Living in a joint family in the time of Covid-19

Saad Sultan - Pakistan

Born in 1997 in Faisalabad, Pakistan, Saad Sultan graduated in Mechanical Engineering from New York University in Abu Dhabi and is currently working as a Planning Engineer at Hyundai Motors Pakistan. This text was written upon his return from Abu Dhabi after graduation and is the only one written by a man in this collection.

Coming from a relatively traditional Pakistani family from Faisalabad I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by people I love and trust during this time of crisis. While that has helped me cope with the current situation and I have not felt isolated, it has not been the case with some other members of my family.

I spent the last 4 years completing my undergraduate education from New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi and only recently moved back to Pakistan. I had become used to life in the Emirates, and had started looking at things from a different perspective. Living in a male-dominated society, where men are the ones going to work and socializing with the neighbours, while the female counterparts stay inside and take care of the house, it would seem that the lives of the men would naturally be more affected because of the current scenario. After all the females are accustomed to staying indoors. At least this is what many of us men are made to believe.

In the following lines , I will try to shed some light on how the lives of different families have evolved during these trying times. I will talk about personal experiences of people I have interacted with and some I have interviewed. Accounts on how these extraordinary conditions have affected men and women of different households and how it has had a positive as well as negative impact on people, their mental health and their relationships with other members of their family. Living in a joint family alongside my grandparents, parents and siblings, I was able to speak with them to understand how they see the circumstances evolve and how their perspective differs from mine. I also interviewed some of my friends over the phone who also connected me to members of their families. I come from an upper middle-class family. Many of the people I interviewed belong to both the middle as well as the upper class. This helped me establish both similarities and differences in the ways families from different social circles have been affected by the ‘new normal.”

In traditional Pakistani families, women are expected to help around with everyday chores while men go to work outside. If the household chores are not managed properly, women face a lot of criticism. If they dare voice their grievances, they are reprimanded. After men return from a long day's work, they are exhausted. Maybe they did not like what their boss said. Maybe they got yelled at or did not get the promotion they had their eyes on. This results in frustration and bad mood once they get home where they are the head of the family and where they are the boss. So obviously, they cannot listen to any complaints. They consider it their right to be mad at the smallest inconvenience. Anyone who messes up anything around the house is going to get an earful. It is quite evident that most of the criticism is directed towards the female members of the family. Covid-19 has made things worse in what was a traditional female space because male members of the family are always present and expressing their dissatisfactions about the way things are managed. My mother is a working woman, not in the traditional sense though. She manages the household in a way no-one else in the family can. She makes sure things are always in the most immaculate state and everything is running smoothly. Something I have tried doing several times but failed miserably. Before this virus hit, she was doing this and helping to manage a welfare school which kept her busy. No one would interfere in the day-to-day affairs and she would run everything at home and at the school effortlessly. When the lockdown was imposed, it meant that me, my siblings, my father, and my grandparents were at home all day for an extended period. Our presence added to the day to day chores around the house and with the domestic help absent because of the confinement, most of the burden was now on my mother. Everyone would observe things they were not really paying attention to before. They would interfere in the day to day tasks and everyone considered it their right to criticise everything happening. Every little detail of how things around the house were managed was now a target of scrutiny. This did not stop her from putting her best efforts forward and making sure everyone felt at ease during these difficult times. However, it meant that she was under a lot more pressure, but she would keep all these feelings locked up inside her.

Men and women in our society have been affected by the pandemic in several different ways. Both have had to experience these bizarre circumstances for the first time without an instruction manual or script in their hands, telling them how to react. The impact this ‘new normal’ has had on them is also very different. While a lot of men show their misery and distress in front of their families, failing to acknowledge that the rest of the family is going through similar emotions, their female counterparts suffer in silence. Perhaps it is because most men don’t know if it's valid to express emotions or to be vulnerable. Even in today’s world, it is not considered ‘manly’ to be emotional or to talk about your problems, but it is very masculine to pour your anger out on others. Since the ‘others’ in this case are the members of your family, they are the ones on the receiving end of this frustration. Mothers, sisters, and wives try their utmost not to disturb their husbands, sons, and brothers with their grievances. I think it is because they are made to believe that men are suffering much more than them. They are made to believe that men are bearing pressures of the outside world as well as the burdens of their families. As a result, they continue to endure in silence. They go through this rollercoaster of emotions alone.

The male members of the family who would be at work otherwise outside have started growing more agitated sitting at home all the time. Their mood swings and temperamental changes have started becoming more audible. They don’t voice their fears about work and their finances. This is because they don’t want their families to worry about what goes on outside the house. They don’t want them to worry whether their business is doing well or if their economic conditions are deteriorating. In their heads, by not bothering their wives and children with these issues, they are shielding them from the harsh realities of the outside world. However, these frustrations get the better of them and instead of working them out, they let them out in the form of taunts, criticism and arguments.

I have seen countless times different reactions my extended family and friends showed to anxiety during the Coronavirus break-out. I have seen how my friend Ameera gets told off by her father for not helping her mother with household tasks, when her younger brother Ahmed gets away with sleeping 12 hours a day. I have seen how Uncle Amjad finds it easier to vent than talk about what is bothering him, while my Aunt Zainab tries to keep herself occupied with chores, so her mind doesn’t think about the grievances. I have seen how in my family, my sisters are expected to prepare their own breakfast, clean their own room, make their own bed and get told off for staying in bed for too long. But these expectations don’t extend to the male members of the family, including myself.

Another particularly challenging period was the month of Ramadan. It carries great significance in the Muslim world and is considered ultra-sacred. People prepare for this month well before it starts. Eating out or inviting people over for suhoor and iftar is common practice. It allows families and friends to connect and celebrate this month together. People also make preparations for Eid which comes right at the end of this month. Markets get flooded with people who are there to buy clothes and groceries. However, Ramadan and Eid 2020 were different. They came at a time when the world was going through a crisis. People were asked to stay indoors and limit their visits to the markets. Only the essential shops were open, and even those would close before the sun set. These were extremely unusual conditions since they did not allow anyone to celebrate this month or prepare for this time the way they were used to. My family didn’t allow me or anyone else to eat out or host gatherings. My sister who loves shopping for Eid was not allowed to go out. My grandfather who is very religious was stopped from going to the mosque to pray because of the fear of catching the virus. It is traditional to greet one another by hugging three time on Eid. This is a sacred custom that has existed ever since I can remember. Since hugging is not possible when you’re practising social distancing, that too became a cause for awkward interactions. Some people were not ready to accept the fact that they won’t be able to greet people the way they were used to and this caused further friction between families.

I know most of what I have said so far revolves around how the relationships between different members of a household have deteriorated. However, there are several ways in which these relationships and familial bonds have become stronger than ever.

A lot of people live in joint families and as a result everyone has had the chance to spend more time together and engage in different activities throughout the day. Children are helping their mothers with household chores. Fathers who usually are at work throughout the day, have had more time to spend with their children. In a lot of households, the male members of the family are stepping up and helping around with tasks and as a result, the load of everyday chores has been distributed. Elder siblings are helping younger ones with their classes. Bonds between grandparents and grandchildren have become stronger. Many have reverted back to traditional household games such as Ludo, carrom cards, something which has bridged the age gap and allowed everyone to connect.

I have seen many of these changes take place in my household as well. With the domestic help away, my sisters have taken on different responsibilities around the house. Being the one who is out of the house for work, I have been in charge of getting the groceries on my way back which wasn’t something I did before. On the weekends, my siblings, my parents and I have started playing charades just before dinner. My sisters and I love dancing. We started choreographing different dances together in the evenings. Teatime now includes traditional card games with my grandparents and stories about their childhood and how they spent their days without the entertainment children these days have. Weekend retreats to Lahore and Islamabad haven’t happened in a while and trips to the mall and the bowling alley have been postponed indefinitely. Parking outside a restaurant and having food inside the car has become a new habit. I even had the chance of attending a wedding on Zoom. Two of my really good friends from New York University Abu Dhabi, Asad and Zahra recently tied the knot and we all got to be part of their beautiful zoom wedding ceremony. Seventy of us from different parts of the world were part of the event and for many of us, this was our first e-wedding.

In our society, once married, it is expected that the woman starts living in the man’s house, giving her a chance to connect and interact with the new family and get to know them. My friend Khadija got married 2 months before everything was shut down. She and her husband are both medical students. Hence with her busy schedule and the fact that her father-in-law would travel for work every week, they would barely get any time to spend together and get to know one another. When the lockdown started in March, the entire family was able to spend their evenings together and all of them greatly benefited from this change. The quarantine brought them closer. Khadija and her father-in-law even started an online venture together. Her husband and sister-in-law would help with the packing, her mother-in-law helped with the design while her father-in-law helped with the logistics. Her entire family facilitated in establishing this business and it became an activity they all participated in.

Recently, my uncle’s entire family got diagnosed with Covid-19 and they had to isolate themselves. The situation was extremely chaotic since all of them were experiencing several dreadful symptoms. Despite all that, their daughter-in-law Larayb took it upon herself to take care of the entire family. She bravely tended to everyone’s needs. Whether it was disinfecting the entire house several times a day, cooking, cleaning or taking care of her 2 year-old son who had the disease himself, she did it all, for two weeks long. After everyone recovered, my uncle explained in tears how Larayb had shown incredible strength and how no man in the entire family could have done what she did.

Many of the changes that have occurred during this time will have a lasting impact on family relationships and the dynamics between different members of the household. For some, who have been able to share their frustrations or who have had time to bond, they have come out of this lockdown feeling more connected. Others who have felt the balance at home shift due to the constant involvement of other family members have grown more agitated. While the overall power dynamics between men and women have stayed the same, their understanding of what it takes to run their family ship smoothly has improved. Men are more aware of the hardship women face on a daily basis while making sure everything works like a well-oiled machine. Many families have become more appreciative of one another and are more inclined to help each other to make sure circumstances bring them closer rather than driving a wedge between them. I have always considered myself a feminist and have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by friends who share the same ideologies. They’ve always encouraged me to have healthy discussions and debates with my family and relatives about the ways in which the male and female members in our society are treated and the different kinds of expectations we have of them. These unusual circumstances made me appreciate the incredible role women in my family play. They do it with so much poise and calm that most of the time we forget the amount of devotion and hard work that has gone into it and we take their efforts for granted. I believe that this pandemic has been an eye opener for many of us since we have been exposed to so many new experiences for the very first time and hopefully learned a great deal from it all.