Where are all the Ladies?

Globalization gets a bad rap for destroying local cultures, but in India, it’s a double-edged sword.


I am not the type of girl that normally gets leered at, but there I was, on a bus with nineteen other women driving through rural northern India, and all of a sudden there were hundreds of men leering. I don’t think anyone finds leering flattering, even in the right circumstances, and this was certainly not the right circumstance. A gathering of men had stopped what little traffic there was on the roadway for a celebration of some kind—maybe an election, maybe a religious ceremony, maybe a combination of the two. Men were joking with each other—buying tobacco and marigold necklaces, and generally passing time—but all of that stopped when our tour bus entered the fray. Casual chatting among friends turned into frantic motions. All eyes were on the bus full of American, mostly white women caught in the crowd.

It’s still pretty rare for women to occupy public space in small, rural towns. But India is rapidly westernizing from the cities outwards. Much of Delhi is the picture of western urbanization. Modern apartment building and shopping malls fill rows of city blocks, and American-made cars line the streets. For middle and upper class women, this western urban landscape comes with many of the same western social norms. Women go to cafes in mixed gender groups, they raise families in apartments. Proximity to urban life allows women to work corporate jobs, and participate in the global economy. But for urban female domestic workers, the rising tide of globalization does not lift all ships.

Before the shift towards urbanization, family life in India was insular and symbiotic. Many family members lived in the same home for generations, and in smaller towns and cities across the country, this remains true. However, unlike in the United States (at least since the abolition of slavery), the familial unit includes domestic workers and their families. In traditional Indian homes, the children of servants grew up to care for a new generation of the same family. Ensuring the well-being of the workers was in everyone’s best interest.

However, with the expanse of modern city life, this mutually beneficial service relationship has been thrown for a loop. One of the trappings of being an upper-class city dweller is the social pressure to hire part-time staff. Even though many women are trained by older generations to be excellent home cooks, they still may employ an additional cook, another person to make chapatti, a maid, a driver, and someone to do the washing. In apartment buildings, all of this staff is part time, and none of them are live-in. For the workers, this means the possibility and necessity of working for multiple homes through the day. The lack of financial security and mutual care add to a perfect storm of social conditions which make it challenging for any sort of upward mobility (not dissimilar from the gig economy millennials are so familiar with in the United States).

Where Indian domestic workers once had the opportunity for some amount of personal growth in a multi-generational home, modern domestic workers spend more time negotiating the demands of many employers. Where upper-class women are afforded opportunities to embrace modernity, women in domestic work are levied with an additional uncertainty on top of already challenging social conditions.