CHENNAI, JULY 17: Karen Pichilis, Professor of Humanities at Drew University (New Jersey) and a Fulbright-Nehru senior scholar, spoke on the cultural and social factors influencing how women in the workforce are perceived in India. Speaking in a seminar titled ‘A Conjectural History of Cultural Ideas on Women and Work in India’, hosted by The Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), she said that she has been studying the cultural notions of working women in urban India since 2015. She began studying the narratives that define socially acceptable vocations for women, and the moralistic views of the society on women in the workforce. She said that she chose Chennai for her study because of its cosmopolitan nature.
The history of social views on women in the workforce
To understand the roots of how women in work are perceived by the society, Pechilis studied the social roles of women before and after Independence. She began by studying classical Tamil literature, and stated that “Karaikal Ammayar was a true feminist”.
For information on how society defined roles for women during the British Raj, she studied literature from the era, mainly articles published in Stri Dharma. Pechilis observed that before Independence, the emphasis for upper class women was to stick to household work, while underprivileged women were expected to work and contribute to the family’s income. Talking about male social reformers who had fought to abolish evils such as child marriage, widow abuse etc., she said that though they had fought to do away with the injustice meted out to women, they did not further the cause of women by promoting gender equality. They held a moralistic view that “educating women is good”, but this view didn’t help the cause of gender equality, as they did not think about gainful employment of women as a means of true liberation.
Findings from the study
Pechilis categorised her sample of working women into three types: “the post graduate working professionals, the educated, middle-class workforce, and workers from the poor, backward sections of the society”.
Based on her interviews with 30 middle-class working women in Chennai, she said that the moral values of our society dictate that women are duty-bound to serve their family, and that “a woman has greater social acceptability if her job required her to work with women and children”. The women she interviewed perceived work as a tool to achieve independence and fulfillment, she said.
In conclusion, she outlined the direction her study was taking, stating that she would “include aspects of work becoming a fundamental right for women in India, and a wider history of cultural attitude towards women in the workforce”.
P.S. I attended this seminar as part of my assignment at college. I’ll publish more of my write-ups subject to approvals from lecturers. I’d love to hear how I can improve my skills! Do leave your comments on this post.
P.P.S. MIDS hosts a lot of interesting seminars and lectures. Check your daily newspaper and try attending them: they’re enlightening and insightful.