The crude reality of gendered experiences faced by women in both domestic and public spheres began to resurface gaining focus during the COVID-19 pandemic crises. The accounts of the gendered nature of lived experiences and the impacts of the pandemic on women within households and communities requires a critical feminist analysis and gender discourse.
This article sheds light on the gendered experiences of women during COVID-19, how COVID-19 constructed the identities of women, the importance of religious beliefs and practices, women’s religious participation in faith-based spiritual networks and the impact of women’s everyday theology on families, households and communities. This article posits the role of women’s religious agency in the maintenance of the well-being of households and community networks during Covid-19.
Differential Gender Socialization and Religiosity
Differential gender socialization leads to differences in religiosity between males and females. However, according to Miller and Hoffman; Daly and Wilson; Wilson and Daly; Kanazawa and Still; Gove, and Stark, religiosity of men and women is determined by their biological differences. Irreligiosity is directly related to the propensity and normalization of men engaging in risky behaviors and attitudes. This proposition stands inconclusive in contemporary understanding of gender as a social construct because this proposition is premised on biological and physiological differences determining the risk-behaviors of men and women.
Contemporary research, however, posits that differential gender socialization is a result of religious norms. Religious texts define the gendered positioning of women within households, communities, institutions with specific reference to religious organizations. Despite the gendered experiences, experts argue women exercise their agency in many ways namely negotiation and bargaining, deception and manipulation, subversion and resistance, reflection and analysis. Women’s agency, in the positive sense of the term, refers to the capacity of women to define their own life-choices and goals.
Gendered Experiences and Gendered Practices
The concept of gender as practice provides a strong emphasis on the agency of women actors within the institution of religion. Conceptualization of ‘gender agency’ by Orit Avishai posits the participation of women and their roles in institutionalized religion as ‘doing religion.‘ Gender agency views how women renegotiate their gendered experiences in gendered structures of power to assert their identities. Gendered practices reproduce gender inequalities within households, institutions and religious organizations.
This article situates how women exercising religious agency within families, households and communities during Covid-19 originates from female religiosity. Female religiosity is largely construed as a product of innateness setting it apart from men’s religiosity. In stark contrast, the social constructivist research tradition has brought to the fore that religiosity between men and women is a result of social conditions. The traditional gender orientation theoretical approach is premised on biological characteristics determining religious and irreligious behaviours of women and men. The gender role socialization and structural location theories posit that differences in male and female religiosity are conditioned by socio-cultural experiences.
Gendered Experiences of Religiosity
Religiosity is understood as expression of religious beliefs, and according to experts the five dimensions of religiosity are experiential, ritualistic, ideological, intellectual and consequential. Allport and Ross identified the parallel constructs of religiosity as dimensions of religiosity namely extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic religiosity is an outward manifestation of religious beliefs and intrinsic religiosity is the in-depth feeling. Traditionally, women’s religiosity has been crucial for the well-being of the families, households and communities reinforced through patriarchal gendered beliefs and practices. The onset of Covid-19 furthermore reinforced these traditional notions of power and subjectivity.
Women’s ‘indispensability’ for reproductive care-labour and nurturing activities within household and women’s exercise of religious agency through manifestation of everyday religiosity came to be viewed instrumental for the well-being of families, households and communities during Covid-19. This article explores women’s religiosity and exercise of their religious agency for the maintenance of well-being in families, households and communities. An exploration on women and religion is crucial in the wake of Covid-19 and the popular discourse of Covid-19 as a “a disaster for Feminism” (Lewis in ‘The coronavirus is a disaster for feminism,’ 2020).
Gendered Experiences of Women during Covid-19 in the Domestic Sphere: Sociological Perspective
According to the United Nations Foundation, Covid-19 has exacerbated women’s vulnerabilities through increased burden of unpaid care-work at home, with less time to engage in paid work. Covid-19 has increased the socio-political, economic and socio-cultural vulnerabilities of women. The rigid patriarchal norms, sexual division of labour, gendered roles, gendering, motherhood and nurturing defines the disproportionate burden of unpaid care-work on women at home. The increased burden of unpaid care work discounts women’s participation in productive activities. Globally, 75% of everyday life experiences such as raising children, cooking, cleaning, household maintenance, catering to the needs of the elderly, maintaining kin ties are performed by women.
Vulnerability of women in the domestic sphere and fragility of women’s labour-force participation in the paid economy increased due to Covid-19. Experts also found the exposure and impact of Covid-19 on women is disproportionately situated with deepening inequalities from all dimensions. Women’s unpaid care work in the domestic sphere in addition to women’s economic participation in the labour-market is a position of ‘exacerbated vulnerability’ faced by women identified by Arlie Hochschild as ‘second shift’. The systematic withdrawal of the participation of men in care-work is the pertinent question raised by Hochschild in her studies of heterosexual couples in the 1970s and 1980s. On the other hand, Sociologist Heejung Chung discusses about the ‘third shift’ that focusses on how women increasingly expend their labour and energy in taking care of all members of the family.
Feminist Perspectives on the Burden of Increased Care-work
Globally, several debates on lack of recognition and invisibility of women’s unpaid care work at home emerged in 1970s. Radical feminists argued for “wages for housework” whereas Socialist feminists did not view this as empowering for women as “wages for housework” implies ‘institutionalization of women’s responsibility’ and abdication of this responsibility by women will further exacerbate their gendered oppression in the households if women desire not to take up housework.
The standpoint of Radical feminists strongly asserted the need to acknowledge women’s reproductive labour not necessarily forcing them into labour market for economic survival when reproductive care-labour was time-consuming for women. Socialist Feminists, on the other hand, largely asserted the equal participation of men in domestic labour or ‘socialization of domestic labour’ through the state-directed programs. These debates resound vociferously once again with the increase in gendered impact of increased care-work on women due to the onset of Covid-19.d
The gendered experiences of women during Covid-19 is manifested through increase in burden of increased care-work, less economic participation in public sphere, gender-based violence and gendered oppression of women in homes as critical sites or locations of control. According to Marx and Engels, the relations between men and women is located primarily in the family.
Marxists view family as a site of creating and re-creating sexual inequalities and sexual division of labour in the domestic sphere. The household and family as institutions aid capitalism through maintaining women’s roles in reproductive care labour and family support. Marxist Feminists also argue that household and reproductive labour generates surplus productive value and hence women’s labour in the household should be acknowledged through wages for housework.
According to Pushpendra Singh and Falguni Pattnaik, the attributing factors for women’s engagement in care labour in the families and households is due to social and religious constraints, failure of the state to provide programmes for the well-being of the women and limitations in the career.
Covid-19 and Women’s Religiosity: A Critical Analysis
Psychological and Physiological explanations are dominant in understanding female religiosity relative to men (Sullins,2006). However, it is essential to note that both affective and social factors interplay in defining the degree of female religiosity. From a social lens, gender differences in religiosity are culture specific.
The ramifications of COVID-19 public health crises placed religion on a higher pedestal driven by the factors of fear, stigma, trust and uncertainty. For instance, according to a news reported by ‘The Hindu’ on May 5th 2021, around 500 women carried water pots on their heads and proceeded towards the temple in Navapura village in Sanand taluka on May 3rd, 2021 in an attempt to ‘eradicate corona virus’. The men carried the water pots to the top of the temple and emptied them. In this incident, women’s performative role becomes significant in faith-building, worship and community fellowship and is socially constructed to aid the well-being of families, households and communities.
According to Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, women exhibit a strong religious agency manifested through their participation in ritual practices and often comprise a large segment of lay followers. The roles of women in religion can either act as a support system or create vulnerabilities.
Sociological Perspectives on Women’s Religious Agency and Well-Being
From a Sociological context, religious agency exhibited in three dimensions namely emotional, intellectual and behavioural is expressed as strategies for negotiation with the actor’s identities both temporally and spatially for a transformative change (Leming,2007). This theoretical assertion of Laura Leming is crucial as the author identifies religious agents as individuals who by choice act consciously in shaping the structures for a gradual social change.
Globally, women demonstrated religious agency evocatively, reflexively and pragmatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Women face both the burden of maintenance of religious well-being of the household, family and community and the instrumental role of agential religious actors during the COVID-19. Hence, women’s religious agency demonstrated in multiple dimensions can either create vulnerabilities or empowerment.
In a mini online survey conducted in March 2021 using google forms distributed to women cutting across caste, class, race, religion, language and sexual orientation aged above 18 years and who have experienced the pervasiveness of Covid-19 and lockdown restrictions in Chennai, India to study women’s religiosity determined by the degree and nature of women’s participation in faith-based, religious activities; religious beliefs and affiliation to various religious schools of thought, the following findings are presented for discussion.
The 20 respondents answered the online survey that comprised of both open and closed ended questions. The elicited responses from the diversity of women belonging to different religious faiths, it is understood that women exhibited sheer resilience through every day prayers during the pandemic. Women have played an instrumental role in arranging the online tele-prayers and gathering communities online for worship during the pandemic period in the midst of their participation in gendered care labour within households.
A majority of women said that they felt it was important for them to evoke a sense of religious well-being in the family by coming together for prayers. This is driven by their internalization of patriarchal religiosity that an ideal woman in family has to exhibit religiosity for the maintenance of family well-being. From another point of view, it also shows women’s strong sense of agency to build faith-based networks virtually to engage in communion with God for the well-being of the family, households and communities during an unprecedented public health crisis.
It is found that the respondents answered more evocatively than reflexively and pragmatically. Women engaged in intra-faith networks as it gave them comfort and ease of interaction. The religious dialogue that they nurtured in frequent intervals is seen as a crucial faith-building exercise which can be optimized in the post-pandemic era to build inter-faith community dialogues by nurturing the women’s sense of religious agency. The findings strongly show that women’s deep sense of religious agency hid their gendered vulnerabilities during the pandemic.
Read more from this author at the link: The Social Construction of Womanhood and Religion