Has Quarantine Broken the Severely Coded Gendered Roles of Domestic Labour?

Will invisible forms of labour become more visible, and rich Indians less like us, less entitled?

It’s difficult not to hear voices as loud objects, when so much else is quiet. I was walking outside around the boundaries of my home in Ahmedabad, and I heard the next door neighbour say to someone on the phone, “Haven’t you heard this on WhatsApp? Aapne badha BJP. BJP etle bartan, jaadhu, pocha” Cracking a joke about housework involving washing utensils, clothes, mopping and sweeping and for some cooking, my neighbour was voicing the reality of many upper-class homes.

One of the bigger questions that the current coronavirus pandemic has raised is that of labour – our own in specific contexts and that of others related to us in families, and also of those whom we hire or are hired by. The isolation and anti-sociality have reconfigured labour roles, at least for the time being. What happens inside the house, in a family?

The other day, a male acquaintance sent me a message asking me how I was. It was unusual, considering I hardly ever meet this person, and we are certainly not friends. I attributed that to the excessive leisure time made available through the compulsions of quarantine. He must have flipped through his phonebook and thought of reaching out. Our hearts have indeed become charitable and we want to make sure that all those we know are well.

Be that as it may, I responded that I was alright under the circumstances and hoped he and his family were well too. I received a long message from him in return about how he spends time cooking, cleaning and spending quality time with his wife and children. The message was accompanied by three smileys. I gazed at it feeling puzzled and irked as to why this constituted a special cutesy message?

Also read: Rethinking Education in the Age of the Coronavirus

Generally, too many smileys do that to me, but there was something else here. The information about doing domestic chores was presented to me as a special one; and one that came with an expectation of my admiration, at any rate, cognisance. The sender was amused by his own role, and was perhaps self-congratulatory at this ‘new’ role he was performing during the quarantine.

The same day my mother told me how my nephew had been helping her clean the house; and she sounded very pleased, as she should be. Next, my sister mentioned how her son had been helping her in the kitchen. Confined to homes, are Sindhi men (in this case) finding in themselves for the first time the motivation to break the severely coded gendered roles?  While I have related examples from my community, this may well be true of men in other communities as well.

We tend to tell the story of India’s feudalism, its penchant for getting work done through maids and services as a standalone story. What we don’t realise is how, in many cases, not all of course, women “hire” additional help so that they are able to have a semblance of life and work out of home, or have a break from children or kitchen and so on. Our stories of gendered labour are not separate from the story of feudalism. Words like “multitasking” gaslight the many jobs women do; working sometimes from and outside home. How many times efficient women get complimented for being efficient, without realising that women don’t have to be efficient, that they could also for a change be as ‘singular’ as their husbands who can manage only one thing at a time.

I remember guiding young women as PhD students who raised children, wrote dissertations, attended classes, assisted me in teaching, and cooked, and cleaned at home. My male graduate students or young male colleagues did not do any of this, because they were busy working on their books or dissertations and could only manage that one thing. I also see a lot of young students grumble about how they need to run errands for parents or help around in the house, and plaintive complaints about the added pressure on their academics that are now being made. Are we as parents raising children who are not prepared to do labour and find it mortifying and special when they have to do it? Does being in your own kitchen and doing bartan have to wait for such a global crisis when Katrina Kaif has to have a picture performing this task on social media, men have to crack jokes, and smileys and upper-class teenagers experience trauma?

Also read: We Will Survive the Coronavirus. We Need to Make Sure We Survive Ourselves.

All these arguments may sound like homilies, and points of view that emerge from a certain class and condition. No doubt they do, we cannot cease to comment on the particular because it is not universal. Meanwhile, I should perhaps chime in with voices of gratitude towards all those men, who for the first time, are contributing to labour at home. We need to thank the coronavirus lockdown for these small mercies.

Once we are out of this period, would they continue to do this? I doubt very much if experiences of listening to diasporic men are anything to go by. Instances of Indian men doing their own cooking while studying or working overseas are aplenty. The moment they ‘return’ home they retreat into being who they were, and the mothers or wives cook for them.

One of the questions that the situation today raises is which of the changes we see today are likely to cause a paradigm shift after, if at all, we go back to being ‘normal’? Will invisible forms of labour become more visible, and rich Indians less like us, less entitled?

Rita Kothari teaches at Ashoka University and writes on borders, everyday India, language politics and translation.