Fulbright Scholar Speaks at Bonas About Eurasian Indian Women Who Migrate in Search of Jobs

Fulbright Scholar Binitha Thampi speaks at St. Bonaventure about her research on north-to-south migration patterns by women seeking employment in India, her homeland. Credits: Jenn Eng

ST. BONAVENTURE, NY – The visiting professor from India began the annual Mary Devereux Lecture acknowledging “a classroom understanding of gender,” a definition she said teachers and students recognize.

“Every society has norms and practices on masculinity and femininity,” Fulbright scholar Dr. Binitha Thampi told the group of 30 students, faculty and community members gathered in the William F. Walsh Science Center. “We create institutions according to these norms and practices.”

Thampi is an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology and a Fulbright Scholar in residence at the Rutgers University School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Women’s and Gender Studies for the 2016-2017 academic year.

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In her lecture, “Migration, Aesthetic Labour and the Citizenship — A Case of Northeastern Migrant Women to Southern Cities of India,” Thampi focused on a newer “institution” in her homeland: the services sector.

Thampi detailed the results of quantitative and qualitative surveys she and a team of researchers conducted with 180 women who have migrated from India’s northeastern rural area to two southern metropolitan areas, Bangalore and Chennai, to take jobs in salons that offer services such as manicures, pedicures and massages.

Employers at those salons, Thampi noted, prefer to hire the northeastern women who have facial features associated with the “Asian look” of peoples such as the Thai and the Chinese. They have lighter skin and taller, more slender bodies than the women of southern India, whose skin is dark and whose bodies are shorter and stockier.

The northeastern women also tend speak more softly and exhibit patience, politeness and a willingness to interact with the opposite sex “without inhibition” – characteristics that constitute the “right attitude” to their employees and the clientele their employers hope to attract.

Despite being preferred for these jobs, these northeastern women told Thampi and her team that they experience discrimination in and out of the workplace and are not well paid. They reported being called slang names such as “Manipuri” and “Chinky” and listed the disadvantages that challenge them including minimal break time, working overtime without additional pay, sexual harassment and exploitation.

The team of researchers decided to focus specifically on women after discovering that because of feminization of poverty 51 percent of migrants within developed countries and 46 percent within developing countries are women. Thampi said her team believes these numbers may be higher. Surveys underestimate the number. Transient circulation and invisible and undocumented migrants are often not full accounted for.

The researchers noted that since the 1990s, migration of women looking for employment in the services sector in Bangalore and Chennai has been prominent. And within their sample of 180 women, they identified the existing associations of migrant workers formed based on ethnicities.

“The northeast region of India is very distinct compared to the rest of India,” Thampi said. “They are, at large, a tribal indigenous community. Christians entered this region in the 1880s and educated people. They are more egalitarian, more westernized and their knowledge of English is higher.”

Those two southern cities in which the researchers conducted their study of women’s migration patterns and work environments differ drastically from each other.

“Chennai is more conservative,” said Thampi. “They are inward looking, closed, less welcoming and proud of the local community and land. Bangalore is a more cosmopolitan area. These differences are due to historical reasons.”

The researchers focused on the kind of “neo-liberal shift” the Indian state has been taking.

“Our five researchers looked at labor as a vantage point to understand the change,” Thampi said. “Why leave is the question. When you work, you have certain rights, entitlement and social security. We want to look at how these were tied to the category of labor, what is happening as these rights are concerned and look at different kinds of labor in regards to the topic.”

Labor mobility has historically been high in the United States. In India, that had not been the case in India because traditional agriculture ties people to the land. The researchers discovered enhanced mobility in India can be tied to the implementation of liberalization and privatization policies in India.

Thampi, who holds a Ph.D. in development studies from the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bangalore, a master’s degree in applied economics from the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, and a master’s in politics and international relations from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, said she plans to continue researching the topic of migration of women workers.

“As part of my Fulbright work, I would like to make a comparison between the United States and the Indian case,” Thampi said. “I will attempt to see if I can find something, but I don’t know if I will get anything out of it. There are some differences. The United States’ service sector is more mature, while India’s is just taking off. I would like to do a continuation of the work I’ve been doing for the past two years.”

Thampi said she is in the process of writing a book based on the Indian study, which should be released by the end of 2017.

The Mary Devereux Lecture honors Mary Devereux, who with her husband Nicholas Devereux was among the founders of a college and seminary that became St. Bonaventure. The lecture celebrates successful women around the world.

Alva Cellini, director of the women’s studies program at St. Bonaventure, said the annual first-week-of-April lecture serves as a continuation of March as Women’s History Month.

During her Fulbright visit, Thampi visited classes at St. Bonaventure. She also gave a lecture, “Engendering Development: Debates and Issues in the Context of Global South,” during the Thursday Forum, a weekly luncheon for university faculty, administrators and staff.

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