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“Mothers can try new recipes for their families”

COVID-19 lockdown in Malaysia, a lens on the negotiation of the prescribed division of domestic food-related work
« Les mères peuvent essayer de nouvelles recettes pour leurs familles ». COVID-19 en Malaisie, une fenêtre sur la négociation de la division prescrite du travail domestique lié à l'alimentation
Elise Mognard and Anindita Dasgupta

Abstracts

A lockdown was declared in mid-March 2020 to curb the Covid-19 pandemic in Malaysia, a Southeast Asian society undergoing rapid modernization. Based on netnography, this study explores selected daily experiences of five professional women belonging to upper middle classes in Kuala Lumpur metropolitan area, through digital discourses on foodways during the lockdown. It unveils the reconfiguration of the public and private spaces, leading to re-negotiations of the prescribed division of domestic food-related labour in conjunction with the support from family members and community. Testimonies of conflicted experiences are reported by women dealing with ambivalent injunctions and simultaneous implications for the social organisation of meals, specifically commodification and aesthetisation of the food preparation. All in all, the March 2020 Covid-19 lockdown provides a unique lens on the negotiations of prescribed division of domestic food- related work for the professional women in modernizing Malaysia.

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Author's notes

A preliminary version of this article was presented during the International Symposium “Eating in the Cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America: Gender and Foodways Under Urban Lifestyles”, Montpellier, France. Full communication is available at [https://www.mangerenville.org/en/communications/habitudes-alimentaires-et-evolutions-des-rapport-de-genre-suite-au-covid-en-malaisie]. The authors are grateful to the organisers and participants of the Symposium and the reviewers of the previous versions of the manuscripts for their insightful comments.

Full text

This study is a part of the Taylor’s Flagship Research Grant TUFR/2017/003/01.

Introduction

  • 1 This article does not engage with gender fluidity. Hence, “women” is understood as gender-binary fe (...)

1Since the 1970’s, the Malaysian society has been undergoing rapid industrialization and urbanization, leading to substantial transformations of the social positions of women1. The implications of this rapid modernisation process are stratified from the ethnic, socio-economic, and geographic standpoints. It has notably contributed to the increase of the highly qualified female population and female employment in urban areas. Interestingly, those professional women are at the forefront of the food hypermodernity (Ascher 2005).

2In 2020, to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, the Malaysian government declared a total lockdown from the 18th of March followed by a partial lockdown generally declared from mid-April. It ran up to the 9th of June 2020 when restrictions of movements were relaxed, given the improvement of sanitary conditions in the area. For professional and metropolitan women, the Movement Control Order circumstances has resulted in concentrating the formal – typically performed in the public sphere - and socio-culturally prescribed food-related works in the private domestic sphere. By disrupting the socio-cultural boundaries between public and private spheres, the Covid-19 lockdown provides a unique opportunity to investigate the negotiations of the division of food-related labour (Mognard & Dasgupta 2021). Grounded in the approach of the sociology of the present (Morin 1976, 1984), this article reports an in vivo and flash exploration of the coping strategies used by some professional and urbanites Malaysian women to negotiate the prescribed division of food-related work under the circumstances of the Movement Control Order. The study is based on the analysis of digital communications on foodways of five selected professional and urban women belonging to the Chinese and Indian ethnic groups throughout the first six weeks of the first Covid-19 total and partial lockdown in Malaysia.

3We will first identify the transformations of women’s positions in the Malaysian context and theoretical foundations of the research. The review of literature focuses on the encounters of gender studies with food matters and more specifically the relations between changing women’s position and food modernity. Secondly, we will provide an overview of the methods of this in vivo and flash netnography. Finally, we will identify and critically discuss the dynamics and tensions involved in the reported practices - with a particular emphasis on negotiations of food-related work amidst the Covid-19 lockdown.

Literature review

Transformations of women’s positions in modernizing Malaysia

4Social history studies focusing on gender roles and equality have demonstrated the relatively high status of women as one of the distinctive traits of Southeast Asia as a region, compared with East and South Asia (Firth 1966; Hirschman & Agahajanian 1980; Reid 1988; Kassim 1988; Stivens 1996; Ng 1999). However, the rapid urbanization happening since the 1970’s along with the state interventions is related to important reconfigurations of the ‘family’ and ‘private sphere’, and lead to both contestation and adaptations of gender roles and family organization (Othman 1998; Stivens 1996, 2006). In the case of the Malaysian modernity path, Stivens (1998, 2006, 2019) suggests that the state-led modernity, together with its moral project, have developed family values where women are ‘housewifised’, meaning that they are expected to protect the Nation from the dangers of modernity by combining the roles of housewife with motherhood and childrearing in privatized urban domestic spaces - often aided in this task by relatives or foreign domestic ‘helpers’. There is an agreement that the Southeast Asian statecraft and formal politics was and are mainly dominated by men (Manderson 1980; Dancz 1987; Ng et al. 2006; Mohamad 2018; Mohamad et al. 2019). However, in addition to Malaysian women’s organisations (Ng et al. 2006; Stivens 2008, 2017; Spiegel 2010), social media has globally emerged as a societal basis for debating gender relations by circulating counter-discourses, leading to the formulation of alternative identities and authorities.

  • 2 Translation from the authors: “Alliance of Hope”.
  • 3 Translation from the authors: “National Front”.

5The 14th General Election, in May 2018, saw the success of the newly formed political coalition named Pakatan Harapan2 over the long-term ruling coalition Barisan Nasional3. In October 2018, pursuing an ideology of ‘compassionate Islam’, the Islamic Affairs Minister - supported by the Prime Minister - declared that the enforcement of Islamic laws should not interfere with matters in the private sphere (Dzulkifly 2018). However, as the lockdown was declared on the 16th of March, and in an attempt to ensure harmony within ‘locked’ households, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development briefly issued (on the 30th of March) a set of recommendations to working mothers on how to manage their households and families. Subsequently, much of the language used by policymakers in their public messaging during the lockdown was also cloaked in gendered language, thus bolstering the role of language as a reflection of gendered cultures. Simultaneously, the recommendations from the government and the gendered language it used, led to the denunciation of patriarchal social relations on social media. This incident reflects frictions and contestations related to gender relations, as well as social, cultural, and religious identities.

  • 4 Usually translated from the Malay as “son of the land or of the soil” gathering the ethnic groups o (...)

6As a matter of fact, the Malaysian society is fragmented from ethnic and socio-economic standpoints (Hirschman 1975), and so is its modernisation process (Kahn & Loh 1992). The nationalist political measures and programmes under the New Economic Policy of 1971 and subsequent plans, have supported the emergence of the middle class which is used as a symbol of unity amongst the ethnic groups. Conversely, Bumiputera4 were granted a priviledged status and support over the Chinese and Indian women (Othman 1998), and led to the growth in industrial employment of Malay women in the 1980’s. In the wider context of the emerging international organisation of labour, urbanization was expected to serve the improvement of the socioeconomic status of the population in general and to increase the participation of Bumiputera in particular. The rapid rate of urbanization has contributed to the improvement of the living environments and has created employment opportunities - specialized and associated to higher incomes - in industrial and service sectors. This urbanisation has simultaneously marginalised rural and agricultural sectors long dominated by women (Leong-Salobir 2019; Stivens 2006).

Shifting boundaries between private and public spheres, a lens in the changing social identities of women in food modernity

7Globally, the deconstruction of the relationships of the ideologies of ‘family’ and ‘domesticity’ with the formal work of women outside the home has been proven an insightful path for gender studies. For the past decades, feminist scholars have analysed the shifting meaning together with the boundaries and interactions between public and private spheres (see for example Scott & Keates 2004). Simultaneously, public and private spheres are conceptualised as complementary organising principles and are displaying intertwinements, such as the governance of the intimate and private experience with the public world of knowledge/power. The literature on the division of food related labour is usually focusing on the formal work in the public sphere. Currently, more and more scholars are considering the socio-cultural and unpaid work and the related mental load of women in the private sphere, at home and with their families (DeVault 1991; O’Connell & Brannen 2016). Back to the Covid-19 lockdown, while, during the Movement Control Order, workers from agriculture, manufacture and some service sectors were temporally laid-off for operational reasons, most of the professionals continued their work from home. For them, the lockdown situation resulted in a cumulation in their home of the formal work typically performed in the public sphere and the socio-culturally prescribed work performed in the private sphere. By concentrating the formal and socio-culturally prescribed work of professionals in the private domestic sphere, and by disrupting the socio-cultural boundaries between public and private spheres, the Covid-19 lockdown thus offers a unique opportunity to investigate the negotiations of the division of food-related labour. While the social relations to food have been organized along gender throughout history, the emergence of feminist food studies has required the conceptualization and investigation of interactions between women's food work in the labor market, their socially prescribed unpaid food-related work in the home, and their relationship with eating (Avakian & Haber 2006; Allen & Sachs 2007). The literature on the division of the food labor is usually focusing on the formal work in the public sphere. More and more scholars are considering the socio-cultural and unpaid work and the related mental load of the women in the private sphere, at home and with their families (DeVault 1991) on top of the formal one. Aside from being a locus of masculine domination, household food can also be conceptualized as a means of political contestation and resistance (Avakian & Haber 2006). In Malaysia, Devasahayam (2005) demonstrates the relevance of foodways to reveal the ways women contest, negotiate, transform, assert, and even reinforce gendered social and cultural identities. Nonetheless, only a few studies are unveiling gender relations specifically on household food-related informal load in contemporary Malaysia (such as Eshah Haji Mohamed 1999; Devasahayam 2005; Karupiah 2019).

8From the perspective of the sociology and anthropology of food, food-related work represents an insightful locus to analyse the shift between private and public spheres. Indeed, the division of labour between men and women, and between public (public or commercial services) and private (households) preparation systems, are known to reflect the changes in public institutional contexts, family structures, and labour market (Kjaernes & Holm 2007; Poulain 2002). The formal employment of women implies a deferment of the time that working women do not invest in the domestic sphere (Herpin 1980) to the economic sectors of domestic help, convenient foods (Herpin & Verger 1999; Poulain 2002; Zahari et al. 2012) and restaurants (Grignon & Grignon 2004). As a result, where the woman of the household was working, the proportion of the budget dedicated to food away from home was increased two-fold (Grignon & Grignon 2004). Indeed, the employment of women does not lead to effective changes of the unequal repartition of the non-formal work related to food at home, but to conflicts between the domestic and professional roles of the upper middle-class women (Fischler 1990). In addition, with food hypermodernity, Ascher (2005) asserts that aesthetic considerations are expanding, in articulation with pre-existing food moralities. Re-appropriation of cooking practices for specific occasions are embedded into these growing aesthetic considerations.

9Given the contests around the theories of modernity being euro-centred and the exclusion of women from models of modernity (Stivens 1998), this article aims at providing insights acknowledging the specificities of Malaysian food modernization. Certainly, women are recognised to be the caretakers of their families (Devasahayam 2018). Furthermore, the substantial practices of purchasing and eating food outside home in Malaysian everyday social interactions (Duruz & Khoo 2015) contribute to the specificity of this context. Before lockdown, based on the Malaysian Food Barometer (Poulain et al. 2015, 2019, 2020, 2021; Fournier et al. 2016) - latest survey of 2018 - 63% of the Malaysian were having at least one meal per day out of home while 35% were eating at least one meal per day at home with food prepared out of home (take away, delivery, etc.). Another notable distinctive trait of the Malaysian context is the participation of domestic ‘helpers’ to the food related-work in the - often pluri-generational - households (Alem 2018).

10We posit that the short-term disruptions of routines in everyday life that are emerging from the lockdown constitute a lens to explore the negotiations of the prescribed division of domestic food-related labour amongst the professionnals in modernizing Malaysia. In turn, we question: Which discourses linked to food-related work are emerging in digital communications of professional and urban women during the Covid-19 lockdown? We assume that the lockdown is firstly leading to a governmental definition and control of the boundaries between private and public spheres and, hence, renegotiation of the gendered roles related to the socio-culturally prescribed domestic food-related work. This renegotiation of roles would also result in the externalisation to the economic sector such as the use of online food delivery services. Secondly, we assume that some forms of resistance to governmental messages aiming at transforming professionally employed and urban women into housewives will emerge both in the digital discourses as well as in the coping strategies deployed.

Methods

11Researching a crisis in real time is a method that has been used by various disciplines. During the pandemic, working from home, researchers have been documenting the developing situation, and producing findings to help leaders in government and business to make sense of what was happening (Lambert 2020). The present research was conducted using netnography, which was found to be well suited as a ‘socially distanced’ method to study phenomena during the lockdown period as the researchers “...themselves navigat[ing] personally through an unprecedented global crisis” (Lambert 2020). Netnography may be defined as a qualitative research approach that transposes and adapts the traditional, in-person ethnographic research techniques to the study of the online cultures and communities formed through computer-mediated communications (Kozinets 2002). It involves a fast process of data collection, travel is not required, it is unobtrusive in nature and is well suited to study trends in real time, and well as over time. Furthermore, digital communications on social networks such as Facebook are a lens into the global public sphere and multi-affiliation of the participants - to an ethnic or cultural group as well as to transnational or global communities, such as the ones related to gender. Given the timing as well as the constraints of this study, the social context and complexities of the research problem, as well as the training of the researchers, it was believed to be the most appropriate methodology to use.

  • 5 The authors were living under the conditions of Movement Control Order in Malaysia while conducting (...)

12In line with our lived experiences5 and research objectives, we first examined the public service announcements that were available on official social media and online news platform about domestic and food-related work that were evident during the lockdown. We engaged with the publicly available Facebook pages of five Malaysian Chinese and Indian professional women belonging to upper middle classes in Kuala Lumpur metropolitan area to observe how they provided a window into their daily lived experiences during the first six weeks of complete lockdown. The selection of our participants was guided by the work of the feminist sociologist Smith (1987) who stated that the unfolding of the everyday worlds of socially situated women is the key to understand other levels of social structure. While there is a growing body of literature on the emergent Malay middle class (Embong 1996, 2002; Fisher 2007; Sloane-White 2008), transformations for Malaysian Chinese and Indians have been understudied hence the selection of the participants from these ethnic groups (two Chinese and three Indians). We have selected relevant profiles of women out of a range of persons we were already engaging with - both professionally and in social media – prior to the lockdown. The suitability of the data was also assessed based on the themes, regularity and details of the posts including visuals. Some viewpoints of males were also intercepted from the women’s social media interactions and analysed. Finally, the trends were coded, clustered and thematized to provide some emergent trends.

13As all the data analysed in this study were publicly available, it precluded the need to secure informed consent of participants as “…the observations take place only in public situations where those observed would expect to be observed by strangers” (Shaw 2018). However, we had to secure Informed Consent in the case of one of participants whose Facebook account was limited to friends only. The identities of the five selected women and persons who digitally engaged with them were kept confidential in the study.

Findings

14Women faced the challenges imposed by the lockdown in a variegated manner depending on several determinants - but not limited to occupation, education, income, family size, location, marital status, partner expectations, assistance from domestic workers and so on. Within these selected identities of women, the insights provided below rely on the experiences of the Malaysian Indian and Chinese professionally employed, educated, urban women. Mental load in balancing work, planning and preparation of food, family care, children’s education and self-care were crucial factors that resulted in the disruptions of routines in the lives of many professionally employed women. The services of part-time domestic helpers, who are slowly emerging as an alternative and cheaper option than employing full time foreign maids, were made immediately unavailable during the lockdown due to the stringent control of movements within Malaysia. Additionally, because rules included ban on travel across international borders, full-time domestic helpers - who are mainly foreigners - where not allowed to enter Malaysia, thus making it incumbent upon the women to cook their own family meals.

15It was not unexpected that control of bodies and spaces would emerge as the primary focus of institutional control to stop a highly infectious disease from spreading. In understanding the public service announcements, we consider the dynamics and tensions involved in the transformations of bodily and spatial formations, and the changes provoked by such situations, with a particular emphasis on gender dimensions as it related to domestic food-related work.

Reconfiguration of the public-private dichotomy and prescribed shift in gender roles

16A private-public dichotomy has emerged during the lockdown period into which gender was intertwined in the demarcation of public and private spaces. The ‘outside’ was conceptualized as the ‘action zone’ where infection was prevalent and was perceived as a ‘masculine’ space. The ‘inside’ on the other hand, was constructed as the ‘safe zone’ and thus a ‘feminine’ space.

  • 6 Doraemon is a fictional character from Japanese manga and anime series featuring a male robotic ear (...)

17The announcements and guidelines specifically led to the construction of the notion of the ‘domestic women’ who were essentialized as ‘mothers’ and ‘wives’. This subordination of women to the household and family has already been observed in the past (Eshah Haji Mohamed 1999; Stivens 1996, 2006, 2019) and could thus be interpreted as a re-assertion of the family values in the everyday politics and moral project of Malaysia (Stivens 2006; Elias 2020). In a series of Facebook posts, the ministry of Women, Family and Community Development offered tips on how wives should behave while the restrictions were in place. Women who were working from home, were advised to dress up well, apply make-up and speak endearingly to their husbands in a ‘Doraemon-like’6 voice. Unsuspectingly, women found themselves pushed into prescribed roles as mothers and wives whose primary role was to maintain household harmony and shoulder the unpaid housework at a time when many were also required to work from home, “... holding a ladle in one hand and the phone on the other” (Endut 2020). Conversely, the institutionalized conceptualization of the experience of professionally employed women was disregarded as they were expected to “… now have more time at home and they can try all sorts of new recipes to cook for the family.” (Muhyiddin 2020).

  • 7 Translation from the authors: “I have released him, I am scared about the virus”. Release him is in (...)
  • 8 Dy” is an English Malaysiannist contraction of “already”.

18Meanwhile, the head of the households (assumed to be men) were allowed to leave the house to purchase daily necessities and medication during the lockdown period. This interpretation is supported by a participant's reply when a friend asked why she did not go along with her husband for shopping: “Kalutthividuraan him. I takut for the virus la… Must be extra careful.”7 When he returned home, she posted a message saying, “My husband came from outside, I made him shower with Dettol water and vinegar.” This reconfiguration of the ‘outside’ versus ‘inside’ conceptualisation and shift in gender roles led women to do ‘remote shopping’ where they were still the ones in charge of the decisions remotely, while the execution was left to men who were allowed to get out of the house. The shift in the gendered roles required acquisitions of skills and informal training as indicated in reaction to the husband' ‘novice’ experience of buying crabs, as expressed by the participant to one of her friends’ comments: “Awwwwwhhh… I trained my husband dy. Now is test period so cant cheat. If he gets it wrong, he and the crabs stay outside…”8.

19The Movement Control Order, its subsequent ‘work from home’ and reconfiguration of the connotations of public and private spheres appear to question the (mental) load of women. The post below by a participant captures the blurring of boundaries on the first hectic week of the Movement Control Order, while describing her new routine of juggling work and household chores, including cooking two meals a day, demonstrating the mental load she carried at that time. “This is what my lockdown week has been like”, she posts, “… on top of cleaning, cooking 2 meals, moppings and meeting. My students and I have realised the strength of human resilience to adapt…”. Their struggles to balance formal and paid work ‘work (from home)’, and socio-cultural and unpaid work (food, family care, education) and the resulting the sudden superposition of all activities and roles within the domestic space was made very visible to family members interned at residence. Urban professional women included in this study reproduced practices and complied with the governance of their bodies while contesting the governmental and socio-cultural prescriptions in their digital discourses. Most probably, their financial contributions in the highly uncertain economic context due to the Covid-19 lockdown resulted in enpowering them. In turn, we analyse these ambiguous relations to prescribed gendered roles, featuring reflexiveness involved in the modernization process and conflict between the domestic and professional roles of the upper middle-class women.

Ambiguous reflexive relations to prescribed gendered roles

  • 9 Mango pulut is a glutinous rice served with fresh mango and Nasi Lemak.”. Nasi lemak is a dish of r (...)
  • 10 Kan” is used as an interjection of ‘can’.

20Towards the end of May 2020, recurrent showcasing of homemade dishes appears in posts. The simple comment “homemade (mango pulut / nasi lemak)!”9 highlights the pride taken in cooking homemade food and possibly simultaneously, the ambivalent position of women in between the contestation of the gendered roles and the pride taken in mastering cooking skills and caring for themselves or the family. For some single women, the showcasing of home cooked products was observed right from the start of the Movement Control Order. A series of posts showcased the creative culinary skills of a participant who not only regularly experimented with new recipes, but also used various products from her kitchen garden to prepare tasty and visually attractive meals. In one of her posts, she playfully remarks that only during the lockdown she has the time to spend on preparing food. She also actively engages with her friends on best recipes and ingredients to use. A friend teased her by commenting “Stay at home, kan?”10 and then, in Malay language, that soon she would finish all the food that was available at home. The meteoric popularity of the Malaysian Indian couple, together known by the name of ‘Sugu-Pavithra', who taught how to cook popular Malaysian dishes on YouTube can also be attributed to the need for simple and easy-to-cook local multi-ethnic foods that Malaysians craved to eat, but were deprived of during the lockdown.

21Additionnally, food prepared out of home and delivered to homes played a key role in reconfiguring the daily life of working women. While the dine-out practices were temporally put on hold due to closure of eateries, social distancing constraints, or fear of contamination, the Malaysian economy has experienced a rapid increase of the delivery services. The induced shift of the food preparation from the private to the public sphere has most probably leveraged on a pre-existing high ratio and increase of eating out and delivery practices prior to the pandemic, as highlighted by the Malaysian Food Barometer. When 23% of the Malaysians were having at least one meal eaten in and purchased out of home in 2013 (Poulain et al. 2020), they were 35% in 2018. Figures methodologically comparable are not available for the period under investigation in this study, but market research such as Statistica Market Forecast are envisaging robust growth in the upcoming years based on the intensification of the use of online food delivery service during the lockdown (Money Compass 2020).

  • 11 Don’t give my mom idea please. She still remembers I forgot to buy bread and accidentally bought i (...)
  • 12 Dei” is used as slang for “guy” or “brother”.
  • 13 The dish that did not turn out well today” (translation from the authors).

22Women seems to have taken the opportunity of this prescribed shift in the roles during the Movement Control Order to tease men, even those who were not direct family members. As mentioned by one of the participant's friend in the comments: “Dont give my mom idea pls. She still remember I forgot to buy roti and accidentally bought indo mee.”11 To this, the participant replied “Hahahahahaahah! That was a simple task dei! You failed ur test big time!”12. Humour serves the creation of a critical distance with prescribed gendered roles and gendered connotations of spaces; For example, it is jokingly envisaged to ‘boil’ the husband as he returns from the outside. The comments from friends on that post are clearly establishing the relation and the critical distance with the recommendations from the governmental institutions. One of them for example, commented “While doing all that I hope you sounded like Doreamon and oh ya did you give him that little giggle at the end.” on which the participant replied “Oh yes yes how can I forget that?!! Must abide!”. A post containing a cartoon of Doraemon wearing an apron and applying make-up without any written comments (but emoji) clearly refers to the contestation that the recommendations to working mothers on how to manage their households and families from the Ministry Women, Family and Community Development have led to. Here the participant takes distance with the prescription of “Avoid[ing] wearing house clothes, dress up as usual and neatly” and taking charge of the domestic work by using one the caricatures produced by the contestations of the reassertion of the moral enterprise of the Ministry. This critical distance with the governmental injunction has also been reflected into the emergence and popularity gained by the Facebook group Masak Apa Tak Jadi Hari Ni13. Created on the 14th of April 2020, it earned 1.5 million followers in the following 10 days. While cooking homemade food and trying new recipes - as encouraged by governmental institutions – women did not miss to display and laugh at their own culinary disasters and, thus, prescribed roles. A wide range of jokes seem to make fun of the gendered roles assigned to women, supposed to be a loving wife that always cares for her husband and family, this care being demonstrated by cooking.

Supporting working women with food, building social ties

23Another emerging theme on social media was the strategies to cope with the disruption of routines in daily lives. Posts were expressing acknowledgement of the cooking skills and food received as a sign of care by and from relatives. Working women reached out to, and received support from immediate and extended family, as well as close friends, who provided food items from time to time to ease the pressure of having to source for, and prepare, food daily while attending to official work from home. The value supported by the “homemade” characteristic of the food is highlighted in the comment “This one home-made” when replying to a comment informing about that a famous food-stall is finally opened. A collection of posts shows how some of them had found a successful way to deal with the disruption in routines. A participant posts a picture of a plate of home baked cookies that were prepared by her teenage daughters. When friends playfully ask her to share the recipe, and that they want to place orders, she says “Please order with my daughters”. Halfway through the lockdown, she uploads a picture of a delectable chicken salad and comments “When you have a crazy day working from home, and your kids make you lunch”, followed by a comment “Joy of having teenagers”.

24A strong sense of community can also be seen in many other posts, where the participant thanks her friends and families for reaching out a much needed helping hand with food. When her older sister sends her a box of homemade cookies. She says “I am loved. Just what I needed after a stressful week” and adds three heart emojis. In response to a friend’s response to the picture, she replies “Best things about sisters”. Another post is titled “Love thy neighbour” and states “lovely to be greeted this morning by a bag of freshly plucked and cleaned bag of jackfruits hung on the fence by your neighbour”.

Concluding remarks

25The analysis of foodways related digital communications during the first six weeks of the total and partial lockdown unveils how the professionally employed and urban women have been dealing with their necessary contribution to the workforce - not only to sustain their families but also to sustain the economic directions of the country. Meanwhile, it is revealing the conflicts between the domestic and professional roles of the upper middle-class women and implication for the social organisation of meals, especially in terms of commodification of the food preparation. Besides, the reconfiguration of the outside/inside nexus has led men and children to take over the food sourcing seems to have led to the acknowledgement of critical skills required by informal, unpaid, and socio-culturally prescribed roles of food management at home. The power of urban and professional women was asserted by their financial contributions in a context of high economic uncertainties. Once tranferred home, the demanding nature of the formal and paid work has been made visible to and valued by the rest of the family. All in all, contestations seem to be associated with a renegotiation of the division of the socio-cultural and unpaid work at home and leading to training and transferring skills in the aim of ultimately sharing it among the family members. The role of food in creating and strengthening social ties amongst women communities has also given rise to an emerging solidarity supporting a contestation of the enormous mental load carried by women in these times.

26Overall, the contribution of this in vivo investigation is twofold. It first provides a gender lens for understanding the impact of this crisis which highlighted the specific vulnerabilities that women face because of deep-rooted inequalities and traditional gender role expectations, specifically in terms of the mental load related to gendered roles in food management. By doing so, the study asserts well-established observations of the various forms of discrimination and domination embodied in the gendered division of food related work. Secondly, this research contemplates everyday life and home as locus of politics and resistance. The lockdown - and its subsequent ‘work from home’ - and the use of social media has re-questioned the essentialized division between the public and the private spheres and the interactions between women's work in the labour market, their socially prescribed unpaid food-related work in the home. Consequently, the lockdown reorganized the processes by which individuals – and especially women - are possibly asserting their autonomy from the institutions such as State, family, occupation, or the (family) meal.

27Grounded in the sociology of the present, this exploration aimed at providing research directions related to the negotiations of the prescribed division of domestic food-related labour amongst the professionnals in modernizing Malaysia. Four main avenues have emerged from the analysis. Firstly, an externalisation of the everyday preparations to the economic sector, in particular to food delivery services is observable while there are some attempts to re-appropriate food production through gardening practices and home-cooking - which is remarkable of food modernity. Given the extent of the period under study - six first weeks of the lockdown, the role of the crisis as an analyser or a catalyser of these transformations is debatable. Longer term implications of the lockdown will be required to further analyse the structural transformations of the division of food related work and foodways.

28Secondly, the internalised surveillance of food behaviour seems to be perpetuated through the lockdown where the posts of professional and urbanites women are extensively commenting their concerns pertaining their food intakes, physical activity, and their implications in terms of body image. Further inquiries are required to unveil how the lockdown period could have been a time of socially and culturally differentiated agency of women and internalisation of the locus of control about body politics.

29Thirdly, women’s posts analysed in this study are emerging from empowered women, from upper social class and metropolitan environment. They might be reflective upon their practices and hence fitting more the objectives and theoretical framework of this study. This should not lead to extend these conclusions to most of the Malaysian women or forget the increased domestic violence, dominance and challenges faced by women during the lockdown. The daily income earners or rural dwellers have indeed experienced very distinct circumstances and challenges during this period. More research on the distinct experiences based on their positions would be required. Vulnerabilities related to the life cycles such those encountered by young mothers or older women professionals with greater responsibilities at work would also be of great interest.

30Finally, analysing women's identities in the fragmented context would require engaging with the diversity of women's experiences, not solely based on gender identity but rather concomitantly with the ethnic, socio-economic, and geographic aspects of their identities. In this regard, intersectionality has been a major contribution of feminist theory that recognises that gender-based inequalities intersect with other sources of power and oppression. Therefore, further investigation grounded in a case-study intersectional approach of multi-stratified Malaysian society would be insightful. It is expected that ethnicity and religion may play a role in delineating the boundaries between private and public when the crisis period is over and the government recedes, leaving the position of women to be re-negotiated on socio-cultural basis.

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Notes

1 This article does not engage with gender fluidity. Hence, “women” is understood as gender-binary female.

2 Translation from the authors: “Alliance of Hope”.

3 Translation from the authors: “National Front”.

4 Usually translated from the Malay as “son of the land or of the soil” gathering the ethnic groups of the Malays, the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia, and various indigenous peoples of East Malaysia (Borneo).

5 The authors were living under the conditions of Movement Control Order in Malaysia while conducting this in vivo and flash investigation in 2020.

6 Doraemon is a fictional character from Japanese manga and anime series featuring a male robotic earless cat. Doreamon has been voiced by various actors and actresses in Japanese and other languages and yet all featuring distinctive high-pitched, cartoonish, patient tone and giggles.

7 Translation from the authors: “I have released him, I am scared about the virus”. Release him is interpreted as allowing the husband to leave home which the participant – pregnant - is afraid to do because of her fear of the virus. ‘La’ (also spelt ‘lah’) is a common Malaysian interjection.

8 Dy” is an English Malaysiannist contraction of “already”.

9 Mango pulut is a glutinous rice served with fresh mango and Nasi Lemak.”. Nasi lemak is a dish of rice cooked in coconut milk and served with gravy, boiled egg, peanuts, cucumber, and fried anchovies as a condiment featured as a national dish (Tibère et al. 2019).

10 Kan” is used as an interjection of ‘can’.

11 Don’t give my mom idea please. She still remembers I forgot to buy bread and accidentally bought instant noodle.” (translation from the authors).

12 Dei” is used as slang for “guy” or “brother”.

13 The dish that did not turn out well today” (translation from the authors).

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References

Electronic reference

Elise Mognard and Anindita Dasgupta, « “Mothers can try new recipes for their families” », Anthropology of food [Online], S17 | 2022, Online since , connection on 11 August 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/aof/13752 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/aof.13752

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About the authors

Elise Mognard

Sociology; Taylor’s School of Food Studies and Gastronomy, Faculty of Social Sciences and Leisure Management, Taylor’s University, Malaysia & Centre for Asian Modernization Studies, eliseline.mognard@taylors.edu.my.

By this author

Anindita Dasgupta

Social History; School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Faculty of Social Sciences and Leisure Management, Taylor’s University, Malaysia & Centre for Asian Modernization Studies; anindita.dasgupta@taylors.edu.my.

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Copyright

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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