Women tied by jute and more

Women and labour in late Colonial India

November 12, 1999

Samita Sen describes the process of gender construction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by focusing on women who laboured in the jute mills in Bengal. She illustrates how the interests of different groups - mill owners and managers, colonial rulers, social service groups in England and in India, missionaries, indigenous elites - interact and how these interactions lead to the marginalisation of working women.

The main focus of the book is on interacting levels of social practice that contribute to the stratification of men and women into unequal categories. The owners and managers of the jute mills were directly involved in the process as they tried to hold down operating costs by defining the jobs done by women as "unskilled", by paying women less for work that required skills similar to men and by hiring women on a temporary basis so that they could be laid off during business downturns.

But the ability to define jobs and occupations in this way depended on the ideological construction of women as "supplementary" wage earners for whom the paid jobs were secondary to their prior responsibility of nurturing their families. The contemporary elite definitions of femininity - dependence, frailty, chastity, docility - were used to assign a socially marginal status to the female labourers who could not live up to these norms. The indigenous upper classes/castes who benefited from the cult of domesticity; the foreign missionaries who were intent on proving the moral depravity of Indian/Hindu women in order to justify their presence as a civilising influence on the colony; and the colonial rulers who benefited economically from access to cheap labour - all contributed to the symbolic and material construction of race and gender hierarchies.

Sen also describes the consequence of these social trends on other arenas of the working women's lives. The ephemeral nature of their jobs at the mills precluded the women from becoming economically independent. At the same time, their inability to contribute substantially to the family funds led to their designation as "burdens on a poor family".

The shift from the practice of paying bride price for a woman to demanding dowry from the woman's family is a stark gauge of the shifting status of women within poor families. Although other factors such as class,caste, religion, age and region mediated the exact form of hierarchical gender relationships, the stratification process affected these women in ways similar to mill workers in other parts of the world.

Many books that focus on macro social structures tend to overlook the part played by individuals in upholding or challenging persistent patterns of social practice. Sen attempts to balance the institutional focus of this book with several vignettes to illustrate how the individual women dealt with their circumstances. We learn about women who were not loath to attack the managers with broomsticks to protest improper labour practices. We glimpse the arduous hours of struggle to balance household tasks, child care and work in the mills. Voices of working women are rarely recorded for posterity; nevertheless we occasionally hear individuals talking about their lives as female labourers.

In short, this book is a valuable addition to the history of women in colonised societies. It should be of interest to scholars of different disciplines who are interested in the historical and contemporary nexus between work and stratification.

Bandana Purkayastha is assistant professor of sociology/Asian American studies, University of Connecticut, United States.

Women and labour in late Colonial India: The Bengal Jute Industry

Author - Samita Sen
ISBN - 0 521 45363 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 265

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