Crowning the gender polemic in the aftermath of COVID-19

COVID-19 confirmed what I have always known and experienced - that even among white, middle-class families, household and childcare chores are hopelessly lopsided. While the “modern man” undertakes some of the chores, what he mostly takes over is either considered in line with male roles.

While COVID-19 has wrought great destruction, it has also spurred a healthy reality check on many fronts. One of them was gender equality, particularly at home.

As scores of couples were confined at home under the Coronacalypse, I scrolled through endless photos of men, from Naples to Nablus, cooking and cheerfully displaying what they put on the table. But I have yet to see or hear of a man scrubbing a greasy kitchen. 

From Instagram to UN articles, hundreds of snapshots showed happy, healthy men studying or playing with their children, along with statements on their part on how they “grew closer” to their kids as they stayed home. I have never seen a photo - or read a statement - of a father changing dirty diapers or a candid shot of a harassed male soothing a child through the nightmares caused by confinement. 

COVID-19 confirmed what I have always known and experienced - that even among white, middle-class families, household and childcare chores are hopelessly lopsided. While the “modern man,” - who is doubtlessly an improvement from his grandfather - undertakes some of the chores, what he mostly takes over is either considered in line with male roles (ie. lifting the heavy stuff), artsy and picturesque (cooking traditional or ethnic dishes). And what they choose to do largely seems to be the unmessy and “fun” tasks, such as making lahmacun, the Turkish pizza, or bulding a model airplane.

It is one thing to play two hours after dinner with a well-fed and even-tempered child and quite another to try wash an irritable and crying two-year-old who. Moreover, while they publicly refer to “sharing” housework, what they are mostly doing is “helping”. The female in the couple, meanwhile, carries the mental load - planning, monitoring and troubleshooting.

I doubt my grandfather, who worked 12 hours a day in Ankara in the 1950s and 60s, ever set a table or washed his own glass at home. I can also assert with certainty that my father, caring, politically correct and egalitarian, does not know where the sheets are in the house he has lived for the last twenty years. My husband, who has lived alone for ten years, is a huge improvement over both; he can cook, clean and iron. Yet somehow, in the eight weeks we have spent in (semi-)voluntary confinement, it was mostly me, the Beginner Housewife who never cooked a zeytinyağlı fasulye or stuffed dolma in her entire life, who did the less glorious and dirty tasks such as cleaning the toilets, wiping greasy ovens and washing ever-dusty balconies, the new public space in corona days.

Couples with young children might have thought that us middle-aged couples freed from our children were happily cocooning and sipping quarantinis to an Aegean sunset - and yes, we did that occasionally - but as the days turned into weeks, we were covid-bickering on daily tasks and reciting what we had done. We weren’t alone - a survey showed that more than half the men in the United States believed that they carry out half the tasks at home. Only two percent of the women agree to that. (Had the survey been carried out in Turkey, I would have assumed that the two percent consisted entirely of Turkish mothers who believed that their sons were doing all the work, while their spoiled daughters-in-law lounged leisurely.)

On the Aegean front, our virtual locktail hours with friends, in similar situations of dividing household chores, became instances of washing dirty laundry in public on who was doing what. One of our friends, a man, even managed to enliven the discussion with what he claimed was an academic study by an American university that claimed men who did housework were less inclined to have sex. His wife, not to be outdone, immediately found a BBC article that quoted a Canadian counter-study that said that men involved in housework had more fulfilling sex lives. As both were before COVID-19, neither took into account that the smell of Clorox was hardly an aphrodisiac.

Yet, despite all the coronagging, I count myself among the unbelievably lucky ones among millions of women - in Turkey, in the Middle East and around the world - who were the victims of confinement in a multitude of ways. Anita Bhatia, the deputy director of UN Women - warned in March that while the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 would be severe for all, it would be especially tough on women.

Many of the industries in the formal economy that were directly affected by quarantines and lockdowns—travel, tourism, restaurants, food production—have very high female labor force participation and it is unlikely that these women will be able to go back to work. “In both developed and developing economies, many informal sector jobs—domestic workers, caregivers—are mostly carried out by women who typically lack health insurance and have no social safety net to fall back on,” she warned, adding that women would also need to shoulder a greater burden of care, both for the children now out of school and ailing elderly relatives who ran a larger risk due to Covid-19. 

A policy brief by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in April backed what Bhatia had said. It argued that women’s unpaid care work had increased and so, tragically, their vulnerability to gender-based domestic violence - partly because they were confined with their aggressors, with little to no means of escaping or even requesting help.

Reports in early July showed that the situation is just as bad as predicted. WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean announced that though it was difficult to obtain accurate data, domestic violence had increased by 60 to 70 percent in the region. Local NGOs working in some of the countries, such as Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, already signaled that the helplines they operated were overcome with added requests, either by the victims themselves or someone who wanted to help the victims escape. An NGO in Brazil reported that domestic violence had quadrupled during the lockdown. 

In Turkey, the Interior Ministry announced in May that domestic violence had decreased after March 11, when the first case of Covid-19 was announced. The statement said that 48 femicides had taken place between Jan. 1- March 10 and 33 femicides between March 10- May 20. Likewise, cases of domestic violence had decreased from 45,798 to 42,693. On July 2, the Ministry announced that gender-based violence had fallen by 34 percent and femicides by 18 percent in the first half of the year, compared to last year’s figures. 

This, indeed, is great news. Why, then, am I meeting it with the same skepticism I feel when my husband claims to have carried out 50 percent of the household chores during the lockdown? 

Could it be that just days after this positive statement, Numan Kurtulmuş, the vice-chair of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) hinted that Turkey may withdraw from the Istanbul Convention – the main international accord to fight gender-based violence? Could it also be that one of Turkey’s most popular actors was recently charged with beating up his girlfriend and a man, found and took his wife out of a supposedly secret women’s shelter only to shoot her?

September 10, 2021 Turkey's small festivals