Pandemic Conversations: Gender, Marginalities, and COVID-19

We do not know if we live in a world any more risky than those of earlier generations. It is not the quantity of risk, but the quality of control or—to be more precise—the known uncontrollability of the consequences of civilisational decisions, that makes the historical difference. Therefore, I use the term “manufactured uncertainties.” The institutionalised expectation of control, even the leading ideas of “certainty” and “rationality” are collapsing. …the main difference between the premodern culture of fear and the second modern culture of fear is: in premodernity the dangers and fears could be attributed to gods or God or nature and the promise of modernity was to overcome those threats by more modernisation and more progress—more science, more market economy, better and new technologies, safety standards, etc. In the age of risk, the threats we are confronted with cannot be attributed to God or nature but to “modernisation” and “progress” itself. Thus, the culture of fear derives from the paradoxical fact that the institutions that are designed to control produced uncontrollability. 

Ulrich Beck, On Fear and Risk Society, Interview with Joshua J Yates, the Hedgehog Review

Abstract systems depend on trust, yet they provide none of the moral rewards which can be obtained from personalised trust, or were often available in traditional settings from the moral frameworks within which everyday life was undertaken. Moreover, the wholesale penetration of abstract systems into daily life creates risks which the individual is not well placed to confront; high-consequence risks fall into this category. Greater interdependence, up to and including globally independent systems, means greater vulnerability when untoward events occur that affect those systems as a whole. 

Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age

A Story of Risk and Trust

March is the month of International Women’s Day, a month of observing women’s struggles, of celebrating our movement and reiterating our solidarities. Many events get planned across the world to commemorate our collective struggles. As the pandemic panic spread in March of 2020, these events had to be cancelled. At the beginning, I must confess that I was a little surprised, a little annoyed, somewhat exasperated at the “panic syndrome” that was spreading. We, at the university, promised ourselves that our own Women’s Day event, scheduled for 16 March would not be cancelled, that we would keep soaps and masks handy, and conduct the event, in what is now referred to as a “socially distanced” manner. But of course that was not to be.     

Within days, our worlds changed, gradually becoming unrecognisable. The scale began hitting everyone, sinking slowly and definitely. This was local, global, glocal—it was everywhere. We were trapped in a human chain of nations facing something like a war, this time a war not just between nations but one also between nature and nations. Some called it the wrath of nature, others put it down to irresponsible nations and cultures. The language of “virus as enemy” spread very fast, quickly slipping on to nations at war with each other, to people we “other” and stigmatise, and of course to carriers of the virus. We began living in a universe of real and imagined contagions. In fact, the real and the imagined nature of the virus, and the fact and fiction about how it spreads became blurred and liquid. As the world began placing its innocent trust in science, and the scientists, to understand and find a cure for the virus, governments across the world began trying to adopt policies and implement strategies best suited to their own contexts. In India, the central government declared the first 21-day national pandemic lockdown on 24 March 2020. The first lockdown, with no time for preparation, led to immense hardship, especially for the already marginalised sections, the subaltern people of our society. As the central government sought the faith of its citizens—exploiting their fear and their dire need to trust—through campaigns for clapping and candle lighting from balconies and homes, we witnessed an interesting moment of the manufacture of trust, in a system gone awry. As the risks of the disease—and the uncertainty of how it was to be tackled—mounted, the journey towards trust—in the governments and gods, in science and religion became rocky—across sections and regions. While the manufactured narratives of trust kept many distracted, the harsh reality of it all began to rapidly sink in. While the urban middle class momentarily rejoiced in witnessing nature heal itself, stories of great human misery unfolded and clouded everything remotely positive in the scenario. The dystopia deepened, producing immense restlessness and helplessness. 

As academics, and as women, our lived worlds mirrored the changing scenario. Our burdens increased, our labour increased. We struggled in homes and at workplaces. It is March  now. Almost a year  of confinement and learning to “stay safe.” We have lived and reflected upon this “pandemic year,” a year that can best be described as a year of overwhelming grief, and of endless innocent hope, a year that has led to multiple levels of personal and professional churnings. A year of understanding risk and finding trust, a year of not understanding risk and not finding trust. For many of us, the pandemic lockdown has been a story of risk, and trust. 

Building Urgent Conversations

As teachers of the university, all of us felt an acute sense of a pedagogic loss of the face to face classroom. It became a grief for the world going by. This was compounded by the pressures to perform well in the digital race, to “trust” the new ways that were being thrust upon us. While we were, and still are, struggling with a non-face to face form of teaching, the demands to equip ourselves with new modes of teaching and learning have not allowed us to pause, think, and reflect collectively. Many of our teachers, and students, struggle with questions of access to technology and the private space required for online teaching. The more marginal the social location of the teacher and the student, the greater the struggle. In live sessions, we often find that students have to sit in parks or streets for their classes, forced to stay on mute and not able to keep their videos on. Apart from this, the question of how will we restore the pedagogic intimacy of a physical classroom in the coming world is a thought every teacher is agonised by. Particularly as feminists, our grief is immense. How do we reimagine our participatory, intimate, experience-sharing classroom spaces? Despite the digital divide and the gender gap in the access and use of digital tools and technologies, we know that the women’s movements and feminist activism are being increasingly performed in online spaces. Our experience with digital activism with the pink-chaddi campaign and #MeToo movement has indicated the possibility and necessity of combining online and offline worlds, analogous and digital spaces, face to face and virtual connects. So much so that our idea of grassroots itself is getting modified. More importantly, we have also participated and indicated the need towards reflexivity in this space. Are there important lessons for our pedagogic practices to be learnt from our politics? How do we transport these into the “new normal” of the COVID-19 world but also into the post-COVID-19 world? 

Our profession, so deeply tied to the idea of personal connect, is redefining itself in startling ways. As we pay attention to our craft and learn newer forms of online pedagogy, invent newer ways of communication in the virtual world, and think of newer ways of using the digital, we place our trust in these new learnings, in the new ways. We take the risk. All of us become complicit, out of the need to survive. Some of us become complacent, become overly enthusiastic while others strike a note of caution, urging a bit of self-reflexivity. We realise that it becomes important not to lose ourselves in the race to display online prowess and power, not to get sucked in the instrumentalist narrative, also one of toxic positivity; of “seeing and seizing an opportunity” in these pandemic times. We ask ourselves, see and seize an opportunity for what, towards what? In these deeply anomic times, we ask ourselves what is the purpose of what we do, as teachers and researchers? If we strongly believe that the most important task of what we do as academics is building critical and empathic reflections on our worlds, amongst ourselves and our students, isn’t it important to pay attention also to that task? As the sociologist, Avijit Pathak (2019) writes, “I believe, we have to resist, and with our rebellion as prayer, we have to strive for life-affirming education. We ought to renew faith in the very meaning of the vocation of teaching. No, we are not “loyal soldiers,” nor are we cogs in a bureaucratic machine. We are wanderers. We are explorers. We are poets, philosophers, thinkers, visionaries. And unless we begin to trust ourselves, none can save us…”. 

Within this consciousness of who we are and must be, we ponder over our own predicament as teachers and it becomes important to center ourselves and draw from within the deepest core of our being, a sensitivity that surpasses any we have had to deliver in our lifetime. The Webinar Series held between May-July 2020 on “Gender Equity and COVID-19: Perspectives from the Margins” is an expression of that churning. The series was conceptualised by us, at the Women’s Development Cell of the University of Mumbai, as an urgent response to the world around us, a world of compounded human misery in the face of a deadly disease. The series was curated within the impulse to reflect, pause and think, from the perspectives and standpoints of the poorest of the poor, the most marginal of the marginal amidst us. Conducted in association with nine of our colleges as hosts, the webinar series led to constructive, and cathartic, conversations among activists and academics. 

The Boats are Different

As a sociologist, I flagged off three important issues of concern to be addressed by these series of conversations. First is the issue of “stay at home, work from home.” Irrespective of who had homes or who did not, which work can be done from home and which cannot be, we were all ordered to stay at home, work from home. Before we could catch our breath, either we found ourselves in the confinement of homes or on the streets, seeking homes and shelters—both sites of potential violence and abuse for most women across class, caste and religion.  In a country where 81% of people work in the informal sector and 94% live in slums and bastis, this is probably the hardest thing to do for the people of India. As we go into “Begin Again” phases, the dictum of “stay at home, work from home” becomes more punishing, there are consequences of stay at home, work from home, particularly for those classified as “vulnerable populations.” Second, as sociologists we have wondered about the use of the term “social distancing.” In a society that has, for centuries, practiced hierarchical forms of social distancing through the caste system, the term seems most unfortunate and deeply injurious. What protection from the virus requires is physical distancing, body distancing, and not social distancing. Interestingly, in pandemic times when we actually need social solidarity in our lives, the language of social distancing has taken over, playing into the hands of caste and communal politics. Among the middle classes, social distancing is becoming the new normative of civic responsibility. Anyone wearing a mask below their nose becomes the target of much castigation. As we move in and out of the burgeoning mask industry in the “new normal,” we continue to theorise this conundrum of language, the politics of it and the consequences of it. Third, is the overpowering and very sudden dominance of the digital-virtual world. This world becomes more real than ever before. Along with its promise of democratisation, which it might achieve in fair measure, it throws up and reproduces old hierarchies. And yet, a digital presence has become a proof of our existence. In a country where 29% of people have access to the internet, we can imagine how inequalities are deepening, and the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots is increasing with devastating speed. Is it at all possible to think of how we become “digitally smart” without being co-opted and consumed by it?  

As feminists, we realised very soon that there is a need to build gender specific conversations around the pandemic lockdown. While the virus itself hits women less, the pandemic lockdown hits women with what is now called the “shadow pandemic.” It was clear that the pandemic, and the lockdown, are not gender neutral. The curating principles for our conversations arose from the perspectives of contemporary intersectional feminisms that destabilise monolithic notions of women and patriarchies, that destabilise the gender binaries and that destabilise conventional notions of masculinities. Like other social events and phenomena, the pandemic which is not neutral to gender is also not neutral to class, or caste, or sexuality or religion. It is more than clear now that people already marginalised and stigmatised, are the worst hit by the pandemic lockdowns. The hit is marked on several axes —psychological, economic, political, and cultural. Faced by the fact that each section gets affected differently, we realise that all of us are not “sailing in the same boat,” as the early narrative around the pandemic suggested. The boats, if you have one, are different in size, shape and comfort. The nine conversations are situated in the standpoint epistemologies of nine intersections of marginal identities and nine sites of the experience of powerlessness. Through these essays, and the conversations that led to them, we examine how the marginalised—who include women, children, transgender persons, sex workers, disabled persons, migrant labour, Dalits, tribal people, those from other lower castes and religious minorities—get disadvantaged multiple times over. Our conversations, like most critical commentaries on the pandemic lockdown, prove that the subaltern is as voiceless as ever, their oppressions exacerbated and amplified beyond measure. Every essay in this volume testifies to that. It is obvious that social hierarchies, inequalities and injustice have only been reproduced at a time when perhaps morally, and in an ideal world, we would have expected these hierarchies to be minimised.

The essays also demonstrate the principles of reflexive modernity where marginal people resist and reflect upon their conditions, thus becoming political and epistemic agents in their own right. 
While addressing the above issues of significance from a sociological and feminist perspective, the talks and essays in this series are intended to provide either or all of the following things: (i) descriptions and assessments of the impact of the pandemic lockdown on marginalised people and how their experiences of exclusion have become further exacerbated due to a variety of reasons (See Anita Ghai, M T Joseph, Meena Seshu,  Pushpesh Kumar, Samira Nadkarni, Sonali Wakharde, Vibhuti Patel in this series); (ii) critical evaluations of the narratives produced by the state and the dominant communities in “managing” the pandemic with the dictums of “social distancing” and constructing the already stigmatised marginal people and communities as contagions (See Anita Ghai, Meena Seshu, Pushpesh Kumar, Samira Nadkarni, Smita Patil, in this series); (iii) theoretical reflections from marginal standpoints of class, caste, disability—to name three—that provide epistemic insights into the pandemic lockdown (Anita Ghai, Biraj Mehta, M T Joseph, Pushpesh Kumar, Sonali Wakharde in this series).

Clearly, these attempts are limited by the fact that the phenomenon itself unfolds newly each day. They are resources for a story that must be told and heard by every teacher, and every student.



We owe our thanks to the Vice Chancellor, Suhas Pednekar, University of Mumbai for his continuous support for the webinar series. We would also like to thank all the principals, coordinators and technical teams of the nine colleges who hosted the series. We are grateful to all the resource person, discussants and contributors in the series who willingly agreed to walk this with us. Thanks to Ayeshna Dutta, Research Scholar, and Department of Sociology for her assistance in organising the series. And last but never the least, thanks to K Sridhar for lending his time generously with reading, responding and helping with technical issues.

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