I had the pleasure of teaching my book to a an amazing group of students this past Spring at Wellesley. The course was Soc 233, Gender and Power in South Asia, and was a seminar-style class with 13 students. The students read four chapters (Intro, chapter 1, chapter 4 and chapter 5), which we covered over the course of two class meetings. I wanted to provide here a brief account of some of the striking things that happened in while teaching this book, as well as some selections from the written responses that students posted to the course's online forum.
I taught the book in a section of the course examining women's work in South Asia, and their involvement in the economy more generally. We read selections from three monographs for this section of the course, each examining different ways in which women from different classes and regions participate in the economy: Lamia Karim's new ethnography on microfinance, Microfinance and it Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh, Caitrin Lynch's ethnography of Sri Lankan garment workers, Juki Girls, Good Girls: Gender and Cultural Politics in Sri Lanka's Global Garment Industry, and Appropriately Indian.
Students were particularly struck by how much they felt they could relate to the stories of the women portrayed in the book. They felt that the stories of 'balance' and trying to live up to certain gendered and class expectations in the book seemed familiar, especially to the Indian students in the class. As one student wrote in her response:
Nandini [a character presented in chapter 5] reminds me of myself- but at the same time reminds me of what a minority women like us are in the Indian context. Independence and not having to rely on one's spouse (read: husband) financially or otherwise is still not socially accepted by both men and women in India. The author is right in saying that she is the perfect example of the "Transformatory possibilities" (80) because women like Nandini yet remain a possibility and not a reality.
Some of the key themes that came up in our discussion were around issues of authenticity, namely the processes through which IT professionals create and legitimate their own notion of what it means to be "Indian," and the way in which respectability becomes such an important way in which women reinforce that notion of authenticity. In teaching these themes on the second class meeting especially, the class got into a very heated and intense discussion of class. My attempt to teach Pierre Bourdieu's key ideas in twenty minutes turned into a very lengthy explanation of habitus and cultural capital.
Some interesting student responses:
I really enjoyed reading the empowerment section (78-86) because it showed the varied and complicated nature of what empowerment means for different IT workers. . .there was this notion that empowerment could go too far if becoming 'global' involves copying the West or threatening the idea of being a good woman (79). While it is fascinating to note that the majority of female IT workers who were interviewed felt that they had somehow been empowered by the IT industry, the industry still seems to be perpetuating some negative binaries regarding women's work.
I found quite a contradiction in the way that Indian IT workers were trying to globalize India while holding onto what they believe to be Indian tradition.
The concept of a 'class vocabulary' continues to fascinate me. As Bharathi explains, "Even if they come from different places, it's the same class...You can almost rattle off someone's opinion without having to know them" (116). This type of language, instead of opening channels of communication, tends to limit them instead - making them exclusive and putting them out-of-reach of the hoi polloi. However, I wonder if it's possible to acquire this 'class vocabulary' if you spend enough time around people who speak it. Just as learning the right manners and social etiquette can increase your social capital and position in society, does learning this class vocabulary similarly grant you access to a higher class? Or is it a language that can only be taught from birth?