Jennifer Jill Fellows: India has a strong growing tech industry bolstered by the existence of success stories like Sabeer Bhatia who co-founded Hotmail. And like many governments globally, the Indian government is currently encouraging citizens to take IT skills training. The message the government uses often includes a promise. “You live in a digital age and as such, IT skills will be your ticket to security, prosperity, and general social mobilization. You might even become the next Sabeer Bhatia.” And if you happen to be a marginalized person living in an economically precarious situation, that promise might be quite tempting, but cannot promise be fulfilled?
JJF: Hi everyone, Welcome to another episode of Gender Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Fellows. And today I’ve invited Dr. Sreela Sarkar on the show to talk about her ethnographic research in the neighborhood of Seelampur in New Delhi, India, in the hopes of answering this question, Can skills set people free? Dr. Sreela Sarkar is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Santa Clara University. Her research uses ethnographic methods to focus on smart cities, new forms of capitalism, labor, and identities of class, caste, and gender in India with specific reference to the information economy.
JJF: Hi Sreela. Welcome to the show.
Sreela Sarker: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
JJF: I wanted to take a moment and recognize that this podcast was created on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish people of the Qiqéyt nation.
JJF: I wanted to start with a bit of background. So I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit about how you became interested in communication as a major.
SS: Yeah, thank you for that question. So I actually did not major in communication during my undergraduate studies in India, I was an English literature. You could major specifically in literature. And that’s what I majored in. And that was really a great introduction to critical thinking, thinking about cultural studies. And I just felt that I wanted to follow a more creative uh quote unquote and more creative side of my career. So I ended up going to a one-year graduate program in Mumbai. And what it really did was it taught me how to acquire documentary filmmaking skills, some journalism skills, but always with a very social justice purpose. Then, long story short, I worked for about five years in the media industry in India. And I just, I just felt that I wanted to do something different and I wanted to go back to school. So I applied for a combination of film schools and communication research programs. I got through some great film schools, but they didn’t give me money. I definitely didn’t have the money to do it. And I ended up in a program that really studies the impact of communication on society from a cultural critical viewpoint. And yeah, so I think I’m just an accidental Communication Studies person and I feel like my career in academia, it’s something I loved, but it’s not something that I thought I would do when I was an undergraduate and even for many years after that.
JJF: Oh, that’s so interesting. I really like that you didn’t go straight into a PhD program that you were working for awhile and then kind of felt like you wanted to change. I think that’s a really cool narrative.
SS: Thank you. Yeah, it was when I was working and doing really exciting journalistic reporting on an environmental show in India. It was really cool and it gave me the kind of documentary filmmaking and interviewing skills that I bring to my ethnographic work. So I think what that also helped me is, it just helps me with the research, kind of research I want to do and the research I do, which is being on the field and talking to people and interviewing and being there for tough situations. But it also made me realize that, yes, like a three-minute story on TV is influential, but I need more time and space to tell stories and find out what stories are about.
JJF: A three-minute story is not always that nuanced, right? It can pique people’s interests, but you can’t really get into all the details.
SS: Right? Not into the complexity, yes.
JJF: Right. Okay. So with that bit of a background that helps me understand some of the skill set you’ve had that goes into the kind of work that you do right now. I also like the plug that if you’re gonna go to graduate school, you should get funded? I think that’s absolutely true.
SS: Absolutely, yes.
JJF: So can you talk now a little bit about your own research? And in particular, can you talk about the kind of existing inequalities that currently affect the IT industry in India.
SS: Yeah, So the work that we’re talking about today comes from a project that has now been more than a decade and that actually I have not been working on in all honesty in the past couple of years because my interests shifted to other things. But this project is basically looked at IT skills training for marginalized communities, especially urban poor women in New Delhi. So in terms of the inequalities in the IT industry, so the IT industry India has really known, it’s known as one of the world’s largest emerging economies. It’s the IT industry is both a symbol of its success and materially real important. And it employs about, I think, 5 million people out of a population of over 1 billion, right? So it’s not the employment, the number of people that employers is still very small. But it is an immensely powerful institution for thinking about social change. So the IT industry in India is not a monolith. It’s got different kinds of employment and different kinds of workers. So the promise of the IT industry in India has been one of meritocracy, it has been one of leveling social and economic differences. The IT industry has held out and protested against affirmative actions or what are called reservations in India on the basis of cast saying that this was dilute the meritocracy. And that’s really what they do is recruit people, people from all across the country and go to different institutions. And this is largely research has shown that this is not true. So in terms of like more white-collar jobs, people who are recruited or people who also go to a certain kind of school or college and in a certain kind of city. So there is this cultural capital, so there is not just access to training or coaching that it needs to get into extremely competitive education institutions in India. But there’s also access to just being the right kind of person on paper. Having the right accent looking a certain way, which of course is very much shaped by your identities of class and cast and gender. So again, there’s different kinds of research that points to the fact that cast remains an important identity of discrimination within the IT industry, right? So even if, even if you end up going to a really competitive of college and India and you get a job like, like a, like a white-collar job, you are still subject to discrimination on the basis of your cast. So that is one set of workers that I’m talking about here. But the women that I’m studying really occupied a position at the lower rung of the information economy. These are women who have historically been marginalized because they’re Muslim, because they are women, because they are poor. And again, the promise that the IT industry here holds is that you will enter into these quote, unquote, “clean occupations” that will promise, bring forth rapid mobility. But again, as my research demonstrates that the structural barriers or constraints based on your identity very much remains in place. And actually participation in these training programs, reinforcers, but also can create new kinds of inequalities.
JJF: Okay, Wow. So, we have all the existing inequalities that are already there in terms of class, caste, religion, and gender, among others. Then there’s also the issue of do you have access to a training facility? And even if you get through the training facility, all these existing inequalities don’t necessarily go away and people still have trouble breaking into certain occupations is what it sounds like.
SS: Yeah, exactly. So then there’s been so much emphasis on access to technology, right? Like the digital divide. Like if you cross the digital divide, that’s just going to be a different kind of world waiting out there. I think the women I study do get an opportunity of sorts to cross this digital divide or get access to technology, but what kind of access is this and what results at the end, as you’re pointing out, are really important questions to ask.
JJF: I really want to talk a little more about this promise, this idea of you crossed the digital divide. And there’s gonna be this new world, the world will open up for you or you are also earlier reference the idea of the meritocracy, the promise of meritocracy in the IT economy. So can we talk a little bit about the marketing message in India and maybe more globally depending on how you want to answer this, that acquiring tech skills, will enable people to cross this divide, lift themselves out of poverty, maybe even launched themselves into extreme wealth. What have you found regarding this kind of messaging?
SS: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I’ll talk about that context. First is India, where I was doing fieldwork in Seelampur for example is full of the programs. The program I was studying was a state funded training program. But the neighborhood that I was working in is just full of these holdings and signs that advertise IT, training classes. There are whole bunch of private and state actors in play there, right? In the context of this neighborhood that I was studying, these classes are mainly classes that will teach you like really basic IT skills and they cost, some of them are free, but most of them do charge quite as steep tuition, at least steep compared to the incomes of people in those areas. So I think the promise really here in the context of Seelampur, which is not a wealthy neighborhood, is that especially for women, I think is that you can get these jobs in the so-called new economy, which is jobs at, in the mall, like even in the checkout counter or word for the Delhi metro rail, are working at a lower level call center or working for the government program, the UID, which is the unique identification number programs as a data entry person. So I think the promise here is of, that you will, even if say historically your family has done one occupation, you will transcend this by getting included into this new economy that relies on tech. But as I’m also pointing out that these jobs are really about lower, like training people with for lower-level tech positions. And these positions can often end up being precarious and vulnerable, have other kinds of contradictions. But yes, the promise is powerful in some ways, even if it’s a promise, not even if, but if it’s a promise about getting to work in an air-conditioned space with clothes that look smart and you just get to go into a different arena. Of course, all these issues with that, but at the same time it’s a very powerful promise of mobility.
JJF: So yeah, there’s this promise of mobility, of changing circumstances. It sounds like if your family has done the same occupation for generations, there’s a promise that you’re going to have access to different kinds of work opportunities. That those opportunities might be in comparatively more comfortable settings like you referenced air conditioning, for example. And this could be quite powerful for people, and you said they’re on billboards kind of all over the neighborhood. And we’ll talk a little bit more about Seelampur, more specifically, but they’re on billboards that this advertising, it sounds like it’s quite in people’s faces. Is that fair?
SS: Yes, it is very much in people’s faces like computer training centers. I mean, I think they’ve been really popular for the last couple of decades at least. But even before that. That is this. If you look at sSabeer Bhatia who founded Hotmail or you’re looking at Sundar Pichai, who is the CEO of Google. I mean, there’s also like this like, percolation of this narrative about successful individuals who have made it big right, in IT, of course, one also has to remember that not to take away from Sundar Pichai’s accomplishments, but he is also an upper cast man who was educated at the right institutions. So just to think about that, think about that kind of positionality in contrast to the women that I am interacting with.
JJF: But that narrative can be really powerful for people, right?
SS: Yes, it’s a, it’s a very, very powerful now because other opportunities are also constrained, right?
JJF: So your research outlines that the Indian government launched a number of these centers that we’ve been talking about, these ICT skills training centers and courses across the country. And you’ve said that some of these are free, but some of them are quite expensive when compared to the median income in a specific area, for example. Can we talk, you referenced a little bit that these courses teach kind of entry-level computer skills. Can you tell us a bit more about more specifically what these courses would teach people?
SS: Well, I studied a particular program, so yes, the context is that there are many different kinds of training programs. The one I studied was funded by the government. And actually it was in a partnership with a foundation, that was the foundation of a private IT company. So it was a public-private partnership. So of course, there are interesting questions there of state and civil society and the boundaries between them. So I studied this computer training program that was especially targeted towards women. It taught them basic skills like Microsoft Word, coral, draw some Photoshop, some HTML. It was a six month training program. And usually you had to like 25 to 30 women in one class. The ideas really was that we’re training women for the job market. Like we’re training them to get a job so they can finish this certificate, so certificates that’s offered by the state and then go and get employment.
JJF: Can you help our listeners understand what it was like to attend this course? So you were there in this room with 25 to 30 women. What else did you notice about the room? Like, how are how are things set up, how many computers may be are there? stuff like that?
SS: Yeah. I can just quickly placed the neighborhood, Seelampur that I am studying in some contexts. So that might help us place the room.
JJF: Amazing, yeah.
SS: So Seelampur is known as a resettlement colony in New Delhi. What it basically means is that people were evicted and re quote unquote ‘resettled’ there, right? So it has quite a history of violence, state intervention. So in the ’70s, for example, during the national emergency in India, Muslim men were basically asked to get ‘voluntarily’ quote unquote to get sterilized so that they can keep their families together and receive small plots of land in Seelampur. Over the years, there’s been a lot of protests about government closures of industries that the state has deemed as polluting. And this is also largely a Muslim dominated, a working class Muslim neighborhood. And Muslims are the largest minority in India. So when I started doing fieldwork there, I grew up in New Delhi and I lived on the other end of the city. So the South, the South side of the city, which is supposed to be upper-class. And when I started doing fieldwork, people just would be, like my friends would be like, “Are you sure that’s a safe place to go to, like where you’re doing your field work?” It’s also been framed in the news media as that as a dangerous place of insurgents, which is again referring to basically Muslim men. This is Seelampur. For, I would say at the time that I was working there for a family of seven to eight people, maybe the average monthly income would be like $150. This is not a very prosperous neighborhood. The computer training program is located oh, sorry, was located in a small house that had two levels and is very tiny house. This house is also housed other programs, for example tailoring or whatever they call it, beautician courses. And the computer one was a part of them. Okay, So now coming computer center was located on the first floor of the others tiny space of the small space. And unlike the other classes, when women sat on the floor, the computer girls as they were known, the women who studied computers, they sat on chairs. This, I talk about this in an article in feminist media studies that this was actually an interesting, like an indicator of the fact that in this area relatively better off people, economically better off people attended this program. So even though they were, they were definitely facing economic, challenging economic circumstances. It’s still the better off in a piece of Seelampur that came to the center. And I think they had like six to seven computer terminals. And there was a practical class, practicum class and then there was like a lecture session. So maybe multiple classes during the day.
JJF: And all in the same room, I’m assuming?
SS: Yes. All, all in the same room. And it’s a very narrow streets. So you can actually see the small denim units which do use a significant amount of technology. You can see the cattle sheds. You can like really peep into your neighbor’s house. This is like it’s a space, if you imagine that that’s pretty open to the rest of the neighborhood like, like most spaces were.
JJF: Okay. I really appreciate that background context on Seelampur itself, the history of how it came to be, and the marginalization that people who live there tend to experience, I think is really helpful for kind of grounding what we’re going to talk about with this course and with the woman who took the course. You’ve told us a little bit about the women that were enrolled in the course. That comparatively speaking, they may have had some kind of economic privilege over some of the other people in their neighborhood. Can you talk anymore about what the young women that you met were like?
SS: Yeah. So my relationship with the center lasted for about seven or eight years, which means that I interacted with different groups of women. But for my field work, which was over a year, I interacted with these women at the space of the center. And then also, once they’ve finished, I kept relationships with them. So these are women who are anywhere from 18 years to about 30 years. And they are all Muslim women. And a lot of them actually, so they’re framed in policy discourse and the program documents as these women, like as the “submissive” quote unquote, Muslim women who need this program to basically become “modern,” right? So that is a framing of them even in media in a particular way. And contrary to that, all the women had actually had jobs. They had worked outside the home. They had participated in the modern economy. In some cases, they were the main breadwinners for their families. And they were there, the really the central reason they were there was that they felt that they needed to help their families economically. So these are women who have done things like worked as physician’s aid, they have worked as a nurse, they’ve worked in an educational institution. So these are not women who have not experienced modernity and have not experienced the modern economy. But they remained to be framed like that even among the more well-meaning stuff at the center.
JJF: Wow, wow. So we can see the biased assumptions that perhaps some of the people running the center and other people might have towards these women. And that, that might in addition create barriers to breaking into certain careers. Potentially, if these women are viewed as people who need “help entering the modern economy,” I’m using my air quotes on that, that would in addition, kind of reinforce existing prejudices, reinforce existing marginalization that they might face. Is that right?
SS: Yeah, absolutely. Right. Yeah.
JJF: Okay. And you referenced a little bit reasons why some of the young women in your fieldwork or that you interacted with in your fieldwork, chose to take these courses. So your reference, the idea of feeling that they needed to do more to help their families. Or of many of the women being the primary income earner perhaps over the sole income earner for their families. Is there anything more you can tell us about the choice to enroll in these courses?
SS: Yes. I think the choice to enroll in these courses is done very much out of necessity. So even if many of these young women had worked before, there was a substantial obstacle based on who they were. So for example, many of them mentioned that they could not get an interview for positions they wanted because they had a Seelampur address, or they last name was Muslim, or you had women who had had to do night shifts and as working in a nurse or as a call center, and found that really difficult to do in terms of commuting, right? And in terms of concerns about their safety. So I think this was really seen as an opportunity to, you know, what the program was promising was that one would gain quick employment. And I don’t think that the women, I think that would realistic and where they could get employment. So a lot of them, for example wanted to work in the nearby mall or they wanted to work for the Delhi metro rail, which was, which was the station at the station which was not far away. So I think these were realistic, but also over the years, I followed the number of women who got jobs. So we’re not even talking here about what kind of employment just whether they did get a job right after this. And actually the numbers that got them, were just, very few, right?
JJF: Oh wow.
SS: Yeah, So there is a way that promise of being included in this so-called information economy. Like it’s it’s stumped at various levels, right?
JJF: Yeah, I was going to come back to that kind of promise that is being promoted in the marketing material. And it sounds like many of the women that you interacted with in your fieldwork who entered into training courses, didn’t necessarily believe the higher project promise of kind of like launching yourself into this free and open space past the digital divide. But they did perhaps believe the other promise of just kind of like more opportunities.
SS: And of some kind of mobility. I don t think that they believed that this would bring like massive mobility, but, you know, at least mobility enough to like, make sure that their families were fed and the younger sibling could go to school.
JJF: Right? And it sounds like even that, what we might call a more modest promise was not necessarily something that these training courses were fulfilling.
SS: Yeah, they were not.
JJF: Okay. Can I ask you referenced that some of these training courses are free and some of them were not the one that you studied, did students have to pay for it or was it government-funded?
SS: No, students didn’t pay for that. So yeah, that was another reason that many of the women enrolled in the program because the other programs around, even though I think that some of them could have like probably taught slightly more advanced skills, they would just really unaffordable for the women. So again, that is why the computer training center was very attractive.
JJF: That makes a lot of sense, practically speaking. You also said that there were there were a lot of places where mobility or opportunities were stopped. So you followed the women after they left the training center, after they completed their training? And many of them did not go on to find employment or find the kind of employment that they wanted. And you referenced a variety of reasons like having a Seelampur accent, having a Muslim last name. Were there any other barriers that could have prevented people from entering into the kind of employment that they were looking for.
SS: Okay. So yeah, I think just sort of teasing this question out a bit. So I think one thing is, of course, women like not even getting the kind of jobs that they would have, they would think that they would get easily. Right. So yeah, so like for example metro railway jobs or jobs at the reception as jobs at reception for an office or working for a mall. I think some of that was like the same kind of prejudices, which is that many of them, for example spoke basic English and didn’t speak English with the correct accent and not with Seelampur, but I’ve also studied more corporate led programs that we’re training people in these skills. But what we’re also doing is they had textbooks in which they were training people how to dress in a particular way, how to speak English with the correct accent, how to maintain their hair. So it was like like, hygiene, hygiene and manners textbook, right? So while the Seelampur program doesn’t do that, there definitely, again, here we’re talking about not just having economic capital, but also cultural capital. So for example one of the things that the women interacted with say to me is like, you’re so lucky because you went to a really good school in Delhi and that enabled you to go abroad and really live your own life, right? So I think that huge difference in both cultural and economic capital prevented them from even sometimes getting basic jobs that rely on these kind of pink, pink collar work skills like more gendered, more feminized traits, right? But even there, they were felt to not to be adequate. And then also I think there was tremendous discrimination on being Muslim, right?
JJF: So we’re seeing here cultural capital, perhaps class and, or a caste discrimination in terms of how people dress, the kind of English accent that they speak with, and perceptions and discriminations on that. And then of course, you’ve also said discrimination and marginalization is based on them being Muslim.
JJF: Wow. And so the ICT training course didn’t really like having the skills wasn’t enough necessarily to overcome these biases and prejudices?
SS: No, it wasn’t, and in terms of those of course, first of all, that employment, the numbers were low but then also the kind of work that the women got, and I was just talking about this, it was also, if you look at it, it was lower and one variable precarious. You would deal with male customers who would harass you. So it was definitely not work that, in many instances, for example you could work for a mall that would promise you a certain incentive and then you would work and you would not get the incentive. So these are also jobs that are not great jobs to have. You know, they don’t pay well, they’re not protected. They can come with different forms of abuse. So even when the women did get these jobs and I interviewed a few of these women. That promise of inclusion is also fell short.
JJF: So can we return to the ICT training center itself? In your research while you were there with the women learning at the ICT training center, you speak of the women engaging in what you call a clandestine resistance. And you juxtapose this against organized resistance. So first of all, for people who may not know, can you talk about the distinction between clandestine and organized resistance?
SS: So I wrote quite a bit about Seelampur and there were all these pieces that were published. But then I kept thinking back to these two incidents that had occurred at the center. And also I just thought of many little little incidents, like smaller incidents that I had in my field notes that I was trying to make sense of because definitely even when I was there at the center, they did speak to me of pushback. They did speak to me of a kind of resistance of a kind of rebellion, but this was a different kind of rebellion. So in Seelampur, for example there have been protests on the streets when the government has shut down many garment manufacturing units. They’re saying that this is not good for the environment, but then critics have called it out also saying this is a form of bourgeois environmentalism where you basically protect the interests of the middle-class and upper middle-class, right? So there have been protests against these decisions of the government. Actually very recently, the government came up with this proposal the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. So the CAA, and the NRC, that would effectively disenfranchised Indian Muslims who had been there for a long time and strip them out of their citizenship. And that was actually one of the first times that the people in the street of Seelampur were not just men but women protested against this decision and they were promptly clamped down by the violent machinery of the state in this instance. So there is a history of protests and rebellions, especially against the state in this neighborhood and women, for example that I talked to did not participate in the earlier protests about the closure of industries, but definitely had family members who did, right. So there is that that operates. But the resistance that I was looking at was really located in these quiet, often quiet instances, or a moment of like laughter, or a moment of silent pushback that was really saying that, Hey, what are you promising us is not what is happening. So they were pushing back against that promise. But it happened in these very seemingly innocuous ways and very everyday kind of settings. I think that’s why it took me some time to write about these because as I thought through things and I spoke to people further, I was like, yes, there is some resistance going on here, but how does one understand it? Especially in the context of Seelampur wear resistance has looked different.
JJF: Okay, I think that’s really helpful. So there is a history in Seelampur of what we might call a more organized resistance, resistance like marches and organized protests. Largely this has been driven by men. Sometimes women have been involved, but often these kind of more organized, more public protests have been protests that have been men protesting. And so you say though, that in the ICT training center you still see this kind of resistance. But it isn’t like an organized protest. It isn’t like marching or something. But there are these more subtle push-backs. And I really liked the idea that the subtlety meant it took you a little bit to identify what was happening that you had all these field notes of laughter when perhaps the instructor thinks to the laughter is inappropriate. Or you tell a story actually in the article I read of one of the computer girls who was habitually late to arriving to class because she was or would run out in the middle of class to go make food for her mother. And that the instructor really started getting quite upset at this. And that she pushed back when the instructor started kind of upbrading her for being late. So can you talk about a few of these examples of clandestine protests, as you call them, and kind of what you think they might be signifying. Maybe it’s more than one thing.
SS: Right. No that’s a great question. I think. Also why it took me some time to write about this because I don’t want to overtly romanticize this resistance again, so I want to locate it in this way, particular contexts that’s happening and tease out some of the complexities, contradictions involved there. So I think that was why it took me a while to get here too. So in terms of, so there were these significant moments. So for example, one thing that I wrote about is there was a class, the computer class used to happen, and as I’ve described, it’s located on a narrow street, the house and there are these three women opposite. So it’s a street was so narrow that these three women could just stand in their balcony and just look in and hear. The windows were always open because they were often power cuts. So they could just hear the class. And this happened for like a year that as just saw these women almost like just come out there with different generations, three different generations, come out and stand in the balcony and listen to the class. And the instructor would just get upset about it. He was like, yeah, there’s somebody invading our space. This is not disciplined. And there would be these moments where the computer girls, the computer ki ladki they were called, would just like defy him and interact. So for example there was this incident where one of them took out the USB stick and she was like” USB stick, they call like look, this is a USB stick,” and there was this laughter that was shared by the women opposite and the women in class. And the instructor told him to be quiet and immediately like everything was quiet. But I think what that signified is that there was also a push back towards these like narrow messages that the women were getting about basically taking individual responsibility and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps kind of narrative to signifying more community to signifying and in many ways more joy in that community. And also a feeling that sharing this, like sharing the class or sharing a piece of technology, was no big deal. And I go into this more in the piece that you read, but Seelampur also has, it’s located and cultures of piracy and counterfeiting, whether that’s media material, whether that’s denim. And I think there is a sharing of materials including different forms of tech and media that the women just feel like what’s the big deal and also pushing against that very narrow individualist productivity message.
JJF: Yeah, no, and I liked that too because in this case it’s also sharing the knowledge. Sharing the knowledge and sharing community. And the instructor putting in this boundary being like no like the knowledge is for this class and for the people enrolled in this class, and not for the people across the street on the balcony. And I think that’s really interesting, particularly given the geography that you’ve described here where sharing would be quite, I think, natural if you’re in a geography where everything is kind of close together and you can see everything across the street really easily. Like it would almost, almost require/cultivate and culture of sharing. And then when you add it on the discussion of piracy and counterfeit being quite common, I can see how the women wouldn’t necessarily think this is a big deal given that kind of cultural location, right?
SS: Absolutely. And it’s not like the women in class and the women across the street with the best of friends. I honestly never saw them interact once that was done. But I think they just came together for this moment of like community curiosity and also definitely I think pushback, like it was like, Okay, yeah, you can tell us not to do this, but we’re going to continue to do it.
JJF: Yeah. So this kind of clandestine resistance, like you can’t stop the women across the street from listening, right?
SS: It’s clandestine because there’s the pushback there is more subtle, right? So it’s not like the women e.g. not showing up for class or it’s not about them directly challenging their male instructor. But it is in the different ways they push back. So for example the incident that you were talking about, that this woman, she had a mother who is not doing well, who lived down the street, and she would just disappear for like ten min and she would say, I want to put on the rice, right, and then be back. And this was really frowned upon and she was given lectures like, you know, when you started working like real-world, you’re never gonna get an opportunity to do this. And she basically was like told them to be quiet because I think what she also wanted them to recognize is that she had these other identities and other roles. And for her learning computers as it was called, computer seekhana, learning computers was it was embedded with all of these different kinds of identities. So I think she was also like creating her own space and her own way of progressing with this class.
JJF: I really liked that. She had other identities like when you step into the classroom door, or, in some ways this is true of all of us, right? When you step into the work world, it’s not like your other commitments and your other identities go away. That’s a fiction that is very widespread. That like now you’re here and you’re a person of business. But like if my kid’s school calls, I’m going.
SS: Right. And I think that while this was not collectively articulated, like I don’t think the women sat and had a meeting about this and decided, decided this was going to happen. I think their actions also showed that they were trying to build a more collaborative, supportive of each other feminist space, right within the constraints of the center.
JJF: So it strikes me that a lot of the examples of resistance that you noticed and that you talked about in the piece that I read, were as you said, kind of community affirming and community building as opposed to the individualist narrative that the center’s marketing was putting forward this individualist, you will cross the digital divide and you will pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it strikes me that a lot of this is quite feminist and also that they’re very much acts of care. And so to what extent do you think we can see these acts of resistance as a replacement of this kind of individual initiative marketing with a pushback of community, the importance of community support and care.
SS: That’s a great question I think like one of the reasons that the women came to the center, the first reason and the most important reason was to get a job and make money. But really it was also a space that they could come between like dropping their kids off or get a break for the morning chores because it was a legitimate place to come to, to do a computer training class. And many of these women just hung out in the center for as long as they could because it was a welcoming space. Now, having said that, the computer girls, because they were usually more educated, you need to, I think you need it to be at least like have graduated from tenth grade to be a part of this program, they also shouldered like a lot of burden or the labor of helping the greater community. So for example, the center, because it was state-sponsored, also held these free legal clinics and then it held an actual medical clinic. And the women would often get drafted or they would volunteer to do a lot of that kind of work. And I talk about this in another piece, which is talking about smart cities and Seelampur is that the women were also drafted by the state to actually go like count residents in Seelampur, which is a very complicated process for this digitization of ID program that the Delhi government was doing right? So, all this to say yes, that space they entered to definitely they came to it for, came to it for community. But there were also doing the labor of helping the community, often encouraged by the state without really any real recognition of their work, they identify themselves sometimes as social workers, even though they were not. But they took on many of those roles without any recognition or compensation.
SS: I think that the idea of community in that way here is, is it gets a little complicated.
JJF: No, I think that’s a really good point and I think that is something that is really complicated about thinking about care and care work is on the one hand, it is extremely vital. Right? And I can see why one of the girls that you interacted with just pushed back against her instructor and was like, look like I’m still a daughter. I still need to go home and put the rice on for my mom, and that doesn’t go away when I get into the classroom. But on the other hand, we’ve seen that care and care work is ripe for, for exploitation, right? That people end up, because you do care, you end up doing care work without compensation. And often the people who do the care work are people who are already marginalized and exploited in other ways, right? And so seeing the dual nature of care work here, it’s very sad to me, but it makes a lot of sense to me that that is happening.
SS: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And sometimes this kind of care work centered around the fact that the women knew basic technology, right? So there are all these complicated forms that you would need for various social service schemes of the state that residents would come and in many cases, they were illiterate, but even if they were not, they could not really make sense of those forms. A lot of them had got digitized. There were no computers, so the center had a computer. So the women felt that it was their responsibility to help. Right.
SS: One, they were enlisted, but they also in many cases did this voluntarily because they felt as people who have some basic technological skills, they could do this.
JJF: So more need to helping sustain and give back to the community with the skills that they acquired at the center.
SS: Right, so they took that burden on themselves and then the Delhi government also recruited them for different schemes. So yes, care work here is complicated, it gets, but it’s also interesting that of course, the kind of qualities that were needed and their interaction with the residents or counting residence for example, involves being able to talk to people and have good communication skills and lead initiatives, which are skills that they acquired through previous work, right? But this is also skills that they were assumed to not to have. Again, despite having those skills, it often did not translate into employment that could have used those skills.
JJF: Yeah. It almost sounds like it was kinda tacitly recognized by the government if the government is recruiting them into this labor. While at the same time being like, Oh, these people need help to develop the skills in order to enter the information economy. That’s, wow.
SS: That is true, That’s a good point. So yes, I think that they are recruited for the gov, by the government because of leadership and other skills and some basic technical knowledge. But yes, but then
JJF: The government is still giving this narrative saying, these people don’t have the skills that the government is also relying on them to have.
SS: That’s right. And then the roll with that and other things comes without, there’s some compensation, but very little. So it really comes without any recognition, without any sort of stake and really getting involved in building a different kind of social structure or communities in terms of support from the government, right? Yeah, so it’s also a role then comes, which is basically delegitimized at the same time that you are being recruited to do these government tasks.
JJF: I just have one more question about the ICT training center in Seelampur specifically. So different training centers, I, I’m assuming not all of them target women, but the one in Seelampur was specifically recruiting and targeting women. Can you tell us why that was, why the specific focus on women in this Training Center.
SS: yeah, so the Seelampur Training Center was under this program. The Delhi government then called the Gender Resource Center. And gender resource centers was specifically targeted towards helping marginalized women, given the highly unequal status of women in India and specifically in Delhi, the computer program training program was housed inside the Gender Resource Center. Muslim women, because Seelampur is largely Muslim community. So really these women had like this, this tripartite identity of being Muslim or being poor, of being women. Which I think the center wanted to work with, like sort of recognizing these challenges. But I think of course the problem was that instead of recognizing for example the structural oppressions that Muslims have faced, the emphasis became more on bringing Muslims into the modern world.
JJF: Right. So instead of looking at structural and social inequalities, the center is largely focused on individual empowerment and individualistic narratives and individual skill training.
SS: Right. Individual skill training and also of course, these auto-Orientalist tropes off representing Seelampur itself.
JJF: This has been so fascinating. Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me today. I just wanted to ask, is there anything else that you’d like to leave our listeners with regarding the promise of technology, these training centers and the women of Seelampur?
SS: As this work has progress and sort of gone into different directions, I mean, what is the relevance of like Seelampur, right? I mean, obviously there’s a lot of bigger questions that we’ve talked about today. But I think it’s interesting in the context of, you know, like discussions about AI and the kind of jobs for example that it will replace, it’s, it is relevant to look at the women of Seelampur and the kind of work that they are doing and, I think really to sort of put faces and humanize them and to learn about their experiences, right? And so I think that is something that I think is an important parallel to think about. In terms of protests and resistance, I mean, I wrote in the piece for example the Amazon unionizing and resistance by the workers, if you look at it, similar kind of work in many ways to what the Seelampur women are being trained for. I think it’s interesting and relevant to think about what resistance are organized resistance looks like, right? In those cases, including the clandestine resistance that the Seelampur women are practicing them. Questions about unionization, India has got now, some IT unions. So there are different forms of organizing that is happening. I think the most recent layoffs, for example in the tech industry in the Bay Area, the Bay Area and globally. So Alphabet for example which is, it has been pointed out that there have always been, for example vulnerable workers inside Google. Like the contract workers, have a different kind of status, right? So I think all of these like, it does mean organizing the security workers and tech companies in the Bay Area for example. So I think all of these have parallels and complexities and questions that are related to the women in Seelmapur that I’m doing. So it’s interesting to think about overall, what is this promise of tech and mobility and inclusion? And how do people, especially those people with marginalized identities, experience it and really experience policy from below, or experienced institutional actions from really being on the ground.
JJF: One final question: will skills set us free?
SS: Well, I think the argument in the Seelmapur case is that skills does not, does not set, does not set us free.
JJF: This episode of Gender Sex and Tech continued to conversation, begun in the book, Your Computer is On Fire, which I read last summer and I highly recommend to you. It includes a chapter written by Sreela Sarkar titled “Skills Will Not Set You Free.” I wanted to thank Sreela for sharing her research with us today. And thank you listener for joining me for another episode of Gender Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. If you would like to continue this conversation further, please reach out on Twitter @tech_gender or leave a comment on this podcast. Or maybe you could consider creating your own material to continue the conversation in your own voice. Music provided by Epidemic Sound. This podcast is created by me, Jennifer Jill Fellows, with support from the Marc Sanders Foundation for Public Philosophy. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider buying me a coffee. You’ll find a link to my Ko-Fi page in the show notes. Until next time everyone. Bye.