Women’s Day, the popular rose-and-chocolate-scented contemporary spinoff of the revolutionary International Working Women’s Day, has just passed. Thank Goddess for that. Just a few days before this year’s occasion, a traffic constable in Chandigarh who took her baby to work caught the attention of many, and the gamut of reactions to her illustrated well why considering Women’s Day as a celebration is to completely miss the point.
Identified as Priyanka, the constable had just returned to work after six months’ maternity leave. As her spouse and in-laws were not in town, she had been forced to take her five-month old baby to duty with her. A local resident who had spotted the constable at work took a video of her – in uniform, wearing a surgical mask, directing traffic with her right arm while her child was held with the left. This subsequently went viral online.
Some glorified her, some criticised her, and a few asked the right questions instead of doing either. This is where the connection to the typical misconstruing of Women’s Day comes in. To glorify a woman who is performing multiple roles because of a lack of infrastructural support is simply to brush under the carpet the many systematic and societal problems that force her into doing so. It’s a kind of gaslighting to applaud someone’s courage, strength or resilience without recognising that they should never have been in the position of being forced to express those qualities to begin with. To criticise a woman who is performing multiple roles because of a lack of infrastructural support is simply to force her into a corner – in this case, the “choice” to leave the workforce and become a homemaker.
As for the right questions – those all pertain to access to childcare across fields, the recalibration of family dynamics and the wider recalibration of what community and kinship mean, and accounting for gendered nuances in the workplace and beyond. They are not about an individual who was just doing the best she could on a given day.
Priyanka is now facing a departmental probe. Whoever took the initial video of her perhaps inadvertently contributed to the significant personal and professional stress she was already under.
Priyanka’s situation calls to mind Nazia, who had been taking her four-month old Jahaan to the Shaheen Bagh protest last year. Jahaan passed away from a cold, and Nazia faced immense criticism from privileged quarters who did not care to ask the right questions then either, about the family’s living conditions or access to healthcare.
This was a month before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in India. If Jahaan had died just a few weeks later, we wouldn’t have heard of him. He was weaponised against his mother; not entirely dissimilar to how Priyanka and her child were tokenised as inspiration or public advisory.
In the year since then, we have seen or experienced how people with choices have chosen to behave, and we have also seen or experienced how that affects others who may or may not have an equal amount of agency. How have we still not understood that societal structures undergird everything we do?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 11th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.