Quibbles over who does the housework during the recent coronavirus lockdown have brought the gender politics of India’s homes into the open. The issue became highly common and the matter was taken up by a working mother in Mumbai who published a petition on change.org and wants the Prime minister Narendra Modi “to address the issue in his next speech” and to “encourage all Indian men to do an equal share of housework”.
Subarna Ghosh’s petition has garnered nearly 70,000 signatures. Ghosh runs a charity which works on reproductive justice, She stated that the expectation that she would compromise on work during the lockdown was much higher in contrast to her banker husband. Indian households often see an unbalanced and unfair workload of household tasks performed by Indian women as compared to men. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown has exposed the wide chasm of disparity in the sharing of housework.
To pen-down her story of struggle and complexities regarding the household work, the author of the petition wrote a short message for the PM in her request:
Dear Prime Minister,
Lockdown ke bahane se ek baat yaad aaya
Ghar-bandi mardon ko kya kisi ne samjhaya
Ghar ka kaam ‘aurat ka hai’ bolke usne thukraya
GDP ki baat chhoro, apno ne bhi bhulaya.
Tab socha kyu na Modiji se baat chalaye
Ki agle speech mein mardon ko yeh yaad dilaye
Ghar ka kaam har din hai sabka
Lockdown mein phir kam kyu badhta?
Bhaagidaari hi hai zimmedaari
Kya barabari nahi India ko pyari?
In millions of households in India, the issue became grave as women were overburdened with the immense number of tasks to be performed alone at home. Housework in India usually involves a lot of heavy lifting. Unlike in the West, few Indian homes are equipped with dishwashers, vacuum cleaners or washing machines. In millions of middle-class homes, the housework is delegated to the hired domestic help – part-time cooks, cleaners and nannies. But what happens when the help can’t come to work because there is a nationwide lockdown?
The answer is friction and fighting – and in one unique case, a petition urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene. “If Mr Modi can inspire us to light lamps and clap in solidarity, he can inspire us to correct an unaffair norm that discriminates against women in every home”, said Subharna Gosh.
.@SubarnaGhosh is urging PM @narendramodi to spend a little time today, in his nation's address, to talk about the need for Indian men to share the household workload equally. This is because #ChoresHaveNoGender!https://t.co/c5ElH8gWUd pic.twitter.com/YAQhQezXKi
— Change.org India (@ChangeOrg_India) June 30, 2020
Questioning the basis of equality while sharing work at home which is usually considered the primary responsibility of women in India, Subarna wrote, “Unequal distribution of unpaid household work has rendered the harshest blow to women across India during this lockdown. Yet, women’s care work continues to be invisible and no one wants to address this gross imbalance,” in her petition seeking a change.
“What about the manual of the washing machine or gas stove? Then why is it that most men are not doing their share of housework!”
My married sister once said that if she had to choose between her husband and her maid, she would pick the latter. The comment was made as a joke, but it’s an example of how much Indians depend on their domestic helpers.
The petition’s author, Subarna Ghosh, who was fed up of cooking and cleaning and doing laundry while trying to work from home, wants the prime minister “to address the issue in his next speech” and to “encourage all Indian men to do an equal share of housework”.
“It’s a fundamental question, why don’t more people talk about it?” she wrote.
According to an International Labour Organization report, in 2018 women in urban India spent 312 minutes a day on unpaid care work. Men did 29 minutes. In villages, it was 291 minutes for women as against 32 minutes for men.
In Ms Ghosh’s Mumbai home it was no different. The petition, she told the BBC, came out of “life experiences of my own, and also of lots of women around me”. The burden of housework had always been hers, she said. “I do cooking, cleaning, making beds, laundry, folding clothes and everything else.”
Her husband, a banker, was “not the type to help with the housework”, she said. Her teenage son and daughter sometimes chip in. Ms Ghosh, who runs a charity which works on reproductive justice, said the expectation that she would be the one to compromise on work was much higher during the lockdown.
“My work suffered, at least in April, the first month of the lockdown. I was exhausted all the time, I was tired every day. Our family dynamics changed. I definitely complained a lot. And when I complained people said, ‘Then don’t do it’.”
Ms Ghosh took their advice – for three days in early May, she didn’t do any dishes or fold any clothes.
“The sink was overflowing with unwashed dishes and the pile of laundry grew bigger and bigger,” she said. Her husband and children realised how upset she was and they cleaned up the mess.
“My husband has started helping me with chores. He understood I was very affected by it, that it was bothering me a lot,” she said. “But our men are also victims of this culture and society. They have not been trained to do housework. They require a little bit of hand-holding.”
That’s because in India, as in many other patriarchal societies, girls are groomed from a young age to be perfect homemakers. It is taken for granted that the housework is their responsibility and if they went out and got themselves a job, they would just have to do “double duty” – manage both home and work.
According to an Oxfam report, Indian women and girls put in more than three billion hours of unpaid care work daily. If it were assigned a monetary value it would add trillions of rupees to India’s gross domestic product. But in reality, the cost of housework is rarely calculated. It is seen as something a woman does out of love.
In the matter of the petition, The issue was so close to home that it was difficult to confront, Ms Ghosh said.
“When it’s your own father, brother or husband, how do you question them? But the personal is political too – so I need to talk about it, but I also have to play the good wife.”