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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. 

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And so we begin, by organizing ourselves…

[By Payal Arora & Usha Raman]

On January 27 2020, the team for ‘Feminist Approaches to Labour Collectives: Organizing Digitally in South Asia,’ a three-year grant funded project by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) Canadian agency, got together in Hyderabad, India, to launch this project.

Project meeting in Hyderabad

The goal for the meeting was to draw up a road map for the next two and a half years, think through the challenges we might face as well as devise strategies of outreach by capitalizing on existing stakeholders, and technologies. Over two days of brainstorming, we delved deeply into how to frame our sites, as well as the knowledge, methods and ethics that could enable us to optimize our resources most effectively.

The team is spread across four locations: India, The Netherlands, Bangladesh and Germany. This first meeting therefore offered an important opportunity to meet face-to-face (fortunately, just a month before the Covid-19 pandemic hit) and establish some common ground for working together across distance in a manner that would draw on our respective strengths and make room for synergies.

Responding to the rising precarity in conditions of work globally, particularly in the informal sector, the Feminist Approaches to Labour Collectives (FemLabCo) project has two main aims. First, we will explore ways to foster an understanding of female workers’ concerns, and everyday strategies to collectively organize themselves by accessing information on rights and sharing their working conditions using digital tools. Second, we have an action research component where we will design a digital storytelling toolkit and campaign based on the voices of these women. The goal is to use these digital tools to build awareness among our participants of their rights and collective opportunities and nudge behavioral change among consumers and businesses in alignment with ethical practice.

To this end, the project team will engage with women workers in India (Hyderabad) and Bangladesh, to map their communicative ecologies and the ways in which they build and nurture work-related community networks, and use the understanding we so derive to inform the action research. The members in The Netherlands and Germany then will take this formative research on board to build the digital storytelling toolkits that translate legal rights for instance into empowering and engaging material for workers and other interested parties. The goal is also to animate and engage consumers and other stakeholders across the global supply chain and to steer them towards responsible and ethical consumption practice when it comes to fair work in the global supply chain.

Even as the team had planned to begin initial scoping work in the two countries to identify research participants in the sectors of interest — garment workers, home-based artisans, sanitation workers, construction workers and beauty and wellness services providers in the gig-economy — the world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and much of the globe was shut down. While this has put field work to a halt, it has afforded us the opportunity to reflect on the larger goals of the project and also consider more deeply the complexities of the contexts in which the most vulnerable women live and work. The media is infused with images of thousands of migrant workers, (many from the sectors of interest to our project) leaving cities for their villages, having lost their means of livelihood. This has brought to the forefront new aspects of precarity in the future of work as few of these workers enjoy a security net either from the state or their private-sector employers.

The current crisis also underscores the need to look at problems in all their complexity: to consider economic productivity in isolation from other aspects of life (health, community and family, environment, housing, etc.) is neither tenable nor just, as the response to the Covid-19 crisis has shown.

With this approach, the Bangladesh and India teams will over the next few months begin developing a familiarity with the selected sectors and identifying interlocutors who will help us connect with women workers and initiate an empathetic conversation that will continue over the year. This blog will serve as an initial talking post where we try out ideas for size and present some of our field based insights as they emerge.