By Aamir Qayoom
“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister…She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
A patient in convalescence struggling and hoping against the hope to live; a celebrity in his condominium rhapsodically trying to learn guitar while in quarantine; an abusive and disparaging husband beating his wife for not tolerating his boorish manners; a hopeless transgender caught in a space that bolsters a condition of schizophrenia. These images float in my imagination while I borrow them from multiple time frames, resonating in various ways the virus that has metastasized and affected people around the globe. However, what interests me at the moment is the articulation of images of gender that ineluctably speaks volumes about the politics of gender and the question of violence in the times of corona quarantine.
The simple and conventional image of a home translates to a space of tenderness, coziness, and security. The generalization of such an idea becomes problematic given the disturbing stories of violence that have recently floated from these spaces of care. This paradoxical reality foregrounds cases of surge in domestic violence against women, as the world largely remains paralyzed in lockdown. The National Commission for Women, New Delhi, received innumerable complaints of domestic violence during the first phase of lockdown, highlighting and exposing how women are doubly marginalized in such conditions. The situation highlights the cases of women who share fractured relations with their monstrous partners when means to access the public premises remain largely shut.
This surge in domestic violence against women is not endemic to India but remains a global reality. This disproportional savage victimization of the disempowered in the hierarchical family structure has been rightly pointed by the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres who has reportedly said, “Over the past weeks as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence.” Thus, a steep rise in violence against women coincides with our fight against the invisible bio-tyrant. One wonders whether this perpetuation of violence is a result of anxiety and dismay emanating from unprecedented global sabbatical that fosters the coerced coexistence of the abuser and the abused. Or is such violence deeply embedded in marriage as an institution where hyper-masculinity and patriarchy keep this violence largely carpeted?
While approaching the question of sexual division of labour, quarantine and violence through a gynocritical imagination, it offers possibilities to enunciate a feminist perspective. As the unprecedented quarantine has nudged people to stay at home, the work inside the four walls remains largely driven by the idea of a sexual division of labor that promotes more workload for women. The situation becomes extremely difficult for women as homemakers in joint families with strong patriarchs. The quarantine in such a condition translates into heavy increments of workload for women, while the male chauvinists keep themselves nonchalantly busy in sharpening their gustatory desires. Perhaps this ‘home time’ could have been used to reverse the sexual division of labour and to understand the invisibilization of women’s work. Such a reversal can also offer opportunities to capitalize on the ‘asset of care’ that remains untapped and outside the patriarchal purview.
And how does the COVID-19 quarantine appear when seen through the prism of gender? While men in quarantine have the option of using isolation to produce art and develop new ways of thinking, women in quarantine have to devote a considerable amount of time and creativity to take care of her children and household chores. Leisure is important for creativity and women don’t have much leisure time for creative work. Such existential reality broadly allows us to question the production of literary work that celebrates men who have previously used epidemics and quarantine to create some of the masterpieces and craft grand theories in various fields of knowledge. It is such privilege that needs to be deconstructed in order to understand the multidimensionality of thought behind the fictive production of Judith Shakespeare that Virginia Woolf mentioned in her essay A Room of One’s Own (1929). These pandemics help us understand the relationship between gender, quarantine and literary production in new ways, articulating the reasons behind the relative lack of a strong female literary tradition.
Aamir Qayoom is a research scholar from the University of Delhi. He has previously worked as a research assistant for the University of Western Australia. He largely works on gynocritical imagination and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.