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Updated: December 6, 2011 17:09 IST

Geography, women and social life

Meena Menon
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The target audience for this collection of essays on space and gender is set out at the outset . It is aimed at a wide circle of social science scholars, researchers, and post-graduate students who are into spatial understanding of social realities. A lay reader who has the patience will find at least some of the research material informative and enlightening.

Saraswati Raju, editor of the volume, says in her preface, she has, for long, been attempting to bring spatiality of gendered existence to the social enquiries in geography. “While other disciplines are engaging with questions of space and place in social research, although often rather ambiguously, the spatial science of geography and its practitioners have intriguingly been absent in such endeavours, particularly in the South Asian context,” she observes.

Geography does matter in the social lives of people, and studies on migration, region- specific social norms, and their impact on the migrants — for instance, in the essay on ‘labour migration from Far West Nepal to Delhi' — show that social relations and rules can change through time and from one generation to another. Migrants can be a supportive vehicle for initiating change.

Migrant women

The essay on ‘Bangladesh migrant women' provides insights into the lives of these women; this is one of the few studies on migrant women. “Within Asia, autonomous migration amongst women has increased tremendously over the past few decades. In East and Southeast Asia, for example, the number of women migrants is estimated to have surpassed that of men, albeit marginally,” says Anja Ruddick, the author. Over the past 30 years, more than 3.5 million Bangladeshis officially migrated looking for employment opportunities overseas. It is believed that the migration of a large number of people is undocumented.

According to a study, more than 437,000 Bangladeshi women are working abroad. Many of these women, having taken the illegal migration circuits, frequently land themselves in exploitative situations. The reasons for migration are also interesting; they include: postponement of an unwanted marriage; unstable marriage; abuse by or conflict with the spouse; and frustration due to the low earnings of the husband.

In many ways, the study says, migration is a means to enlarge one's social space, or gain economic independence. It is also seen as an option that holds the prospect of the person commanding greater respect and striking marital harmony on returning home. The study also looks at migrant women in Malaysia and the impact of the different social norms there. For instance, Malaysian women take part in public life more actively than Bangladeshi women and, in Bangladesh, courtship is not a socially acceptable norm.

The study concludes that, as a result of dealing with new situations, a woman's temporary move to another gendered space can evoke shifts that enlarge her personal socio-cultural space and scope of choice, depending on one's demeanour, consciousness of self, and the milieu.

Particularly interesting are the studies on Kerala and Sri Lanka. Una Hombrecher and Eva Gerharz show that in Sri Lanka gender has played a constitutive role in constructing Tamil nationalism and argue that womanhood has become an idealised token of nationalism. “Pretending to enlarge female space, the LTTE's feminist discourse confined women to positions similar to the ‘traditional' type,” say the authors.

Gender paradox

The Kerala study focusses on the contrast between the high social development indicators in the State and violence against women. Monica Erwer looks at the “gender paradox” and the official story of women's remarkable development in terms of health, education and demographic indicators. She contends that Kerala is an example of structural rigidity and compactness, and gender relations marked by male dominance.

Based on her study of ‘Stree Vedi', an autonomous women's organisation, Erwer says that “the autonomous feminist network has helped shifting the boundaries of what counts as ‘political' by including issues in the public-political discourse that have traditionally been confined to the private and non-political sphere, such as gendered violence, sexuality and women's political agency.”

Some of the essays throw light on areas where very little research has been done — for example, in the mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan region of the Karakoram Highway. Understanding women's perceptions about health, religion, and their identity as care-givers has been documented by way of interviews in one of the more lively chapters in the collection.

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