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Rainbow Series – Day 7: The Peacock and the Path to New Beginnings

As we approach a zero-covid Scotland, let us not forget the hard-learnt lessons, the lives lost and the promises made for new beginnings. Let us dare to dream a better, brighter future where kindness and empathy, and radical care and solidarity are at the centre of human interactions.

Radhika Govinda is a feminist sociologist whose work is on the gender politics of development, intersectionality and feminist knowledge production. She lives and works in Edinburgh, and can be reached at Twitter: @GovindaRadhika

A shifting sense of sanctuary in the time of pandemic

Alison Koslowski

Thursday 30th July 2020

Lockdown for me came just days after moving from Leith to London. Our intentions were to use the flat in London as a base from which to launch to various work trips, including for me, a regular shuttle up the East Coast trainline to Edinburgh. It was never intended to be a place where we spent so much time, day in day out. But mostly, it was a new place, and so lockdown hit us before we had the chance to form a new mental map of how things worked around us.

This experience leads me to ponder the role of sanctuary in our everyday lives. We can be said to have found sanctuary when we feel safe and protected, cocooned from any outside pressures that might be waiting for us. Sanctuary is not a regular constituent of the sociological canon, but I wonder whether we might want to give the concept greater consideration.

Our homes have been presumed by Governments across the globe as sanctuary from the virus. Sometimes ‘home’ is the environment over which you have the most control and so the place where you can best create sanctuary. Other times ‘home’ can be a place where you might not feel safe or might struggle to be comfortable, or simply have to share space with (too many) others. It is usual to seek sanctuary elsewhere than home, even when you also have a home that does shelter you well.

Everyday practices of sanctuary

Where can you find respite from the world; rest; take a moment to pause undisturbed? Where can you be fully yourself in the moment without immediate concern? Where can you take a break from your inner theatre of thoughts? The routines we have to these ends are our everyday practices of sanctuary. I usually find sanctuary in the water. Not being able to immerse has been really hard. Getting in the water at the Parliament Hill lido last week as it reopened was wonderful.

Sometimes you stumble on sanctuary in a lucky find, but more often creating or discovering sanctuary takes effort. Early on in lockdown I saw a clip with top tips from a submarine captain for surviving being cooped up. Top of his list was keeping your home clean. The washing up involved in staying home – who knew! But I agree with the submarine captain, for most of us at least, it is difficult to feel well if things are too unclean. Observing a (new) neighbour during lockdown revealed a cleanliness paradox: She was truly terrified by the virus, to the extent that she was scared to touch anything or go out even to put out the rubbish as the outside world was too ‘unclean’…for months. Last week she had to get pest control in and is only now putting out her rubbish again.

Are you able to sleep well? We had some night time noise issues with our new flat. Without sleep, it is difficult to feel that you have sanctuary; it is one of the basics. Whether it is another flashing light disrupting the darkness, or a mechanical whirr disrupting the quiet of the night or stompy nocturnal neighbours; these things matter if you are to feel safe and well. Having a dedicated, peaceful place to sleep, without electronic gadgets, is an everyday practice of sanctuary for many.

Sanctuary refers to holy places. Whilst we live, at least in the UK, in times of declining religiosity, I wonder if the lockdown has seen a boost for spiritual approaches centred on nature, which encourage us to cultivate a feeling of reverence, awe and wonder for and unity with the natural world. Having somewhere to be still – or indeed to move -, to be outside, to be in communion with something beyond yourself can be very beneficial. During lockdown I took out a subscription to ‘Silly Greens’ who, for a nominal sum, posted three sets of seedlings every week – effectively a fancy version of cress, and it was soothing to see their irrepressible nature to sprout. Since arriving at the new flat I have seen from our kitchen window: a squirrel, a fox, jays, blackbirds, robins, pigeons, a myriad of insects, and the piece de resistance, we have had a resident nightingale in a nearby garden, which renders a smile every time I hear him.

The disruption to our usual sanctuaries during the pandemic

There are various public spaces that are regular sanctuaries. I have mentioned swimming pools. Libraries can also be such places (thinking of Emma Davidson’s work on the multi-functions of public libraries). My Mum was delighted when the library reopened last week, but then terribly disappointed: “they are just lending books”, she said. As someone who lives alone since my Dad passed away, and is extremely outgoing, she does not really use her local library to borrow books, but for the company at one of the various craft sessions that they usually run. Sanctuary can be experienced alone or communally, and Mum is a person who feels more relaxed when in a group. Similarly, my Aunt is very much missing meeting with her church congregation in person (she does not use the internet and so the zoom services are not available to her) and so for someone who usually goes to church a couple of times a week, this has been very hard.

The role of dedicated spaces for different aspects of our selves is part of sanctuary. In so far that we have various identities, how do we find places to live out these different component parts of who we are, when we are sharing space with others needing to do the same? Noise cancelling headphones only get you so far: I love working from home when it is just me. I do not love working from home at the same time as my husband and my neighbours.

For some children at least, schools are a sanctuary. For some adults, their places of work are a sanctuary. Others find sanctuary at their local gym, as part of a music group, at music gigs, at church; these can be safe spaces. For others, sanctuary is found in a couple of hours at the cinema, or in their local coffee shop. All of which have been unavailable to us recently.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the incidence of domestic violence increased during lockdown. Home is not a safe space for some, and the usual refuges have not been available. It is deeply problematic to make the blanket assumption of home as sanctuary.

In search of sanctuary

Removed, at least in terms of physical distance from my former community and places in Edinburgh, I have started to consider the component parts of my sanctuaries that are external to home and to think about what I need to find in the new place. At the same time, finding myself dropped into a new flat has also fine tuned my sense of what I need to feel safe and at ease whilst at home. I am sure that I am not alone following lockdown in reconsidering what I should make manifest to create the sanctuary I need.

How much better at realising good outcomes might many of our social and public health policies be if we incorporated a more explicit consideration of sanctuary into their planning – both during and beyond this pandemic?

Staying at home may literally provide sanctuary from the virus, but I would suggest caution that the home, and more specifically a lifestyle where we are encouraged to stay at home as much as possible provides sufficient sanctuary for many of us. Whether we have sufficient sanctuary is not a question we are regularly asked: but I think it would be helpful to do so, if we are to better understand the mechanisms underpinning good health and happiness.

Alison Koslowski is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh.

Rainbow Series – Day 6: The Squirrel’s Message

As someone who was born and brought up in India but is now living and working in Scotland, I have always tried to hold in the same frame my two worlds. But keeping in touch across different time zones and caring long distance for loved ones has not been easy. In some ways, the outbreak of covid-19 and especially India having sealed its borders from even Indian passportholders living abroad has been anxiety-inducing in that it forecloses even the possibility of travel were the need to arise. But in other ways, the pandemic has brought together my two worlds which are otherwise worlds apart. At times, the appalling inadequacy of state response has made me wonder if I am really living in a ‘developed’ country. At other times, I have chosen to focus on how the pandemic has strengthened old bonds of family and friendship (we are connecting a lot more on skype/whatsapp while balancing working from home with childcare) and opened up new windows (of time and space) for radical care and solidarity (through webinars and accelerated transnational activism). Each time I fret about what the future holds, I remind myself that, beyond the corona lens, the tree of life continues to grow and life-sustaining water continues to flow through the two places (Delhi represented by Qutab Minar and Edinburgh symbolised by Calton Hill in the painting) at the centre of my phenomenological world.

Radhika Govinda is a feminist sociologist whose work is on the gender politics of development, intersectionality and feminist knowledge production. She lives and works in Edinburgh, and can be reached at Twitter: @GovindaRadhika

Introducing The Panopticon

I’m delighted to post the inaugural edition of The Panopticon, Edinburgh’s student led sociological journal. The Panopticon is named after the all seeing institution designed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th Century. It is a building in which the inmates can be continually visible to their overseers. They can never be sure they are not being watched. It is an idea as much as an architectural template. Michel Foucualt identified it as the model for a pervasive system of governance and behavioural control that characterises modern societies.

The journal is a lively and fresh take on sociology and reminds us why it is relevant to the current moment. It includes interviews, playlists, reflection and analytical articles. The authors apply their sociological imagination to themes of death, anonymity, ambiguity, life in the city, system change and stasis, economics, autonomy and avacados. Thoughtful, provoking and vibrant, it asks what sociology means to us at this time, as individuals, scholars and communities. This first edition is a cracking read! Download the pdf here:

Rainbow Series – Day 5: Awesome Ants and the Why-Why Girl

‘Awesome ants and the why-why girl’*

Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been having rather vivid dreams. In one, I was in a mask-making factory and was stitching masks alongside hundreds of factory workers. In another, all human beings had a piece of the jigsaw puzzle and if we worked together to solve it, we would find the vaccine for covid-19…. The dreams are no doubt bizarre and waking up from them I am exhausted the next day but I’m convinced that working hard and working together, as people seem to do in my dreams, is the only way we can all make it! How many lives must be lost before this is understood?!

*I’ve taken inspiration for the title and some of the designs in this artwork from two of my son’s storybooks, Mahasweta Devi’s (2003) The Why-Why Girl, Chennai: Tulika, with illustrations by Kanyika Kini, and Vinitha’s (2018) Sara Learns To Fly, New Delhi: Katha, with illustrations by Nirzara Verulkar.

Radhika Govinda is a feminist sociologist whose work is on the gender politics of development, intersectionality and feminist knowledge production. She lives and works in Edinburgh, and can be reached at Twitter: @GovindaRadhika

Rainbow Series – Day 4: Out of the Fishbowl

‘Out of the fishbowl!’

Why couldn’t the British, US and Indian governments take prompt and appropriate action to curb the spread of the virus? Why do they continue to prioritise economic gain over the well-being of people? I have felt angered and aghast at the sheer refusal by political leaders to see the big picture! Why can’t they put aside petty politicking over who will have access to consignments of masks, hydrochloroquine and remdesivir? Why are people hoarding toilet rolls? Why are domestic workers being ostracised as being carriers of the virus in India? Why is there BAME disproportionality in doctors and nurses’ deaths in the UK? The virus has shown that it does not respect boundaries but we as nations and individuals seem to be holding onto and reproducing them against all good sense…. In gond art, fish are depicted as having wings and as moving forward together in shoals. Why can’t we too respond by adapting to the changed circumstances and by showing radical solidarity in the stormy times of covid-19!

Radhika Govinda is a feminist sociologist whose work is on the gender politics of development, intersectionality and feminist knowledge production. She lives and works in Edinburgh, and can be reached at Twitter: @GovindaRadhika

Rainbow Series – Day 3: Empathetic Elephants

Elephants are known to be kind and empathetic. After the first month or so of lockdown in Edinburgh, my mind has kept going back to how important it is for us to reconnect with nature, and to be attentive to the simple lessons that birds and animals have long known, lessons we seem to have forgotten as we have evolved: about kindness and empathy, about living in harmony with one another and with nature…. As the weeks have turned into months in lockdown, my family and I have valued the opportunity to spend time outdoors, albeit initially limited to our back garden and the meadows. In more recent weeks, we have been able to go hill walking, and my 4.5 year old has learnt to climb trees (a skill I suspect he wouldn’t have otherwise learnt given our urban lifestyle) and as I pick a flower or two on our walks he insists that I not pick the ones that the bees would miss! I hope we’ll remember to carry with us these learnings into a future free from the spectre of covid-19. If the rise in racial violence points to the dire need to embrace these learnings, the mutual aid groups that have been formed offer a ray of hope.

Radhika Govinda is a feminist sociologist whose work is on the gender politics of development, intersectionality and feminist knowledge production. She lives and works in Edinburgh, and can be reached at Twitter: @GovindaRadhika

Rainbow Series – Day 2: Spring is Here

‘Spring is here!’

The first few weeks in the lockdown were a whirlwind of activity and anxiety. I had neither the time (what with balancing full time working from home with childcare) nor the courage to step out (so afraid I had felt of the deadly virus). When I finally set foot outside after four weeks, I realised that spring had already arrived while I had been trying to make sense of the new normal! The flowers were in bloom. The bees were buzzing around them as they would have normally done at this time of the year. Little seemed to have changed for them. This and being confronted with the uncertainty of life and the possibility of death made me think that I should be slowing down, taking the time to enjoy life and focusing on the things that really matter – my loved ones and my book!

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Radhika Govinda is a feminist sociologist whose work is on the gender politics of development, intersectionality and feminist knowledge production. She lives and works in Edinburgh, and can be reached at Twitter: @GovindaRadhika

Introducing Radhika Govinda’s Rainbow Series

We are delighted to introduce the first in a seven part series by our colleague, senior lecturer and artist Radhika Govinda. Inspired by the handmade rainbows that children put up on the windows of their homes across the UK, the Rainbow Series by Radhika Govinda is a set of seven blog posts, through which she shares artwork she has been doing to grapple with the feelings and thoughts that the ongoing pandemic has brought up in her. These range from concerns about the climate crisis, to slowing down, prioritising loved ones, foregrounding radical kindness and solidarity in our quest for a covid-19-free future. 

Day 1 – ‘Anthropocene’

Day 2 – ‘Spring is Here’

Day 3 – ‘Empathetic Elephants – Non-Human Roads to Kindness and Harmony’

Day 4 – ‘Out of the fishbowl!’

Day 5 – ‘Awesome Ants and the Why-Why Girl’

Day 6 – ‘The Squirrel’s Message’

Day 7 – ‘The Peacock and the Path to New Beginnings’

Read about Radhika’s work at her webpage and follow her on Twitter @GovindaRadhika

Thanks to Martin Booker for formatting the series for WordPress.

Rainbow Series – Day 1: Anthropocene

As the days and weeks passed, and as nurseries closed and schools moved teaching online, drawings and paintings of rainbows started to come up on our street, on the neighbouring streets, and as it would turn out, all over the UK, as if signalling that everything was going to be okay, that a beautiful rainbow awaits us at the end of this storm that is the covid-19 pandemic.

My 4.5 year old and I too made a rainbow and put it up on our living room window. As the pandemic has stretched on, we have made several more, and now every window in our home is adorned with a handmade rainbow.

In the first instance, it is these rainbows that inspired this series of artwork, as I painted alongside my child. Hence the use of the seven colours of the rainbow in each piece.

Soon what I loosely call ‘painting’ became a creative outlet for the gamut of feelings I was experiencing – fear, anger, frustration, anxiety – and seeking – hope, resilience, comfort, calm. It helped get over migraines brought on by the stress of unending spirals of work and of anxiety about my family’s and my own wellbeing that even multiple doses of paracetamol couldn’t resolve. It enabled me to express the snatches of thoughts I struggled to coherently articulate in words, especially in those early days of the pandemic. Painting was cathartic. It was relaxing. It feels like a long-lost friend I have reconnected with after the passage of many years. Why did we ever drift apart? Painting has been a lifeline in these disturbing times.

But I am no artist. If you asked me about my distinct style, I would say that I don’t have one. What I have attempted with ordinary acrylic paint pens in this series is an amalgam inspired by gond, madhubani and tinga tinga artists and art forms.

There are seven pieces of artwork in this series. The symbolism of the rainbow or the seven colours of the rainbow appear in each piece. Over the next seven days, I will post one piece and accompanying reflections every day, in keeping with the symbolism of the seven colours of the rainbow.

Today’s artwork is titled: ‘Anthropocene’.

The Australian bushfires just before, and the oil leak in the Arctic circle, the recurring earthquakes, swarms of locusts and devastating cyclones in the South Asian subcontinent during the ongoing pandemic are all manifestations of climate change. Is the pandemic nature’s way of disrupting the world’s march towards unbridled capitalism? Is it the warning that we, as humankind, must heed if we are to survive?

The serpent carries within her the earth.
The tree of life grows on her.
Disturb her, and life as we know it is shaken.

Inspired by Ram Singh Urveti’s ‘The Tree of the Serpent Goddess’ from Bajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti’s (2006) The Night Life of Trees, Chennai: Tara Books.

Radhika Govinda is a feminist sociologist whose work is on the gender politics of development, intersectionality and feminist knowledge production. She lives and works in Edinburgh, and can be reached at Twitter: @GovindaRadhika


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