Neutral response to an intersectional pandemic: is it justified?
The lockdown of over two months, ushered in by the pandemic, has been a source of unpacking and understanding the interplay of gender in the household economies. To put it simply, a lot of us (I like to call- privileged migrants) have returned back to our hometowns and families. Some of us have even swiftly adapted to the socially and culturally assigned roles to us while the rest of us have become estranged from this objective reality.
I have been closely following the news, both print and media, and can safely conclude that they are largely dominated by the middle class narrative of ‘unwinding and detoxing’ during this lockdown. It is dangerous to create such a meta-narrative of ‘going back to the roots and reprogramming’ since it blatantly fails to acknowledge the pluralistic realities of people across class, caste and gender.
One aspect which must be brought to our immediate attention is the lack of acknowledgment of the disproportionate rise in the amount of work performed by women. ‘Work’ has been a topic of contentious debate since the onset of feminist movement. Extensive feminist discussions have been around the demarcation of space into public and private and the subsequent alteration in socio-economic relationships. As Carole Pateman puts it, this dichotomy of public and private ‘is central to almost two centuries of feminist writing and political struggle’.
Several important discussions and issues have emanated from this discourse. One amongst these which demands dire attention is the feminist critique of double burden of work where women are expected to, in addition to the household unpaid care-work, to also earn a ‘complimentary’ earning for their families. While we can debate on this on a later date, (in the classical fashion of rendering gender issues inconsequential) right now, in the times of COVID 19, where the entire world has been engulfed with uncertainty, physical, mental and emotional crisis, we should also be analytical of the gender implications of such a pandemic.
As much blindsided gender is in Marx’s work, we cannot help but associate the concept of ‘reserve army of labour’ of his theory to women of today. Very simply put, it refers to the unemployed and the underemployed in the capitalist society. Can we draw any resemblance to the women with this?
Let us try to unpack this further. The World Development indicators of the Wold Bank demonstrate that in India, female labour force participation rate was 20.7% in 2018 against 76.2% of male labour force participation rate. There are significant researches to showcase that more and more women are pursuing higher education but at the same time it is not getting reflected in the female labour force participation rate, which has been dipping.
This paradox is not a hard nut to crack when contextualised to Indian society with the watertight gender identities that are created from the moment a child is born. Some bargains have to be struck in terms of ‘allowing’ girls and women to pursue higher education to be in sync with the modern market of marriage. Nevertheless, this ‘relaxation’ is kept constantly in check to keep the momentum of capitalism going. Thereby, we see increased number of girls and women opting for higher education but that fails to get translated into an equivalent increase in the female labour force participation rate.
Secondly, the decisions taken by, or put correctly, decisions imposed upon them by the family are centred largely around marriage– the ultimate goal as perceived by the society. The nature of job, salary, values, the right balance between modernity and traditional to stand out in the market of marriage, physical appearance and to put in a nutshell, the sheer existence of a woman, is weighed on the whims and fancies of a hetero-normative society. Amartya Sen’s capability approach hence cannot be purely applied and utilised by the women since we have been socialised against it from the very beginning. Our capabilities and potentials come with the inherent restrictions from patriarchy sanctioned by the society.
This lockdown is a testimony to how women are a reserve army of labour, the first to be laid off, first to be expected to leave their jobs for their work at home since they are ‘biologically determined’ to be the primary caregiver of their families. This renders them to put their identity of a worker (in the narrow definition of public realm work only) in the backseat. In such a scenario, all the policies and programmes have to be revisited to incorporate a gender lens.
The need of the hour is to apply an intersectional lens of caste and gender to better understand the implications of pandemic induced lockdown upon the job losses. For the lack of availability and disaggregated data, I am forced to look at gender from a binary lens. In a recent study by Ashwini Deshpande, the data shows that there are heightened disparities with women being the first to be retrenched from their work sites in comparison to males during the initial lockdown induced job losses. Rural women have been the worst affected, Dalits (Scheduled Castes) suffering relatively more than the upper castes. This marginalised section of the society is the one which is majorly deprived of the choice of employment and are highly likely to be employed, if at all, in the frontlines during these times.
We cannot ignore gender in this pandemic since the impact of it is not of same proportion for all. The socio-economic pluralities call for a more contextualised approach. Economic policies cannot be gender blind or gender neutral anymore.
More intersectional research, have to be conducted and at the same used by the policymakers. This is because when we talk of online education we must think about girls and women who will lag behind owing to the never ending household work. We cannot let online education completely replace the traditional forms of education. During such unprecedented times when our mental health is going hay-wire, we need more compassion and empathetic bonding. While some of us have the luxury to avail such services, most of us are deprived of them. How about the schools and the government at large become more vocal about these unprecedented mental health repercussions and devise programs for the same?
The last thought I would like to leave you with is- when we are deliberating over the fate of the migrant workers, we must see them as a group of workers with pluralistic identities. There have been discussions on how adversely women migrant workers have been impacted by this pandemic and their different sets of struggles have been highlighted at some instances. Such narratives have to be taken into account before coming up with any ‘blanket scheme for all’.
The least we can do at this time, from the comfort of our homes, is to re-check our status and privileges for as Simon de Beauvoir rightly said- ‘All oppression creates a state of war’ and a war is the last thing we want on our to-do list.
Views are author’s own. Aarushee Shukla is from University of Delhi and TISS, Mumbai.