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Women from Outside

Negotiating Spaces in the City

Sujatha Subramanian ( is a doctoral student at the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Ohio State University.

Selfing the City: Single Women Migrants and Their Lives in Kolkata by Ipshita Chanda, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2017; pp xi + 323, 995.

Selfing the City: Single Women Migrants and Their Lives in Kolkata looks at the lives of single, middle- class women, who have moved to the city of Kolkata from smaller cities, towns and villages across eastern India. Ipshita Chanda introduces the concept of “selfing” to look at how women negotiate with the unknown space of the city, arguing that one’s sense of self is produced through one’s experiences with both the material and the affective dimensions of the space one inhabits.

Using narratives that were collected as part of a survey and group discussions, the book focuses on women’s experiences of finding accommodation, negotiating with landlords, interacting with roommates and colleagues, dealing with feelings of security and safety, and building friendships and families, all within a city where they are outsiders. The book thus provides a detailed picture of the many processes that women undertake as part of dwelling in cities, dwelling being an act that connects the inhabiting of space and the fashioning of one’s self.

Though the book engages with literature on female migration, Chanda states that, other than sections where information on employment and movement is provided, she does not use the term “migrant” to refer to the women in her study. We are introduced to women’s experiences of working in the city; the focus, however, remains primarily on the processes of self-construction that women undertake in relation to the city.

It is for this reason that Chanda refers to the women in her study through the more evocative phrase “women who come from outside,” drawing from her respondents’ question of whether “a primary dislocation from home apparently leads to lifelong perception of a self constructed as being ‘outside’ established circuits and circles” (p 5).

A Material and Affective Space

Chanda begins with the argument that most writing on cities, whether within theories of space or within Bengali literature, have focused on the male flâneur, leaving women who occupy these spaces relatively invisible. Chanda engages specifically with Henri Lefebvre’s analysis of bourgeois male pavillon dwellers of Paris and his idea of utopia, and asks if the city imagined as utopia remains thus when it is inhabited by women on a daily basis. She argues that Lefebvre’s utopia remains an abstraction, and the urban, male pavillon owner’s experience of happiness is created through “the suspension of material labour and productive creativity” (p 258). Taking the material into account is integral to gendering the Lefebvrian utopia and to acknowledging the struggles as well as the pleasures involved in women’s experiences of negotiating an unknown city.

In response to what they consider as drawbacks of the city, the women responded with suggestions that Chanda defines as “practical,” such as hostels that are safe and inexpensive, more flyovers, and women’s coaches in the metro. Material acquisitions, such as owning a flat or a car, also constitute some of the pleasures that the city affords these women. The material and the affective dimensions of the city are intertwined, however, since in addition to lesser traffic and pollution, women also demand greater sensitivity and acceptance from the city. Chanda writes that in claiming that they have received the gifts of “confidence,” “independence,” and “struggle,” these women “have transformed the city into intimate affective ground” (p 55).

Such an intertwining of the material and the affective in her work also leads Chanda to grapple with the question of what disciplinary category her book falls under. She expresses her discomfort with calling her study an ethnographic one, stating that her intent of investigating the nature of being would not be amenable to purely ethnographic research. Drawing from Michel Foucault’s critique of ethnology, which sees the discipline as emerging from European colonisation, Chanda writes that ethnography assumes both “objective” knowledge as well as a neutral, de-gendered subject.

Any expectation of objectivity is disrupted in the very way that the book is written. Within the study, Chanda positions herself as both a researcher and a woman who has come to Kolkata from outside. It is when she attempts to describe the city of Kolkata in her own words that this simultaneous self-positioning becomes interesting. For instance, in Chapter 6 of the book, Chanda describes her respondent’s experience of having her poem plagiarised by a male poet. In describing this encounter, she writes,

Anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with the literary circles of this city will understand the volatility of this encounter. This may well be peculiar to Kolkata—the desire to become part of the much vaunted cultural scene, the fierce competition that this involves and the self-seekers who indulge in this rat-race are all butts of satire—from those who have no interest in going the same route themselves. (p 184)

While such an exceptionalisation of the city of Kolkata seemed puzzling to me, on further reflection, these lines seemed to be an instance of Chanda privileging her affective experiences as a woman who, like her respondents, has come to Kolkata from outside. She writes regarding her description of Kolkata, that although she has included some “very cryptic descriptive material” in the body of the text, “this may well be taken as impressionistic” (p 7). While the book provides descriptions of various neighbourhoods, these details never overwhelm the book and the focus remains on the narratives of how women negotiate these spaces.

Power and Emancipation

Chanda’s attempt to challenge the “de-gendered” subject of ethnography is most visible in her formulations of power and emancipation. She writes that in looking at women’s experiences as outsiders in the city, her attempt is to understand the extent to which women have been able to achieve emancipation. The narratives of the women, by drawing attention to the processes by which they engage with the city and the consequences of these processes, highlight that the achievement of certain goals cannot, in themselves, be seen as indicative of emancipation. While the movement of the single woman from her home to the unknown city in itself can be seen as a challenge to patriarchal structures, Chanda argues that patriarchy also reorients itself such that women continue to be governed by its norms. For instance, some of the women who stayed with their relatives on their arrival to Kolkata shared that in addition to holding low-paying jobs, they also participated in unwaged domestic chores at their relatives’ homes, thus reproducing the “ideal situation for patriarchal gender organization” (p 160).

Drawing on these instances, Chanda states that the feminist struggle for equal employment opportunities cannot remain limited to employment alone, and must take into account the social changes caused by women’s entry into the workforce. The significance of a processual approach to understanding the self is also seen in the definition of self that Chanda adopts for the book, a definition adopted from Elspeth Probyn, who writes that “gender must be represented as processes that proceed through experience” (p 16). Thus, gendering ideas of emancipation and empowerment entails that we read them through the many processes that contextualise the lives of women who are outsiders to the city.

Understanding the various processes by which women from outside inhabit a city is perhaps best encapsulated in the idea of “adjustment,” a term that came up in a number of women’s narratives. Chanda writes that the city demands adjustment from these women in various forms, whether it is in continuing to live with violent landlords or in not wearing certain kinds of clothes so as to not be incongruous in one’s para (neighbourhood). These processes of adjustment are often violent and demand that women compromise with their sense of self. Chanda writes,

the most disturbing thing about ‘adjustment’ as a social operation is that the issues are avowedly trivial, when they are referred to in conciliatory conversations; yet if they are so trivial, why should they become life and death situations to women, and quite literally at that? (p 106)

She points out that adjustment is not just demanded from outsiders by those residing in the city; outsiders are also required to adjust among each other. It is in these narratives of adjustment between women from outside that the complexities of community-building are brought out most powerfully.

Building Communities

The question of community and the individual woman’s place in the community is one that the book keeps returning to. Drawing from Michel De Certeau, who writes that the actions of subjects within certain spaces are informed by “generations of subjectivity,” Chanda argues that for women who come from outside, there is no “repository of habit” that is available, since “our ancestresses who have come before us are few and far in between” (p 42). Chanda writes,

Despite the fact that the trickle of women from outside has grown in the last couple of decades to a steady stream, these connections do not seem to have been forged with any degree of continuity. (p 264)

She argues that the process of building networks between women who come from outside are hindered by ways in which emancipation, self-sufficiency and solidarity are gendered. Individualism and independence, seen as masculine attributes, are constructed as being more desirable than dependence, seen as a sign of weakness.

However, the absence of already-existing communities does not mean that women are left by themselves in the city. Chanda writes that when women from outside inhabit neighbourhoods where everyone knows and keeps tabs on everyone else, they are offered the presumed benefit of “protection.” For the women, this translates into a feeling not of greater security but of greater intrusion, since they often have to “adjust” to patriarchal demands in return for this protection. Forming communities with other women from outside provides the possibility of refusing such patriarchal protection and also carries the potential of disrupting patriarchal gender organisation in other ways. A number of the respondents stated that paying guest accommodation and mess owners often attempt to create divisions among women so that they do not get together to form a united body to press their demands.

In centring the idea of building communities and networks, Chanda also asks us to question the apparent contradiction between feelings of emancipation and reliance on people we trust. Chanda proposes an ethics of “accommodation” rather than one of “adjustment,” defining accommodation as “linking one’s dwelling/habitation to the people who also dwell in that space,” formed through adjustments that are mutual rather than forced (p 129). Such an idea of accommodation can be seen in the narratives of women that Chanda interviews, who redefine ideas of kinship through the communities that they choose to build. In certain instances, women who stayed with their blood relatives were viewed as a burden by their families, while friends, families of friends, and even landladies provided care and companionship.

While emphasising the importance of networks and communities between women, the book also acknowledges that the process of sharing space is one that is fraught with the potential of violence. While the book’s focus is on the narratives of middle-class women, the issue of adjustment between outsiders and the conflicts that emerge when the “Bangla-medium rural types” encounter the “English-medium type,” as narrated by one of the respondents (p 109), point to the necessity of contextualising women’s social locations such as their class positions. Chanda writes that among women who come from outside, certain women are employed as domestic helps, easing the double burden of more affluent women. While the book provides instances of how the differential class locations of women affect their relationship to the city, Chanda acknowledges, towards the end of the book that questions of religion, ethnicity and caste are omitted in her analysis, an omission of which she is critical.

A Note on the Methodology

Reading these narratives of women attempting to build networks and communities with each other made me curious about the method of data collection that informs the book. As the later sections of the book reveal, the idea of building a community of such women from outside is one of the many possible consequences of the study. As Chanda states,

This survey is a set of questions to be written up; it has also been, as some of the resource persons, all outsiders to the city themselves, put it, an adventure, a process of making friends, and an attempt to bring the unrecorded (female) heroics of “selfing” the city to common notice. (p 295)

While the book includes an annexure detailing the profile of the respondents, including their age, occupation and language of communication, I found myself looking for further details of how the survey was conducted. Chanda writes that the resource persons “themselves were single women from ‘outside’ living in the city and familiar with the networks through which other such women could be contacted and persuaded to respond” (p 33).

What do the existence of these networks, and of women who know of these networks, tell us about spaces that already-existing communities of single women from “outside” the city inhabit? Given the respondents’ narratives of what tools of communication could be used to build networks, I found myself wondering about the resources that made this study of the community of women from outside possible, and whether these formed part of the reflections on building networks.

I also found myself wondering about the process of translating the narratives of the respondents. Chanda writes that the language and the style of expression of the respondents have been kept intact; however, it is stated in Annexure 1 that the language of response included English, Hindi and Bangla. The question of translation is particularly interesting since Chanda argues that the process of self-construction is one of narrativisation, and that narrative occurs through the interface of language. In one of the few instances of translating between the three languages, Chanda discusses one of the respondent’s use of the word “adjust” and writes,

Asked what the most difficult thing for a woman who has come to the city from outside was, she replied, “[The most difficult thing] is to adjust oneself to the city. But that doesn’t mean one has to give up one’s self (vyaktitva), one’s self-respect and one’s goal and only compromise.” In Bangla, the word for “compromise” is meney neoa, and the word for “adjust” is maniye neoa. (p 104)

In reading this extract, I was curious to know more about how translation complicated the process of constructing the conceptual frameworks that Chanda uses to describe the women’s experiences.

Details of how the survey was conducted would have also been helpful in understanding how Chanda grappled with the relations of power operating between the researcher and the researched, especially in the context of her critique of hierarchical relationships present in ethnographic studies. She discusses the significance of academic researchers being attentive to the “transformative situation of research” (p 19). How well does the survey method respond to such transformative situations?

Despite these questions, the method informing the book is also its greatest strength. Chanda is able to skilfully highlight the importance of experiential and testimonial knowledge in understandings of city spaces. As a woman who has herself been an outsider to many cities, a number of the respondents’ narratives resonated with me, and I felt intimately connected with their struggles. At the end of the book, I found myself hoping for continued journeys with these women towards building city spaces where women from outside can feel a sense of belonging.


Updated On : 17th May, 2018


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