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Feminist Futures in the Time of Emergency

In the opening two months of the new albeit Covid-19-ridden year, a state of emergency was declared in two Southeast Asian nation-states. An “emergency declaration not a military coup”[1] was invoked in the name of the pandemic by the ‘backdoor government’ of Malaysia that is in power because of a political coup that unseated the legitimate coalitional government months ago. Discerning and compliant mask-donning rakyat (citizenry) under partial lockdown since last March, see through the emergency—also invoked in the name of the father, the constitutional monarch—as a ploy to unconstitutionally hold on to political power as the current Prime Minister’s political party no longer commands the majority in Parliament. In neighbouring Myanmar, a military coup in the guise of a “Covid coup” has brutally taken over the democratically elected NLD government, arrested its august leader, Aung San Suu Kyi on grounds of violating the National Disaster Management Law along with hundreds of protestors who brave the streets fighting for their hard-won but precarious fundamental liberties[2].

How does one make sense of the abuse of state power in the time of coronavirus? Turning to political philosophy, one is reminded of “biopolitics”; a modern state’s exercise of “biopower” or simply, power over the life of its citizenry. “Biopower”, as defined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, is manifest in two basic forms. The first form of micro-power, an “anatomo-politics of the human body” is targeted at individuals and bodies to optimise their capabilities, usefulness and docility (e.g. normalising heterosexuality for the sake of perpetuating the species) and executed by regulatory bodies (e.g. schools, army, asylums and prisons). The second form of macro-power, a “bio- politics of the population” focuses on the “species body” encompassing “biological processes” from womb to tomb, is effected by the state, “through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls”.[3]

Throughout history from the seemingly benign population census (usually introduced by colonisers that legitimises racism and formalises other forms of social hierarchies), to the global control and containment of this pandemic (neither the first nor last) that lead to varying degrees of curtailment of fundamental liberties, e.g. movement (closed borders), assembly (lockdowns), expression (facemask/anti-facemask), we are witnessing and for many, experiencing first-hand, the unbridled exercise of state power. The rise of modern states’ power over life—its regulation, enhancement and perpetuation—as a shift from yesterday’s sovereign power over death—the “right to take life or let live”[4]—is no less absolute today, in times of (fake) emergencies, running amok in the time of coronavirus. In the case of Malaysia and Myanmar, the modus operandi of power grab under the invocation of emergency (where anything goes) is the exertion of “biopower” not for the sake of the people but power grabbers to ensure political survival long after these men have lost the legitimacy of governance and rule.

It seems fitting to turn to the latest papal encyclical, Fratelli Tutti as it was written in the time of coronavirus and its masculinized framing of fraternal bonds and friendship may have a lesson for power-hungry men who are tone-deaf to the will of the people.[5] Pope Francis calls for a “culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard”.[6] Where men invoke the emergency in the name of the pandemic, Pope Francis’ invokes “the name of God, who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity”, “the name of peoples who have lost their security, peace and the possibility of living together”, and “the name of human fraternity, that embraces all human beings, unites them and renders them equal”.[7] Men (and not in a generic sense) who weaponise fear are likewise tone-deaf to the almost feminised acts of love, mercy and compassion exhorted in the encyclical.

In recognising the limits of the gender bias and gender blindness of the encyclical, at once encapsulated in the vision of “human fraternity”, one turns finally to feminist (envisioned) futures in the time of coronavirus that makes visible the gendered and racialized experiences of the multitude; those who are hungry but not for power. Feminist philosophers maintain that women’s bodies and non-heternormative sexualities are made more docile as they are more vulnerable to body policing (e.g. rise in gender-based violence during Covid-19). Feminists of colour stand in solidarity with the stranger in our midst (e.g. more are kept out, locked up and unwanted during Covid-19) as they know first-hand what it means to live a life of deprivation even as citizens. Feminist theologians and in particular, eco-theologians insist on an intersectional ethos that inclusively embraces not only a “culture of dialogue as the path” but also a web of inter-relationality (including inter-species solidarity) where one is hurt if an-other is hurt. Radical love is not gender neutral or colour blind and confronts injustices in the home, in our communities and in the streets.

[1] Palansamy, Y. (2021, January 12). PM: Emergency declaration not a military coup, no curfew. Malay Mail. Retrieved from

[2] Lee, R. (2021, February 17). Covid coup: How Myanmar’s military used the pandemic to justify and enable its power grab. The Conversation. Retrieved from

[3] Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality (vol. 1), paragraph 139.

[4] Ibid., paragraph 136.

[5] Pope Francis (2020). Fratelli Tutti (On fraternity and social friendship). Retrieved from

[6] Ibid., Article 285.

[7] Ibid.