'Home' as a Contested and Constricted Space: Understanding Gender Relations in India During Covid-19 Lockdown
The COVID19 pandemic unfolded multiple challenges for people worldwide by restricting them in their homes with limited resources. A lingering fear of the virus brought the idea of a 'home' as a living space at the centre of day-to-day activities. During the lockdown, 'home' became an office, a classroom, a theatre, a restaurant, and even a playground for families. Home emerged as an amalgamation of personal and professional.
This article's objective was to explore what constituted the idea of 'home' for Indian women in different home-settings during the lockdown. Further, it was to understand how home became a contested space to understand gender relations and negotiate household responsibilities between family members during COVID19 lockdown. The research is qualitative, and an interpretive position was used to narrate lived experiences of women. It targets a heterogeneous category of Indian women in diverse home spaces; female-headed household, women in joint families, pregnant women, and cohabiting couple. It explores scope for social work interventions, during the pandemic, not only in public places like hospitals, but in the most private space of a ‘home’.
1. Home as a Constricted Space
More than 11 million people reside in Delhi, capital city of India, in an area of just 1,484 km². Industrialization has resulted in migration of many working-class families to metropolitan cities. Family in India traditionally means joint families, where an entire family of five or more live together, causing paucity of living space for a large population.
As COVID19 lockdown took place these small spaces and restricted mobility heralded multifold adversities for families. These included blurry lines between personal space and boundaries, as the idea of personal space is alien to most Indian families. Strenuous household work, demanding jobs, round-the-clock child and elderly care, constant fear of the virus resulted in mental health issues and made home an unbearable place. The home was not just a place to live anymore; it became a place of survival.
2. Home as a Contested Space
The COVID19 lockdown also resulted in overburdening of work for Indian women. Not only were women juggling between work, the load of household responsibilities essentially fell on them, too, from cleaning, cooking, taking care of children, or tending to the elderly. Bhattacharya (2020) writes, domestic labor in India is still a highly gendered discourse and is one of patriarchy's worst-kept secrets. In the Indian patriarchal society, women are expected and conditioned to take up the 'caregiving' role and brunt of reproductive labor. On the contrary, a man doing household chores is considered appalling and negates their masculinity. Women experience guilt in asking men to shoulder responsibilities, and in places where they stand their ground, there were arguments, discussions, and negotiations. An overwhelming majority of Indian men believe that doing domestic chores is not a man's job. The lockdown has only exposed how deep the rot is in apparently 'modern' men.
- Marital Status
- Family Structure
- Socio-Economic Status
- Loss of Jobs
- Loss of Mobility
- Civil Society Organisations
Females at 'Home' in COVID19
Experience at Home
- Fear of the Virus
- Social Isolation
- Confined Spaces
- New Living Situations
- Change in 'Home Structure'
- Shift in Relationships
- Added responsibilities
- Physical & Mental Health Issues
3. Conceptualization and Methods
The study conceptualizes Indian females, confined to their 'home' spaces during the COVID19 lockdown as central social actors by analyzing the interplay of diverse life situations, on-going phenomenon, and role of eco-systems around them. We chose a narrative approach to bring out the reality as seen by the participants. Using participant-led purposive sampling, we facilitated semi-structured personal and virtual interviews with four females living in New Delhi, India. Participation was kept anonymous and voluntary. Thematic analyses were conducted by transcribing the interviews and coding manually. Themes around various interpretations of 'home' as a constricted and contested space were derived as depicted in the participants' narratives.
4. Narratives and Discussions
4.1 Home as a Safe Space
'I used to dread stepping out of my home constantly. Hospital,
pre-natal check-ups became a nightmare, home was the only safe
Nida, 32 years
Nida was living in an urban apartment complex in New Delhi with her six-year-old daughter and husband. After a miscarriage, Nida conceived again when the global pandemic hit. What was supposed to be a happy pregnancy became months of anxiety and dread of surviving a high-risk pregnancy during COVID19. Nida narrated, 'With everything going on outside in the world,'home' became the only safe space for me. Fear of contracting the disease did not make me step out of the main door for weeks together.'
'Home became a declaration of my independence; as I moved in with my
partner during the lockdown, it became a place of comfort.'
Meera, 29 years
COVID19 brought an unexpected opportunity for Meera and her partner to move-in together as restricted mobility also meant less frequent visits from her parents. Meera narrated, 'Living together without marriage is a taboo in India, adults still cannot make independent life choices without interference from their parents. Unfortunately, I have to hide my relationship with my partner from my parents because they will never understand, and I cannot compromise my life choices because of their ignorance.Since I always lived independently, I created a space of my own, but living with my partner has truly made 'home' special for me, a place of happiness and comfort.'
4.2 Home as a Place of Survival
'I locked myself in the bathroom just to escape the noise outside.'
Renu, 34 years
Renu lived in a three-bedroom apartment in a joint family with her husband, three children, and parents-in-law. Joint family system is a shared living arrangement in India in which a woman gets married and starts residing with her husband's family. She shared, 'Earlier, I would get a few hours in the day for myself and enjoyed 'me' time. Due to the lockdown, all members stayed home at all times. There was no peaceful spot left for me, and my house became a circus between my husband's home office, children's classes, and elderly parents. The bathroom became the only place left where I could claim back some space for myself.'
'My father's shop shut down, his income stopped and he refused to eat
food which was bought from his daughter's earning.'
Sonia, 36 years
Sonia is a single working woman from a low-income family in India. She lived with her widowed father, her brother, sister-in-law, and their children. During the lockdown, her father and brother lost their income source, and she became the only earning member of her family. Earlier Sonia's monetary contribution to her home was considered a financial supplement, as men are presumed to be breadwinners. She narrated, 'My relationship with my elderly father suffered terribly during the lockdown. Each day became a struggle for me to convince him to eat his food and take his medicines which I bought from my money. It frustrated me; it made me feel alienated in my own family and made me contemplate whether what I considered 'home' was truly mine.'
4.3 Understanding Gender Relations through Domestic Space
Disproportionate responsibility taken up by women in household labor and child care is a 'normal' reality in many Indian families. The lockdown aided in explicitly bringing out these gender differences to the stark surface.
Renu shared, 'In Indian families, household duties are the responsibility of a daughter-in-law. Earlier I had a house-help, but with the lockdown when she stopped coming, the entire burden fell on me. Cooking and cleaning for a six-member household became my sole responsibility, as the rest of family members were either too old, too young, or too busy.'
Over-burdened with official work made it impossible for women to contribute to the house. Sonia shared, 'I was working 14 hours a day and was completely exhausted. But I was constantly struggling to find time to perform domestic chores because failing at them resulted in rifts at home since the men were not contributing, as domestic work is a woman's job in India.'
Women are not only overburdened with household work, but they also carry a large amount of guilt by presuming that they are not contributing enough. Nida narrated, 'Earlier we shared household duties. My high-risk pregnancy led me to complete bed-rest. With family support inaccessible, household/child-care responsibilities fell on my husband. I used to feel very guilty being utterly dependent on my husband and seeing him struggle between house and work.'
Sullivan (2019) suggests a slow but positive change in attitude about work, family, and gender equality, among young cohorts. Meera narrated, 'My partner and I work well together in terms of domestic responsibilities. We negotiated household chores and reached a peaceful arrangement that worked for us. I hear people say that their partners' help' around the house. We are not helping each other; we are participating together, which makes the difference'.
Space for Social Work: Exploring New Gendered Identities
The research revealed that, during COIVD19, 'home' became a space for women to understand and question gender relations. Findings suggest that women who received home as a safe space could cope with lockdown stress. However, for women who saw home as a restrictive and confined space, lockdown worsened their life situation and affected their mental health. Homelife became a challenge due to lack of personal space, loneliness, and skewed gender relations in the domestic sphere.
The study put forward existence of a culturally pre-defined conceptualization of gender roles in India. Women perform disproportionate household work and internalize guilt by assuming they are not fulfilling their gendered roles enough. International Social Survey Program, UK (2018), reported, 'there is much guilt in women for not doing their fair share in the housework, while more women are in paid work than ever before, for many people, traditional, ideas of what a man and women "should" do in the household linger on' (Larrson, 2018).
West and Zimmerman (1987) proposed a constructionist model of gender by introducing the concept of 'doing gender.' They argued that gender is not something that a person is, but something a person does. Doing gender means that interactions in social situations are opportunities to perform gender identity. We regularly perform gender as a cultural idea of masculinity and feminity for an audience.For women, their role in household duties takes precedence in their gendered performance. They remain conflicted between collective cultural values of what women should do in the household and their individual values of gender equality. Those who stand their ground are constantly negotiating their gender identity. A new form of gender identity within families is emerging; gender identity is a social construct, constantly negotiated in interactions, and dependent on social situations (Rezeanu, 2015). In this context, we shall argue that there is a need to disengage from gender identity and performance within the social work paradigm, guided by rigid forms of gender roles and preserved through social inequalities.
COVID19 forced us to dwell deep into the intimate space of ‘home’ and unleashed scope for social work research and action. There is a need to understand that families are changing; we witness a gradual yet transformative change in gender relations which is responsive to crises like the lockdown. We must create an eco-system to empower women from complex and diverse realities to break barriers from their need to fulfill their 'ideal' roles in different domestic relations.
Bhattacharya, I. (2020, June 3rd). How Gendered Labour Was Hard-Wired Into Upper-Middle-Class Households. Retrieved from thewire.in
Larsson, N. (2018, February 16th). Guilt over household chores is 'harming working women's health'. Retrieved from theguardian.com
Rezeanu, C. (2015). The relationship between domestic space and gender identity: Some signs of emergence of alternative domestic femininity and masculinity.Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology, 6(2), 9-29.
Sullivan, Oriel. (2019). Gender inequality in work-family balance. Nature Human Behaviour.
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West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing gender. Gender & society, 1(2), 125-151.