Sadrunissa is a young woman from Varanasi in northern India whose dreams abruptly faded in the wake of COVID-19. In January, she joined a tailoring course. It was the first time Sadrunissa had stepped out of her home without being chaperoned by her father or brother. She was excited about the prospect of financial independence, making friends, and discovering the city on her own. But when the pandemic struck, the strict lockdown that ensued took away the little freedom she had gained. Now stuck at home, Sadrunissa is worried that her family won’t allow her to finish her course, and will marry her off as soon as possible instead.
In Chitakroot district in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Shanti, a working woman, has her own share of woes. “Work from home,” her office said. But who’s going to explain that to her family? Her husband and children expect her to do all the housework, cook good food, and take care of them. What’s more, she has to put up with her husband’s nagging and unrelenting insults. Her home is a prison now, Shanti fumes. She not only has two stressful full-time roles during the lockdown, but she may well lose her paid work.
Tehrun, a domestic worker, has already lost her job. So has her husband, a rickshaw driver. Tehrun has to find ways to make enough money to run the household and feed her children, while her husband drowns his cares – and their savings – in alcohol. Tearfully, she tells us that before the coronavirus pandemic, his violence typically took place at night when he returned home from work. Now, blows and beatings rain down on her throughout the day, when he feels like it, or if she goes out for paid work or fails to feed him well.
These three accounts are just some of the stories of Indian women living through the COVID-19 lockdown that we are recording in our community podcast series, “Local Diaries”. We are a collective of journalists who report from the communities we live and work in. Our backgrounds are diverse: Meera Jatav is a feminist Dalit journalist from Uttar Pradesh, Rizwana Tabassum was a feminist Muslim journalist from Uttar Pradesh, and I am a feminist journalist from Delhi. Over the past eight years, we have reported – together and individually – on inequality and its often violent intersections with caste, class and patriarchy.
In our podcast series, women tell us how lockdowns of one kind or another have always been a part of our lives, how absolute, fearless freedom continues to elude us, and how the superficial gains we have made on the path to gender equality have quickly crumbled in the wake of COVID-19.
Women tell us just how much care work they continue to carry out: work that our economic models are content to leave uncounted, unpaid and unvalued. Women continue to juggle paid employment and unpaid caring responsibilities, and in the time of a pandemic that is taking a great toll on so many, it is women who are paying the greatest penalties, whether job losses, wage losses, increasing burdens of care work and rising domestic violence. Adolescent girls in schools and colleges are being left behind as education moves increasingly online, and so many of them lose valued peer-to-peer support, access to nutritious meals, and the windows of opportunity for upward social mobility. The majority of essential workers, including the health workers at the frontline of the fight against the deadly virus, are women who are poorly paid, lack decent social protections, and are given neither respect nor dignity. When these facts are disaggregated by caste, class and location, the picture becomes grimmer still. In India today, as in so many places around the world, inequalities of caste, class and gender persist and thrive.
What do gendered experiences of COVID-19 look like? Why isn’t every woman acknowledged as a “working woman”? Why is housework not seen as work; why is care work unpaid? Why does gender-based violence increase at a time like this? Why are women more vulnerable to the economic after-effects of crises and why do they end up shouldering more of the burdens? Why is women’s essential work sacrificial, and not deserving of respect and dignity? These are just some of the questions we explore through our work.
The first episode of “Local Diaries” tells the stories of ten women who are seeing their hard-won freedoms to work, earn, learn, go out, make friends, love and articulate their views slipping away in the wake of the pandemic and the lockdowns that followed it. We report and record these stories in Hindi; and we translate global and national reports and feminist analyses of this gendered crisis to make them accessible to non-urban audiences. Our listeners are women and men living in urban areas, and include domestic workers, street vendors, health workers, and housewives. Since the first episode of our podcast aired last month, women have written to us to share their own lockdown stories and experiences of the impact of COVID-19.
Producing “Local Diaries” has not been easy for us. There are considerable financial, technical and social challenges in setting up a collaborative and diverse collective of women journalists. Rizwana, our youngest and fiercest member, and whom we lost to suicide in early May, lived on the outskirts of Varanasi city, in the low-income neighbourhood of Lohta, which is home primarily to Muslim weavers who have lost wages and work at this time. Meera lives in Mau, a small town in one of the country’s most impoverished districts, Chitrakoot. She has five daughters, four of whom must access their online classes through her phone.
Rizwana was, and Meera is, her family’s breadwinner. Both their areas were hit by extreme weather events this summer. In April, when we were recording our first episode of “Local Diaries”, they dodged unseasonal rain and hailstorms that caused countless power and mobile network blackouts. In May, while we were recording our second “Local Diaries” episode, both areas were hit by heatwaves strong enough to melt the phones in their hands. We recorded early in the morning or after sunset. On most occasions, Meera sat in a corner on her open terrace, wrapped her hot phone in a wet cloth, said a quick prayer and appeared in our virtual recording studio. The frustration of a working woman not being able to do her job due to the digital divide is real.
How will we remember this pandemic, these lockdowns, this distancing? How will women – especially those whose voices have long gone unheard, whose opinions are not sought, and whose work is uncounted and unvalued – remember their own lockdowns, new and old? “Local Diaries” is one small repository of the voices, feelings and experiences of women in the time of a crisis that has proved to be as unequal as it is deadly.
Local Diaries: Untold Stories of Women podcast (includes contextual summaries in English and audio interviews in Hindi) is available via Apple Podcasts, Castbox, Google Podcasts, RadioPublic and Spotify.
Chitakroot, Uttar Pradesh, India
Priyanka Kotamraju is an editor in the Chitakroot Collective and an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity. This autumn she will begin her doctoral study as a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge. She tweets at @peekayty