Women as a new victim post-lockdown: Anything new?

Bhaskar Majumder

Any situation socially consented as a crisis prompts social scientists to unfold wings to try to invent what is there and what is not there. The social scientists also need space to ponder over. One such was the lockdown declared and as an offshoot families asked to remain home-locked. In order to maintain so-called social distancing, both intra-family and inter-family got distanced – not only physically but also by get together in rituals and festivals and all that. Further offshoot could be psychological disorder whether or not measured. All these may not be within the purview of the scholars in social sciences.

If the victimhood of people post-lockdown is examined in India for already 60+ days have passed and people learnt to remain safe at home, all might not have had happy ending like the end-scene of most of the Bollywood films. So I tried to talk to both male and female members in a number of families over telephone and WhatsApp university method. The question was around what was new in it.

Women, excepting a very brief period in human history, had a subordinate role in families and societies – not only by economy but also by education-polity and all that. For example, even when Britain ruled the world, women had no voting rights till 1928 even in Britain – less than a century in the past. Only during the British rule in India, the glorified Satidaho in undivided Bengal was banned by Act, age of marriage of girl child was raised from 11 to 14, and widow re-marriage came into being. For some of these steps, persons like Vidyasagar had to face physical assault in public space. In spite of all these advances in history, Rook Kanwar had been burnt alive non-in-the-remote past for early widowhood that is well documented. I asked then an educated Rajput teacher in Calcutta/Kolkata: “why’’? The immediate response was, “otherwise she would have been a public woman’’. Surprisingly in Vatsyanyana’s Kama Sutra, public women had been seen as symbol of power in public sphere. The country that is India still looks at women with a sense of inferiority, with exceptions.

Even in Manu and in Kautilya, women did not have respect that they deserved. The conditions of Sita by being exiled based on suspicion and the disrobing of Draupadi are known to all not necessarily because of serious reading of the Great Epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, but because of TV channels that were used during lockdown to recast those to make people TV-locked. People glorify Sati Mandirs rather than going to question why such Mandirs were set up. After all, religion gets tagged with those.

Having said the above, my question comes to lockdown and conditions of women in particular. I offer the following points based on my research recently during the lockdown period as well as what I gathered from mostly adult women in a number of cities through participatory and distanced observations. Most of these women were married and had double houses – one pre-marital and the other post-marital. This has got no link with the concept of “double burden’’ what many intellectuals observe in gender division of labour (actually what the Feminists/Economists meant perhaps was working in parallel at home and outside in regular/irregular jobs). For this note, I shall also include Amphan super-cyclone, May 2020 in West Bengal and Odisha for Corona virus plus Amphan imposed a real “double disaster’’ on the families. Here comes the major question.

As soon as it becomes a major crisis, it is not man versus woman: all are affected equally. While the child is in mother’s lap, the child is also on father’s shoulder – both walking marathon in May on road for Ghar Wapsi as concerned non-migrants got the chance to see through print and electronic media. India essentially reflects family optimization that needs to be seen in contrast to individual optimization. Even migration is a family decision and often the family migrates like in brick kilns and construction works. The nature of work may differ but that too not necessarily and not always. In the district Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh I found adolescent Adivasi girls carrying 15-16 kg of clinker on head to dump at a distance to make concrete roads two-year back and it was gendered with only one man digging the clinkers. In brick kilns I found both husband and wife working together 9-10 hours to produce 1500 pieces of bricks per day – often their child joining the work unpaid, it could be he or she. All these were parts of my structured research on MNREGA and migration. Also what I understand from the theses of my D.Phil. scholars, who are also girls, the works of Muslim women home-based in beedi rolling or girls in rag picking, for in the former their husbands had crossed the border and in the latter to supplement family income at home.

If the girls or women had been engaged so, the “new’’ load on women because of lockdown is a question mark. Of course, the question of intra-family violence comes in and there extracting a straight response is a difficult task. I doubt, if a question like, “did you get beaten by your spouse?’’ can be posed unless it is the law court. The social scientists are distanced from law court – I presume. Hence, discovering very readily the type of new torture that the home-locked women had faced over these 60+ days of her marital life of 6,000+ days is a peculiar self-engaged responsibility of the social scientists.

In my sample there were some women above age 70 who responded that they had been home-locked as a natural phenomenon post-marital that had got nothing to do with declared lockdown or the condition of living home-locked. Some were seen in Ghunghat entering the in-laws house in adolescence and sent to the last sleep into ashes spending some decades in that house – in between she disappeared in-house. Early widowed women displayed different story – either abandoned on road to be rehabilitated in Ashrams if fortunate or made dependent to live in a tiny room adjoining main house in Bengal, with exceptions. Violence was there mostly concealed – accepted as part of life and violence is there now. The women aged below 25 I talked to were not bothered about the question of domestic violence; they rather felt disturbed for missing the chance to enjoy junk food in the eateries. The post-70 age group was from Kolkata and the pre-25 age group was from Bangalore. In the small cities like Allahabad and Patna I talked to mixed groups – both men and women – to find repetition of the same old narratives – intra-caste marriage, otherwise punishment in violation of social norm. It seemed to be caste-distancing more than lockdown social-distancing. They also did not disclose much on anything new post-lockdown.

It seems to me that the question is more historical-structural and much less to the specificities connected with lockdown. Also, 60-day lockdown seem to be a sub-optimum period to judge the kind of violence that some of the social scientists on the track of gendered issues have started searching for. Discovering what does not exist is really a difficult task – more difficult than non-discovering what exists. Of course, invention of an idea, though difficult, is most welcome in any science – social or natural.          

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Jun 9, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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