Doing Gender

The IHDS documents little correlation between gender segregation within the household (particularly common in Hindu families) or between practicing ghunghat/purdah/hijab and women’s empowerment within the household.


      I finally gave in and used my dupatta to cover my head. For a whole year of fieldwork I have been resisting explicit and implicit pressure to put sindoor in my hair (UP), wear toe-rings (Mathura), don saree as my daily wear or fish out my gold earrings and necklace (Tamil Nadu). But as we headed out for fieldwork in Srinagar and every single one of our female interviewers turned up wearing hijab, burqua or at least dupatta as a head covering, I caved and followed suit.  

      This brought to mind the research on gender performance that I have been doing with a couple of young colleagues Lester Andrist and Gheda Temsah. Our research based on IHDS-I has shown virtually no correlation between “doing gender” through activities such as covering one’s head or face and women’s empowerment within the household. Kashmir was an interesting example.  Our household interviews revealed young women with great educational ambitions casually donning hijab and matriarchs with dominant personality dressed in traditional Kashmiri clothing and headgear. 

      However, the impact of gender norms on public behaviors and access to public spaces is a different story.  When I travelled through Egypt with my eleven year son, we were both struck by the way in which waiters would inevitably hand him the bill. He was thrilled to be treated as an adult and I was exasperated. But traveling with even a miniature male affords more respectability than traveling alone. Staying in business hotels in India is quite disconcerting. As long as I travel with my research team, we stay in relatively cheap hotels costing Rs. 1200-1500 (USD25-30) and are perfectly comfortable. But when I am alone, this is very difficult.  I am often uncomfortable eating in hotel restaurant and end up ordering room service but even this is not easy as waiters start scanning out my room to get a handle on my respectability. So I often end up staying in higher end hotels with wait staff who are more used to single women travelers. Younger women colleagues have told me that while on business travel, a single glass of wine is enough to brand them in the eyes of male colleagues as modern women who may be open to dalliance. 

      Doing gender is not limited to women. Male colleagues are also constantly trying to navigate difficult terrain. I remember a time some years ago when a senior colleague in and international organization in Thailand was worried about cultural suitability of an expat young female researcher’s attire. He waited until a senior woman colleague (in this case, yours truly) came to Thailand to find an intermediary to communicate this information.  While I totally understand his restraint, sadly it deprived this young woman of much needed mentoring. 

     A few weeks ago Hema Ravichandar wrote a very interesting column on gender in business setting in India.  While noting the safety concerns of women employees and their families she notes some of the familiar solutions such as cut-off times beyond which female employees are not supposed to work and requirement of taxi arrangements for women employees when they work overtime, she notes, `…a well-meaning solution, when institutionalized, can actually end up discriminating against the very group it is intended to protect. A time cut-off for women team members and the harried manager battling tight budgets and tighter deadlines wails, “Oh please don’t assign a lady to this assignment. It is a tough one and I don’t want to get blasted by my bosses on why I have a woman working late.”’


3-June 2012

© Sonalde Desai 2012