Lockdown has outed the dirty little secret of modern Indian households

Sexism-work from home women
With COVID-19 lockdown forcing people to work from home, an old sexism that remained hidden has reared its head. | Photo - iStock

For Priyanka Seth, a Pune-based designer for a city-based e-learning website, working from home in the last two weeks has meant doubling up as the cook and maid. With her husband in quarantine after returning from the UAE in late March, the only consolatioln for her is her son’s nanny, who moved in with them a few days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“I work for almost 12 to 13 hours every day as there is a lot of demand for e-learning content at the moment,” she says. “My younger son, who is just a year old is being looked after by the nanny, but there is no end in sight to the troubles for me.”

Priyanka knows that her tryst with chores are not going to end after her husband completes his quarantine in a couple of days. “He is in the healthcare industry and is going to be neck deep in work all through as long as this pandemic lasts,” she says  with a sigh.

For Kalpana G, an accountant based in Bengaluru, working from home has always been the norm, and she would report to work only once a month. “I thought it was all hunky-dory, undermining the help I receive from my maid and nanny. Now that I have to work from home without any help from the two, the enormity of the burden dawned on me. My husband has been able to help me out with a few chores amid his work schedule, but the upkeep and maintenance of the house is always on me,” she adds.

Women burdened with chores

The picture is no different in a joint family where one would assume that more hands would mean less work for women. Jyotsna Pradeep, a financial consultant, says she didn’t want to burden her aged in-laws, and so tends to take up more work than she can actually do. “Between this, I have my three-year-old son to attend to and the calls related to work are intermittent. You will find me getting up to wash dishes, switch off the gas after four whistles from the cooker and giving my son his bath in between work. My husband runs errands like buying groceries and feeding my son. However, his role is blown out of proportion by all, and how much ever I contribute, it is never considered enough. To top it all, I have to clean up after family members, who have suddenly found the need to chip in with small chores like dusting and cutting vegetables.”

Women’s condition is no different in a joint family where one would assume that more hands would mean less work for women. | iStock Photo

The above struggles can be attributed to the fact that in a typical Indian family, the task of household chores is always entrusted with the women whether it is the mother, wife, sister, grandmother or sister-in-law.

Neerja Shah, a media professional from Gurugram, points out that this gross sexism is perpetuated from the very beginning and that the pandemic has blown the lid off it.

“While women pick up household chores early on, men have the privilege of not taking them up at all (at least when we were young; things seem to be changing now). So if their moms did not get them to work, the onus lies on us (wives) to start their training. Yes, theoretically, their tasks-list should be as long as ours and chores should be divided, but that does not happen. Given the years of experience, we tend to do things faster than them. And I get to hear of backache complaints just about half an hour after his (husband’s) entry into the kitchen. What am I to do in this case? Show patience, as our fraternity is known for?” she asks.

Multitasking, a word that has been internalised for women, is also imposed on them, if they want to take things easy, says Neerja. “It is not that my husband won’t take up household work, but the point is he has to be told to do them. Why aren’t they programmed to do them automatically like we are?” she wonders.

Divide and do

Recently, the Odisha government sent out an announcement asking the people in the state to be sensitive to the needs of women who are overburdened with work. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik asked people to not enjoy the lockdown like holidays. He also said that people should not overwhelm women with more work. The announcement called for limited expectations from them, apart from suggesting them to cook in bulk for a couple of days.

While the CM’s message may not have stressed the need to divide household work, there are many women who have been assertive about it. One such person is Viji Ganesh, educator and coach, child sexual abuse prevention and awareness, who took a call to stop the domestic help well before the lockdown.

For children, seeing working parents at home can be a new experience. | iStock Photo

“It was overwhelming right from the word go. So I actually sat down with my family and discussed the plan. Kitchen is not my domain; I didn’t own it, even during the BC (before corona) period. We decided to take turns to cook. I would do the major meal, usually lunch. My teens — son and daughter — who love cooking as such take up dinner and breakfast. My husband, a finance professional, preferred to take up laundry and dish washing with one of us three helping every time. And since none of us like washing others’ plates and cups, we all do our respective washing of plates and cups. This was the rule in my home even before corona, but not really implemented. Now, we are all determined to do it. And we are all very mindful about using an extra cup or spoon and get reprimanded for such extravaganza by the others.”

Work from home new to children

For children, seeing working parents at home can be a new experience, says Chennai-based communications specialist, Sandhya Vardhini Raju. “So it is important to make them understand what working from home is and what time it takes to complete work. I have had my daughter and husband support me in this, as they pitch in by washing dishes, cutting vegetables and preparing coffee in the morning,” she says.

She adds that while trying to demarcate household work, it is also important to spell out office hours and have a work space in the house. “Work has to be planned week-wise and broken into day-wise activities. I set targets for myself as to what I should do every day according to priorities. This will help ease pressure and also help manage time wisely. Working from home doesn’t mean you are available 24×7 for work,” she says.

It is not all that dark and gloomy out there, with men like Rahul Kharge, a Mumbai-based finance professional, who has taken up the onus of doing household chores, as his wife, a fashion designer needs help. “I studied at a boarding school and stayed outside home throughout graduation and post-graduation. I have always been self-reliant. We at home have also believed in entrusting our sons with household work. So, the pandemic has only had both competing to cook and clean,” he says with a laugh.

Finding solutions within the problem

However, some do realise that coming out like a superwoman sans the cape is not the right approach towards piling up responsibilities. Akhila Krishnamurthy, who heads a business, says that in the beginning she was overwhelmed by all the tasks she was taking up, amid a sense of displacement as the business was going to take a hit.

While women pick up household chores early on, men have the privilege of not taking them up at all, at least when a few decades back. | iStock Photo

“I stopped my maid and nanny more than two weeks ago. All through the first week, I was feeling displaced — no workout or work. I began downloading apps for pranayama classes and I realised that I can’t be doing everything. This was not the time for me to perform or outperform. It is also not for me to show how I made this exotic dish or washed so many vessels. It is the time to show empathy to all those who work for us and also understand they are going through the same sense of displacement as us. I have made peace with the fact that we are all in the same sea.”

However, if there is one thing even progressive that even a balanced woman can’t shake off, it is the need to be the control switch. “The only misgiving I have is the mental responsibility, of getting things done, still rests with the lady of the house, which is something I would like to work on,” rues Viji.

The ramifications of the 21-day period of sharing household chores would hopefully be long-term, expects Natasha Ramarathnam, who works for an NGO based in Hyderabad.

“My elder son has been assigned the task of doing dishes, while the younger one does the sweeping and mopping. I have made it clear to them that they are not doing me a favour by carrying out these chores. On my side, I am sane and not under any pressure to scrutinise them. In a way, I have sub-contracted these works to them, and it is their work to do them. I just hope that by the end of it, they appreciate the work our maid does for the household. I also wish that this exercise brings about a level-playing field for future generations, wherein taking care of the household is not termed a woman’s job,” she adds.

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