Coronavirus restrictions and sexual assault are intensely debated these days among the Danish public. Even though these discussions are not necessarily interrelated, we have seen that sexual violence and violence against women more broadly have surged worldwide during the Covid crisis. In this article I ask anthropologist Atreyee Sen to assess the goal of equity and gender equality in India after Covid. It is widely acknowledged that the Covid crisis is especially a critical time for those who are most vulnerable. Sen has done two decades of acclaimed anthropological research on groups of people (mainly women) that are poor, minorities, migrants and sometimes refugees. On a late Friday afternoon, she met me at a café in Østerbro.
Atreyee Sen is originally from India. She received her BA in Sociology from the University of Calcutta, and her MA in Sociology from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. She came to the UK in 1998 to pursue her PhD in Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. She has spent most for her academic life in the UK, but in 2015 she came to Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. She is now an Associate Professor and specializes in Political Anthropology.
Poor people in cashless cities: Working as a political anthropologist
When we sit down to discuss Sen’s research, I ask her to explain the characteristics of political anthropology: “The work of a political anthropologist is mainly to study politics, the state, and the transmission of power.” Sen exemplifies by telling me about her recent research project on cash flows in the city (in Denmark, Brazil and India): “Even though, my initiation into academic research was through the lens of woman and child violence, more recently I have taken up working with urban cash economies. I am looking at how global cities, from Copenhagen to Tokyo to Mumbai, is becoming cashless.
The poor communities in these urban spaces, who were historically engaged with cash transactions, are getting marginalised. Whether it is the homeless in Copenhagen, or street vendors in Mumbai, they always use cash. These people are feeling more and more alienated from the city. Even if you want to go to a cinema you need a credit card, or if you drive a truck, you can’t access a parking lot anymore by paying cash. We see a common resistance to this growing trend. In the US, Philadelphia was the first city to come forward and say, ‘we need cash back in the stores, because we have such a large migrant population who are unbanked, and those who do not have a bank account, cannot pay with credit/debit cards.’ It is absolutely vital for these social groups to be able to make cash transactions for food, groceries or basic amenities. These are some of the things I am interested in – who is defending the rights of the poor to access these stores.”
Sen tells me that this collaborative project has caught a lot of attention. “We have just published an edited volume, it’s called Who’s cashing in? (Berghahn, August 2020 – open access). We are pleased to see other international academics have been inspired by our project, and are conducting similar research, for example, in Finland. Scandinavia is the most explicitly anti-cash group of nations. So in Finland similar financial policies are being implemented, and Sweden wants to become completely cashless by 2025.”
Sen explains that Covid has added yet another dimension to the project, and that her work is getting attention from companies working with financial inclusion: “These companies are approaching me to understand the social impact of viewing cash as dirty and a source of contagion. During the corona crisis, many stores are either banning cash, or turning to online commerce.
This is a remarkable time when people are washing and disinfecting cash in all parts of the world. I have a postdoc in the department, Camilla Ida Ravnbol, who is looking at how it plays out in Copenhagen among homeless people, the Roma, and undocumented workers. In some care centers they have a bowl of disinfectant, and if the users of the care centers buy anything, they put the cash in the bowl. The migrants are resigned to this. Another form of discrimination is directed against refund bottle collectors: Some of the music festivals use digital systems to pay a refund onto a card, which a lot of the bottle collectors simply don’t have. This is the way in which the cashless economies push out destitute migrants.”
To round up her take on political anthropology Sen says: “As you can see, the borders and boundaries of this kind of anthropology is blurred. One could put my work on cash squarely in the domain of economic anthropology, because it has to do with money, economies and labor, but it is not necessarily so. I am interested in looking at how and why states implement these policies, and how they are empowering corporations (like Visa and Mastercard) and mobile payment apps across the world to step in and gain political influence. I look at how this profit and market-based economic strategies impacts people on the ground, especially people living below poverty level. How do poor and marginal communities engage with these large debates about digital infrastructures? That has become my area of interest”.
The Right’s Defeat of Labor Solidarity
The rise of nationalism and right-wing politics among poor women has been the main focus of Sen’s research for many years. Sen points out that the current phobia against Muslims has been fueled by the globalization of hate-politics: “The brilliant thing about doing political anthropology is that you can collect your data in a specific field, and then find innovative ways in which to relate it to global debates and political transformations. Some of the anti-Muslim sentiments that I experience in the slums are related to global islamophobia. Hindu-Muslim relationships become tense and conflictual after local people watch TV and follow social media propaganda. The result is, that if there is bomb blast in the Middle East, then they feel angry towards an ordinary Muslim neighbor, because they see him as a follower of Islam, and not as the family man they meet in the bazaar.”
According to Sen, India’s strong interreligious class solidarity is slowly vanishing in many parts of the region: “Poor people’s socialism existed in Mumbai during the colonial era, when the rural migrants came to work in the cotton factories. People understood labor solidarities. I have collected narratives from very old people who married across caste and religion, because both marital families were laborers and had a mutual understanding of each other’s backgrounds. All the romanticism associated with say Marxism, that ‘poverty binds everyone together’, is largely gone in many of my fieldwork contexts.”
Violence against women. Challenging feminist and development critiques of right-wing women
Among Sen’s research objects, she has done extensive work on Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi (Mahila Aghadi means ‘Women’s Front’ and is a female-based faction of the Indian Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena, Army of Shivaji). This fieldwork has been difficult due to various research parameters. It is strenuous “to work with social groups that make you feel uncomfortable when they display their violent ideology and practices; and then having to take a non-judgmental stand towards research interlocuters as an anthropologist” as Sen puts. Her approach in allowing the voices of right-wing women to come through has also met with resistance from development and feminist scholars: “I have worked with feminist NGOs and organizations, and I saw how they were very disappointed in the fact that right-wing groups managed to mobilize poor women. This sense of disillusionment takes place because many feminist groups globally adhere strictly to elitist feminist ideologies and Western categories of gender solidarities. They have criticized right-wing women as irrational, illogical and brainwashed. Of course, right wing politics have to be criticized, but I am advocating for a stronger conversational culture. It is important to uncover the political and social logics of women affiliated with the extreme right, instead of avoiding any engagement with them. If you are able to gain more knowledge about their ideology and passions, then we are in a stronger position to challenge lopsided nationalism from the ground, in a way that we can’t do from a purely ideological perspective.”
Sen explains that poor women’s problems with domestic violence is being addressed by some right-wing activists’ quick-term interventions: “The core of some feminist policy-making is rescue and rehabilitation, and this central ethics determines the work of many crisis centers. The centers offer shelter to rescued women, and often provide alternative training programs for abused women to become economically independent. But from the perspective of the right-wing women, poor women want to stay married, because marriage and motherhood give them status in their society. Many poor women think that the idea of being alone and single mothers involves ostracization and stigma as ‘a woman who abandoned her husband and family.’ It means signing up for what they see as a life of loneliness.
Most women want to be within the family, they want that emotional support, and they think that a kinship network will help them grow old safely. When you go to a right-wing organization and tell them that your husband is beating you up, a female representative will go to the husband and tell him, that ‘if you ever beat your wife again, I will break your leg, I will ensure that you lose your job and you will live in pain for the rest of your life, so treat your wife with respect.’ Most men get scared by these threats, and some men will actually stop being violent for some time. Partly because these women have the backing of massive nationalist groups. I am not saying that this leads to structural changes. Feminist organizations are right in trying to change and challenge patriarchal structures. Many feminist groups have poor women in their favor, but the communities that I have worked with are extremely poor and illiterate, and many women don’t understand the language of feminist policy making; they want quick term solutions to their problems.”
Since Covid, Sen has not been able to travel to India to do her fieldwork, but after twenty years in the field she has gained long and trusted relationships among her informants. She has reached out to them, since the UN and other organizations announced that domestic violence against women was surging immensely in countries with precautionary lockdowns: “I did a lot of online interviews and had several phone conversations.” Sen has just published an article called “Pandemic Rape: The Corona Crisis, Informal Gendered Support and Vulnerable Migrant Women in India” in the October issue of the European Journal of Feminist History [L’Homme – Europäische Zeitschrift für feministische Geschichtswissenschaft] on the impact of lockdowns on vulnerable women living in some of India’s poorest slums. When Sen wrote her article in May 2020, India was under total lockdown and the state government had ordered it’s 1.3 billion citizens to stay home. Many poor migrant women were trapped indoors with violent spouses, experiencing various types of domestic and sexual abuse, from psychological torture to rape: “This article was born out of conversations I had with my informants. I called them because I was worried about them, and not because I had intended to carry out academic research. They told me what they were dealing with in isolation, and that they would like me to write about it. They wanted to give a wider audience a flavor of what they were going through.
This allowed me to collect material about how people living below the poverty line, mainly rural and urban migrants, are getting affected by the Covid crisis. If you read the article, then you know that the migrant crisis in India is gigantic. Right now, it has reached a peak. People are dying of starvation, there is no money, no work, and basic facilities are not available. Migrant workers are slowly coming back to the city, but they have been victimized further. Urban residents believe that the migrants are bringing the disease back into the city, which is actually not the case.
What has been interesting in terms of visibility is that migrant workers have always been undetectable. The fact that cites were run by the labor of migrant workers has remained fairly invisible. Now that the Covid crisis happened, and the migrants stopped working, you can see that the basic infrastructures of the cities are crumbling. Now you don’t have maids, cooks, cleaners, garbage collectors, security guards, construction workers, plumbers, electricians etc. Everything has come to a standstill. So, Covid has visibilized the crisis of the migrant workers, because affluent sections of the urban population are shocked by their absence in the city. Most people have always assumed that cities were run by the middle and upper classes.
I have been specifically interested in the lives of women, because I think in multiple ways, women are becoming far more vulnerable than men. When any economy slowly reopens, the first jobs are always given to men. The idea is that if you give the job to a man he will provide for the rest of the family, but that is not the case. There is a lot of labor, for example domestic care work, cooking and catering, which are jobs historically taken up by poor women. Now, people don’t want poor women to come and live in their homes. People are setting up separate bathrooms and entrances for domestic workers, so that they never enter the household after they have cooked or cleaned. They are at times given a ‘Covid unit’ to use outside the parameters of a house.”
Handling the Covid crisis with solidarity
Sen points to the remarkable fact that the poorest communities in India have handled the Covid situation most efficiently in terms of curbing spread of the coronavirus. Sen argues that the urban poor look after each other, they are used to living in congested conditions, and are accustomed to adapting to changes related to epidemics: “Amongst poor women, there has always been various forms of solidarity networks. Whether they were formal ones like trade unions, or informal ones like friendships or teacher groups. What has been of interest to me is the extent to which these solidarity networks actually improvised to come in the service of women affected by the Covid crisis. Even BBC, CNN and the international media has had its focus on Mumbai’s Dharavi (the biggest slum in Asia), because it has managed to control the spread of Covid. The medical universe assumed that slums were going to be the super spreaders. But inhabitants of slum areas have managed to live with and address issues related to Covid, because they know how to challenge epidemics. Unlike the urban upper classes, the urban poor have knowledge and skills to deal with disease.
In most affluent urban neighborhoods, people don’t know their neighbors. But in a slum area, everybody knows their local family and friends. During the outbreak, when a neighbor got a fever, local people would take that person to the fever camps run by the government. I spoke to several doctors who said that affluent people didn’t come to see them, but poor people even with a mild fever came to get tested. When they fell ill, they would isolate themselves by living in these camps, and protecting other people in the slum. And a lot of poor people didn’t have access to disposable medical masks, so they made masks out of cloth, coconut shells or plantation leaves. It was usually the women that came up with these ideas, because they were creative with using domestic and kitchen material. This was what I became interested in: that solidarity network that kicked in for Covid.”
Assessing the goal of Gender Equality
When I asked Sen how she sees the progress towards gender equality, she says that Covid is a setback for gender equality in India: “In different regions of the world, feminist policies have informed the lives of different women, provided employment and continued education, and helped in curbing domestic violence. In the context of Covid in India, I have to say that I haven’t seen substantial change in feminist policy-making. Having said that, there is the national women’s commission in India, which has responded to the unprecedented rise in domestic violence during the covid crisis by setting up WhatsApp Groups and other helplines. But this is still a kind of distant response. Most slum women I work with don’t have a smartphone, so they cannot join these online support groups. So, I still see that India has a long way to go in terms of responding to questions of gender balance and women’s safety in the Covid context.
In addition to crises related to violence and women’s labor, many women’s domestic responsibilities have increased enormously, now that they are stuck at home and have become the primary carers of extended family. There are services directed towards policing the streets and medical treatment, but fewer resources are directed towards women’s upliftment in the context of Covid.”
In your opinion, how should we analyze this preposterous violence against women? Is it a problem that is mostly associated with poor people and the lower classes so that is has to do with class frustration? Or is it simply the patriarchal culture that generates the violence? “I think it is the overall patriarchal and masculinist cultures in many societies. It has nothing to do with class. One would assume that rural and poor urban women are more vulnerable to sexual violence, but that is not the case. Upper-class and middle-class women also face domestic violence, and it is often related to dowry and the exchange of money during marriage. Affluent women are also forced to live with violent husbands their whole lives. You have intergenerational violence in which in-laws beat up daughters-in-law, and also they set women on fire when their husbands die (wife burning (Sati) is practice that still exists in India). So class has little to do with the act of domestic and sexual violence in India or any other region of the world. Upper class women however do have more opportunities to escape violent marriages.”
Do you still have optimism about a future with gender equality? “I believe in the ferocity of women to challenge patriarchy globally. There is a fundamental fallacy in this thought: that violence, atrocity and discrimination against women can be normalized just because it was accepted for generations. At some point women will find ways in which to resist marginalization. I have a lot of faith in that resistance. Whether it is a formal resistance by feminists, or informal resistances by ordinary women who add excessive salt in their husbands’ meals to underline their importance within the family. I put my faith in that resistance.”
Nicklas Alexander Kirchert is Master of Modern Culture and Cultural Dissemination, UCPH, and DDRN Culture Editor
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