In Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, Chambers' research showed, job opportunities for female wood workers are still curtailed. Most women are restricted to the home, and many of those who work in factories, are concerned about sexual predators.
Whose stories are centred when ‘working from home’ is seen as ‘the new normal’? How does one account for the labour of women who have always worked from home because of the patriarchal structures in their lives? Thomas Chambers’ book Networks, Labour and Migration among Indian Muslim Artisans (2020) will make you think about these questions.
The author is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the Oxford Brookes University. His book is based on ethnographic fieldwork with woodworkers in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh.
Chambers notes that migration to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) from Uttar Pradesh now exceeds that from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. He writes, “The state registered 191,341 emigrants to the Gulf in 2012, compared with 27,428 in 2004. Figures for 2013 and 2015 suggest that numbers exceeded 200,000 in these years.”
The book examines how local friendship groups and apprenticeship networks open up opportunities for men to migrate to the GCC whereas women’s engagement with the labour market keeps them mostly confined to the home. The book will help readers appreciate how ‘working from home’ is experienced outside corporate India, and how this experience is shaped by gender. Chambers tries to explain this using the concept of ‘chal-chalan’ in local parlance.
He writes, “The term articulates a complex assemblage of gendered moral and ethical circulations that regulate women’s sexualities, bodies and subjectivities. It was also at the forefront of women’s discourses about participation in paid labour within and beyond the home.” His book will deepen your understanding of workplace sexual harassment, a big reason for women woodworkers to prefer working from home rather than in factories.
Unlike men who are able to withdraw their labour and seek work elsewhere within India or outside, women’s mobility is restricted. They are expected to look after children, and the sick and elderly. Their economic independence is also curtailed by employers who justify low wages by insisting that their labour is unskilled, and that their income is meant to supplement the earnings of the men in the house who are supposed to be the real breadwinners.
The book shows how this reasoning is flawed. Chambers found that women with husbands who were either unemployed or alcoholic had to bear all the responsibility for running their households. Women who were divorced or widowed were also in a precarious situation. Working in factories would pay them a lot better but it would make them more vulnerable to sexual predators who saw them as easy prey as “they lack(ed) the ‘protection’ of a husband.”
Chambers writes, “My involvement with the mohallas has always been mediated in a highly gendered context. Narrating the lives, experiences and subjectivities of women is therefore one of the more challenging aspects of this book.” He adds, “Gradually, curtains fell away, and over the years I have developed many close relationships with women in the mohallas.”
Earning the trust of one’s respondents is key to producing ethical scholarship. Researchers need to care not only about their research questions but also the human beings who help them generate knowledge by sharing their time, lived experiences and personal insights.
Chambers has quoted some of the women he interviewed. One of them, named Sabra, says, “Sometimes in the factories the men are really very rude. Some men address me like a dog…I never talk to men in the factory as I know they are shameless…They say, ‘If you are pak daman, then go to your home. If you belong to a respectable family, you would not come to the factory.’ I have to bear this blame silently. If I did not, my job would be finished.”
Acknowledging the particularities of his social location as a white, non-Muslim man from the UK entering a gender-segregated environment in north India for his research, he attempts to listen and understand with sincerity. This is refreshing because the trope of white men trying to save brown women from brown men is not only patronizing but has also been overdone.
Chambers writes, “My male positionality imposed limitations that did not arise in my relationships with men. The experiences of women who labour in wood production are so distinct from those of their male counterparts that any attempt to interlace the narratives runs the risk of obscuring these distinctions.” To overcome these limitations, he draws on Ayesha Ansari’s work to contextualize Muslim women’s experiences in the Indian workforce.
It can be rewarding to read Chambers’ book alongside Devaki Jain’s recent memoir The Brass Notebook (2020). As a feminist economist, she is deeply invested in pointing out that women in households marked as being below the poverty line are neither sitting idle nor occupied exclusively with household chores and childcare. They roll bidis, sell cow dung cakes, or earn money for their family in other ways. This is economic activity, and it requires skill acquisition.
Though Chambers’ analysis is largely heteronormative, he subtly points out the relationship between homosociality and same-sex desire in Saharanpur’s gullies, expressed through the religious rhetoric of brotherhood. You might find it useful to read Gayatri Gopinath’s book Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora (2018), which suggests that the “Gulf dreams” of migrants may “extend beyond limited heteronormative framings.”
She writes, “If working-class migrants are viewed as heterogeneous, desiring subjects rather than reductively defined simply through their labour, what other longings and forms of relationality come into view in the homosocial, regional and diasporic spaces they inhabit?”
This question could also be posed in relation to the desires and aspirations of women woodworkers in Saharanpur, involved in “polishing, sanding and touching up on defects on items such as boxes, incense holders and rehals (folding stands for holding the Quran).”
Are these women’s lives defined only by their income and status as woodworkers? Chambers’ limited access to them keeps him from offering insights into the friendships, solidarities and intimacies that might be forged between them. However, his research on how women’s labour is devalued and underpaid lays the ground for future researchers to explore how women offer care, joy and strength to each other within patriarchal settings.