For Women, COVID-19 Is More Than A Virus

For Women, COVID-19 Is More Than A Virus

Aisha Sarwari argues that the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affects women because they have terrible low economic and social status. As the deadly virus is killing away people at shocking rates, Pakistan's men are slowly figuring out that being stuck in the house that they get to escape, is no joy at all.


The personal is political. We know this trite little line well enough, but really, with all the men staying home this last week in the wake of coronavirus, the concern is that home is a new despotic regime with war criminals run amuck in the absence of independent media or the rule of law. Since it's indoors, only the crows and the gravediggers care.


We are keen to call motherhood heaven, yet, we do give zero damns about women. The pandemic disproportionately affects women because they have terribly low economic and social status. When there is a state of emergency and an overwhelmed health system, goes without saying that no one cares about whining women. So when we say Pakistan is under lockdown to help reduce covid19, we actually mean that the men get to be forced into the house just like the women are. As the deadly virus is killing away people at shocking rates, Pakistan's men are slowly figuring out that being stuck in the house that they get to escape, is no joy at all. None. It's a prison that weddings celebrate the entry into but, where most women are subservient to the degree that their own bodies are regulated by men. 


Men don't like being home in Pakistan, nor do they appreciate their comfort being challenged when they are in the home. 


The country is endemic with violence against women, often carried out by men in the family – hence the name ‘domestic violence’. It sounds homely, like domestic cats, and looks even economically impactful like domestic labor. However, when 90 percent of women in Pakistan are prone to violence in the house, and the government decrees an immediate lockdown – pardon the women for not wearing their banarsi joras or posing with their selfie sticks. 


Instead, women who know they will be on the receiving end of men's wrath, fueled by feelings of economic inadequacy and anxiety, they are likely to think about panic rooms and exit routes. For many women, the exit routes take them to nowhere safe, so they remain within hostile homes and cope by becoming small, silent, and invisible. 


By no means do I seek to trivialise an infectious disease that can cool the earth's temperatures by wiping out humanity. COVID-19 requires a whole other seriousness, not the subject of this piece. I do, however, want to ask why the preventable deaths of a thousand women every single year to honor killing, doesn't even have us bat an eyelid? Why are we so resigned to women dying for no fault of their own?.

The normalisation of a silent steady guaranteed killer of our people is unacceptable. Just as the preventable deaths to corona are. Ever wondered, how overwhelmed health care systems would be if all women rushed to the hospitals at the slight suspicion of a hostile male in the house, or order a home testing kit for a swab if they feel the first signs of neglect or abuse by a man?


We are sensitive and hyper-reactive to coronavirus in terms of habits – two weeks into the alert that it is a pandemic, and the streets are empty, and people are washing their hands raw. Let us ask ourselves why? Perhaps because the privileged can be equally wrecked by it too. Violence against women is ignored because it is against women, mostly poor and middle class and trans-women. 


If we took rape culture as seriously as we took this virus, we would declare a national emergency and urgently rid the homes of violence, enough to keep battered women limited to the hands of certified mentally ill men. If we frowned upon the objectification of women – that she is as good as her body can either bear children or give pleasure – stove burnings and acid attacks would be just as scary as the bin under a public hospital's corona quarantine ward.

Fear is such a strong motivator that the army is called in because this is a national threat. Fear cannot be employed when women are tortured behind the four walls of impunity and abuse of power – killed off by the people who are their legal owners. 


The stories of women's pain and suffering aren't out yet, but they will be – women are licking their own bruises in these past weeks, all alone. Many are on the brink of fractured bones and dislocated jaws, but with nowhere to go – because we have to prioritize a deadlier killer that make it to the front pages of newspapers. 


There is no deadlier creature than an insecure man cornered by a state more powerful than him. When men worry, women are usually hurt as a result of that worry. So while Covid19 is truly scary, I'm here sending a silent prayer to the women who cannot escape the men even during the day - for the hour's men went to work and gave women respite. 


Of course, many will say this is a dramatic piece of writing by a dramatic woman but will have so little to say about dramatic men hitting the women in their lives. There is a word for this duality: hypocrisy. Also, this is in no means a comparison of the corona crisis to violence against women, I'm merely pointing out that in times of universal turmoil, women have it worse than they already do, so let us, please look at protecting them too. 


Only one percent of women in Pakistan are self-employed, and only about 23 percent participate in the formal workforce so for the majority of the women, the men will be escaping the business slowdown and footfall reduction in marketplaces by turning to some vice – drugs, prostitution or the national sport called violence against women. 


Then there is the chronic indulgence of all times during forced lockdowns - trash TV binges that allow Pakistanis to watch sexism and exploitation in the name of entertainment: from Ms. Khan chastising wives to shut their mouth and serve men in the house, to Khalil-ur-Rahman who slut-shames women solely for having a political opinion different from his. Think about it: Men at home, drunk on their own victim narrative watching TV that confirms women are to blame, turning against the women in their homes. 


The average Pakistani urban household is an overpopulated slum-like dwelling with challenges in plumbing and hardly any social protection – these are huge households living in tiny square inches trying to get by. Think about it: men need to listen to an authority figure in the time of confusion and crisis. Men are, therefore, glued to information channels and political sermons, or even religious sermons for that matter so they can make some sense. Then think about how that fear and anxiety and borderline lack of control get these men to control the only thing they can - womenfolk. It is not unheard of for women being killed for inadequately salted food, yet, these crisis times are petrifying random in the things it will get women murdered for. 


Can we please also, in addition to giving guidelines to Pakistani masses, also provide protection to the women who have no means of receiving those critical messages – women are not really part of public life here, yet they are the pivotal force in eradicating diseases? 


These are the times where the government must reach out to them with aggressive awareness programs; unambiguous messaging on hygiene and the spread of the virus; digital financial services to allow them to spend on medical care, education, and essential household food items to last the lockdown. Can we try to strategize the corona pandemic awareness by also understanding that women are most vulnerable? 


Think about it: the coronavirus is controlled, and the reign of men over women is also controlled. Two pathogens, one great win for the country. For every national crisis like this, women should be the ones who are spoken to – this way, you right a tremendous wrong and you signal to the men that the government and civil society have a low tolerance for violence against women.  

The writer is the Co-Founder of Women’s Advancement Hub. She is the author of two published books on Feminism and writes for several publications.