A recent cartoon by Manjul depicted a middle-class Indian family, wherein the woman of the household is seen cooking, while the man is seen resting on the sofa and watching television. A short caption below reads as “No, he is not helping at all! He just claps for me for full five-minutes every day”, referring to the recent “Janta Curfew” announced by Prime Minister Modi where citizens stood at their balconies clapping, blowing conch shells and beating drums to cheer primarily for the health workers and other frontline workers, who are helping the country fight the battle against Coronavirus.
This article explores how the traditional gender roles in Indian households are faring amidst the 21-day lockdown. The typical Indian household’s daily chores are primarily considered to be the responsibility of the womenfolk, whereas, the male members are largely deemed responsible for stepping out to work. Even though women account for nearly half the population, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a woman in the age-cohort 15-64 years undertakes approximately 577% more unpaid domestic work (352 minutes of work) on an average day over her male counterpart (52 minutes of work). The forced consignment of people due to the sudden lockdown has increased the pressure on the female members whose work has doubled or sometimes tripled in cases of joint families, where they are being pushed into fulfilling the whims and fancies of their family members whether husbands, children or parents-in-law by cooking, cleaning and washing clothes.
We interviewed over a dozen people, both men and women from various age-cohorts, belonging to different lower and middle-income groups and across different geographies, to understand how the lockdown has impacted their daily lives and if the male members are helping the women with the household chores or is the entire burden falling on the woman? We spoke to a woman who works as a domestic help in several flats and lives with her husband in a basti in Delhi. She told us that her husband, who is a driver, has been helping her with sweeping, mopping, and washing clothes. She also told us, that even though she does the cooking, he has been helping her out in other household chores, which he would otherwise not help with. Our conversation with an auto driver who lives in a basti with his wife, and daughter revealed another tale. We asked him if he’s been helping his wife with household chores, to which he told us that he doesn’t engage in doing any household work and went on to add that if the women are present then why should he even bother? He also shared that his older daughter, who is married and lives nearby, comes home to do the cleaning and washing while his wife does the cooking.
A similar story was reiterated by a driver from Dabua, Haryana in his mid- 50s, who mentioned how his daughter is visiting them with her two children, but they have enough food stocked despite the increased number of people in the house through the lockdown. On asking him about the extra housework, he told us how there are enough hands to handle the work like his wife and daughter- in-law. He also mentioned how he is getting fidgety to get back to work as there is nothing to do at home. Departing from households where the burden of domestic chores is regularly borne solely by and shared among different women of the house, we moved towards living arrangements where people employ a household help for a few hours every day to pass on some of workload to a paid worker.
A corporate professional based in Bangalore, told us how she and her father are working from home for large parts of the day. While her mother would take the primary responsibility of cooking, her father would chop the vegetables and do the laundry everyday and she would help by washing the dishes. She also mentioned how one of these days her father also mopped the floor. Interviews with other men and women in the same age- cohort revealed mixed results. While, some were largely similar to the Bangalore case with the extent and kind of work varying, others echoed the story captured in Manjul’s cartoon, where the common theme was that the middle-aged primary wage earner (male) would either be engrossed in office work or spend his day watching the television, while his wife would continue with the household chores.
Some interviews also highlighted how men in their early 20s and 30s were explicitly asked by their mothers to not enter the kitchen and stay away from “their” work regardless of whether they were working from home or not, while the daughter/ daughter-in-law would have to contribute even if she had office work. Conversations with men who do not live with any or a single working-age woman had another tale to tell. A young researcher in Munirka, who shares a flat with two other boys his age, told us that they are able to manage the house even though their maid cannot come for the next few weeks. They take charge of cooking and cleaning together and fetch groceries from the market occasionally, which is at a walking distance from their house. A middle-aged man in Surat, Gujarat, living with his mother, who is over eighty-years old, told us how he has been doing all household work for a week now. He told us how factories are shut so he does not have any office work, but, all the domestic work on a daily basis has been exhausting and how it would be very hard for him if the lockdown gets extended.
While the country struggles with the lockdown for multiple other reasons, this forced proximity of families on a continuous basis forms the conditions for a unique opportunity to confront the long-standing issue of unpaid work and bargaining around it at a household level. While we see men behaving similarly universally by taking up responsibilities when they don’t have a fall back option in the form of paid help or a “lady of the house” to do the domestic work, we also see many examples across different socio-economic set-ups where men who don’t necessarily contribute to household work at all or on a regular basis are rising up to the occasion and unlearning the gender roles they’ve been assigned traditionally. While the extent of load-sharing varies and demands further investigation, we do observe a secular rise in participation from people’s experiences. We also observe the stickiness and reinforcement of social conditioning and patriarchal norms by both men and women, and they are spread across the different tiers of society. With some acknowledging how demanding house work can be and others chipping-in for the first time, India un- learns one step at a time, with a long road ahead.