I would like to continue the discussion of our wonderful conference, STS-South Asia (UT-Austin, May 2010), by posing some thoughts and questions about the keynote lecture. This was given by David Arnold and titled: “Situating Technology: Reflections on the Rise of Techno-Modernity in 19th and 20th century South Asia.” Arnold provided a much-needed focus on everyday technologies during turn of the century India, and how they operated “in the home, the village, the street.” What really captivated me was his opening observation that many of the technologies of early 20th century India were global, and moreover, associated with women. Arnold made important observations about how narratives of femininity and sexuality often accompanied discourses and practices, as new technologies were introduced in daily life.
Why did I feel then, that a gendered perspective of technology was missing? I’m not an historian, but still as a feminist scholar, Arnold’s analysis raised many questions for me:
1. If women are the focus of the analysis as practitioners and targets of technology, and are the linchpin between everyday technologies and social realities, then why not even a hint of feminist theory in the analytical framework? Four different cases were presented as examples of the role of technology in everyday life (sewing machines, typewriters, bicycles, mills), and all were about women. Yet neither the significance nor implications of this link of gender to technology were discussed. Whether as a theoretical framing or as a method of understanding the cases, the analysis would have benefitted from some attention to the wealth of feminist literature on South Asia.
A case in point is Arnold’s discussion of the sewing machine. He points out how the Singer sewing machine from the U.S. was marketed in India for high caste women, who would be able to sew clothes in their households for sale to Europeans and Eurasians in India.
Reading Maria Mies’s classic piece The Lacemakers of Narsapur (1982), Arnold would have learned how this was happening as much as a hundred years earlier in the state of Andhra Pradesh. With the simpler technological tool of the knitting needle, Indian women began producing lace tablecloths, napkins, and rounds for the global market. This eventually became a full-fledged “invisible” production process, “submerged [in an] underground economy” of the household (p. 55).
With Mies’s analysis, we see the full implications (and complications) of the political economies of technology for women. The women in her 1970s study were poor and working in times of famine and economic hardship to augment the dwindling incomes of their husbands: “lace making is not a leisure time activity of all classes of women who want to earn some extra money” but rather an act of “necessity” (p. 125). Furthermore, the monetary benefits of lace-making ultimately lay less in the hands of these women than in the shockingly wide array of middlemen. Forming the transnational chain between the Indian women workers and the British, Australian, and German consumers were a number of male co-betweens: agents, hawkers, merchants and exporters. Thus, while the technology of the knitting needle, and by extension the sewing machine, may provide income sources for women, they are also embedded in a broader system of global patriarchal exploitation.
2. My next question: Is it possible that Arnold may be overstating the feminization of some of these particular technologies? For instance, Arnold presents a convincing argument about how Western organizations were targeting certain technologies to women: the YWCA in Calcutta encouraged women to use typewriters as a means of social uplifting. Yet, there is a difference between the intended user of a technology and its actual practice or use. Indeed, the ultimate success of these technology campaigns is a different story.
I would argue that it’s debatable whether machines like the typewriter were ever gendered “female” in a meaningful way in India. Even at the end of the century, the job of typing was still in the hands of male clerical workers within a majority of state and private firms. The truth is that the job of information processing did not reach a tipping point of feminization until the introduction of the computer, which was primarily after the year 2000. (In light of these points, I almost wonder if the strained link of femininity to technology by Arnold is an attempt to use women as a barometer of modernization, which I get to in point #4 below.)
One might also argue that the limited focus on mechanical gadgets is a misplaced way of understanding women’s relation to technology and science in the late 19th and early 20th century India. Here I’m drawn to Vandana Shiva’s (1989) work. If we are looking for the everyday participation of women in science and technology at this time – especially on a mass-populous level – what we find may not be an invention made out of metal, or even a consumer item at all (like bikes, typewriters, etc.). More abstractly, but still quite significantly, women’s contributions may have been in the scientific knowledge production of agriculture and environment, concerning seed cultivation, forestry, etc. As women were mostly rural during this period and doing much of the farming work for the household, their everyday lives revolved around technologies in those realms.
3. This leads to my next point, which is that several of Arnold’s cases are in some ways not about women at all, but rather about men. Deboleena Roy, one of our participants, noted that her father – not her mother – was the person in her household in India who was invested both practically and emotionally in the sewing machine. In fact, he wasn’t aware of any other gendered-association of sewing machines (like that of femininity), until he came to the US and encountered ridicule for using them.
This is not to downplay the significance of women in the social meaning of these technologies, but rather to reveal a deeper understanding when examining and interrogating masculinity as well. Again, there is such a rich gender literature available to fill in the gaps here. Many excellent historiographies on masculinity in South Asia have been written about the colonial period in India, such as Ashis Nandy’s (1983) analysis of hyper-masculinity and violence among the British, and Mrinalini Sinha’s (1995) exploration of effeminacy among Bengali civil servant men. There is also a growing field specifically on technology within masculinity, like Ulf Melstrom’s (2003) study of men and automobiles as everyday machines, Jeff Hearn’s (2009) work on virtuality, masculinity, and globalization, and my own work on Indian techno-masculinity in the IT industry (Poster 2009). Thus, in some cases, we should be asking not only why and how certain technologies are feminized, but why they are masculinized.
4. My last question arising is about the outcomes of technology for women. In most of Arnold’s examples, technology seems to have a positive impact on women, affirming of the modernist view that technology ultimately facilitates social progress. An example is the bicycle, which Arnold says was “liberating” for several groups of the 1930s, such as middle class women who gained independent mobility, and activist women could serve as couriers for the communist movement.
Feminist scholars of South Asia remind us that technology has not always been associated with benefits for women, however. Take the development process for example. With one of the earliest critiques of development, Ester Boserup (1970) revealed how technology can actually distort the development process for women. Based on research in the 1950s and 60s in India (as well as East Asia and Africa), she showed how agricultural technologies are often put in the hands of men. This leaves women with substandard tools for farming, lower yield crops, and exclusion from the anti-poverty programs.
Technology has come at a cost for urban women workers in factories too. Amrita Chhachhi, Sujata Gothoskar, and others documented how the automation of consumer and computer electronics production in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Simla, etc., was quite disadvantageous to women, especially within the context of structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 90s. Women were disproportionately affected by layoffs, and then by the ensuing “casualization” of labor. This meant that, even if their jobs were female-dominated, those jobs were also degraded (with insecure contracts and inadequate wages) and pushed out of the organized (and thus unionized) labor sector (Chhachhi 1999; Shah et al. 1999).
True, as Arnold points out, new forms of employment technology at the turn of the 19th century – particularly the rice and jute mills – were often unfairly disparaged as bad for women by Indian cultural and political media outlets. In fact, this was the case from Gandhi himself, who argued the mills were a “disservice to women,” taking them away from their traditional way of life. This dichotomization (nature vs. technology, work vs. home, etc.) certainly placed unnecessary choices on women. Still, is the alternative to welcome all technologies as potentially good for women? I would argue an uncritical approach is equally unhelpful.
Indeed, feminist scholars of late are providing more nuanced gender analyses when it comes to current (and much celebrated) technologies in South Asia – the ICT industry. The shift to advanced information processing services at the turn of the millennium, which I study, highlights the complexity for women (Poster Forthcoming; Poster 2007a, b). It has opened hundreds of thousands of jobs in outsourced call centers and software firms (and many more in secondary industries). Furthermore many of these women are the first in their families to work outside the home or in the formal sector. Some South Asian scholars are optimistic (whether guardedly or enthusiastically) about potential empowerment for women from ICTs in these fields (Banerjee and Mitter 1999; Mitter and Rowbotham 1995; Kelkar et al. 2002; Ng and Mitter 2005). At the same time, this newfound economic power from IT has yet to relieve or improve women’s burdens and responsibilities in the household (Kelkar et al. 2005; Poster 2005; Poster and Prasad 2005).
Finally, the newest form of everyday technology – the internet – is providing some of the greatest challenges to the modernization thesis. Believe it or not, internet usage is not correlated cross-nationally with gains in major indicators of women’s status, such as literacy, GDP per capita, and gender and development indices (Huyer et al. 2005). It is associated, however, with over ten different kinds of cybercrime against women in India, including cyber-harassment, stalking, bullying, defamation, hacking, email spoofing, morphing, pornography, etc. (Halder and Jaishankar 2008). Future studies of everyday technologies will undoubtedly be about cell phones, for which India is now the second largest market in the world, and how men are using them to take compromising pictures of women without their knowledge or permission, and then to sell them online.
Clearly, technology remains an unknown for women and men in South Asia at the dawn of the 21st century. No doubt, technology can play a huge role in empowering women (Hafkin and Huyer 2006). This is especially true in global south countries, where ICTs can help women to leverage rights across economic, education, sociocultural, psychological, political, and legal arenas, especially when other resources and tools are less available. Feminist scholars are also showing how South Asian cyberwebs are increasingly crucial for women’s activism (Gajjala 2003, 2004). As technology is intrinsically multi-layered, socially variable, and highly dynamic, however, we need continued study on the way that gender is integral to technology in South Asia.
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