Caged Birds: women, borders, and the home during Covid-19

Caged birds - women, borders and COVID-19

Patriarchal history has named and categorised women in various ways. One such categorisation is ‘Asati’, which means one who is not a ‘Sati’. According to Indian Hindu mythology, ‘Sati’ means ‘pure woman’; this is drawing from the religious text of ‘Manashamangal’ (The Glories of the Snake Goddess), where the term ‘Sati’ is synonymous with the female protagonist Behula. 

In the text, Behula takes an arduous journey through rivers, mountains, and forests to please the gods and goddesses in heaven in exchange for the life of her dead husband, Lakhindar. She is ultimately successful in her endeavours – her husband is revived – and the world now glorifies her as the exemplary woman. 

The ‘ideal woman’

Photograph: Vaibhav Nagare/Unsplash

The catch here is: because she acted in accordance to how a married woman is societally expected or allowed to (i.e. doing things that prioritise the well-being of the husband), Behula has been immortalised in history. But those that rebelled have been villainised – the idea is that women should only act according to the laws of the household she belongs to. 

The South Asian masses accept women to be property that is given away to the husband during the marriage ceremony. And after marriage, the husband – like the sovereign state – dictates how the woman should be living her life. Ultimately, the patriarch, in charting out the dos and don’ts, consciously draws a boundary around the woman’s consciousness and personhood – one which eventually starts acting as a real, manifested border. 

Borders at home amid Covid

covid; social distancing; borders
Photograph: John Cameron/Unsplash

Throughout history, the stories of the evolution and maintenance of borders have been written in blood. However, with time, borders invisibly encroached into individual lives by means of quotidian security checks in the very corners of the neighbourhood or the housing complex one stays in. The sudden onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic strengthened the violent nature of these borders – and multiplied them. The general thought of staying within the house or of maintaining distance when on the road intensified the idea of border creation. It helped to separate oneself from the ‘other.’ 

In practicing the concept of ‘othering’ in social spaces, people started to imitate it within households too. The term ‘social distancing’ somehow harps on the ideas of the termination of social bonds and connections. People witnessed travel bans and interpreted them as a method of strengthening the guard against the other – for example, the strengthening of international borders. The stories of the virus being able to travel internationally frightened everyone, and the government protocols instructed people to be inside homes. After all, the idea of ‘home’ is synonymous with security. However, such claims are not always true.

Beyond the threshold

borders; threshold; home; women
Photograph: Henry & Co./Unsplash

Feminist studies since time immemorial have chalked out the idea of the ‘threshold’ that has been imposed on the woman. It generally relates to the ‘public’ and ‘private’ divide. According to general understanding, the ‘public’ – or the outside world – is meant for the men. And the ‘private’ – or the inside of the house – is meant for the women. It means to say that women are only fit for household chores and men fit to shoulder the monetary responsibility of the house by working outside. 

Nonetheless, history has stood witness to how women moved out of the house to do household chores in different households. It really was an equation of power, hierarchy, and hegemony. Black women went for jobs at the white household. While in South Asian countries, lower caste women were assigned jobs by upper caste women in their households.

Bell Hooks, in one of her articles, underlines how homes have been the place of expression for Black women— who toiled for an entire day at a different house helping her social ‘superiors’ to build a home. With time, such concepts have been inverted, and the pandemic has been the best possible happening which directly points to the politics of the house and household. 

With the mandate to stay indoors, the vulnerability of women has increased significantly. Women who lost their jobs – and their only means of survival – became dependent on savings or on their partners. Insecurity can sometimes make way for domestic violence and as always women have been on the receiving end. Like a caged bird, women stuck inside these unhappy homes can only think of escape or of retreat.   

Amrita DasGupta is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and is completing a PhD in the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS.

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