Personally, the impact of COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has been quite adverse. It meant that my college life ended abruptly, the search for a job turned into a nightmare, and lack of physical contact with other people (especially hugs) led to severe mental health implications. In my colony, the cases of domestic violence increased. Several cases of gender based violence were reported as the boundaries between private and public spaces got blurred and men performed their aggression and anger within their houses. While a lot of work has been done to understand the impact of COVID-19 on families and women, comparatively little research has been done to understand the ramifications of the lockdown on men and masculinities.
Therefore, through my personal experience, I aim to talk about the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of masculinities. For the purpose of this article, I define masculinities as a set of behaviours that is associated with men such as authority, dominance, heterosexuality, and the importance to paid work. Since masculinities are performative, I do not just attribute it to men given how it can be performed by all genders.
Masculinities At Home
At the beginning of the lockdown, two of my family members were self-employed, and one was employed in a formal sector organisation while I was completing my masters. The sudden and abrupt announcement of the COVID-19 lockdown meant that all of us would be sharing the same space for the first time in the last few years. It meant that we had to cooperate with each other to get through the crisis. The family member who was self-employed lost their livelihood and found themselves contributing more to household tasks. The other family members, who enjoyed travelling, found themselves stuck at home. Under these circumstances, my mother, as the primary caretaker, took charge and executed the majority of the housework without the help of any domestic worker.
Family members who were earning continued to misplace the importance of domestic work and would ask my mother to cook lavish meals, while refusing to contribute to domestic work. This reinforced the hierarchy and the stereotype that paid productive work is superior to unpaid reproductive and domestic work primarily performed by women. I observed how they believed that providing ration and other goods was their primary contribution.
Further, even when they contributed to the management of the household, it mostly involved them micro-managing household chores. This managerial or supervisory role that they assumed meant that they felt the need to tell us the domestic chores that we were supposed to accomplish through the day. Their contribution was also mostly on their own terms, like cleaning some utensils or kitchen once a week. Therefore, even when there was participation in the household work, it was with the implication that their work and time is more superior than the non-earning family members.
Violence at Home
We were witnessing more family fights now. Most of the fights were because the house was dirty now and no one was ready to contribute to make it clean. While we tried explaining that it was difficult to manage everything without the help of domestic workers, there would be no acknowledgement from their end. They avoided responsibility from their end, and when we called them out, their voices became louder and more aggressive. Even though we did not experience any physical violence at home, the threat was very prevalent. The violence took the form of threats such as refusal to buy ration, thus making our lives difficult.
Discrimination Towards “Others”
This is not to say that members of my family are the only victims of masculinities impacted by the pandemic here. Despite everything, we also perpetrated violence (consciously or unconsciously) towards the marginalised sections of the society. Our behaviour towards the vulnerable sections of the society was similar to how the men in our families behaved with us. As upper middle-class members of the society (read: Savarna), we need to be conscious of our privileged position that puts us in a position of power over many socio-economically marginalised communities. Therefore, I found our families readily stigmatising the marginalised communities and practice casteism. We were told to be cautious while interacting with street vendors and domestic workers as they were seen as probable carriers of the virus. Beliefs like these were reinforced by saying how they live in densely populated spaces and practice poor personal hygiene. At the same time, we were readily interacting with our friends and family because “they could not be the carriers of the disease”. The structural oppressive hierarchy was, thus, evidently perpetuated.
One such instance of casteism that I distinctly remember was when a person came to fix our electrical appliance at my home. At one point while cleaning the appliance, they had to go fetch water from the washroom. As the person was walking past us, all of us covered our noses and looked in another direction almost as if looking at him would infect us with the virus. This is despite him wearing a mask and not showing any COVID-19 related symptoms.
Immunity to the Virus
On the other end, we refused to believe that our family could be infected with the virus and be a carrier of the same. I witnessed our family members travelling throughout the country as the lockdown was lifted to meet their friends or to visit places, completely undermining the seriousness of the virus. Even though we tried confronting such behaviour, it only resulted in more arguments and nothing else. Which is why we had no option but to give up on the conversation and take further preventive measures to protect ourselves inside our own homes.
The quite aggressive and hypermasculine response that I observed in my family and several similar others during the COVID-19 pandemic can be concluded to be synonymous with power and individuality. On one hand, there was a pressure to survive the pandemic together and as a family. On the other hand, the masculine response aggressively emphasised on individuality and thus a lack of corporation with others. Further, the fact that all of our family members earned and relied on domestic workers and daily labourers meant that some amount of masculinity-based hierarchy was performed by all of our family members and not just by men. For the same reason, the article attempts to understand the performance of masculinities not just by men. And in order to move away from such rigid oppressive structures, our focus should be on cooperation, love, empathy and vulnerability, in order to build a sense of togetherness in decision-making.
Siddhant pursued their masters from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. They love reading and writing about mental health, labour, and development. They enjoy interacting with people despite the constant burden of social anxiety. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram.
Featured image source: Cutacut