Coronavirus: a nail in the coffin of equality?

Sanitising a synagogue. (Vladimir Gerdo/TASS via Jewish News
Sanitising a synagogue. (Vladimir Gerdo/TASS via Jewish News

It was no surprise to learn that three quarters of the 240 people signing up to help at my synagogue with the COVID-19 pandemic were women. Women have, after all, habitually played the role of the caregiver within faith communities – particularly in times of crisis.

Women’s role as community carer has been combined with new roles; professional working from home, mother struggling with home schooling, daughter caring for isolating elderly parents, and wife or partner picking up additional domestic duties. It’s not been a level playing field.  They are more affected by lower earnings (and part-time working), more likely to stay home to support the New Normal, and right now more likely to be affected by domestic violence. Our women are an unseen victim of the pandemic.

It goes much further, with commentators starting to predict a long-term impact on the cause of women’s rights based on the evidence from both this pandemic and the SARS and Ebola outbreaks.

“One of the most striking effects of the coronavirus”, wrote commentator Helen Lewis just last week, “will be to send many couples back to the 1950s. Across the world, women’s independence will be a silent victim of the pandemic”

For those women active in faith groups, throw into the mix the additional challenges of the recent festival season– Passover, Easter and Ramadan/Eid and then Shavuot – and women have been pushed to the absolute limit.

All religious festivals revolve around food, family and friends. Trying to uphold sacred festivals involves preparation, catering and adherence to time-consuming and rigorous ritual. It is most often up to women in the religious traditional patriarchal structures to ensure the domestic aspects of festivals pass off successfully.  Whilst I’m a terrible baker, my Shavuot cheesecake was better than anything my husband could, or indeed would, ever produce.

This year offers particular challenges: how to find a way to make festivals, even shabbat, work with selective food shortages, a now partial national lock down, and participants only able to join digitally?  How to include our isolating vulnerable and aging family members who probably need contact the most?

In the Jewish community, women tend to be both highly integrated and educated, yet even then, a recent survey by the Alliance of Jewish Women showed that 73% of Jewish women felt the Jewish community is ‘too bound in traditional gender roles’.

The role we have assumed over centuries – as caregivers and providers, categorises us and the reaction to the pandemic potentially reinforces the stereotype. A recent “inclusive, unifying” event centred around the COVID-19 crisis led by a well-known interfaith institution initially advertised six speakers: all male. Another recent interfaith film urging togetherness and care featured nine different faith leaders speaking. Just one was a woman.

Most recently, the government set up a task force to consider how to reopen places of worship.  However, incredibly and inexplicably, the members are all men.

To be fair we must recognise that men are being disproportionally medically affected by COVID-19, with a higher death rate – ‘man flu’ sadly a proven reality after all. The death rate amongst the BME groups too, is a real concern and will need detailed analysis.

But the cultural and gender-based norms which accompany and magnify the medical impact cannot be underestimated.  This relationship needs to be understood better in order to shape policy and cultural models.

Caroline Criado Perez noted that 29 million papers were published in more than 15,000 peer-reviewed titles around the time of the Zika and Ebola epidemics, but less than 1 percent considered the gendered impact of the outbreaks

With the current social, emotional and economic effects of the pandemic placing our women under such strain, our voices and the impact on women’s lives cannot be ignored.

As we enter the next phase of lockdown, we must ensure the value of women is recognised, and consider how the pandemic will affect gender equality going forward. Whether we are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or of no faith, addressing these issues of equality must be a priority.



About the Author
Laura Marks is a serial social entrepreneur who likes to focus on the common good. She founded Mitzvah Day, an international and interfaith day of social action, co-founded Nisa-Nashim, a Jewish/Muslim women’s network, and co-chairs the Alliance of Jewish Women. She chairs the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and all her work aims to make the world better and safer starting with the grass roots. Laura’s OBE was awarded for interfaith relations and in 2019 she was honoured by the Archbishop of Canterbury through his interfaith Hubert Walters Award. Laura’s family think she has a view on everything – and she does indeed love to broadcast (a regular on Radio 2 Pause for Thought) and write for the Jewish News.
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