Quibbles over who does the housework during the recent coronavirus lockdown have brought the gender politics of India’s homes into the open, writes the BBC’s Geeta Pandey in Delhi.
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.
So, dishes have to be individually cleaned, clothes have to be washed in buckets and hung out to dry, and homes have to be swept with brooms and mopped with rags. Then there are children to be looked after and the elderly and infirm to be cared for.
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.
“Does the handle of a jhadu (broom) come printed with the words: ‘to be operated by women only’?” asks the petition, published on change.org.
“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!”
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.
Ms Ghosh’s petition has gathered nearly 70,000 signatures – a reflection of the scale of gender inequality in homes across India. 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 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.
“As a child, it was always me who had to do house chores, work in the kitchen and help out my mom,” wrote one woman, Pallavi Sareen, when I asked friends and colleagues on Facebook for their stories about division of labour. “My brother wouldn’t even serve himself lunch,” she said.
Most who replied saying their homes were gender neutral had either lived abroad or married men who had spent time in the West. The stories closer to home were different.
“Housework is still considered a woman’s job,” wrote Upasana Bhat. “Even if men offer to help, how many will do so if the couple live with the in-laws? That would be a truly progressive day. I know of women whose husbands help out, but can’t lift a finger in the kitchen when his parents visit.”
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.
Growing up, Ms Ghosh thought differently. She saw her mother and aunts do all the housework and thought, “No way I’m going to be like that”.
When she married, the fault lines over housework were partly hidden because of the presence of domestic help, leading to a false sense of equality at home. “Domestic help also helps maintain peace in our homes,” she said. “The chores are taken care of and it seems all is well.”
But the lockdown brought the family face-to-face with the daily drudgery of housework and with the inequality that had been “shoved under the carpet”.
“The lockdown made these chasms more glaring,” Ms Ghosh said. “It also gave me an opportunity to look it in the eye and lay it bare.”
So she set about petitioning the prime minister.
The women she spoke to in her neighbourhood said they were equally frustrated with housework, but most found the idea that their husbands help around the house ludicrous.
“Many asked me, ‘How can he cook or clean?’ Many, in fact, praised their husbands for being easy-going. They’d say, ‘He’s very nice, whatever I cook he eats without complaining’.”
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.”
When Ms Ghosh told her husband that she was starting a petition he was “very supportive”, she said.
“His friends made fun of him. They asked him, ‘Why didn’t you just do some housework? Look, now your wife has gone and petitioned Modi!’
“He took it on the chin,” she said, laughing. “He told them, ‘Because more men listen to Mr Modi than their own wives’.”
Ms Ghosh’s petition was also criticised by a lot of people on social media. Many chided her for bothering the prime minister with “a frivolous matter”.
“Some people wrote to me saying Indian women need to do their housework. Yes we do, but where are the men?”
I asked her if she thought Mr Modi would talk about housework.
“I’m hopeful,” she said. “Mr Modi has a huge support base among women, so he should talk about an issue that’s important to women. When the rainy season started, he talked about cough and cold, so why can’t he talk about gender equality?”