Coronavirus and Feminism
With the spread of coronavirus throughout the world, several countries are in a state of lockdown: “Stay home, stay safe.” It’s frightening to watch the steadily growing number of people effected by the virus. This is a time when we need supportive family and friends the most, to keep perspective and not become completely paranoid.
Several people are coming forward to express that current situation has allowed them to take a breather from the normal, hectic routine and made them appreciate the simple things of life. Miriam Foley, housebound in Spain with her husband and two children admits to enjoying the undivided time she is getting with her family. She writes that being given a chance to “slow down” and be able to just sit and observe her children has given her a “strange sense of inner peace” for she is no longer plagued with the thought that she is missing out on precious time with them. She is happy to get more time with her husband and is utilizing the opportunity the lockdown has given to catch up on things she had been putting off for years.
However, others are quick to point out that the situation is a disaster for women. Feminists, such as Helen Lewis, are troubled by the fact that without day care centers, nannies and other household help, dual-income couples are likely to decide that the women take on most of the cooking, cleaning and childcare, allowing the men who typically have a higher paying job to be relatively undisturbed while working from home. This seems to be the practical solution in the current crisis and families should be encouraged to work in such a cooperative way, but instead we are informed it’s a ‘disaster’ that women have to take care of their house.
Marilyn Simon strongly disagrees. In her excellent response to Lewis’ article, Simon writes she is disappointed because Lewis “undervalues ‘women’s work’ simply because it is unpaid labour.” This is the crux of the matter, really, of much of the feminist standpoint that seeks to liberate women. That women should be working at home for their family is unacceptable but any work performed to receive monetary renumeration is considered perfectly fine. A woman taking care of her own child is apparently being exploited, but one who is babysitting someone else’s child and getting paid for it, is being smart. Similarly, if a woman is cooking three meals from scratch for her family, she is considered a pushover, but if she is running a catering business she is considered a role model.
The difference then is whatever there is immediate tangible return in exchange of the work being done. But, the work performed at home by a loving wife and mother has a far greater impact on her life and on the lives of those she loves than can be measured in terms of dollars or pounds. If women’s minds are not filled with promises of great adventures in store for them when they embark on a career, they may find that maintaining a clean home and having healthy, happy children and a satisfied husband can be quite fulfilling. Simon honestly admits that being a single mother she would be more than happy with the 1950s like ideal family “of Dad returning to a freshly baked dinner and freshly washed children” that Lewis is being disparaging about.
According to scriptures, keeping house is an essential part of women’s duties: “Always wearing clean and attractive garments, she should sweep and clean the household with water and other liquids so that the entire house is always pure and clean. She should collect the household paraphernalia and keep the house always aromatic with incense and flowers … She must be very expert in handling household affairs and should be fully conversant with religious principles.” (Srimad-bhagavatam 7.11.26-28)
Dare we consider that the traditional model, of woman being the homemaker and the man being the breadwinner, is recommended in scriptures and has been prevalent for centuries because it works? COVID-19 has now given us an opportunity to experiment with this model. It may be a good idea to embrace it with positivity and see how it impacts our lives.
Apparently the positivity is required not just for career women who are now forced to stay home, but also for housewives. It seems that the conditions imposed by the virus are intolerable even for homemakers. Writing about women in India, Itika Sharma Punit points out that women’s workload at home has not only increased because of the absence of their maids, but also because they now have the added ‘issue’ of “catering to the demands of their husbands, fathers-in-law, or brothers-in-law, who are at home now.” Granted that the work is more. But, it is not women alone who have to pitch in and contribute in times of crises. Once the lockdown is over, several men would have to work longer hours at their workplace than their wives to make up for down time. Punit claims that the extra workload women are currently facing at home is an indication of sexism. Will she also flag the extra work the men will have to put in as sexism? No doubt several women are facing extraordinarily difficult circumstances at the present moment, but, this is the time to come forward and demonstrate great determination and sacrifice. Lord Krishna condemns a person who evades his responsibility when it becomes problematic: “Anyone who gives up prescribed duties as troublesome or out of fear of bodily discomfort is said to have renounced in the mode of passion.” (Bhagavad-gita 18.8) Here mode of passion refers to actions undertaken without proper deliberation.
“Yet it is not the reversion to [traditional] roles that we should find worrying, as Lewis does, and as do the complaining standard-bearers of contemporary feminism more generally. Rather, we should be troubled by her inexplicable undervaluation of women’s ability to act heroically in times of crisis. Lewis seems to find it somehow intolerable that women are asked to make professional or personal sacrifices in a time of national crisis—that it is unfair to impute to women the heroic ability to put others’ needs before their own self-interest. What a shamefully low expectation she must have of women, of the capacity of mothers especially, to do the noble thing—and to accept this sacrifice without complaint, and without the need for approval in the form of paychecks or professional advancement. A (tolerably) tidy house and happy children will do.”
Finally, we would like women to stop acting like martyrs. As Simon puts it women should “accept this sacrifice without complaint.” Whether one is career woman setting aside her job for the time being to serve her family or a dedicated homemaker coping with additional chores, women should do the needful without feeling like they deserve a medal for it. This doesn’t mean that their efforts should be taken for granted, but on their part they should be prepared to do what is required of them simply because it’s the right thing to do. To perform one’s duty with humility is not only recommended in scriptures, it creates an atmosphere that inspires others in the family to do their bit without grumbling.
It is no wonder that women are uninspired to engage in household chores when feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir have been scathingly critical of such work. She writes in her book The Second Sex: “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” However, it is interesting to reflect on a spiritualist’s radically different point of view regarding this issue. One who maintains an altar of God in their house, feels His presence and treats the entire house as the Lord’s temple. Phalini Devi Dasi, a senior member of ISKCON and long-time practitioner of Sanatana Dharma, commented:
“Housework, when done with devotion for Krsna’s pleasure, is very satisfying. And the fact that dust keeps falling all the time so that we have to keep cleaning all the time creates a wonderful opportunity for us to continually purify our hearts! Prabhupada said that when we clean Krsna’s temple, we clean our heart. So if our home is like a temple, where everything is done for Krsna, when we clean our home, Krsna’s home, we clean our heart. And a clean heart is happy heart.”
What a refreshing outlook on housework!
When millions of people around us are struggling to fight the virus, it would be extremely petty to be cribbing about extra household chores. It is a time for women to cheerfully accept the responsibility that’s come their way. Instead of lamenting, let’s take the opportunity to engage the children – read with them, do some spring cleaning, sewing or baking, all the while being grateful to God for our lot and sending a prayer for those who are facing far more challenging circumstances than us.