Malavika Karlekar

Having had over three decades of experience of researching, teaching, writing and editing on gender issues, and having curated a visual documentary on women between 1875 and 1947, in this brief note I will only focus on my initial research that radically changed my middle-class perceptions. In 1975, it was not destiny that brought me where I am today but rather a meeting with Vina Mazumdar who was in charge of the ICSSR Unit on Women’s Studies. She suggested that I should combine my growing interest in caste and gender-based inequalities with my basic commitment to the sociology of education, by studying a segment of urban Scheduled Caste women. As a social anthropologist trained in the Srinivasan mould, I readily agreed.

Soon I was to find myself in Sau Quarters, a West Delhi tenement colony, working on the socio-economic status of Balmiki women, a sub caste of the North Indian caste of Bhangis or sweepers and scavengers. As I was by then gradually ‘getting into’ women’s studies, Towards Equality and Ester Boserup’s Woman’s Role in Economic Development provided plenty of material for reflection and anxiety. And of course, the days in the field brought home the lived reality behind the written word. Not unexpectedly, many heoretical premises were tested and discarded. In particular, I found that in my fieldwork situation at least, it was a myth to assume that mechanisation and development would deprive women of employment: at the subsistence level, women would work at anything. At the end of my fieldwork, when I felt that I had enough material for an in-depth study of a section of working class women and to question certain preconceptions,
I published Poverty and Women’s Work – A Study of Sweeper Women in Delhi.

What, however, did not come through in my published work was the dilemma I faced while in the field, and the consequent mental and conceptual calisthenics I had to hastily perform. Problems arose primarily because of my construction of a different reality on the basis of certain presuppositions; though I had pre-tested my interview schedule, obviously what I considered relevant and important was not always similarly viewed by my respondents. I learnt much from those I interviewed; I also had to accept that often enough, well-intentioned researchers like me knew little about urban congestion, of how families are bound to shacks and huts in what the middle class considers to be abject squalor. Proximity to jobs and their kin and friendship networks are of vital importance, leading individuals and groups to resist re-location. I also did not know that women hesitated to use public latrines after dark: it would never have crossed my mind that these are the chosen venues for rape and molestation. I did not ask the women questions on domestic violence, alcoholism or family planning. In part, I was asked not to talk about the recent, much-hated sterilisation drive. But in fact, I did not know how to ask many other questions as well. In any case, in 1975, I was hardly aware that wife-beating and abuse is a part of daily family life among large segments of the female population all over the world. I had to wait till 1990 to hear at firsthand about this horror in women’s lives.

When, at the end of the fieldwork I told my respondents that they had been of considerable help to me, Shanta, who had become quite a friend, said ‘Bibiji aap to apni kitab likhenge, pur hamara kya hoga?’ (Bibiji, you will write your book, but what will happen to us?). I had no honest answer to give her, just as I had not really been able to deal with the persistent question of many women, ‘Bibiji hamey issey kya milega?’ (Bibiji, what will we get out of this?). My dilemma is of course not something unique: many a field worker is faced with similar situations where questions regarding one’s role keep cropping up. Such questions inevitably set up a chain of thought, a process of
introspection: is one in fact exploiting one’s respondents by taking up their time? Does not the process of questioning, sooner or later, sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of one’s informants? For instance, how did my constant harping on the issue of how much responsibility men actually took within the home, affect women who had internalized exploitation as their fate? Or for that matter, was I justified in asking probing questions on relationships with the natal home and how often women visited their families? Was I right in asking those at the subsistence level what kind of consumer goods they owned?

When I sat down to write, many images continued to run through my mind. I saw Bimla’s anguish and Mayavati’s cynicism as well as little Sharda’s excitement as she prepared for a longed-for day in school. I was not always sure of what I should write about the lives of the women I had spent days with: while I knew that any act of telling is interpretive in nature, I was nonetheless anxious to be as ‘true’ to my respondents’ reality as possible. I used the women’s own words wherever possible, knowing all along that the moral overtones of a field worker’s intervention and probing have implications of self-analysis, of raising consciousness among a group which has little hope of escaping from the bondage of their lives. The resultant frustration and anger are in this case the direct responsibility of the field worker who becomes an agent of exploitation. I do not think that I have ever been able to answer my own doubts on this sensitive point of relationships across social classes. I soon realized that the conversion of experience into expression is never easy and I came back from the field much chastened.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that my world view completely changed after this study and by the end of the nineteen-seventies, I was ready to say with conviction that I was a part of the Indian women’s movement. In the years that followed, my research at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies ranged from a study of upper middle-class Bengali women and their writings, another fieldwork-based study on violence against women – when my earlier study on Balmiki women found greater salience—women’s health and finally, the visual documentary on women. All through these years, I was working first on Samya Shakti and then its successor, the Indian Journal of Gender Studies, my editorial judgement deeply coloured by years of researching inequalities and women’s increasing ability to assert their rights. In other words, though at times I feel quite unequivocally that the Indian women’s movement today has lost much of the punch that characterized it in the heady years of twenty years ago, deep down I know that come what may, I have changed irrevocably from the ingénue that ventured into Sau Quarters in 1975.


Malavika Karlekar is the Editor, Indian Journal of Gender Studies and Consultant, Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), New Delhi.