The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have transformed virtually all aspects of work and life everywhere in the world. While the new reality called for new thinking, new approaches and new visions, it also reinforced some of the old societal perceptions and stereotypes. The pre-existing masculine narratives label a woman who does not work outside home as "housewife" or one who "does not do anything", confining her gender roles to housework and domestic responsibilities only. Since paid work is commonly associated with outside work or public spaces, rigid and stereotypical gender roles in domestic spaces have become more evident in the context of Covid-19 lockdowns.
During the pandemic, there has been an unprecedented shift in the work culture towards Working from Home (WFH), prompting many to ask whether this shift has similar connotations for men and women. I assume the gendered implications of WFH vary depending on income class and/or nature of work, as well as on the degree of formality/informality of the work involved. Hence, we need to explore how the movement of paid work (previously outside) into the home interacts with unpaid work (always inside) and how men and women negotiate with their paid and unpaid work at home.
Working from home
The lockdown in Bangladesh conveniently split the working age population into the working class and the work-from-home class. Families that were earlier dependent on domestic workers, predominantly women (commonly known as "bua"), for all sorts of household work suddenly found themselves doing the household chores, tending to the children, etc. The part-time domestic workers, all women (known as "chhuta bua"), were among the first to be told to not come for work because of the fears of being infected, since they work in different households to make a living. Even before the official announcement of the lockdown was made, many families started sending their chhuta bua into forced leave to protect themselves from Covid-19.
Some studies show that during the WFH period, when most middle-class and affluent families have had to manage without domestic helpers, men tended to share the domestic work burdens more equitably than they have in the past, according to Prof Ashwini Deshpande of the Ashoka University (BBC). It would be interesting to see how the WFH culture fuels changes in the norms of sharing domestic work.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made people confront the challenges of staying at home, doing household chores, as well as the suffocation of forced and voluntary confinement. As a result, we have seen in the social media (mostly in Facebook) pictures of men posing with mop and basket, washing dish, cooking meals, washing, ironing clothes, and taking care of children.
One day, I received a call from one of my teachers who asked me if I could guess the possible reasons behind men getting more infected by Covid-19 than women. I replied that the masculine dilemma of not being associated with home—the socially categorised "private" space—could be a reason: they found it difficult to negotiate with their masculinity or confine themselves within the boundaries of a home for the entire day, as women were culturally associated with home. This cultural construction also made it hard for many men to be accommodative with household work which they were not accustomed to doing.
It was interesting to note that masculinities manifested themselves in different, and sometimes contradictory, ways. Many men who did domestic chores would not want to admit it to friends or post such stories on the social media because of their fears of facing masculine backlash—they might be teased or seen by other men as feminine, or weak, or being dominated by their wives. It was also observed that some men who posted their personal stories that break the dominant gender norms on social media, and who claim themselves to be gender-sensitive, would hide this aspect of their life to their paternal family members because of what we can call "masculine shyness".
Burden doubled/tripled for women
There is no empirical evidence on the sharing of domestic work burdens in Bangladesh. However, working women had to take on additional roles on top of their usual household roles during the WFH period. As women are socially expected to be a home manager, their employee role from home at the same time and space invites conflicts between their duel responsibilities and increases their workloads. Since school from home or home schooling or online classes for children have become more "normal" in lockdown times, due to school closures in Bangladesh, primary and high school students are given lessons through television, while online classes for college and university students are conducted via internet platforms. It was no wonder that in households that have no computer of their own, women were more likely than men to give their mobile phones to their children so that they could attend online classes. This is because women's phones were generally considered less important. Besides, when children, detached from friends and in the absence of outdoor activities and recreation, felt bored at home, it was mostly the women's duty to keep them busy at home, manage their anger and make them cope with the new home routine. Thus, work from home did not necessarily reduce the pressure for women, rather they took on the "two-in-one" role at the same time and space.
The scenario was much more complex when households included external family members, which could increase distractions for women while doing employee and home tasks simultaneously. Their burdens could increase significantly if they had any elderly, disabled and/or persons with autism in the family.
The idea of WFH became popular after the campaign "stay at home and be safe", which emphasised that if people stay indoors, they would remain safe. In the context of the pandemic, access to safe home was the marker between life and death for many, whether they had been infected by the virus or not. But for many women and gender-diverse people, the directive to "stay at home" meant that they were stuck with partners or family members who were abusive and violent. The rate of such violence was higher in the case of gender and sexual minorities almost all over the world.
In Bangladesh, the rate of gender-based violence was very high even before the pandemic, but it increased significantly since many women were bound to stay at home with their abusers due to the exhaustive lockdown. The nature and level of violence can vary depending on class, caste, ethnicity, religion and so on. A recent survey conducted by BRAC found that the level of violence was comparatively higher in low-income families. But we should also keep in mind that it is not easy to get the data of violence from middle- and upper-class women. They rarely open up about the violence they face and usually package it under the category of "personal/private issue".
A survey conducted by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) found that 672 women experienced domestic violence for the first time during the lockdown, indicating a rise in gender-based violence. Since many people lost their jobs and sources of income due to the impacts of Covid-19, the resultant anxieties and uncertainties increased the possibility of conflicts between the partners (MJF 2020). The survey revealed that some women experienced further violence when the husband heard that the wife had shared her experience with others. In some cases, for example, their mobile phones were snatched away or destroyed.
We still have many questions that remain unanswered: what led to the rise in domestic violence in a re-organised home structure? Does the fact that men—who were usually not used to taking responsibilities at home—now have to cope with the new work-life pattern within their households and negotiate with unfamiliar works contribute to this situation? Is it due to the failure of men to negotiate with masculine expectations in a suddenly changed scenario? Or is it just a reaction to the demands of a new gender relation as well as sensitivities emerging out of the pandemic situation? Another crucial question is whether the gender division of labour will return to its original shape when public and private spaces revert to their pre-pandemic reality. Perhaps we need to wait until the pandemic is over to be able to make sense of many of the changes happening today.
Zobaida Nasreen teaches anthropology at Dhaka University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org