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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 26, New Delhi, June 13, 2020

The Rise of Domestic Violence and Relevance of ‘Ecofeminism’ in the Post Covid-19 World | Badre Alam Khan

Saturday 13 June 2020

by Badre Alam Khan

Since the announcement of stringent national lockdown across the world in general and India in particular, amidst Covid-19, gender-based violence (in the forms of sexual harassment, physical, sexual, mental and emotional sufferings) has now been increased significantly in the domestic sphere. In this respect, the WHO (World Health Organization), UN (United Nations) General Secretary and several Human Rights and women’s organizations have expressed their deep concern and made an appeal that respective national governments across the world must take immediate strong remedial measures to stop violence against women in the domestic sphere, amidst corona lookdown. During the lockdown, on the basis of complaints received by the NCW (National Commission for Women which is headed by currently Rekha Sharma which deal with the issues related to domestic violence against women on a regular basis) underlined that violence against women in domestic affairs have been increased by almost two-fold.

In this piece, I will limit my discussion with reference to India. In the first section, I will try to explore the emergence of Ecofeminism as movement and conceptual discourse around said concept. In the second section, an attempt is made to understand and explain the plausible reasons for the rise of gender-based violence in the domestic spheres mainly after the announcement of stringent lockdown from 24th March 2020 by the PM Modi. In the concluding section, while keeping in mind the increasing trends of domestic violence amidst COVID-19 stringent lockdown, I have noted the relevance of Ecofeminism as a perspective to deal with current challenges. For instance, how can we maintain the balance between environment and development on the one hand and protecting women from the violence, social oppression, and exploitation due to the nexus of capitalism and patriarchy on the other? Finally, I have also noted some limitations of Ecofeminism while keeping in mind the current rise of domestic violence during the Covi-19 lockdown.

Discourse on Ecofeminism and its relevance

The concept of Ecofeminism had emerged around the 1970s, at a time when a famous Chipko movement (in which rural women had participated in large numbers who were committed to protecting and save the forest resources from commercial expiations by hugging the trees) led by Uttrakhand’s women in 1973 along with the green movement. These movements had underlined the intimate connections between the exploitation and degradations of the environment including nature by forces like colonialism and capitalism. Besides, they have had also raised problems like subordination and oppression of women because of the patriarchal mindsets of males. In short, the concept of Ecofeminism had creatively combined elements of both the feminists and green movements to address problems like environmental degradations, climate change, and ecological disorder along with increasing subordination, suppression and socio-economic exclusions in both private and public spheres.

To be very precise here, Ecofeminism as a perspective has been committed to the idea of ‘sustainable development’ to fulfill the basic needs of all human beings, not unlimited greed and desires, as promoted by the capitalist model of development) at the cost of environment and nature. In this respect, a Gandhian leaning scholar and well-known environmental thinker, Dr. Vandana Shiva writes in her Preface, “Violence against women is as old as patriarchy. Traditional patriarchy has structured our world-views and mindsets, our social and Ecofeminism cultural worlds on the basis of domination over women, and the denial of their full humanity and right to equality. But it has intensified and become more pervasive in the recent past” [mainly in the neoliberal eras which had been started in 1991 in a country like India]. (See Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, with a Foreword by Ariel Salleh “Ecofeminism”, Zed Books London & New York, 2014, P-xiv.)

However, there are some limitations of Ecofeminism, simply because the problems like mental-emotional, psychological including sexual violence (which is widely seen during the Covid-19 lockdown in the capitalist-patriarchal society like India) has not been so sincerely taken by Ecofeminists. Despite having some limitations, the relevance of Ecofeminism as perspective has been increased because it holistically talked about the problems confronted by women in various spheres such as social and economic fronts on the one hand and male domination, suppression, and violence against women on the other. While broadly echoing the lines of Ecofeminists, recently a well-known social historian of medicine Prof. Frank Snowden in his book, Epidemics and society; From the Black Death to the Present, 2019 has underlined that epidemics such as plague, influenza, tuberculosis, cholera, and Ebola etc., happened in the 19th and 20th century because of industrial revolutions, wars, and uneven development at the cost of the environment nature and development. For him and other scientific community, it is entirely mistaken to believe that epidemics as listed above had been created by the ‘divine forces’( as religious orthodox forces across the communities used to propagate) rather said epidemics were the product of historical events and capitalist/colonial model of development adopted by the advanced western countries in the distant historical past. For Prof. Snowden the like other epidemics, current deadly coronavirus is also the outcome of the current wave of globalization.

Rise of Domestic violence and the role of State and media

While highlighting the increasing trends of domestic violence during the lockdown, several feminists and social activists have had written and expressed their deep anguished and concerns in the public domain. Recently gender activists and Feminists of South Asian countries while exchanging and sharing their concern (the meeting was held online in the month of May 2020 under the platform of Voices from South Asian women) in which most of the feminist activists have expressed their deep concern with respect to the surge of domestic violence and other related problems experienced by men and women, amidst Covid-19 lockdown. Besides, a section of feminists in our country and elsewhere have also expressed deep concern on the increasing trends of unwanted pregnancy, the problems have been also reported by a section of the print media. While expressing their concerns, several feminist activists reminded that it will create a further health crisis when they (unwanted pregnant women) will try for abortions after the end of lockdown.

Having said that let me here mention briefly what constitutes domestic violence as defined by the Domestic Violence Act- 2005. To note that after a persistent campaign launched by feminist activists for nearly two decades, finally then the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) the government had passed the said Act to protect from gender-based violence experienced by women in general and low caste/class women in particular in the domestic and family spheres. Broadly speaking, the Act-2005 defines domestic violence in terms of physical, emotional/verbal and sexual, as experienced by women in everyday life in the domestic sphere. However, it should be noted that violence against women in our capitalist-patriarchal society like India is not caste/class neutral. The concern put forward by Dalit feminism (the DF as perspective has been emerged against brahminical patriarchy and highlighted intersectionality between caste and gender identity in the public domain) in India and Black feminism in the USA can be cited examples. Those women belonged to the lower strata of Indian society (Dalit and tribal including Muslim women) have experienced more acute discriminations and ‘doubly discriminated’ because of being materially deprived and having different identities and cultures. In this respect, Dr. Vandava Shiva has also pointed out, “violence against women has taken on new and more vicious forms as traditional patriarchal structures have hybridized with the structures of capitalist patriarchy.” (See Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, “Ecofeminism”, op-cit., p-xiv)

In short, given patriarchal, misogynist and masculinity of male counterparts, most of the women irrespective caste/class and religion have had faced violence whether verbal, sexual and emotional in the domestic sphere. The recent violence against women has been increased in two-fold as hinted earlier duo to the supremacy of male chauvinism and their anti-women attitudes on the one hand and recent male frustrations (it is increasing because of the fear of losing jobs and the financial crisis witnessed by our country) that generated violent behavior among men towards women amidst Covid-19 lockdown on the other.

Despite the stringent Act passed by the government more than decades ago (Domestic violence Act-2005 by then the UPA regime)); empirical studies and data compiled by national and international bodies have recently demonstrated that the violence against women in both the private and public spheres continues unabated. According to the National Family Health Survey (2015-16), nearly 31 percent of married women in our society experienced sexual and physical/emotional violence by their own spouses. A global report published in 2017 by the WHO (World Health Organization) has noted that about 1 in 3 (35 percent) women across the world have faced either physical and or sexual violence from a close partner in their lifetime.

However, a section of ‘Godi Media’ (mainly T.V anchors) has not bothered about raising the increasing trends of domestic violence as stated above. Instead of reporting and highlighting increasing trends of domestic violence witnessed by vulnerable women in particular women in general, a section of electronic media houses have tried to communalize the discourse around deadly coronavirus and allegedly coined the new a term like Corona-Jihad to demonize Islam and the entire Muslim community as well. The Tablighi Jamaat’s episode (for having organized a congregation in the last month of March 2020 may be knowingly and unknowingly at the Nizamuddin Markaz) can be cited as a case in point here.

It is ironical to note that while addressing to the nation several times amidst Covid-19, PM Modi has not also uttered single words so far, on increasing trends of domestic violence. Besides the ruling government and Godi media(lap media), State machinery (like police and bureaucracy) so far, have not shown and paid serious attention towards rising trends of domestic violence (in spite of having stringent domestic Act-2005) against vulnerable women in particular and women in general.

However, a section of conservatives across communities have earlier often blamed that violence against women has been increased in our society because Indian women have left out the domestic affairs (like managing home, caring children, cooking foods and serving to the entire family) and came out in the public sphere which replete with corporate/consumerist mix-culture. For conservative male chauvinists, violence against women has been increased simply because; they have adopted western culture and their lifestyles to a large extent especially in the urban settings rather than conservative and patriarchal mindsets of male counterparts.

For Indian patriarch, if Indian women and especially young girls will remain limited within the four walls of the house, they will be safe and protected. In doing so, they have deliberately created a false narrative for a long period of time that Indian women and young girls will be more secure and safe if they will remain confined to domestic affairs. For the conservatives, to overcome violence against women in all spheres of life, the Bharatiya Sanskriti (Indian culture, as selectively defined by the Sangh Parivar from the lens of brahminical patriarchy) is needed to be adopted by Indian women religiously. Contrary to the conservative forces, a section of progressive feminist historians have had shown that Indian women had faced a huge suppression, oppression and witnessed physical and mental/emotional violence in the distant historical past too.
Here, the claim often made by the Hindu Right and a section Muslim conservative that our women will be less prone to violence and sexual harassment, if Indian women will behave as a “Good Hindu” wives or a “Good Muslim” wives (as a pious Muslim woman who supposed to follow the instructions of husband and Islamic Sharia, often interpreted by the upper-caste Muslim male with a patriarchal lens), they will be safe and secure within the four walls of the house. Contrary to conservative forces, empirical studies have demonstrated that gender-based violence against women has been increased dramatically. However, Islamic scholars like Asghar Ali Engineer and Asma Barlas has shown that textually Islam has ensured ‘gender justice’ but it is the conservative and patriarchal Muslim males (who often guided by male supremacy) hardly act according to egalitarian principles and norms of Islamic theology, as enshrined in the Quran vis-à-vis Muslim women.

Contrary to claim made by male chauvinists, for a section of progressive feminists, it is feudal, patriarchal mindsets of male counterparts and ‘illiberal culture’ (to note that in the name of the so-called preserving traditional and customary community culture, women’s individual autonomy have been completely sidelined) widely seen in our society are responsible for gender-based violence both in the private and in the public sphere for a long period of time. Historically speaking, there are no linear interpretations of Indian culture and traditions prevailed in society since time immemorial. There were plural and diverse progressive cultures and traditions that existed in the historical past especially in the Buddhism and other progressive similar sects in which women were treated with a modicum of dignity and their participation in the public domain had been ensured, however, within the given limited space.
Let me clarify that one should not be misunderstood that women have been completely protected and entirely secured in western, liberal, and especially in capitalists/consumerist culture. In this respect, a section of feminists have pointed out that almost everywhere (whether western and non-western societies) patriarchy and male supremacy, as established norms could be noticed. The sudden rise of violence against women in the domestic sphere in western advanced countries during the lockdown can be cited an example.

So far, the myths have been created by conservative and patriarchal forces across society including in the case of India for a long period of time, are now utterly exposed when the domestic violence against women has increased dramatically within four walls of the house, amidst the Covid-19 lockdown. To put it simply, we have to accept that violence against women are universal in nature and we cannot be understood said problems in binaries like private vs. public or modem vs. traditional and western vs. non-western culture etc., as often done by male chauvinism irrespective of caste, communities, and nations. In short, violence against women has taken new height because of patriarchal mind-sets of misogynist males in the domestic sphere. However, instead of recognizing patriarchy and illiberal culture, Muslims and Hindu orthodox conservative forces have entirely blamed western culture and their lifestyles for increasing violence against women. Given the increasing trends of domestic violence amidst COVID-19 lockdown, it is very unfortunate to note that the ruling government and Godi media (lap media) including state administrative machinery have so far not taken any concrete steps to stop violence against women in domestic spheres, as pointed out by progressive feminists and documented by various human rights and women organizations.

Conclusion: Way forward

So the question needs to be asked here, which perspectives of feminism (for instance, western, liberal, socialist, radical, and Eco-feminism) are relevant to address the genuine concern of women in the post-COVID-19 world. It is to be noted that western feminism or dominant liberal feminists (known as the first wave of feminism, emerged in the 18th century after the French Revolution,1789) have talked about democratizing gender relations (between men and women) along with ensuring equal representations of women and freedom in the political domain. However, they (middle-class privileged white women) have had so far; least bothered about addressing the ‘class question’, abolishing the private property and fighting against global capitalism.
To note that due to neoliberal capitalism, lower caste/class and vulnerable women irrespective of caste and the community have suffered hugely and experienced social and economic exclusion in the public spheres mainly after implementation of neoliberal economic policy since 1991.

Despite some progressive aspects of middle-class privileged white feminism, there is a huge limitation of said feminist perspective because of; they are the least interested in raising problems like economic inequality, exploitations of nature, environmental degradations. Besides, liberal feminists have not expressed their concern about ‘class question’ and therefore, it cannot be applied everywhere uncritically particularly in developing societies like India where low caste/class and extremely poor women irrespective of caste and community are ‘doubly discriminated’. Take for instance, on the basis of material conditions on the one hand and gender identity on the other. That is why the concept of “Ecofeminism” as perspective now seems to be more relevant because; Ecofeminist activists (like Vandana Shiva and others in the context of India and elsewhere) are committed to fighting against both ‘crony capitalism’ and patriarchy simultaneously along with degradations of environment, nature, and ecology. On the aspects of environment, ecology and nature, there are some positive sign has been noticed during the national lockdown so far. Take for instance; the level of water, air pollutions and environmental degradations have been decreased to a large extent.
To conclude here, despite having stringent Domestic Violence Act-2005 and rise of feminist movements as discussed earlier, the empirical studies have done by organizations like WHO and NCW has shown that the social and economic exclusion and violence against women in terms of sexual, physical and mental/emotional continues unabated in domestic sphere. To note that during the Covid-19 lockdown, level of domestic violence has increased doubly as underlined by the NCW. In spite of having stringent domestic Act-20005, the ruling dispensation including the state administrative machinery have not taken any concrete remedial measures to contain increasing trends of violence against vulnerable women in particular and women as a whole in general in the domestic spheres. Besides, the mainstream media have not shown seriousness to highlight the gender-based violence taking place in the domestic sphere during the ongoing threat of corona pandemic. Given the sudden rise of domestic violence and the socio-economic exclusion of vulnerable women in the public domain; the relevance of Ecofeminism (despite having some limitations,) as a perspective has now increased once again in the post -COVID 19 world.

The author is a research scholar Department of Political Science, at the University of Delhi

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