COVID-19 The New Normal: Militarization and Women’s New Agenda in India
By Dr. Asha Hans
Dr. Asha Hans is ex- Co-Chair, Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy; former Professor of Political Science, and Founder Director, School of Women’s Studies, Utkal University, India. A leading campaigner of women’s rights, she has participated in the formulation of many conventions in the United Nations.
The COVID-19 crisis started in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, and has since then impacted millions globally including people of India. In these months we have observed the breakdown of the existing systems and structures. It seems to many of us that it is the end of civilization as we know it, but there is also a recognition that it is providing us an opportunity to reflect on the future we want.
The existing ‘normal’ that surfaced in COVID-19 despite a crisis are the inequalities, the persistent masculinity, and the unrelenting patriarchal system that continues to survive. The ‘normal’ is also the continuing dependence on a discordant and inhumane national security system, which has unwarranted power and control over its citizens. The security system continues to stay alive despite the global pandemic, without facing challenges except peace educators and activists. We, the peace advocates, feel that the pandemic is giving us a new opportunity to create a world dedicated to the well-being of all people on this planet. This would mean, equality for migrants, domestic workers, Dalits, people with disabilities and various others. Many of those trying to bring these issues to the forefront of the human rights discourse are women writers and advocates who feel that the disproportionate impact on women merits change.
When I say that the ‘new normal’ is the continuing inequality and the robust masculinity I draw this argument from the vocabulary of COVID-19. It is the language being used which is overwhelmingly hostile as the pandemic has brought in new words that are being increasingly linked to violence and rising fascism. Primarily the word being used is ‘lockdown’ providing a new image of security, where if you agree to a policed closure of a geographical field you are agreeing to a ‘new normal’ depiction of safety1. The recent flow of domestic migrant labourers in India from their workplace to their home, mostly situated in a rural locale, and the women within their homes facing extreme domestic violence highlight the mythical assumption that lockdowns create security.
Security we believe has to fulfill basic needs and prevent violence. These two ideas of what we consider as the universal aims of security include the thousands of men, women, and children walking home. The State in the last few months has not fulfilled these requirements, for instance food insecurity has been the basic reason for migrants walking the long march home. Movement of thousands of returnees was prompted by the employer not paying their wages and the landlord of the house demanding rents. With no wages, no shelter, and no money it is not surprising that thousands took to the road during a lockdown. The police attempted to stop them using physical force and sexual abuse, there was no transport, and hundreds of government directives with none catering to them did not break their resolution or their spirit. The other myth broken is related to the specific security of women, as domestic violence during the lockdown increased, and supporting structures broke down 2. We need to recognize that women are not a homogenous group and that some women such as those with disabilities or LGBTIQ face more and varied forms of violence. Protecting women from domestic violence is neither on the agenda of the State or society during the lockdown and as the system of security collapses, many women are targeted to extreme violence. The house policed by the patriarchal system becomes a prison imposed by the family and not contested by the society or State. In an analogy of the State and militarization that applies to women is the remark of a Kashmiri friend who said for them it was ‘from a lockup to a lockdown’.
There is an intense nature of the corona risk affecting women which goes beyond domestic violence to a broader world of aggression. COVID-19 has created a fear psychosis with a language borrowed from militarist lexis. An illustration of the usual expression used by the government has been, “Join the War against COVID-19: Register as a volunteer to fight against the spread of the coronavirus. It is an apt example as it creates an image in our minds of States before a war-making a call to its citizens to join the armed forces. The stronger vocabulary used by the media is their response to the coronavirus as waging a ‘war’, ‘battle’, ‘India’s war against COVID-19’3. Even people are depicted as ‘curfew violators’ facing extreme violence by the police. The use of violence is a value that encroaches on citizen’s spaces and promotes the use of force to resolve essentially civilian issues. The militarized state measures are counter-intuitive to women’s security, and in any response to change the situation it is the feminist approach which must be considered as important to end violence against women. Though women front-line workers, nurses and others involved in taking care of the corona virus have been designated as “Corona Warriors” being instrumental in the ‘war’ against the coronavirus4. Unfortunately, these warriors have been both underpaid by the State and now unprotected without the shields necessary when going into war zones.
The State narrative in India has always been that armaments are essential to security and in this paradigm peace dialogue is the outlier. There is thus no public discourse on violence used by the State when protecting its citizens. It is not only structures but attitudes that can be militarized and military culture including patriarchal, instill in society the concept of power as a force. Regimes use hyper-nationalism to keep themselves in power. This construction of the nation-state in a patriarchal set up is built on male privilege and the issue of male-female equality does not rise. When such vocabulary is used it militarizes the public mindset, and violence becomes the public normal.
Women across the world, including India, have been suffused with militarist doctrines, developed to use maximum force against the enemy, and continues to be used even whilst the virus is attempting to enter into the physical body of its people a disease which weapons could not kill. Violence, especially gendered, is a daily occurrence heightened by the presence of armed or police forces. Created by a patriarchal system establishing inequalities, threatening survival, and creating insecurities, the removal of these barriers become imperative to the realization of a safe system for women.
The pandemic is a moment that is epidemiological but also political both linked to security and needs to be recognized in the context of comprehensive human security. During COVID-19 there should have been a critique of dangers posed by India’s high budget on armaments at the expense of a good public health system, an important basic need for women who have low access to health services especially sexual and reproductive health care, but it did not take place. What also did not get accentuated, in the public debate on the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is most importantly any linking to look-alike imagery of what would happen if biological warfare by a State or bio-terrorism that could take place in the future. It should have made us realize that biowarfare, for which tests are on, does not stop at borders and impacts the enemy as well as the State that uses it. As a response to the crisis, the expanded stockpiling of vaccines and antibiotics, containment laboratories and research into new drugs and bio-detectors have created, it seems, scaling up a system of bio-warfare. Besides this factor, is the demonstration of armed power. The ‘fly-bys’ used by the Indian Air Force, to shower flowers, was a nationalist demonstration of power disregarding the hunger and pain of the migrants, including women and children, walking on the road. A nationalist demonstration of power became more important than fulfilling the basic needs of vulnerable people. Instead of these two processes to protect people from the virus, what were the required responses, starting in the initial days of the emergency situation, as corona stepped into the country should have been building more public hospitals, clinics, and upgrading health care services? The spread of the virus can even now be slowed down through surveillance and massive campaigns against it and not force.
In an already inflicted system, unnecessary sufferings are imposed on the poor. It is time to recognize that this system of violence will become entrenched so it must be challenged as the well being of the human family depends on its removal. Seen from the experience of women, revealed is the security deficit of the system during COVID-19. The alternative to this system is a human security system to replace the militarized security framework. It is a system derived to protect people and not the interest of the state. This security paradigm with four essential conditions, a life-sustaining environment; the meeting of essential physical needs; respect for the identity and dignity of persons of groups; and protection from avoidable harm and expectation of remedy for unavoidable harm 5. Health in a COVID-19 situation can be analyzed not as a medical but as a human security problem as it takes advantage of poverty, inequality, and hunger
What then is the ‘new normal’ emerging from COVID-19? We have to recognize that warlike situations exist on three of India’s international borders (with China, Pakistan and Nepal). This with the corona situation shows the lapses in policy that allowed a war-like situation as sustained dialogue has not been part on Indian policy. Feminist writers on women and militarism have contributed to the solution to the corona situation. Enloe suggests that we must “mobilize society today to provide effective, inclusive, fair, and sustainable public health, we need to learn the lessons that feminist historians of wars have offered us. To do that, we need to resist the seductive allure of rose-tinted militarization. Reardon looks forward and says that,”While the realization of the common destiny of humanity may well be a given to peace educators, even we ourselves, still do not have adequate conceptual and pedagogical repertoires to confront pandemics as a given of a common human future”.
It is time to start the pedagogic imagining and structuring a future world that will lead to new opportunities. We must work in collaborative ways and rethink the way we think of ending militarization. The questions before us are: what is normal and just and how do we protect our fundamental rights when men’s and women’s rights are trampled on? In this context questions peace educators and activists should be asking what the appropriate language should be used to create a new alternative? How do we work in collaborative ways? We also need to ask: How do we stop this militaristic adapted violence from becoming the ‘new normal’ in our lives? Are we prepared to re-imagine new worlds where security is not dependent on force but recognition of an interdependent world of peace?
To create this world would mean recognition of women’s equal status and their solidarity in the face of masculine force. To recognize that a sharing of resources during the pandemic would lead to another new step that we have refused to take; aiming to reduce this gap would mean achieving people’s well being. We have to develop a new language, and our imaginations to find new pathways to peace, a new alternative to create a ‘new normal’ for a world hurting with militarization. The vocabulary of a world of peace which would make it easier to bear the toughness of COVID-19.
- On 25th March 2020 the Government of India announced a complete lockdown
- Deccan Herald April 13, 2020.
- The Hindu 8, May 2020
- India Today 11 April, 2020
- Reardon Betty and Asha Hans, 2019, The Gender Imperative: State Security vs Human Security, Routledge London, and New York. 2nd ed. : 2.