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Whose (house)work is it anyway? Gendered spaces and disparate labour in the times of Covid-19.
Ashmita Chatterjee is a recent graduate in English Literature from University of Cambridge. She is a freelance writer and has worked as Critic-in-Residence at Khoj International Artists’ Association. She currently works on decolonization and narratives of state-sponsored sexual violence in areas of conflict.
In a riveting moment on December 14, 2019, some women stepped out of their houses and did not go back. They blocked Kalindi Kunj Road in Southeast Delhi, staring in the face of an increasingly undemocratic state in quiet resilience, as more and more women from various generations steadily joined them in growing numbers. It is perhaps this resilience that keeps women going when, in the midst of a pandemic, men are reluctant to be associated with the care work of a house they themselves inhabit.
India ranks dismally low in gender equality when it comes to housework (among several other indices), and it is one of the countries where the gender disparity is the sharpest. As of 2018, Indian women spent an average of 5 hours 51 minutes in unpaid housework, compared to the abysmal 1 hour 19 minutes that men contributed to the same arena. In the same year India also ranked 122nd on the United Nation’s Gender Inequality Index, and women’s labour force participation percentage was 23.6. It is an incredibly sad indictment of our society that Emma’s 2017 comic on mental load still resonates with every single woman who reads it.
Discussing the gender gap in household work with The New York Times, Claire Cain Miller reveals that men are more likely to spend time doing outdoors work like cleaning the car or working on the yard, whereas women tend to end up with chores that involve working indoors, like cooking or laundry. While Miller points out that the chores men prefer are required to be done only once or twice a week, there is an interesting underlying commentary on the gendered nature of spatial occupation. Divya J Shekhar believes that men undertake tasks that involve going out of the house because they are more mobile than women, a claim that remains unclear since the parameters of said mobility are not explicated. But it does excavate the same strain once again, that spaces outside the house have been culturally delegated to men for so long that even in times when mobility is denied to all non-essential personnel, the sticky norms of gender manage to prevail.
States of exception or exigencies seem to be the only moments with enough momentum to fracture these recalcitrant norms. Shaheen Bagh was the child of an exigency, and it debunked the idea that women do not occupy external sites of protest. Women have been at the forefront of some of the most landmark protests, from the Chipko Movement in 1973, the anti-nuclear protests in Tamil Badu in 1980, organized by women of Idinthakarai village, to the 1985 Narmada Bachaao Andolan, also led primarily by women. Over the years, protests have seen more and more women stepping on to the streets and staying there, our bodies ever so conspicuously present, occupying the space we have been systemically denied so far. This has repeated itself in women’s marches around the world, Pinjra Tod protests in India and Shaheen Bagh and its various distributaries in different Indian states where women declared indefinite sit-ins. Now that we have been shuffled indoors by forces that are literally invisible, women’s occupation of public spaces stands at a precarious juncture. Covid-19 became the linchpin from where the state executed its long-term intention to dismantle Shaheen Bagh (overnight), taking the pains to get the protest art painted over in an attempt to make this space resemble a spot where nothing happened.
Forced to recede indoors, we are now faced with a different kind of exigency, which also has fractured some sticky gender norms but only conveniently. Men are now forced to partake in housework, so some of them choose to clean the car, an article that is hardly ‘household’ in the way dishes are, and are not currently in use at all, considering the country is under a mobility lockdown. Another aspect of housework that goes without notice is the discrepancy in the kind of labour involved in say, cooking and folding clothes. In addition to that, childcare is a challenge for many people. With the increasing burdens of online classes and the involved logistics that accompany it, childcare has become much more complicated, not to mention the task of keeping younger children occupied and entertained within the confines of house who are otherwise wont to roaming the streets.
To understand the nexus of operative oppressions in a social setup like India’s, there is an urgent need to make our perspective intersectional. We have shifted from patriarchy to the much more polycephalic Kyriarchy, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s term used to understand the intersection of patriarchy with structures like race, class, capitalism, ableism etc. Class and caste are important checkpoints from which to investigate our socio-political locations, and without preamble all fig leaves behind which we hide our privileges have been dismantled by the Covid-19 crisis. On one level is (working) men, who have on average not felt driven enough to contribute the decent half of the labour that housework demands. On the second is middle/ upper middle-class women, who while shouldering domestic work have relied heavily on domestic helps. The lowest rung of this social ladder is the domestic helps, usually women who are sandwiched between the families who employ them and the families they have, because a disproportionately intense labour is demanded by both sectors. They are mostly underpaid for the work that is drawn out of them, and live in suboptimal conditions. The inexpensive status of labour in India enabled by the exploitative incomprehension of dignity of labour or empathy makes us severely dependent on a culture of domestic helps; the idea that there is someone who makes sure our house is clean, laundry is done and dinner is made for us to return home to usually invisibilizes the several pedestals of social oppression that our domestic bliss is built on.
It is abundantly clear that we need to socialise future generations differently, distributing chores equally between children and instilling in them the importance of ungendered care and housework. We need to reorient our own perspective of our privileges and cultivate an understanding of how indispensable the people that we proceed to exploit financially and socioeconomically are to our lives. More importantly, as more and more men step into the fore and take responsibility for household chores, we need to review our understanding of housework. While there has been developing deliberation on the subject, and housework is increasingly becoming visible as work that is significant, labour intensive and essential, this understanding remains restricted to theory in an astoundingly large number of Indian households. A reorientation of how we understand the domestic sphere is crucial, accompanied by a destigmatization of housework and household chores, which have been conventionally associated with femininity or motherhood. We need to stop taking women’s resilience for granted. More often than not, this resilience is a cultural imposition, ingraining into women the debilitating notion that irrespective of our careers we are only as good as the dirtiest corners of our houses. In 2020, the political is personal, and now more than ever we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that work has gender.