Reconsidering what it means to be the ‘head of family’

APRIL 5 — The photo of a man and his father and brother rocking baju kelawars — what the Malays call the brightly-coloured loose-fitting sleepwear tunic commonly worn by women, akin to the kaftan or muumuu — has got some in the Malay Twitterverse in a tizzy.

To detractors, the three men had forsaken their manhood by wearing “women’s clothing” — a transgression of the Muslim faith and how God made men.

This sentiment is understandable, after all “wearing women’s clothes and acting like women” has long been a Shariah offence meant to prosecute and victimise trans women, a display of an archaic misunderstanding of gender dysphoria.



But just seeing all three men, confident in their masculinity — and overall looking very comfortable! — as they spend their time indoors weathering the Covid-19 pandemic, and you would agree that they did not make a wrong choice.

If women can wear pants, and robes are acceptable for men... then maybe more men should wear baju kelawar at home.

Just as it is time to reconsider our traditional view of looking at clothes as if they are gendered, the movement control order (MCO) period is also a time for us, especially men, to reconsider how for far too long we have held on to traditional gender roles that are slowly disintegrating under this shutdown.

Take the many jokes that have popped up online since Putrajaya mandated that only one family representative is allowed to buy groceries for each household.

In the early days, the directive was (and still is) worded as only “the head of family” is allowed to do groceries. What ensued next was comedy gold.

Make no mistake, the government clearly meant only the “man of the house” should be entrusted to act in a cautious manner outdoors to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And many men, believing themselves to be the only one capable of such duty, and eager to prove themselves the head of the family, took on the challenge of grocery shopping.

Many failed miserably. There were anecdotes of husbands video-calling their wives to double-check if they got their vegetables and herbs right. Some in government agencies and supermarkets even published infantilising “guides” for men to tell their onions and shallots apart, and their coriander and celery leaves.

It laid bare and vindicated the absurd gender roles that we have internalised for so long: That cooking, and any kitchen chores are solely the burden of the wives. When in fact, cooking is such an essential and basic life skill that everyone should know it regardless of gender.

If anything, cooking is both science and art, and few things are “manlier” than that. When all this is over, more men should realise how lacking they have been when it comes to their households, and they should step up — and step into the kitchen, more.

For many, the fact that you are forced to stay inside, and even work from home, has dismantled this perception that only men are bread-winners, who go out to work daily leaving their wives at home and expecting fully-cooked meals and well-behaved kids when they return.

With the MCO, nobody can escape the home, and everyone is home.

It makes it more obvious that all this while, housewives are expected to do many things in order to keep their homes in order without much contribution from the husbands, and that all these chores add up to unpaid labour.

For some, the MCO has also reversed such traditional roles. Some wives, especially those who are front-liners in the Covid-19 fight, cannot afford to stay home.

For the lucky ones, it is the husbands who now stay home, either working or not anymore, during the shutdown. If they are fathers, they also must now take the responsibility of managing their children and their home-schooling, with all institutions closed.

It is not an easy situation for any party. More employers and educational institutions should realise this fact and offer a more flexible situation for working-at-home parents, so both their work and home responsibilities do not clash with each other.

In this regard, I count myself thankful for the opportunity to take on evening shifts so I can still home-school my toddler and spend some time with her, while my wife is away at work in the hospital.

But not all would be so lucky. There are parents who have to continue working in essential services, but without a place to leave their children. There are single mothers who still have to work, with similar constraints.

Activist Juana Jaafar summed it up in a tweet earlier this week: “There are many front-liners at hospitals who are women. Not just the cleaning ladies, but also doctors and what more nurses.

“In a society where women are the backbone of families, they and their families pay a very high cost in this crisis,” she added, pointing out that this “unromantic” aspect is still pretty much absent in mainstream discourse.

Malay Mail also recently reported that women’s rights groups are seeing a rise in hotline calls and enquiries since the start of the MCO. They worry that during the shutdown, many victims and those vulnerable are unable to seek help or escape their abusers.

Which is why it was not only condescending, but shameful for the Women’s Development Department to put out recent posters advising women who are now working from home to placate their husbands by putting on pretty clothes, avoid nagging, and to not mock husbands who are sitting on their asses.

The advice for women to use a humorous tone, cute Doraemon-like voice, and giggling coyly when telling off their husbands was just the icing on the cake.



Again, this puts into question the role of the so-called “head of the family” and how we as a society need to better tackle such power imbalance in these households.

The pandemic is set to turn our world upside-down in so many ways. This would include the way we view how men and women should act and behave differently.

In the coming months, men would have to be better and push further towards deconstructing the gender roles that not only have kept women at a disadvantaged position, but are hurting men with toxic masculinity as well.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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