Women and feminism in India during the COVID-19 pandemic
Interview with Urvashi Butalia, Director of Zubaan

June 15, 2020

As you’re in Delhi right now, could you give us an update on how you are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic and could you describe the situation around you at the moment?
 
The situation around us is not very good. As you probably know, we’ve just begun to open up after four phases of a very strict lockdown. The lockdown was imposed with only four hours of notice, and that led to a lot of confusion and insecurity. Many industries had to shut down overnight and the workforce that they employ is by and large informal migrant workers. Suddenly, overnight millions of people were out of work. That led to a huge amount of distress and poverty. Not only were they out of work, but their landlords threw them out because they don’t have savings to be able to pay rent, and that is why you saw such a lot of migration of workers from Delhi and other big cities. That was really tragic.
 
Now that we’ve started to open up, there’s even more confusion because while people recognize the need to restart the economy, cases are surging in India. People don’t know whether to go out, whether they can go to work, how safe it is, or what is going to happen. We've been waiting for the curve to flatten, but it hasn’t yet flattened. I don’t know what will happen, but people are hoping that things will calm down after a while. One of the encouraging things is that the death rate in India is quite low when compared to other parts of the world.
 
In terms of our own work as publishers, that too has been very deeply impacted because all of the bookshops had to close down, printers had to shut down, and supply lines between the printers and the publishers, which are often across state boundaries, have broken down. The situation is not good, but we’re hoping that things can improve.
 
How do you see the COVID-19 pandemic impacting women in particular?
 
Where women are concerned, it’s become very apparent that they have suffered in very specific ways as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown. As in many other countries, the levels of domestic violence has risen as people are locked in their homes 24/7 and they don’t have the valves that would let off pressure earlier, for example going out and sitting with the community or simply getting out of the house for a few hours to work. Because India is by and large a poor country, the homes are really small and people are in cramped spaces together. That has led to a rise in domestic violence.
 
Another difficulty that women face is that it’s almost impossible to report that domestic violence, partly because women have far fewer cell phones than men do in India, and partly because the helpline services that are there to respond to complaints of domestic violence have been suspended because of the medical emergency.
 
Further, about 75% of our care workers, which includes nurses in hospitals as well as village-level workers that provide help to people in villages, are women. These workers are extremely vulnerable to infection because they are the ones who are in contact with patients and they are the ones who go from village to village distributing sanitary pads, food, and so on.
 
The pandemic has also impacted women’s livelihoods. About 90% of India’s economy is serviced by workers in the informal sector, who are people who have no contract and no job security. These people are mostly migrant labor, and women form a large part of this workforce. In addition, even though we have an equal remuneration act in place, women get paid much less than men do, especially in the informal sector. When jobs fall apart, it is the women who are much more vulnerable because they are the ones that people get rid of first. At this moment, both men and women are out of jobs, but women have been much more deeply impacted because they’ve lost whatever economic livelihood they had and the burden of care inside the home has increased hugely.
 
Other than that, maternal and sexual health services, such as access to abortions – which is a right women have fought for in India – being able to give birth in safety, other sexual health issues which require women to consult a doctor, all of these are suspended at the moment of the pandemic. The manufacturing of contraceptives has also been impacted because manufacturing units are closed down. That effects women’s sexual health, so there are long-term impacts.
 
Given the outsized impact this pandemic has had on women, do you see a specific role for women in contending with the pandemic or dealing with the aftermath? What about a role for the feminist movement in this context?
 
Yes, absolutely. The feminist movement in India has been really quite at the forefront of raising issues about women and pointing to things that the state might have forgotten. For example, as we first heard the news about migrant laborers having to leave cities and saw tragic pictures of thousands of poor people walking without water or food, it was women’s groups that pointed out to the media that there were women among these groups. At that time, the women were not visible because all the focus was on the men. This is not to say that the men were not vulnerable, but it's important to notice that there were also women workers.
 
In addition, women’s groups in Delhi, the city where I live, very early in the pandemic wrote a letter to the chief minister of Delhi asking him to pay attention to women’s particular vulnerabilities during the time of the pandemic and requesting that he put a plan in place and set aside money in the budget for these issues.
 
The feminist movement has also been working on the ground to provide relief to women. They are the ones who are making sure that relief packages have sanitary products in them that women might need. They have also undertaken the important task of data collection and information gathering on the ground in the absence of any systematic process for that.
 
As another example, women’s groups have gone to court. There's a group that took the Indian government to court demanding that the government provide ambulances for pregnant women who needed to go to give birth, because all ambulances were put aside for COVID-19 patients. All of these things have been happening as a result of the feminist movement.
 
I'd like to pivot our conversation to the work you are doing with the Asia Peace Initiatives Department of SPF. Zubaan and SPF have been collaborating on a range of initiatives, including providing grants to young researchers and writers from Northeast India, publishing books, and more. One such project has been a recent art festival called “Through Her Lens.” Could you tell us about this project and how it’s taken shape amidst the ongoing pandemic?
 
We’ve been working with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation for several years largely focused on the Northeastern States of India, which are eight states and a whole region extending outside the northeast that are ethnically and racially similar. These are people and states that are marginalized in the mainstream discourse in India. Our attempt has been to work with artists, writers, poets, theater performers, and young scholars in these states.
 
There are many initiatives, and this one particular initiative that you mentioned, “Through Her Lens” grows directly out of the COVID-19 pandemic. We at Zubaan are knowledge producers, knowledge curators, and knowledge disseminators. That is our role in the movement,  and we feel it’s very important that the history of the movement is created and that there is solid documentation of moments like this, which can enable us to learn from the experience of women on the ground in the future.
 
In an attempt to do this, Zubaan put in place a project called “Through her Lens,” which is a visual project that basically asks women photographers, young amateur photographers as well as more experienced ones, in the Northeastern states to visually document through photographs the impact of the lockdown that is happening as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. What is happening to the domestic space? What is happening to women in the domestic space? It’s very interesting because it’s also photographing intimate lives, so it tries to cross that barrier as well. These photographs are then curated into regular exhibitions, which take place every week. We've also had a number of webinars around those exhibitions in which young photographers are put together with more experienced photographers and we discuss the practice of photography related topics.
 
Zubaan has also worked through SPF and the Asia Peace Initiatives Department and with some other groups in the northeast to collect the stories of women on the ground who are living through COVID-19. Village-level workers who are distributing relief will go and collect stories, which are then documented and put together with the photographs to act as a valuable archive and documentation of what is happening in this time of crisis.
 
What are the long-term impacts you are hoping will come from this kind of project, and what are your plans for the future?
 
Whatever project one does, it always fits into a larger frame which we hope has a life beyond just that moment. For us right now, we believe that collecting women’s stories, working at the intersection of art, photography, activism, to not let women’s voices be lost is very important. At moments like this, the crisis takes over and the voices of those who are most vulnerable tend to disappear. It’s our responsibility to keep those voices alive, which is why when we look at women, we also look at the most vulnerable among them – the poorest of the poor, the ones who are disabled, the ones who cannot access state assistance because they are at a distance from where they are available – all of these things are important for us.
 
One part of this effort is to collect that information, to have that documentation, and to put it into a space that contains a history of what happens to women. The other is to use the learnings from that information to communicate with people at a policy level. We do that by engaging in larger conversations, not necessarily directly with the state, but with actors who have the power to influence the state. We make this knowledge available to them and emphasize the importance of things that are usually marginalized and not seen as feeding into policy or not seen as valued for policy like art, stories, women’s writings, the pictures we’re collecting.
 
“Through Her Lens” is one aspect of this, by trying to document through photography. It has already received a lot of attention, and we’ve had interest from Nepal in working together on photography and interest from other people from various parts of India to do similar projects. I hope it’s valuable in a variety of ways, for the present and also for the future.

Urvashi Butalia is a writer and publisher. Co-founder of India's first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, she now heads Zubaan, an imprint of Kali. She has a long involvement in the women's movement in India and also writes on a wide range of issues to do with feminism and gender. Among her best known works is the award winning history of the Partition of India entitled The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. She has won many awards including the Pandora award for publishing, the Nikkei Asia award for Culture, the French Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres, the German Goethe Medaille, the Polish Bene Merito, and the Indian Padma Shri. She lives and works in Delhi.

Additional links:

•  For more about "Through Her Lens," visit the exhibition website.
•  For more from the Asia Peace Initiatives Department, visit the program page.

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