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When women’s employment equals family disgrace: A Case from Rural India

[By Renza Iqbal]

Fariha, 19 years, belongs to a middle-class family. Though her family could afford to get her a smartphone, it was not deemed necessary. Fariha’s first smartphone was gifted to her by her husband. She sought her husband’s approval before installing WhatsApp on her phone. She had been married off soon after her schooling and had no hope of pursuing further education or employment. However, this is not a story of a girl from some “backward” place. Fariha is from one of India’s most progressive states—Kerala.

As a PhD scholar at Erasmus University Rotterdam working on digital inequality in rural India, I carried out a month long pilot study in rural Wayanad – a district in the north of Kerala, conducting a focus group discussion and 25 in-depth interviews to understand how the Kerala state fares in terms of digital access and usage. My findings revealed a bigger problem. Though my focus was on the usage and access to mobile phones and the internet, these digital barriers appeared to be culturally induced, embedded in long standing gendered notions of education, employment, and leisure.

Kerala’s women: The most educated and the least empowered

Among the states in India, Kerala often gains the spotlight for its exceptional achievements. It tops the indices in education, gender ratio, health and governance. When the country records 48.5% of its population as female, the state of Kerala boasts a 52.02% female population. But the series of remarkable achievements by the state’s government seems to have had little effect on improving the number of women in the workforce. It is a curious case of education not being converted into employment or empowerment.

Women in the state have a higher education level compared to women in other states in the country. Yet, women’s participation in the labour market has been consistently lower than men, and the wage gap compared to men remains high. It doesn’t end here. According to the Gender Statistics 2017-18 report by the Economics and Statistics Department of the State, around 75% of the female population in the state is considered to be economically inactive. So how is it that a state with the highest female literacy rate is also the state with the highest female unemployment? Add to that the fact that girls in Kerala consistently outperform boys in national-level achievement tests and language tests., you start to see a pattern—a suppressive social order at work.     

Formal education, a mere formality

Education does not necessarily lead to empowerment. I have witnessed this my whole life. As someone who grew up in a traditional Muslim family in Kerala, I bore witness to patriarchy’s hand at work. I have experienced, both within my family and around me, women with tremendous intellectual capacity being married off early, to take on their predetermined life role of carrying out household chores and responsibilities. In my community, education for women is understood as an acceptable engagement until marriage—a mere formality. This notion is so ingrained that one often finds families waiting outside college gates on the lookout to identify potential brides. This goes beyond this particular community; restricting women’s potential is found in almost every community in Kerala, just in different ways.

Image credit: Pippa Ranger/DFID – UK Department for International Development

Caution, women at work

A 2019 study on women’s labour in Kerala gives us better insight into the cultural influences on women’s low representation in workspaces. It found that working women in Kerala are seen as representing the inadequacy of the primary male bread earners’ capacity to provide sufficiently for the family. For women coming from the privileged classes and castes, engaging in employment outside the confines of their home is even considered disgraceful for the family. Paid work is regarded as a threat to their femininity arising from the shared fear that working women could be exposed to sexual harassment. Those who dare to challenge these norms are often ostracized. The most readily accepted solution to protect women from unwanted advances is to restrict women’s access to public spaces. This keeps them from becoming financially independent.

Welcoming a digital Indian!

While growing up, women are monitored by the family on who they are engaging with on their devices. The amount of time they can spend on their devices are also often restricted. That is, if they manage to pass all hurdles to finally get access to smartphones.

During the pilot study for my research, I had the opportunity to engage with young people and listen to their experiences on the gendered differences in mobile internet usage and how education, employment and leisure influenced their behavior online. Among the participants, of those who did not own a smartphone – 70% were women. My study also shows a gendered difference in the age at which they first attain a personal smartphone, with it being 15 for males and 18 for females. Some young men engage in part-time jobs from when they are teenagers and buy their own smartphone. Women seldom get the opportunity.

15-year-old Nihas tells me that “girls use their mother’s phones. They do not generally have a personal phone.” Young women’s mobile phone and internet usage is both controlled and monitored, fearing they would engage in romance. Even being seen speaking with a stranger of the opposite sex can bring shame to the woman and her family. 23-year-old Thresiya was instructed by her family, not to engage in phone conversations when outside the house, as there is a possibility that the local people would assume that she is in a relationship. Fear looms around the impact of gossip on the reputation of the family. Romance outside marriage is taboo in these communities; therefore, a constant effort to reduce their interaction with strangers is a must, even if it means confining them to their homes.

Other aspects from the pilot study surfaced, reflecting the socio-digital life of an average woman in rural India:

  • Most young get intermittent access to their mother’s smartphone around the age of 15.
  • Many women, irrespective of their academic interests and performance, will be married off anywhere between 18 and early 20’s; uprooted to a new life under the supervision of their husband and his family.
  • Further education is at the mercy of the husband and his family, who in most cases, do not see it as necessary.
  • They are rendered financially dependent.
  • Their household responsibilities begin; they succumb to their gender role set and protected by society.
  • This reduces their leisure time, giving them less time to explore internet possibilities, and learning by trial and error.
  • This makes them less skilled at using the phone or the internet compared to their male counterparts.

Nowhere in the timeline do women in rural Kerala get to exercise their independence, financially or otherwise. But not everything is in despair; there is a silver lining. An interesting finding from my study is that unlike middle and upper-class women, for women belonging to economically backward tribal communities, engaging in employment is acceptable. Rarely did it affect family honour or reputation negatively; rather, womenfolk being capable of earning enhanced their prestige. In their case, any contribution to the family’s finances is welcome – even if it is as little as the women taking care of their expenses. Women feel empowered when engaging in employment; they also develop healthy relationships and networks outside their family. Women from these communities often bought a smartphone for themselves using their salaries, or in some cases, scholarship funds. Two of my participants from the Kuruma, a financially “backward” tribal community, shared their experiences. Gopika works as a teacher, whereas Archa is a Master’s student – the two made use of their salary and scholarship fund respectively to purchase a phone – and they are proud of their achievements.

The future of her

For many women like Fariha and Thresiya, education doesn’t equal empowerment. What we need is a reform that tackles societal and gender roles. If in a supposedly progressive state women are not encouraged to leverage on their education to contribute to the labour economy and not valued for their formal work, then maybe, it is not women who need to be educated. The trends change; if it was education restriction yesterday, it is fully autonomous access to smartphones today. Before the dawn of the next regressive trend, let us address the root of the problem: patriarchy.

Women’s employment has to be normalised if we are to develop healthier societies. Women’s liberty and autonomy to engage with the internet and mobile phones could open up numerous employment and growth opportunities. In a time when there is an increasing focus on digitisation across spheres, it is essential to pay attention to the existing structural inequalities and resolve them. Besides, one cannot truly call it digital India till women have unrestricted access to this new basic need


Renza Iqbal is an external PhD candidate at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a Fellow at MICA, Ahmedabad. She works in the area of digital inequality and is particularly interested in the intersection of gender and rurality. Renza has previous experience working in diverse areas such as education, media and advertising.