COVID-19 has robbed Indian women of their hard-won privacy — that obscure thing society thinks they don't need

As women, we wear our confinement as our second skin. In return, what we have carved out is our own space — a necessity that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away

Rituparna Chatterjee July 31, 2020 16:49:23 IST
COVID-19 has robbed Indian women of their hard-won privacy — that obscure thing society thinks they don't need

There's a line by Virginia Woolf, from her essay A Room of One's Own, that I keep going back to: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” In the context of 2020, this quote holds true, even if she were to sit down to write a grocery list.

There is no such thing as a 'working mother'; all mothers are working mothers, labouring under the misapprehension that things will look up, sleep cycles will auto-adjust, mood swings will stop, dark circles will vanish, the loose skin will tighten, and she will return to work basking in the afterglow of procreation. Needless to say, that rarely happens. Most mothers are tired, guilt-ridden, overworked, and struggling, whether they work at home or work from home.

And what little solitude they had, the coronavirus pandemic has rudely interrupted by bringing the townsquare home. I don’t agree with British author Lucy Ellmann’s comment that mothers become “intellectually absent for the next 20 years on giving birth".

“Thought, knowledge, adult conversation, and vital political action are all put on hold while this needless perpetuation of the species is prioritised. Having babies is a strong impulse, a forgivable one, but it’s also just a habit, a tradition, like weddings or putting butter on popcorn,” Ellmann said, sparking outrage from many women. However, I do agree that there is a vital aspect of mothers’ lives, which is calmly dismissed as collateral damage after giving birth: the complete dismantling of their privacy — sexual, emotional, physical and spatial.

It was spectacular to watch the collective meltdown of most men during the initial days of the pandemic and lockdown: trapped at home, they made the nearly befuddling discovery that housekeeping and childcare involves labour.

Women, especially women in India, have adapted to living in bubbles of isolation for centuries — unable to step out, unable to interact with everyone as they please. The roads have never been theirs, the city infrastructure is hostile to their needs. They can't have a drink alone at a restaurant or pub without drawing stares. India is the world's most dangerous country for women. And when they are also mothers, society's collective morality binds them into a lifelong contract of care.

As women, we wear our confinement as our second skin. In return, what we have carved out is our own space.

When the men leave to go out; when the children are away at school; the hour it takes to commute to work, with earphones plugged in; the time alone in the office bathroom, safe from a child's interruption; the readily served tea and pakoda downstairs that we didn’t have to make; daytime Netflix while cooking. The secret pages of time we women fill with scribbles that, thankfully, no one takes a magnifying glass to. But this pandemic has changed all of that.

Now, our lives are on display for 24 hours in crowded homes. All we do to minimise labour, all our secret shortcuts and hacks, and laziness are available for everyone to unravel and dissect. There are people afoot all the time. The schools are closed, the rooms are occupied. There’s no space to look at our bodies in the mirror in a quiet moment of solitude. The minute we become mothers, we either become asexual or impervious to desirous glances of men. COVID-19 has taken away the private moments of lazy, sensual exploration. The bathroom, which has always served as our emergency crying closet, can no longer serve this purpose.

Our care is stretched thin, our work spaces reallocated to whoever needs it for school on Zoom, or team meetings. Our terraces are full, our kitchen tables, where we listlessly browsed channels on the TV with our feet up on a chair, are now factories of non-stop snack making.

COVID-19 has taken away a lot, but mostly, it has robbed women of their privacy — that obscure thing that Indian society thinks they don't need.

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