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Title: Examining the changing status and role of middle class Assamese women :lessons from the lives of university students
Authors: Bhattacharyya, Rituparna
Issue Date: 2009
Publisher: Newcastle University
Abstract: Postcolonial India is a complex and paradoxical mix of traditional practices and ultra modernity. This tension is especially apparent, and holds particular significance, with respect to women’s changing status and role. Driving this research is a concern to examine the impact that structural reforms and neoliberalism are having on women’s everyday experience of autonomy at home, in their careers and family life, and in the journeys they make from home to work through public spaces. This thesis focuses on the specific case of Assam, located in the north-eastern region of India and, within it, a sub-population of young, middle class, Assamese women. The research draws on in-depth interviews and focus groups, in triangulation with a standardised questionnaire, conducted with a sample of students pursuing higher education in five different state-funded co-educational institutions of Assam namely Cotton College, Gauhati Medical College, Assam Engineering College, Gauhati University and Bajali College which have long histories of privilege and prestige. This research is designed to look for evidence of improved status in an extreme context where the liberating benefits of education and career salience are most likely to be found. A key contribution of this thesis flows from the contradictions and complexities of the everyday practices that underpin the changing status and role of young, middle class Assamese women. The narrative analysis reveals contradictory processes underpinning women’s changing status in Assam; on one hand it shows higher education to be liberating for those who can afford access, in as much as it offers increased autonomy and exposure to international media and ‘cosmopolitan’ egalitarian ideals; on the other hand, women who seek fulfilling jobs and careers outside the home find their freedom of movement severely restricted in public by sexual harassment and at home they face continuing pressure to maintain labourintensive standards of cooking and childcare. This coincides with tensions arising from ‘new femininities’ whereby, for many within Assamese society, the participation of women in higher education and their increased visibility in paid employment is symbolic of the advancing threat of globalisation as is the proliferation of ‘immodest’ (western) modes of dress; loss of extended family welfare; and an erosion of cultural practices and religious beliefs. The research, which is an empirical contribution to existing knowledge, examines the ways that incomplete gender transformations are embedded in Assamese society. Generally it is perceived that Indian women’s subordination is explained with reference to a biological ‘naturalisation’ of sex roles or dominant patriarchal structures in state, market and family relations. This thesis challenges these perceived notions of traditional explanations by pointing to a trend of ‘Third Wave’ feminism circumscribed by plural ‘new femininities’ and ‘girl power’. At the same time the research engages with the critique of tradition identified by Hobsbawm (1983) as a variable rather than a fixed or static concept. It demonstrates that Assamese women are effectively experiencing a (re)traditionalising of their domestic roles with increased ‘Indianness’ in the social (re)production of daily life. Thus, the research also contributes to the theoretical literature on postcolonial feminism by following Mohanty’s (1987, 1988; 1991b) critique of the universality of ethnocentricism in Anglo-American scholarship and its presumptions that women of the so called Third World accept traditions passively. Evidence of the (re)production of a mix of ultra modern and perceived notion of traditional practices is presented with respect to competing spheres of daily life; including relationships with parents/in-laws and spouse, childcare, norms of domestic labour and personal goals associated with education and career. The manifestation of this process is locally specific and highly uneven and contradictory.
Description: PhD Thesis
Appears in Collections:School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

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