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Opinion

Lockdown shows up public face of India's gender inequality

Men can loiter on the streets but women find much less space available to them

| India
A woman from a slum shouts about scarcity of food supply in Mumbai on Apr. 14: India's lockdown has led to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.   © AP

Priyanka Borpujari is a former Fulbright scholar and an award-winning journalist living between Mumbai and Tokyo.

As India imposed its lockdown in March to contain the spread of COVID-19, I imagined all the ways it would make my experience of being out and about in public as a woman easier.

I could finally wear shorts and a tank top to the grocery store without worrying about being groped, thanks to the socially-distanced queues. If a man were to transgress this boundary, I would pull down my face mask and sneeze on his face. I imagined such trips would now let women wear whatever clothes they were most comfortable in.

How terribly wrong I was! The few times that I have stepped out to purchase groceries -- in clothes that cover me fully -- I was surprised to see hardly any women on Mumbai's streets. As the evening cooled, men with masks on, some under their chin, were out chatting, loitering. Two men played cricket in the sliver of space between a restaurant and a housing complex. But women did not chat or loiter or play cricket.

The lockdown has revealed what Indian women have sadly known for too long: the public realm has little space for them.

India's lockdown has led to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. In Mumbai's slums, families have no employment, packed into crouching spaces under sizzling tin roofs. In the city's largest slum in Dharavi, there have been 77 deaths so far. The burden of keeping these tiny homes sanitized, through limited water supply, falls squarely on women.

In Mumbai's slums, families have no employment, packed into crouching spaces under sizzling tin roofs.   © AP

Women working as housemaids in middle-class homes have been barred from entering their workplaces for fear of them possibly infecting the tenants of these housing societies. Many have not been paid their meager wages. Apart from scrambling to make ends meet, these women have also been stripped of their mobility. The evening hours when men loiter are out of bounds for women in the name of their own safety.

The gendered dimension of COVID-19 is evident across the world. Women now have more domestic chores even in countries that take pride in gender equality. Confinement has impacted relationships, often becoming violent: France recorded a rise in domestic violence of 30% in the first month of its lockdown; India's cases have risen nearly 2.5 times during the lockdown.

In a patriarchal society like in India, men decide what is best for the family. This includes their choice to step out in the evenings. But do only men want fresh air?

The patriarchy is visible at a political level too. India has used the lockdown to crush the movement protesting a recent law that could strip Muslims of their citizenship and thus threaten India's secularism: it has arrested women activists, one of them pregnant, charging them with draconian laws that make bail impossible.

What all of this means is that while men can go outside for any kind of reason, women must only do so for domestic chores.

Even though their appearance was not striking, I remember the three women in their nighties and scarves queuing outside a pharmacy-turned-supermarket. This might be the only time they had stepped out together, but it was with a practical purpose.

That same evening, past sundown, I walked by some open ground. Even through the darkness, I saw boys playing cricket. Two men sitting on the short boundary wall of the ground had a small bottle of whiskey, soda and some fries. They stared at me as I stared at their little party.

I lamented to my friend over the phone about missing cocktails together and our walks by the sea. What would it take for India's streets to be a space for all genders so that I do not feel conscious of my own personhood and, perhaps, safety?

As Mumbai's transport lifeline -- local trains -- have got back on track for essential service workers, authorities permitted only 700 passengers in each train, compared with up to 4,500 people during normal peak hours. Local newspapers have reflected this reality in photographs: masked men sitting apart from each other. All photos are from men's coaches: of 12 coaches, three are designated exclusively for women for their safety.

How then could we reimagine public spaces to be open and accessible to everyone's needs? The pandemic is already prompting a significant rethinking about urban planning. Would it allow for a gendered perspective?

At the same time, women in leadership positions can normalize the visibility of women in public spaces. For India, this would mean women from all castes, religions and socio-economic classes, to reflect the country's demographics. Countries that have been effective in curbing the infection rates through timely response often have women as their leaders.

The absence of women on Mumbai's streets is a metaphor for the fact that women make up only 14% of India's parliament. Women do not just struggle to enter India's halls of power: Mumbai's quiet streets under lockdown show they cannot even leave their own houses.

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