Social distancing from house helps is exposing the Indian family’s unspoken sexism

Dealing with stress.
Dealing with stress.
Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave
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For IT professional Sonali Mathur, the coronavirus lockdown in India has, ironically, doubled the burden: work-from-home and work-for-home.

Over the past many days, she’s been fighting in vain to secure entry for her domestic help into her residential society that has barred outsiders since a Covid-19 positive case was reported from the shanty where Mathur’s maid lives.

“I DON’T AGREE WITH THIS! I WILL GET MY MAID,” the 32-year-old wrote on March 22 on a WhatsApp group of the residents of her condo in Noida near New Delhi. “This is work-from-home, not (a) holiday. Without the maid, it’s impossible to cook, clean and take care of the kid.”

Mathur is distraught because, as the “woman of the house,” the responsibility of running the household, which includes her husband and 17-month-old son, now exclusively falls on her. In the absence of the domestic help who otherwise handled most of these chores—cleaning, mopping, washing dishes, babysitting—through her 12-hour shift, she alone carries the additional physical and mental burden now. For that is the rule instinctively adhered to in Indian families where male members are not expected to perform household tasks.

“There is a very clear gender dimension to it (the lockdown) because most Indian households don’t have equal sharing of housework,” says Ashwini Deshpande, professor at Ashoka University who specialises in the economics of affirmative action. “Even though the husband and wife may be both working from home, the load will be disproportionately borne by the women.”

And this doesn’t mean full-time homemakers are better off. “They will have the added issue of catering to the demands of their husbands, fathers-in-law, or brothers-in-law, who are at home now,” Deshpande added.

Not surprisingly, Mathur isn’t the only one who’s angry. On March 23, a crowd of nearly 40 women gathered to argue with the security staff of her residential society over the new “no entry” rule.

The lopsided structure

An Indian woman does far more “unpaid work”—nearly six hours each day on average—than her peers in most other countries, according to a 2015 survey by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Indian men, on the other hand, are among the worst on this front, spending less than an hour each day.

On a regular day, in urban middle-class Indian families, this stark difference is evened out by the presence of a range of help: maids, cooks, nannies, drivers, and gardeners—sometimes all rolled into one.

“Elite Indians can employ rather a large number of servants. A family of four can easily have an equal number of helps,” Tripti Lahiri, the Asia editor at Quartz’s Hong Kong bureau, wrote in her 2017 book Maid in India: Stories of Inequality and Opportunity Inside Our Homes. “For a brief period, I, an able-bodied person with no children, had two or at least one-and-a-half—a part-time cook and cleaner, and a driver.”

The price paid for this is rarely more than Rs3,000 ($45) a month per task. This being a gross underpayment for the close to 20 million women working in such roles in India is a different story altogether and for another day.

For now, the equalising agent’s—the maid—sudden disappearance from the Indian middle class is making way for the return of archaic and debilitating gender roles.

Poorly brought-up men

Deepika (name changed), a Mumbai-based public relations professional, is slightly better placed.

In the absence of their nanny and maid, her digital marketer husband, who’s also been working from home since March 17, helps her manage their home, especially their two toddlers, aged four and two.

“The major decisions on most things about the household (still) lie with the woman,” Deepika says. “For example, cooking, buying vegetables, and then my kids being used to be fed by me. He has never fed them. He can bathe and dress the kids but I am the person they first come to for everything. I have to tell them to go to papa.”

Clearly, she is better equipped than him. And this is thanks to the disparity in traditional Indian social conditioning of girls and boys.

Senior journalist Samar Halarnkar, who often focuses on socioeconomic issues, has in the past written about this difference and how it goes into defining gender roles in the country.

“There is nothing more regressive in India than watching boys lounge around the house, being stuffed silly by—unfortunately—their mothers and being told by their fathers that their life is outside the house,” Halarnkar wrote in December 2014.

Given these conditions, domestic helps are the middle-class Indian wife’s women-at-arms.

No wonder several such female employers told Quartz that they were willing to pay full salaries to their maids for the month of March (the national lockdown came into effect yesterday, March 25). However, they were not sure about April. If their own firms decide to cut salaries for the days lost to the lockdown, maids will become unaffordable.

All hell could then break loose in the Indian middle-class family paradise.