Housewives and Men inside home in Covid 19

Shafaque Zehra, Syeda Sumaya Mehdi and Chand Mahal Ruby

With more than sixty thousand deaths and continuous increase in the number of infected and dead, the world is living the shock of the century, and has come to a standstill. With people under lockdown we are bound to remain in the confines of our homes. Families are together. All are eating inside, washing dishes and clothes inside homes. Here we would like to raise certain questions which are related to the work inside home and its gendered nature. Who are all cooking?  Now, women both working outside and homemakers are with men inside homes. And somebody has to do the dirty laundry, dishes, sweeping and mopping. Is it women alone, who have traditionally been assigned the sphere of household, working or men are also working with them?

Position of women has changed in post-colonial societies. From being confined to the four walls of their home to gradually being ‘allowed’ to step out and receive education or even a job has become the reality for an average Indian woman since the last two to three decades. However, the relative social equality is limited to upper class and upper-middle class society which is a very small fraction of the country. Household burden is, more often than not, still a woman’s responsibility. The woman is supposed to act as superheroine managing work inside and outside home. Women who are called housewives, or now homemakers, a supposedly more dignified term are still tied to their homes and the household chores. Depending upon the class status of these women it is decided whether they can hire housemaids or not. Now with the coronavirus lockdown the luxury of a house help is gone and members of the family are supposed to do all the household labour on their own. 

Certain pertinent questions emerge. With men now supposedly free from their gendered role of earning the daily bread and managing public space, how would their work and leisure be defined now? Would the army of men who are now inside the house change the definitions of work and leisure for women? It reminds me of the conversation that that I had with my neighbour: 

While sweeping  the floor I started talking to my neighbour. I complained that it would be tough to stay inside, everything will change. She looked at me with disdain and said, “ It's the same for women. I used to work earlier and I would work now”. I became quiet.’

A little more than a week into the lockdown we have some ground report. Connecting across the homes around us and a critical look at the social media handles of both men and women of economically middle-class India, one notices that household chores mostly still are taken to be the woman’s responsibility. It is true in both cases- where women are working wives and where they’re housewives.  It is like the unspoken rule. Or like a sophisticated overall of modernism under which the crass caricature of patriarchy continues to bloom.

It is to be noted that the male part of household responsibility pivots across one central ground- CHOICE. Most of these households witness men taking up household chores either as somewhat of a fetish, a new strange adventure that one can live stream on social media and laugh about, or as a mere alternative to kill time amidst dreading boredom. This overarching boredom is also evident in the boom for gaming apps downloaded on phone. According to the data of PrioriData ( for most downloaded android apps as on 3 April 2020 include, Tik Tok, Carrom Pool, Bike Mayhem Mountain Racing, etc. 

While a minor change is definitely seen in this case, mostly in cases of upper-middle class families and some other exceptions, it is invariably much less than what one would expect from 2-3 decades of rapid urbanization, westernization and modernization (we are in no way claiming the synonymy of these terms, but the common consensus in India does). The common-sense logic would suggest that since the husband and wife partner run the household- traditionally men took charge of the outer sphere while the inner sphere was the women’s territory. So now, when the outer sphere of household is closed, it would only be justified that both, husband and wife, share the remaining sphere. However, it being not so suggests a few things.

First, the demarcation of inner and outer sphere of work isn’t simplistically division of labour, as our good old friend patriarchy suggests, where physically stronger men take on the Herculean outer world whereas the emotionally intricate inner sphere is left for women. Had it been so, the labour would be equally divided in present circumstances. Paradoxically, the household truly serves as the ultimate man’s world where he demands being served. 

Second, there is something innately derogatory about our societal understanding of household chores. It is thus, the working sphere of the subaltern gender in the family. Therefore, men face strong inner resistance in venturing into this, despite the incessantly ranted, internet-famous, boredom. 

This categorization of be-littleness becomes even stronger when we further dissect the chores. As observed, man’s contribution to household chores in lockdown remains a matter of choice. So when a man chooses to work in the domestic sphere, not only does the middle-class world stand in wonder, awe and salutes for the godlike humility of the man, the work and the pattern he follows has a clear socio-political indication of hierarchy.

Firstly, answering what chores are men doing. Several interviews, data and personal observation tells that cooking and teaching kids is the most common task men choose to assign themselves at such times, on the other hand jobs like brooming, mopping, cleaning toilets and washrooms and doing soiled laundry (especially the ones to be washed manually), continue to be left out. This pattern is so common that not questioning them would be naive. One striking similar example of labour division would be that of Manusmriti. Both in western and Indian concepts, mental labour (teaching, operating) enjoys supremacy over physical labour (cooking, cleaning). Cleaning is, by common consensus both philosophies, the lowest of jobs. The division of labour is always political. Not questioning it is even more political. Also, as observed, the fervour of sharing the chore is less of mutual responsibility and more of a favour done to the womenfolk.

Secondly, how long do they continue to work? As we write this, most of the male counterparts of our family and extended families have given up the initially curiosity-led domestic chores. The stats and external opinions confirm the same report. Thus it would be wrong to see the sparse ventures into domestic chores as permanent change. The privilege and more importantly, the CHOICE to, attach and withdraw themselves from the chores at their convenience and mood proves the hypothesis we mentioned in the previous statement. 

Yuval Noah Harari in his article titled The World after Coronavirus (Financial Times, March 20, 2020) meticulously presented the global lockdown in a fresh, curious perspective. He views the lockdown as a laboratory for testing futuristic ideas and developing institutions. This includes ideas of work from home and online education as chief interests among others. The case becomes even more interesting when viewed from the lens of Indian society. 
In real time, India is testing its futuristic institutions and ideas in the age old framework of active male domination. Placing this in a time where right before this, India saw a national awakening led by its most marginalized counterparts (women), is important as it pertinent to ask would any political change revolutionize the domestic sphere, especially when the domestic is political? For the middle class and people who can afford to stay at home, what has changed? With men staying at home apart from the usual Sundays (celebrated by a class of men) at least the landscape of home is changing. Now, the presence of all family members is inevitable. Whether we like it or not, we all have to endure each other's presence. And who would work? Let’s suppose that men work but would men work for long? Would it be out of choice or necessity? Will they continue the practice after the lockdown is over?

Who better to answer this present traditional-modern dilemma than a millennial student. Rooted in the past, constructing the future. In conversation with one of our colleagues, she lamented how life is unfolding to be so disheartening during lockdown.
“I am a student like my male siblings. But the onus of doing household chores like cooking and cleaning is on me. While they read, write and enjoy as per their leisure, why do I alone have to toil myself in the kitchen. The disparity feels like an insult I live 24*7. The concepts of choice, consent and equality that I study in college cease to exist like a mirage.”

The premise that better education and financial independence will transform and uplift women’s standing in the world seems failing in middle-class Indian premises. Education does make women aware of their marginalization and gives them a just perspective into the ideas passed on to them as empirical truths, but does it empower her to be in control of her life? When the dominant structure - be it social, political or religious is androcentric, Indian women need much more than education to shatter the shackles. 

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Apr 8, 2020

Shafaque Zehra

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