By Manasi Sinha & Pratyush Bibhakar
Indian society is already in turmoil due to COVID-19 pandemic. In a tightening lockdown situation where people are constrained and locked inside their houses around the globe including India, it is disheartening to see the deep-seated gendered roles resurfacing in most families in India. The hilarity, grief and distress that rippled through various Tik-Tok memes or WhatsApp groups over the anxiety of a single man or a family man panicking over cooking and cleaning the house, reflects an egregious form of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ operating at social level. So, domestic chores and care work is seen as ‘non-masculine’, somehow beneath men’s loftier position and status in society. Although women and girls are now encouraged to study and work in a society like India, valuing women is still subject to their perpetual drudgery and caring for others at home. Instead of liberating women, when they are away from paid work, the pandemic rendered them with towering responsibilities more than ever. This pandemic couldn’t unsettle the entrenched gendered norms that run through Indian society as a normal affair.
When Culture Becomes the Bane
The best way to know how the ‘constructs of masculinity’ travels as a social reality is through lending your ears to those mundane conversations that form the essence of family system in India. Madhulika, a 30-year-old Assistant Professor in a State University, continues to delay her Ph.D. submission due to her marital responsibilities. Like her husband, she is overloaded with her career aspirations and university work, yet she insists on doing the errands and prepares three elaborate meals every day for her family:
“My in laws are staying with us for this lockdown. I need to be more caring as expected. It’s tiring to wake up so early for cooking and cleaning the house, but there’s no one who can do that.
“What about your husband?” Madhulika paused for a while and smiled.
“My husband cannot cook, of course. He cares for me, but I don’t let him enter the kitchen. My mother-in-law minds it that way. Well, its ok, I can handle it. This is still better, back home, with my in laws, things are a little tough, as I need to take care of cooking, cleaning as well as washing clothes for everyone. There is no maid in village, you see. So everything falls on me. It’s okay to me as I have to do it for a few days only.”
Adil, her husband, speaks, “Well, I know, she has to do everything. I want to help her, but my parents are conventional and they believe that men should not enter kitchen as it is for women. I let it be, as one cannot undo these cultural beliefs our parents hold so close.”
Madhulika and Adil’s story is not unique. Similar stories shape a common thread that runs through every Indian families whether it is a nuclear or a joint family. Even as families encourage women to educate themselves and earn well, when it comes to household chores, the division of labour within family is still gendered, with women waging a lonely war on domestic chores and care work.
Constructs of Masculinity and Gendering Roles
One pertinent question that very often comes across our mind is what it takes for a well-educated, progressive man to turn in for valuing and participating in household chores. What drives their reluctance towards such disengagement from care work and sharing responsibility for the laundry, care work or cleaning the house?
A society that witnesses an effusive display of chronic patriarchal values and masculine supremacy wouldn’t drastically loosen up its power structure that elevates men as the provider and protector of women. Rather, the voices of the latter will be scuffled by the former.
This ‘power structure’ is difficult to sieve through as it is sustained by a wider socio-cultural constructs that largely shape behaviour of children who are socialised to grow with masculine and feminine traits. Gentleness, empathy, humility, sensitivity, submissiveness, caring and beautifying often become feminine features; traits of aggression, strength, domination, competitiveness, being emotionally reserved, detached from caring and sharing take the course of masculinity. The gradual infusion of this masculine and feminine traits or characteristics into practices of gendered behaviour for over a period of time settles into people’s unconsciousness and generates a ‘sedimentation of common sense’ – a shared understanding that the workings of the society have a natural logic and are meant to be the way they are (Jubas, 2006). Performing assigned gender roles by men and women therefore gains usual attention. Practicing their gendered role for decades perhaps does not condition a woman or a girl to shift her traditionally assigned household responsibilities to a man or a boy who grows up with a different set of traits and expectations. Men in turn do not necessarily challenge those masculine constructs they have learnt throughout their life as it warrants their supremacy over power relations. They maintain this asymmetry in power relations through ‘manipulation, bargaining, pursuing, influencing, or controlling the situation’, whereas women exhibit forms of suppleness to meet up their desired needs.
A study conducted by the University of Alberta, Canada, says, “Patterns of housework responsibility between men and women tend to be quite consistent at each life stage despite minor fluctuations in the volume of housework chores.” The research outcome from the study holds that people’s behavior are informed not only by their own biological development, but also by the work and family responsibilities they negotiate with their intimate partners and broader social norms significantly govern appropriate role ordering within families. It’s unfortunate to see how women are conditioned, explicitly or implicitly, to tie their self-worth to how well they perform their traditional care giving roles. Their stakes are considerably thought to be higher than men and so they seek validation of their worth by the way of cooking nutritious food, or how well they train their toddler in music and Maths, or how they keep their house well-knit, tidy and clean.
One of the university students Neetika’s assignment “Gender Roles in Family” echoes elements of such asymmetry as she spells out her father’s supremacy in controlling a situation in the family: “My father decides what is to be cooked in lunch and dinner; where to go on family trip; finding suitable groom for my sister; takes financial decisions; punishes everyone who does ‘not listen to him’; and can come home anytime from work. My mother intends to keep my father happy by cooking his favourite food; carries out household tasks like washing clothes, cleaning the house; keeps fast very often and follows rituals for our family, but never goes out without my father’s consent. She is a watchdog of my father’s money, but she has no liberty to spend it.” Neetika’s scrutiny resonates a common belief in many Indian families that a man’s job is to be a provider and a protector, deserving of services and devotion at all costs by virtue of his gender. So women are projected as eternal care soldiers of private/domestic sphere, providing unwavering service to the family, while men are seemingly at work to accomplish their worldly commitments.
It may come as no surprise to Indian women that their men folk do least of domestic chores and care work like their generation across countries. At least that’s what the OECD Report “How’s Life? 2020” reveals when it looked at gender disparities in various nations. The report says that men spend longer hours in paid work than women do (almost 1 hour 40 minutes more per day), while women spend longer hours in unpaid work (around 2 hours more per day). Countries like Italy, Spain, Estonia, Greece, Hungary show more involvement of women in routine house work, care work (for children and adults), and services for the household than their male counterparts. In Asia and the Pacific, men perform the lowest share of unpaid care work of all regions (1 hour and 4 minutes) with 28 minutes in Pakistan (or 8.0 per cent of men’s total working time). In India, women spend up to 352 minutes per day on domestic work, as compared to 52 minutes spent by men (577% more), says the OECD Report. A recent study by Oxfam India, “Mind the Gap” concedes that the burden of unpaid work falls disproportionately on women in India because tasks such as cooking, cleaning, fetching water and firewood are highly gendered and are usually dictated through inherent patriarchal norms that validate unlikeness of men’s domestic responsibilities and thus entrench women’s unequal social status.
The trend of women shouldering lion’s share in household chores within families is exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. With everyone locked inside houses for an extended period of time and new trend of work from home, millions of women now find themselves in their extensive role as a care giver and care-taker at home. Their usual contribution to the family has mounted more than ever, and particularly in the absence of any domestic help, the nature of work varies during this lockdown. Nayamat Bawa, head psychologist with IWill-ePsyclinic, a provider of online counseling services, reiterates the frequency of calls and chat requests from distressed men and women has accelerated during the lockdown: “Some issues are more serious, such as being locked in with an abusive partner. But in other cases, couples are dealing with a lot of friction over the distribution of household chores. Suddenly, there is so much work to do at home, but they cannot pass the buck to others as they have done for so long. In most instances, it is the woman who is doing the bulk of the work, whether or not she also has office work.”
Pandemic and Toxic Masculinity
The most devastating threat is that, in the guise of a well-accepted social reality, the ‘constructs of masculinity’ may turn into ‘toxic masculinity’ in times of such crisis. Beyond its multiple facets, it can “aggressively compete and dominate others” and act as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence” (Terry Kupers). In East Africa, as elsewhere, widespread unemployment resulted in some men unleashing violence on women and children because it is one of the few remaining ways that they can display power over others and ‘feel like a man’ (Correia and Bannon, 2006).
With the shrinking of public-sphere (due to this prolonged lockdown) which is considered a male bastion in India, a toxic masculinity is increasingly mushrooming in the private-sphere threatening girls and women with a perpetual fear of violence, abuse and rape. The fear-psychosis is already mounting among girls and women in India. Fuelled by constrained mobility, social distancing, prolonged quarantine, economic uncertainties and anxieties caused by the corona virus pandemic, domestic violence has surged since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, thus rendering women and girls vulnerable, threatened and insecure. The latest report by the National Commission for Women (NCW) confirms upsurge in gender-based violence since the pandemic outbreak with the total cases shooting up from 116 (March 2- 8) to 257 (March 23-April 1). Complaints of rape or attempted rape have risen sharply from 2 to 13, while cases of domestic violence have increased from 30 to 69 over the same comparative period. Other countries like the United States, China, United Kingdom, Brazil, Tunisia, France, Australia have also reported cases of increased domestic violence and intimate partner violence (IPV) since the pandemic outbreak. In South Africa alone, initial lockdown has reported 90,000 cases of violence against women.
A positive aspect of ‘masculinity’ is that it is not a static essence of any individual; it is rather a dynamic one which is constructed and reconstructed. Since, gendered norms, notions of masculinity and behaviours are taught and learned, it is very much possible to deconstruct such notions by working closely with men.
A gender transformative approach may be initiated through a multipronged strategy with multiple stakeholders including media, policy makers, civil society, etc. Awareness raising campaigns promoting fathers’ care-giving role and sharing domestic chores could be an effective way to promote new discourse on masculinity.
We may try a new online community initiative like “Men in the Kitchen” – an intiative already underway in Mozambique to raise awareness among men and boys around issues of gender inequality and negative masculinities to reshape existing gender discourse. As people are locked inside and spend most of their time watching or listening to TV, Radio, Social media, we may try initiating a television show, focusing on pressing gender issues, and develop dialogue and discussions on undoing gender at the social level. Online shows or TV programmes may be more effective as it impacts common masses at large. Such programmes may act as a tool to encourage men and boys to deconstruct existing notions around masculinity and make them conscious that gender inequality affects men too.
Creating a new gender discourse and encouraging men’s involvement in domestic chores require working with women and girls as well, as they become the subtle carrier of patriarchal values in most cases. Convincing women and girls to allow men to enter in a traditionally defined feminine space should be prime task. Many a times, gender stereotypes are so much being internalized by women and girls, that they show resistance to change and also do not allow men and boys to engage in housework for fear of being socially unaccepted or being stigmatized as bad women or bad girls. A new social experiment through digital platform may be taken up to articulate rethinking and acceptance of undoing gender roles by both women and men.
Dr. Manasi Sinha (Ph.D., JNU), Assistant Professor, Galgotias University. Pratyush Bibhakar, Assistant Professor, Galgotias University.
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