Kumari travels from Koodlipet in Somarvarpet Taluk in Kodagu district to the city of Mangalore. She stays in a hostel here, applies for jobs, and lands one in the city’s malls. Every morning she hails a public ride to reach her tally class. From here, she catches a bus to the city centre to work in the mall. A hard day’s of work after, she returns to her own private space in the hostel. All her journeys thus far – of that from a small village to a city, traversing the city’s many spaces – the centre where she works, its periphery where she lives, and where real estate rates are cheaper, encounters with strangers every day are her many inroads to freedom.
The distance she has had to cover from her village to the city, from her house to the world is a distance that has been made possible by generations of women before her. The possibility of which perhaps is still distant to many young women. This freedom of occupying space and engaging with the public.
Virginia Woolf in 1930 wrote:
I must buy a pencil as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasures of town life in winter- rambling the streets of London.
A close to a century later, women may still need an excuse to venture out. The pretext of buying a pencil may hardly suffice. For many like Kumari, this comes under the guise of employment. This is what she has wanted. The paltry income job affords her freedom while she will search for better opportunities. I wanted to leave my village; she tells me. For many Indian families, it is a father, a husband, or employment that will allow mobility for a girl. This again is differentiated based on other factors. If you are from an upper-class conservative family. Even employment may not afford you this freedom.
Questions of who occupies what space, who has the time are primary considerations for emancipation. Second-wave feminism in the 60s brought these questions to sharp focus. Why are women relegated to the private sphere? Why is the public only male? Space and Time have and will always be feminist concerns. Both of which have been extremely warped by the pandemic. And the implications of which may reverse several decades of progress on women’s issues. It is now abundantly clear that women have had it worse during the pandemic. There has been an increased incidence of violence against women. Since the care economy is female dominated, women have faced increased risk of exposure. Studies show that health crises often affect women dominated sectors like tourism and hospitality. While men have been pushed into informal labour; A large proportion of women have been pushed out of the workforce. Those who have managed to keep jobs, have had an increased workload managing home and work and the list goes on. But what has been understudied is the crisis of mobility for women.
Even before the pandemic, a survey has noted that nearly 80% women have needed permission to visit health care and 70% to visit friends/ relatives. Census data of 2011 revealed that 45% of women in India do not travel daily because of low labour force participation pointing a direct link between employment and possibilities of mobility for women.
The pandemic has worsened this. There are two things to note here. One, a larger number of women have dropped out of workforce and research shows that they may not return. This is especially true for informal female workers. Two, the pandemic has brought with it seismic shifts in the way we function as a society. For the white-collar workers, Digitization, work from home trends means that now home doubles as workplace and threatens to be an enduring trend even post pandemic. For other informal workers, the thriving shadow economy which existed around the physical workplace and made their jobs possible are now lost. Thereby, undermining the possibility for mobility for women on both counts.
Employment and mobility are intricately connected. We do know that one of the reasons for a low labour force participation of women are mobility-based issues. Safety concerns, transportation issues, inability to allow for transit time and the general patriarchal structures that want to keep women at home are all at fault. A lot of women especially middle aged when asked what kind of jobs they prefer, want jobs which can be done from their homes. For the longest time digital economy is posed as solution. But it is important to see the problem for what it is – uneven distribution of work at home, gender norms, lack of public transportation systems and patriarchal structures which need to be addressed.
Employment and labour force participation allows a woman financial independence but is not inherently empowering on its own. We know that control of financial resources and navigating power in relationships is an essential dimension of empowerment. Even if the workplace has moved to virtual, while it may mean for many an opportunity to enter the workforce, for many others other allied benefits are lost. It still takes away from the person’s mobility and socialization possibilities that employment usually affords. We cannot discount this drawback or minimize this loss. While at the outset it may even increase the labor force participation, this will only be addressing a symptom and with mobility losses and no systemic change to the root cause do little to the cause of gender.
What’s concerning is that remote model of work may not be just a crisis response but an enduring trend. A lot of companies have found that these works well for them and may even benefit them. This means there is a high likelihood that this will continue post pandemic.
Now, this has been hailed as a good thing for women under the guise of Flexibility. Flexibility indeed emerged as a feminist demand and response to critiques of second wave Feminism. Most prominent being that while Second wave Feminism brought several benefits for women with several of them working outside their homes, it also increased their burdens considerably. They now had to shoulder work in the private and the public sphere. And therefore, the calls emerged for flexibility both in terms of flexible hours and location.
Our technological infrastructures have made these work arrangements possible. These are great and have helped us keep the economy running even when going to work has not been possible. However, there are significant risks. The possible loss of mobility, and other socialization opportunities, increased working hours, less and less demarcation between work and life. It is important to be cognizant of these and not think in silos. Flexibility of location is useful but is a false promise for emancipation when women have not been able to have autonomy of choice.
Add this to the enduring losses on the employment front for women in both formal and informal sectors from the pandemic. The crisis of mobility for women is only set to worsen and may set us back by several decades. A precious freedom for many.