Double Burdens and Dual Identities: Pakistani Working Women and the COVID-19 Pandemic

29 June 2021

Eraj Tufail Arbab, BSc Economics (minor: Anthropology and Sociology) Senior, LUMS

#Covid-19 #Inequality #Poverty and Inclusion

Past crises in Pakistan have never been gender-neutral and women have suffered disproportionately for a long time (Tariq and Bibler, 2020). Indeed, evidence from previous disasters and pandemics suggests that women are more vulnerable to adversities and shoulder greater caretaking and domestic responsibilities during a crisis (Bahn et al., 2020; McLaren et al., 2020).

Through this research project, I explored the difficulties women faced in balancing their office and domestic responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. I endeavored to understand how the burden of productive and reproductive work might have changed and what effect this had on Pakistani women, while also considering the pandemic's impact on the gendered division of household labour. Despite time constraints and a lack of resources, I was able to survey 26 married, working, city-dwelling Pakistani women. I supplemented these responses with 5 interviews with respondents who had volunteered to elaborate on their experiences. Two main themes emerged from my study: sacrifice and the disproportionate impact of crises on women. Here, sacrifice denotes the loss of employment and free time, and the deteriorating mental health of the participants in this study.

The blurring of boundaries at home between professional and domestic work settings and timings meant many respondents struggled to juggle their work responsibilities and their housework at the same time. For example, for most respondents, office timings became more ‘fluid’: work was assigned after hours; deadlines were set late at night, making it difficult for them to find time to do the domestic work they normally did. One interviewee noted that her meetings were often scheduled after dinner which was a time she previously used to spend with her family. Hence, their work hours were not fixed, and, in one respondent’s words, their employers felt that if they were available online, they were available for work.

It was difficult then for respondents to fulfill their duties as working women and as ‘family’ women when the time usually reserved for their family and housework began to be taken over by office work. The shared setting of the office and the home also made it challenging for women to establish boundaries within the home, resulting in family members making frequent requests to attend to domestic tasks during work hours. As a result, respondents’ identities as working women and family women clashed and created a constraint on the dedication of time by interviewees to either work commitment. The survey found that from the 3 respondents who became unemployed during the pandemic, 2 women had resigned because they were unable to handle the increased burden of work. Hence, they chose to sacrifice their jobs to fulfil household responsibilities.

The identity of a Pakistani woman as a ‘working’ member of society has always been a site of both negotiation and socio-cultural contention. Gender roles are often framed within a conventional dichotomy of domestic and public responsibilities, with childminding and other domestic activities considered predominantly female, and the public sphere – encompassing paid labour, law or politics – considered predominantly male (Ali, 2013; Thorton, 1991). Though women have made great strides to enter male-dominated public spaces in recent years, their positions in the public sphere and their identities as working women still falter (Sadaquat and Sheikh, 2010; Wischermann and Mueller, 2004). This framing is confirmed by my findings: when asked whether they would forgo their duties as working women or as family women, most women in my study chose to forgo the former. This highlights a dynamic where women would sacrifice work – and possibly their career- to prioritise their home.

My findings show that the number of hours spent doing housework in the pandemic increased by one hour on average for my participants, while the number of house-helps hired by them decreased from at least 1 to mostly none. This decrease in domestic help, combined with greater amounts of time spent doing housework due to the entire family spending more time at home, seems to yield an important trade-off: an inevitable cut to women’s leisure or personal time to prioritise the demands of home and work.

But when even work responsibilities are not fulfilled on time, women may either internalise their work responsibilities as a significant burden in the day, or experience heightened levels of mental health issues (Bahn et al., 2020). All interviewees spoke of deteriorating mental health because of overwhelming amounts and forms of work as well as the stresses of living through a pandemic. Some even felt that their performance at their job was suffering because of this. One interviewee feared she may lose her job soon for lack of timely and quality outputs at work, which in turn impacted her performance even more adversely. Curiously, such women felt there were not enough hours left in the day to even seek mental health assistance.

As a basis of fair comparison, I inquired whether the husbands of respondents were impacted similarly. The results showed that before the pandemic, half of the respondents' husbands did no housework at all. After the pandemic, only one respondent's husband was reported to have begun contributing to housework. In contrast to the data on male partners, only one woman out of my entire sample had not been performing her own housework before or since the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, in response to the increased housework, the women participating in this study were more likely to increase time spent doing these tasks than their husbands.

Indeed, as evidence from past pandemics and other disasters suggests, women are expected to take on greater care responsibilities over anyone else in the household during a crisis (Wenham et al., 2020). Floods and earthquakes in Pakistan’s past have also seen women suffer significantly more than men (Tariq and Bibler, 2020). However, their vulnerability to the impact of the crisis has little to do with their biological characteristics, and more to do with social construction of gender and the designated roles of men and women in society (Bradshaw, 2014). Hence, there is a gendered division of labour and since Pakistani women already spent an average of 10.5 times more time on housework than their male counterparts before the pandemic began, it is not surprising that when domestic labour increased, the women participating in this study took on more work than their husbands (Tariq and Bibler, 2020).

This study highlighted how women continue to shoulder significant responsibilities of family/domestic life during a crisis like a pandemic, and, therefore, require working environments at home and offices that are sensitive to their needs. However, for this to happen, future policies and programs must seek to change social perceptions about domestic labour and women’s paid labour. In other words, they must attempt to normalise the participation of men in domestic work, while also highlighting that women’s careers and their paid labour is not secondary to their contribution within the household. To do this, policymakers can implement awareness programs by collaborating with Pakistan’s entertainment industry to produce television shows or drama serials that promote these messages. Television dramas in Pakistan have historically been at the focal point of women’s resistance against oppressive cultural norms, such as during Zia-ul-Haq’s attempts to restrict women from participating in the public sphere (Kothari, 2006). Hence, their widespread reach and influence could help shift the narrative surrounding domestic work and women’s paid labour.

Eraj Tufail Arbab, BSc Economics (minor: Anthropology and Sociology) Senior, LUMS