Shame Slippage and Norms Among Rural Working-Class Women: A Struggle

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The working-class women of Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring states of India face grave difficulties rooted in social contradictions. This paper argues the need for radical re-thinking of people’s position in the society. The method used here is retroduction, and the discipline areas are gender studies, ‘gender and development theory, and sociological studies of work and employment.
Retroduction is explained; here it means thinking of how to identify and specify the mechanisms that create harm in a complex social system, and what other mechanisms can or could change the system. The key mechanisms in this paper are the shame slippage and pride slippage.
Based on existing theories, we set up a semi-structured interview and a random-sample survey of women and men in couples, as well as female heads of household, in a range of villages in three states of north central India and northern and southern Bangladesh. In this paper the hypothesis is that shame and the gender-stereotyping norms of these areas are offset by mechanisms of pride and self-respect. Both the negatively connotated shame and the positively connotated pride of being an earning woman are rooted in social norms, but these norms are neither determining in their effects nor permanent or unchanging.
Therefore I examine the situation closely, focusing on the interview data. In working through several case studies these findings emerged:
In essence, we noted both self-respect and shame among the respondents, and usually both within a single interview. These are socially-caused feelings. An individual cannot just choose them, or increase them, or avoid them at will. Instead the person has to navigate their way across their activities. While others may disapprove, the person does what is best for both self and family.
Women’s self-approval for doing cottage industry work was worsened by the presence of disapproval for them going out to earn money. These are social issues, with great complexity. The women expressed a mixture of fear and shame –fear of criticism and dishonour, and shame if they were publicly seen to act inappropriately.
At a deeper level, right actions are deeply right and should not be criticised. In this sense, readers are urged to value all humans equally at all times (a humanist approach). People do what seems best to them. The women, who work typically long hours, need support and encouragement not shaming for what they do. Most of all, retroduction helped us see the dialectical aspects of the situation, while several economic theories did not fare well in regard to labour decisions.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWomen in the Changing World
Subtitle of host publicationIssues and Challenges
EditorsAmit Bhowmick, Elias Olukorede Wahab
Place of PublicationMurshidabad, West Bengal, India
PublisherMittal Publications
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)978-8183249829
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2020


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