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Why Did North East Women Returning Due To COVID-19 Face Stigma & Maligning?

Posted: June 24, 2020

As people from the NE returned home from the metro cities, they faced a lot of stigma. From moral policing to memes, the women suffered it all.

As thousands of migrant workers return home due to COVID-19 lockdown in India, there are scores of heart-rending stories and pictures. A large number of northeast people, too, jumped onto the special trains arranged for their return. And as these young men and women took the not-so-enjoyable journey to reach their homes, there is another facet of the pandemic tragedy.

Stories of online trolls, sexist jokes, memes, and moral policing abound. And what makes the situation worse is the people staying at home with their smartphones. People on their smart phones is merely a breeding ground for the circulation of fake news, misinformation and maligning women.

For instance, there is a young woman whose picture went viral as she boarded the ‘special’ train from Chennai to Dimapur in May. In the picture that went viral, she is seen standing in queue on a railways platform holding a pressure cooker.

Why was her survival entertainment for others?

By the time she reached Nagaland, her state, and managed to settle down at a quarantine centre, she was shocked to learn she was all over social media. And that she was also being called ‘The Pressure Cooker Lady.’

The picture was also accompanied by captions like, ‘Returnee from Chennai. The pressure cooker must be really expensive,’ or, ‘I have never seen someone so well prepared for quarantine.’

A Nagaland paper quoted the young woman saying she came across her picture on Facebook. She had appealed to administrators of the Facebook groups to remove her photographs.

But this is her story – before boarding the train, the young woman and her friends decided to prepare food for their journey. Given the situation, they knew there would hardly be any meal on the way back, and as Nagas, they needed ‘Chawal-Sabjee.’

So, they came up with the idea to take their cooked food along with the pot itself. According to her, “It was survival. And only those who have been through the ordeal will understand our plight.”

She reasoned that she couldn’t just ‘throw away the pressure cooker after eating.’ And she did not bother or think about anything but carried the pressure cooker in her hand. Reportedly, the special train passengers were only given water, bread and butter.

Where’s the line between their suffering and your content?

In another case, a video of a young woman in Mizoram, yelling her lungs out also went viral on social media. The video shows the woman who returned from Mumbai, unhappy about certain things. These probably were the arrangements for the returnees or the treatment meted out to her.

With a loudspeaker in the background, she can be heard requesting someone on the other end to give her ‘one minute.’ Then she probably asks the person recording the video, ‘Why would you cover a photo like that?’ And the person merely responds with either a yes or a no.

She is seen continuing to ask the person, “Why did you do like that, we came from Mumbai. I am not scared of anyone, note that. We know how to keep ourselves safe, protect ourselves.” The man trying to quieten her, only enrages her further.

She tells him that she is educated and does not need to be treated like that. And she also asserts, ‘Do not try to control me.’ She asked ‘Where is red zone, tell me?’ And asks him ‘So what?’

The man on the other end whom the question was directed at only managed to say he is not responsible. And the women says, “I know everything. As Pressmen, why don’t you understand things? We are not simpletons, we are educated from Mumbai, do you know that? Do you know what we went through on our journey? If you are a press person, you should be giving positive stories rather than trying to expose us. This is the time for love and caring. We should respect each other.”

Why are we moral policing them?

A recording of this incident went viral. New videos mimicking and replicating the her were made and circulated through social media. Memes were created of her words and terms she had used. Even T-shirts were printed with her words and comics were made on it.

Excitement knew no bounds among netizens in the North-East when a video of a quarantine centre in Manipur’s district was circulated on social media. The video is from the Churachandpur district in Manipur and shows inmates of the quarantine centre dancing in there.

Though the video also had a few males, most of the reactions and comments were directed towards the women. Despite all the other violation of norms taking place in quarantine centres everywhere, this video of women dancing caught the public’s attention, for the most obvious reasons.

Why were there questions on the women’s morality?

As the video went viral, media houses, too, picked it up as a breaking news. Screenshots of it came out in print and it was telecast on television channels and online sites. Even as the issue is about flouting guidelines and norms of COVID-19 in the quarantine centre, for people it was the issue of the morality of those women.

There was no question about management and monitoring of the quarantine centres, but questions were raised on ‘morality.’ Though the incident caught the attention of the authorities, there were no reports of any action against those who manage the quarantine centres. Instead, the “quarantine dancers” were made to give out a public apology.

These city returnees are often perceived to be of a ‘loose’ moral character. And that they have no qualms about doing what they want with no regard to their culture and practices. Also, that they have no respect for the sensitivities of their home state and people.

With the stigma attached to those tested positive for COVID-19 and the increase in the number of positive cases in the north-east, the city returnees face double the stigmatisation. It is either that or they are further judged after all these incidents of ‘immoral’ behaviour are caught on cameras.

Picture credits: Still from Netflix movie Axone

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Independent journalist writing on/ of north-east India and engaging with women groups in the

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