden outside our house, getting water from the well at the back and even using the South Indian grinding stone to make idli batter, chutneys etc,” he recounts and adds, “She was very strict and gave me quite the tongue lashing if she felt I'd made even the slightest mess. 'Don't do things in a way that'll increase my work,' she'd rebuke. Over a while, I imbibed that quality and now everything has to be just right otherwise it bothers me.”

Exacting Standards

Nidhi says she loves this attention to detail but does not appreciate Kaustubh applying the same exacting standards to her. “I'm not the types who will guilt-trip herself over things like dirty curtains or a pile-up of unwashed clothes and bed linen. I'll get to them when I get to them at my own pace but they have to wait till I finish off what are my priorities,” she explains. She was raised with two brothers in Mangalore and still resents how her mother insisted she help at home through school, college and the beginning of her career. “My brothers would leave even the damp towels after drying themselves on their beds. I was supposed to tidy their room, help mom, do well in studies and look presentable all the time,” she says despite her discomfort she complied. “I didn't know better or just did not have the articulation needed to question her though I would simmer within.”

At the beginning of their two-year marriage, Nidhi used to be amused that Kaustubh laboured till late night in the kitchen to “ensure it is fresh and clean for the morning” even if he had come home late. “But after the lockdown, I realise that he not only wants to foist these standards on me but seeks appreciation for everything he does, even ever so casually listing and pointing out stuff to me,” she says and adds, “Its almost as if in some unsaid way he is underlining what all I did not do or wants me to keep thanking him or praising him for what he's done. All I'm saying is that it is not like I won't or haven't done all the chores at home by myself ever. When he's away on a work tour or unwell I do it all by myself even if we entertain or have my mom or his visiting.” She says she never insists “on instant appreciation or excessively saccharine-tinged thank yous,” and scoffs, “All that belongs in those ads and films where everything is fake and unnecessary.”

Patriarchal pushback

Despite the rapid march for gender equality, patriarchy has always pushed back. In boardrooms, in policymaking and in courts of law. But the enforced lockdown has brought the focus on this playing out in our homes. One of India's leading Women's Studies experts and faculty with Tata Institute of Social Sciences Dr Lakshmi Lingam says: “In India, like most South Asian countries, historically derived gender roles, spaces and stereotypes of the ‘public’ male breadwinner (provider) and ‘private’ female caregiver are espoused even under changing situations. This is due to the association of household status with 'women’s non-work' that has been perpetuated by the circumstances of women having to supply their labour in the paid market work spheres under extreme economic stress and poverty,” she points out and adds, “It is ironical that at times even the opposition to changing gender roles comes from women themselves who have internalised its social construction.”

She further explains how this is intrinsically linked to cultural and traditional values cultural which constrain recognition of women’s economic participation. “The interaction between religious and beliefs and economic forces reinforces patriarchy. Clearly, the value or self-worth of women might have been set very high if it were measured based on their indispensability to the household,” she says citing the work of pioneering Dutch feminist Hanna Papanek which highlights the outcome of such ‘symbolic’ work rather than its content and terms them as 'family status-production work.'

Women & self worth

Papanek, in her works, talks of a shift from emphasising upon woman’s worth or ‘value’ to others in the socialisation process, to focus upon their own sense of value to themselves – their sense of self-worth. This she has underlined as crucial to understanding the persistence of inequality and evolving basic strategies for change following in the footsteps of John Stuart Mill.

Both Bhanu and Sameera might see Papanek's point about how failure to address the issue of justice within households is significant because the family is the first, and arguably the most influential school of moral development. Sociologist and cultural historian Nandini Sardesai echoes that thought and underlines how the household is the first environment in which human beings experience how persons treat each other. “We learn most of how to be just/unjust very early on there. If children see that gender leads to different treatment, this leaves a lasting impact on their psycho-social, personal and moral development. Injustice then gets socialised in the child's mind. S/he learns that just by being born male, a person has enhanced entitlement. On the other hand, being born female is enough to have inequality heaped on you to accept subordination and worse even abuse as par for the course,” she laments.

Incidentally, Hanna Papanek has said in the context of poor countries: “Domestic groups in which age and gender difference confer power on some over others are poor environments in which to unlearn the norms of inequality,” and “given the persistence of gender‐based inequalities in power, authority, and access to resources, one must conclude that socialisation for gender inequality is by and large very successful.” Such comparison of most families in rich countries with poor families in poor countries—where distinctions between the sexes often start earlier and are much more blatant and more harmful to girls.

Third World inequality

Several Third World households, it seems, are even worse silos of justice, because they are more extreme inculcation of the inequality of the sexes as natural and justified than their developed world equivalents. And thus there is even more need for attention to be paid to gender inequality in these contexts.

For as long as women's access to paid work is constrained, both by discrimination and sex segregation in the workplace and by the assumption that women are ‘naturally’ responsible for all or most of unpaid work of the household, this will not change says Sardesai. “The lockdown and its unique circumstances might be highlighting this injustice for now but how many households will really change to a gender-just and gender-equal ecosystem for good once this Corona crisis blows over? Will we just as easily go back to the way things were? Most importantly why should women who have waited generations for this to happen be willing to put this genie back in the bottle?”

As early as 1991 a UN report had highlighted except for North America and Australia, time‐use statistics considering, all work (paid and unpaid economic activity as well unpaid housework) reveals that women spend more time working than men in all developed and developing regions. Lakshmi Lingam points out how it is then an irony that most of women's work is not paid, not considered ‘productive’ and rarely if ever given a low down position of in the hierarchy of economic participation. “The perception that women's work is of less worth, largely because either unpaid or poorly paid (even though in most places they do more of it, and it is crucial to the survival of household members) contributes to women's being devalued and having less power both within the family and outside,” she sighs and adds, “In a way this worsens the likelihood that the division of labour between the sexes will continue, reinforcing women's complete or partial economic dependence upon men, a vicious cycle society allows to go on unbroken without once thinking of how it is shackling half of humankind in it.”

According to her, this is what makes society look down on the large band of largely women unorganised labour who work as domestic help in our homes. “We want to mock them, undercut their pay and make it seem like we are doing them a favour when it is actually the other way around. Our very way of life can collapse without their contribution,” points out Lingam. “I hope this becomes an important takeaway from this lockdown.”

Women's work's worth

She extrapolates from the help to all women and points out how this pecking order traps them in a downward spiral of socially caused and distinctly asymmetric vulnerability. “The devaluation of women's work, as well as their lesser physical strength and economic dependence upon men, in turn, allows them across the world to be subject to physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse by their husbands or other male partners. In India, like many poor countries, this power differential goes far beyond the abuse and overwork of women to deprivation in feeding, healthcare and education of the girl child. Sometimes it takes on an even uglier form like foeticide where patriarchy actually gets to sit in decision whether they will even be born or not.”

Wonder what Hari or Raghu make of that..

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