Madhuri Dixit and Dilip Chavan

The COVID-19 crisis has affected Indian women differently. Due to the lack of autonomy and gender insensitive nature of the state’s response to the corona crisis, women are perceived as second class citizens. While the lockdown is not qualitatively a new experience for the women, even in critical times as it does not change boundaries or the nature of the public and the private spheres for them. Rather, it overburdens them, bereaves them of agency, and compromises their safety.

Disasters, natural calamities and pandemics do not necessarily have a uniform impact on various sections of society. We have experienced this repetitively during various crisis situations such as the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, the 2003 European heat wave, the 2004 Asian tsunami, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 Mumbai floods, for instance. Usually, the non-uniformity of impact is observed more in societies based on uneven foundations, like the Indian society, where the poo­rest and the weakest suffer the most for systemic reasons that gene­rate different vulnerabilities and unequal access in the first place.

The ongoing pandemic of COVID-19 provides a significant site to relearn the ­lesson, particularly so in the case of Indian women—employed or otherwise—who are presently suffering from a derailed and ­unsecured life basically due to their depen­dency on men in the patriarchal fold and their perceived status as secon­dary citizens in the eyes of the state. The International Labour Organization believes that women’s economic vulnerability to ­future disasters increases due to the lack of attention to gender equity in disaster interventions. The COVID-19 virus probably does not differentiate between male and female bodies for the purpose of infection; however, its sociopolitical impact does not remain gender neutral.

The gendered soft meanings that are ­associated with political decisions taken, declarations made, and slogans shouted during the COVID-19 crisis, and with the social media appeals to show loyalty to the ­nation, as well as those embedded in familial expectations show how the current pandemic overburdens women. In this context, the analysis of public addre­sses, administrative decisions and preventive measures regarding gender ­sensitivity would imply the gendering of the coronavirus crisis in the case of India. The exercise is warranted not only by the scale of the pandemic, but by the different challenges it poses for ordinary men and women, the unp­recedented res­ponse it seeks from the state, the public and the family; and also, by the way, it has come to replace all ­other burning issues across the country, including the unique sit-in protest against the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Act–National Population Register exercise by women in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi.

Any pandemic is different from other natural disasters in terms of its slow ­occurrence and gradual development that allows time for decision-making bodies to prepare. Yet, the two most spectacular responses by the Indian state so far to the COVID-19 situation have been announcements of the one-day ­Janata Curfew organised on 22 March 2020 and the 21-day lockdown period begin ning from 24 March. It was feared that he lockdown may ­extended beyond 14 April and so it did.

Though their utility as preventive measures may not be debated as yet, the visual documentation they have received in the media opens our eyes towards the social distancing that has been perpetuated in more senses than one, between India and Bharat, as a result of a lack of farsighted policies for all the social sections. It was ironical to see the call for the two national games of clapping hands/beating plates and lighting oil lamps entertain the well-fed and well-stocked among the Indian citizens, while it blin­ded the tragic spectacle of the walk back home undertaken by millions of unorganised labou­rers, with empty stomachs and pockets. The two contradictory spectacles not only differentiated between ­inside and outside migrants, urban and rural settlements, organised and unorg­anised workforces, Hindus and Muslims, but also brought to the forefront the plight of women in these trying times.

Patriarchal Policy Imagination

To begin with, the language of the epidemic policy is sadly gendered in India. Words like war and battle, which evoke the masculine world of revenge, bravery, victory, violence and decision-making, were used agreeably across a spectrum of political leadership and bure­aucracy to describe the current situation.

In one of his recent addresses to the nation, the Prime Minister found himself in the new role of the head of the family. His imagination of the nation as family may generate an illusion of warmth and care ­expected in familial relationships, but its patriarchal meaning suggested concentration of power of decision-making in male hands. It is as if it restored the new, gradually disintegrating Indian family—slowly finding its course in the collective imagination by way of Bollywood movies such as Shubh Mangal ­Jyada Saavdhaan1 (2020)—to its patriarchal prototype. No need to mention how such a concentration of power, which appears to be an attempt to ape the presidential political system, is against the parliamentary democracy.

The Prime Minister almost pre-empted the rebroadcast of the epics—Mahabharata and Ramayana—in his third address to the nation when he ­reminded us of the 18-day Mahabharata war, and the famous Laxman ­Rekha that Sita violated to disastrous effect. One cannot but remember that both the epics do not present women in the positions of decision-makers; and both render much shame, pain and loss to their women characters. The Laxman Rekha that the Prime Minister referred to, was apparently the threshold of everyone’s house, the symbolic borderline of the domestic zone. But, we should not neglect that the mention also helped rekindle the idealised womanhood constructed through selective representation of the ancient myths, epics and patriarchal ethos.

The Ramayana, the Bible and a host of other scriptures have delineated the so-called perpetual suffering in the human past as an aftermath of women’s act of transgressing the limits set by men and immortalised by patriarchal culture. The idiomatic use of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and later of the Saptapadi in the context of the COVID-19 crisis shows how the Hindutva leadership does not waste any opportunity to lead people back to a collective imagination of the essentially patriarchal Hindu Rashtra at the cost of several real issues. This way, the complex relationship between the feminine gender and nationhood resurfaces in the use of gendered icons by nationalist leaders, even in the otherwise secular discourse on COVID-19.

Today, as the Laxman Rekha becomes the border between the public and the private spheres for men as well as women, it may be easily recognised that not violating the domestic zone could be a new experience for men, historically and culturally, but not so for women. Since the 19th century, the emergence of the universal model of housewife/mother has confined millions of women across the globe to their houses, and made it a perpetual experience for them. That is why ordinary Indian women are openly asking in casual conversations how the restrictions constitute any new experience for them.

In fact, an anonymous Hindi poem circulated on social media specifically tells men that men may be observing the Laxman Rekha the first time, but women are not. The lockdown has been a perpetual experience for most women, though many of them were forced to go outside the ­domestic sphere to produce labour. The poem states that the closed hotels and markets do not make any difference to women because they were always inaccessible as a result of the cultural Laxman Rekha for women drawn even in normal times. Such a representative res­ponse of what women feel towards the lockdown and, subsequently, towards the crisis, underlines the need to revisit the domestic–public binary, with reference to women’s recent experiences and the unclear demarcation between them.

Safety at Home?

The collective Indian imagination, nourished on the genres of popular Indian cinema, stage performance, folk performance and literature, etc, usually portrays the domestic sphere as sacrosanct and safe for women, with the logic that the basic function of the feminine gender is that of a homemaker. It is widely ­believed that entering the public zone by way of work or education equals transgression for women because the act is perceived to generate aspirations in them that are detrimental to the interest of the patriarchal family. The still exis­ting emphasis on education of women in government advertisements and policies, the still unsafe conditions of travel and work, and the harassing male gaze actually vouch for the existence of such regressive collective wisdom.

Hence the Laxman Rekha that the Prime Minister drew in his speech for all might have made female employees in the organised workforce a little happier to think that they would not have to make various ­arrangements to leave home for work. But, unlike their male counterparts, it does not mean any bliss or luxury for these women because it is most likely that the entire family may feel entitled to claim their time and ­labour, besides unwanted sex demanded by the husbands. Such a reflection finds support in social media appeals that ask people not to treat the period of lockdown as vacation or rush out of homes everyday to buy fresh vegetables—deeds that imply more work in the kitchen for women.

Similarly, social media groups have observed the absence of women for longer durations these days, and it does not really require any flight of ­imagination to understand that there is no escape from work for them. Since the care work done at home remains unme­asured and monetarily unremune­rated, there is no mechanism to gauge the ­additional amount of work women have to do during the lockdown. Acc­ording to one estimate, Indian women spend 16 billion hours a day doing this unpaid work. Many women seem to have voluntarily busied themselves, perhaps following the example set by the present finance minister last year, with seasonal work like making various pappadams, and achars in order to stock up for the coming year.

This amazing confidence in continuity of life or, to be precise, this vulnerability to narcoticising patriarchy—to use the phrase coined by Uma Chakravarti to describe Indian women—comes only at the price of ­remaining unconnected with the larger world. It appears that crisis situations do not really and quickly help change boundaries between the public and the private spheres.

Developments in feminist theories have helped us perceive a more nuanced understanding of the home and the ­domestic sphere. Home was idealisti­cally seen as something more than a house or dwelling place, conveying “simple pleasures, familial togetherness, privacy and freedom, a sense of belonging, of ­security, a place to escape from but also to return to, a secure memory, an ideal” (McDowell 2003: 14). Leaving the conventional associations behind, the home needs to be also seen as an institution which has co-existed with other ins­titu­tions such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism and, most importantly, with varying forms of patriarchy.

Despite coming out as wage-earners in various forms, women simply could not relinquish their “primary” responsibility as home­makers. For both the housewives and the working women, the domestic sphere has continued to be the site of the production and reproduction of patriarchal ethos and experiences, and is marked by manifestations of power, dominance, ­violence, unpaid labour, and the reproduction of patriarchy as channelised through practices of child-rearing, marriage, etc.

Such an understanding of home nowhere figured in the understanding of the state, which projected the home as a panacea to the COVID-19 pandemic under the present lockdown. The tagline #StayHomeStaySafe, extensively advertised by state and non-state agencies, and hugged dearly by social media, has created a romanticised picture of home as a sweet, safe and degendered space for everyone; though it may not necessarily be so for women and children. A lot of water has flown under the bridge since Henrik Ibsen wrote the play Ghosts (1881) in response to the criticism of A Doll’s House (1879) to suggest that, if the world outside the home is unsafe for women, home too is equally unsafe.2 Domestic violence, otherwise a perennial phenomenon in the world, rises when all members of the family are forced to spend more time at home.

As reported by the Indian National Commission for Women, there has been an alarming rise in domestic violence complaints received during the period of lockdown.3 In China, the number of domestic violence cases reported to the local police tripled in February 2020 as compared to the corre­sponding month last year. Global media as well as the government agencies in ­Italy, Spain and Brazil have started talking about how lockdown policies affect women negatively and should consider the safety of women in the domestic zone.

The 2017 report of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime shows that almost six out of 10 women intentionally killed are murdered by an intimate partner or a family member, and that the rate periodically increases during Christmas or summer vacations when families are usually together (UN Women 2019). It has been reported from many parts of the world that the enforced lockdown has provided an opportunity for abusers to unleash more violence (Godin 2020).

Work and Vulnerabilities

Against this backdrop, we need to understand the severity and complexity of the problem faced by Indian women, while taking into consideration their mental unpreparedness and lack of ­resources or access required to safeguard their interests. The female emp­loyees in the unorganised sector may lose their work and become comparatively more susceptible to violence, and not having any physical recourse to the outside world may aggravate their suffering. The women in low-income households, who may have their men folk stranded on the way back home, are made more vulnerable to various kinds of social oppression and some real physical threats simply because of the masculine absence of the husband.

A stranded truck driver was worried about his wife for not being able to procure milk for their one-year-old baby back home (Siddique 2020). Reading such stories in the light of caste, class and religion, one sees the real meanings of lockdown as reflected in the no-entry campaigns that various villages and housing societies are enthusiastically conducting under the name of COVID-19 and which are proving inhuman for residents who moved out for work and want to return to their homes, or for the vegetable vendors who are Muslims. Similarly, we may see how the low-income class and/or low-caste Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers and nurses confront more risks without equivalent compensations and adequate health gear in comparison with the doctors, who are relatively better cared for by the state and the society.

Feminist scholars reflect that the severe impacts of disasters on women and their well-being include increase in workload and slow economic recovery as compared with men. These factors need particular consideration in the present discussion of the public–private ­binary because of the changing nature of labour. Feminisation of labour is a dominant aspect of the
restructured ­labour scenario under the neo-liberal capital and market. Women have to produce various kinds of labour such as care work, domestic work, emotional labour and labour of love, both at home and outside.

While our bodies, desires, homes, families, social relations, ideas of consumption and labour are in a state of flux, the main differences between the work of men and women, which still persist, are that women cannot yet ­renounce their “primary” responsibility as homemakers and that they obtain grossly inadequate wages as compared with men even for equally gruelling work. Their domestic work still remains unmeasured, unpaid and unaccounted for, and its brunt is felt more in the case of women in the unorganised sector. Upon translating the meta-description in the concrete situation of non-availability of domestic help in the present COVID-19 crisis, the question of labour becomes multipronged with added dimensions of class and the
urban–rural divide.

The question of domestic work done by maids has resurfaced ­today, since it is now being done, under compulsion of the lockdown, by the middle- and upper-middle-class women and probably supported by the male members in the family. Even though they may not have complained about it following the severity of the pandemic, we cannot help reading subtext in their apparent generosity, which hides the anxiety of protecting their homes from the potential “polluters.”4 The class and caste implications of this generosity are not hard to imagine, given the entrenched social memory of the polluting touch under the varna–caste order. Otherwise, such generosity would not emerge in great contrast with the common reluctance of granting required leaves to domestic workers. Now, since Indian social realities have started surfacing in social media conversations, we can find a pointer to this reading in the questioning of the observed absence of women members in various WhatsApp groups. The tragedy of the moment is that the handing over of domestic chores has, yet again, happened in a major way, between two groups of women, perpetuating gender disparity in household work.

The domestic–public binary nevertheless works in different and pleasurable ways for women celebrities, whose public relations offices are currently posting videos of their cooking and cleaning tasks. Such videos could be a way to materialise the meagre opportunity of remaining visible publicly, a possible need of their profession, but, in the light of the said public–private binary, it could also be read as a downsizing strategy or a curious and temporary return to the normalised life of an average Indian woman. The glorious acts of cleaning and cooking performed on the screen do not celebrate household work, or generate gender awareness around it in such trying times; rather they mock the ­labour of ordinary women and, at the same time, simply avoid the danger of being out of sight, out of mind.

In Conclusion

One wonders wishfully whether the COVID-19 moment would have the potential to open up a discussion with regard to women’s crossing the Laxman Rekha of the domestic sphere, or would it only be ima­gined, socially and politically too, as an invisible demon that the nation dreams of overpowering. Assuming that the citizens/netizens would use this lockdown as an opportunity to rethink and ­restructure several assumptions, the present coronavirus crisis has different questions to ask from the perspective of women and within the context of the public–private binary: Will it help res­tructure women’s social experience? Will it boost equality of opportunity and work? Will it help women come out of the stereotyped gender roles? Will they have a more compassionate and considerate dialogue with their spouses/partners? The list may be extended to include questions, such as whether sourcing food from outside provides relief to women, considering the hard work they put into cooking. We may perceive that only a crisis situation is perhaps not enough for some permanent and desirable change, but it certainly provides ample opportunity to render new meanings to our collective imagination.

Madhuri Dixit ( teaches at the Department of English, Pemraj Sarda College, Ahmednagar. Dilip Chavan ( teaches at the Department of English, Swami Ramanand Teerth Marathwada University, Nanded. has notes and references.

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