“Knead the dough carefully,” my wife chided me. “You should not be aggressive. If you don’t love the stuff, the chapatis will become uneatable.” Then came her surprising advice: “You should knead the dough as if you are handling a three-month baby.”

I am used to being instructed by my loving wife while partnering with her in the kitchen ever since the coronavirus-induced lockdown began more than a month ago. Like millions of men around the world, I am now washing dishes, buying groceries and assisting Kamaxi in making chapatis. In the process, I have discovered that kneading the dough is not a task that yields to masculine instincts – hard power, coercion and an expectation for quick results. Apart from being a good exercise, it is a fine art that requires patience, attention and care. If the wheat flour is not mixed with the right amount of water, and pressed meticulously and uniformly, the chapatis won’t cook evenly.

Women recognise the need for this balance. When they cook in the kitchen, they pour in unrecognised, undervalued labour without the braggadocio and toxicity that come conjoined with masculinity. Cooking is not a contest for them.

When Kamaxi, a professor of preventive healthcare in a medical college in Mumbai, a women’s rights activist, and mother of our beloved daughter, gently admonished me, I felt she was telling me something important about the coronavirus pandemic. The correlation with the crisis was strange because she had made no reference to it. But in a situation of potential danger to life, our minds tend to think of everything through the prism of that peril. Psychologists call it cognitive association. Hence, her words – “You should knead the dough as if you are handling a three-month baby” – seemed to me to contain some profound truth about how the world should deal with the pandemic and about the broader challenges the post-Covid-19 world is going to face.

Language of war

Lockdown. Social distancing. Testing. Quarantine. There is a harshness to these words that have entered common parlance lately. At the same time, though, there is a noble mission linked to each one of them – the struggle to save lives. Many leaders have called the ongoing crisis a “war” and hailed the brave professionals at the vanguard of this fight, quite rightly, as “frontline warriors”. It is paradoxical that combating the coronavirus to save lives is called a “war”. If it is indeed one, then it’s not the way men fight wars – killing other humans and causing deliberate destruction. The language of masculine wars is violence. The language of feminine “wars” is non-violence, whose active expression, as Mahatma Gandhi often said, is love. It can be seen most wondrously in the way women take care of their newborns and adults in need of critical care. They do everything necessary and possible – sometimes they also do the impossible – to protect, nurse and nurture life.

This is how two nurses in a London hospital – Luis Pitarma from Portugal and Jenny McGee from New Zealand – saved British Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he was in the ICU after testing positive for Covid-19. “They stood by my bedside for 48 hours when things could have gone either way,” he said. “The reason, in the end, my body did start to get enough oxygen was because for every second of the night, they were watching and they were thinking and they were caring, and making the interventions I needed.”

There are countless such stories of modern-day Florence Nightingales from around the world. And it’s not nurses and doctors alone who have shown inspiring dedication to duty in the battle against the pandemic. In India, one of the most heart-warming images that animated the social media recently was that of a young civil servant, the municipal commissioner of Greater Visakhapatnam Gummala Srijana. When the coronavirus crisis broke out, she refused to avail the six-month maternity leave owed to her and returned to her office with her one-month-old baby in her lap.

Inspired leadership

The world has also greatly appreciated how some women leaders have successfully led the “war” against coronavirus in their countries, with a combination of care, calmness, firmness and self-effacement not seen in many male presidents and prime ministers.

Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, has once again shown why history will regard her as one of the most humane global leaders in the modern era. Under her guidance, the administration launched the necessary preventive and curative measures with legendary German efficiency. The result: Germany has fared better than Italy, Spain, France and the UK in containing infections and deaths. Merkel had shown similar concern for human life a couple of years ago, when Europe faced an unprecedented crisis of refugees flooding in from war-torn countries in West Asia.

Another woman leader who has won global accolades during this catastrophe is Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand. Ardern had endeared herself to the votaries of inter-religious peace and harmony last year with her compassionate handling of the carnage in two Christchurch mosques, in which 50 Muslims were killed. She has shown the same sensitivity in the wake of the pandemic. As a result, New Zealand, with its population of 5 million, has suffered only 13 Covid-19-linked deaths as of April 22. In contrast, Belgium, which has a population of 11.5 million, slightly more than double the population of New Zealand, has lost 5,998 people.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a joint press conference in April 2018. Photo credit: John MacDougall/AFP.

Another champion in the battle against the pandemic is Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan. Population: 23.8 million. Deaths so far: 6. Other women leaders who have won over the international community for their caring response to Covid-19 are Erna Solberg of Norway, Sanna Marin of Finland, and Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland.

Dismantling patriarchy

It is not my contention that love, empathy and caring are exclusive attributes of women. Nor that men are apathetic and callous. Such gender typecasting would be nonsensical. It is also true that associating attributes such as love and care predominantly with women has the corrosive effect of confining their lives to the domestic domain in our patriarchal societies, in which men tend to have their own condescending or coercive expectations of how women should, and should not, behave. This absolves men of their own responsibility to be loving, caring and non-aggressive, both at home and in public life.

This is the reason why many feminist thought leaders rightly argue that social, political and economic institutions that are built on principles of coercion, violence and hard power employ the same patriarchal characteristics that have led to the discrimination against women in the first place. They also insist that “empowering women” cannot be limited to providing women with equal opportunities that will help them compete with men within existing political, economic and social structures. Rather, these very structures that cause discrimination need subverting and dismantling.

Yet, it is undeniable that certain qualities that humanise and ethically elevate us are more naturally found in women. In contrast, men have acquired these qualities, to varying degrees and often by overcoming considerable self-resistance, over the course of human evolution and the cultural-spiritual development of communities. This truth about non-biological differences between women and men need to become a subject of continuous and worldwide research. Such research would shed light on how women have responded to the coronavirus pandemic with far greater concern, kindness and alacrity, both within their families and in public institutions.

Moreover, looking into the future, it would tell us why women’s leadership – and womanly leadership by men – alone can rid the world of the scourge of wars and armed conflicts (which have killed immeasurably more people than Covid-19), other age-old injustices and social violence (isn’t it a shame that domestic violence against women has spiked during the lockdown?) and the new menace of violence on planetary ecology, which has precipitated the climate change emergency.

Survival of the Kindest

In her book Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace, reputed evolutionary biologist Dr Judith L Hand contends that women are naturally more nonviolent. “In my view,” she writes, “while human males may have evolved often under an imperative to invade and conquer, a basic reproductive imperative for females, and their unavoidable commitment to their offspring, fosters social stability. Female inclination to facilitate social stability is as deeply evolved in humans as the well-known male inclination for group aggression. This is why things would be different if women ran the world.”

Dr Hand writes in another book, titled A Future Without War, that a major pre-requisite for abolition of war is the global empowerment of women – educational, financial, legal, political and religious. “If women around the world in the twenty-first century would get their act together they could, partnered with men of like mind, shift the direction of world history to create a future without war.”

There is a growing body of study to show that human societies have survived, and thrived, better when they have practised the virtues of compassion, collaboration and altruism. Dr Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the bestselling book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, writes: “Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. ‘Born to be good’ for me means that our mammalian and hominid evolution have crafted a species – us – with remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution – survival, gene replication and smooth functioning groups.”

From this, Dr Keltner goes on to present a radical hypothesis. In contrast to Darwin’s theory of “Survival of the Fittest”, he posits that the future evolution of the human race would be guided by the principle of ‘Survival of the Kindest’. It’s not a coincidence that the concept of Mother Earth, life-giver and life-sustainer, is enshrined in all civilisations – from Gaia in Greek to Dharti Mata in our own.

Feminisation of politics

This principle of Survival of the Kindest echoes Gandhi’s conviction about the moral superiority of women. “If nonviolence is the law of our being, the future is with woman,” he said. “To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman. If by strength is meant brute strength, then, indeed, is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater powers of endurance, has she not greater courage? Without her, man could not be. Who can make a more effective appeal to the heart than woman?”

Mahatma Gandhi with textile workers at Darwen, Lancashire, England, September 26, 1931. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Gandhi regarded women as the incarnation of ahimsa (nonviolence) because “ahimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering”. He strongly advocated feminisation of public life because of his belief that it would result in “purifying” politics and governance. “Women are special custodians of all that is pure and religious in life.” He went to the extent of confessing: “I have always counted myself as a woman” and “I have mentally become a woman in order to steal into her heart.”

He further wrote: “Woman is more fitted than man to make explorations and take bolder action in ahimsa. Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure? She shows it as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the suffering caused by the pangs of labour? But she forgets them in the joy of creation. Who again suffers daily so that her baby may wax from day to day?”

The life-creating and life-nurturing role of a mother had a unique fascination for the Mahatma. It was so central to his philosophy of nonviolence that his aspiration in the final decade of his life was to become a mother who would do everything possible, including risking her own life, to save her child in danger – in this case, the humanity in India threatened by the outbreak of Partition-time violence caused by the communal virus. (Alarmingly, the same communal virus has spread again in India during the current lockdown.) His caregiver and companion Manuben Gandhi, in whose arms the Mahatma died when a Hindu religious extremist pumped bullets into his chest on January 30, 1948, has titled her diary Bapu – My Mother.

Thanks to the strange workings of “cognitive association”, I have moved from my wife’s advice on how to knead the dough to why our troubled world needs motherly leadership. The coronavirus pandemic is not a single health-specific crisis. It has opened our eyes to multiple manmade crises, problems and injustices before India and the world. Dehumanising poverty, an unconscionable rich-poor divide, obsession with materialism and consumerism, suppression of fundamental human rights and freedoms, suicidal arms race, religious extremism and terrorism, rising xenophobia, global warming, human beings’ alienation from themselves and with nature… the list is insufferably long. If we look at the fact that life on earth appeared 3,500 million years ago, it is clear that humankind is still, figuratively speaking, a newborn. For survival, wellbeing, growth and fulfilment of its true evolutionary purpose, it needs to handle itself with utmost care, compassion and love.

Sudheendra Kulkarni, who served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the author of Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age. He is the founder of Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-China-Pakistan Cooperation. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni. He welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com.