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How mobile phones affect the lives of Indian women

As mobile phones are increasing in popularity worldwide and even some of the poorest people can afford cheap phones, communicating with others and maintaining networks has become easy. Women in India are experiencing changes in their relationships and access to information – with positive and negative effects, writes Erin Stewart.

14 November 2010

The growth of mobile phone usage in South Asia since the 1990s has been staggering. India is one place that has experienced the growth of mobile phone usage. As cheap phones (often imported from China) are widely available, phone plans are incredibly cheap (calls on certain networks at off-peak times are free), and mobile phone use has gotten to be immensely pervasive.

The effect this has had on women in India is stunning – it enables them to become agents in their life, free of family ties.

Mobile phones are useful. They allow us to keep in contact with others and aside from being a valuable tool for ensuring our safety and being contactable for work purposes; they also allow us to maintain a network of people.

Our network might consist of many people or of only a few. It’s basically those people who we would think to store in our contacts list so we can communicate with them easily in the future. Relationships one has with others do not deteriorate rapidly when phones are able to break otherwise restrictive boundaries of time and space.

For many women in India, a mobile phone has become something of a lifeline. According to one study done by L. Rakow from the University of Illinois, where Indian women are able to use mobile phones in their homes, the effect is to weaken their feelings of isolation and boredom, and cope better with the pressures of domestic life. It acts as a tool for keeping in touch with people as well as an outlet and a distraction.

Beyond being a coping mechanism, the presence of mobile phones in India has had a liberating effect. In some parts of India, it is taboo to marry someone from the same village. As a result, many women must make long trips away from their families in order to marry. Travel costs back to one’s family can be very high.

Through the use of phones, however, women become able to keep in close contact with their families and friends. As such, they are also better able to ask for certain services and report poor treatment or domestic abuse back to their families or to agencies that may be quite a distance away.

Even further, for an Indian woman these days, by being socially connected she becomes able to fully exploit her contacts in order to build her own relationships, separate from what relationships her family has arranged on her behalf.

Something of an individualisation is going on – if a woman has her contact list which represents all the different networks in her life, and these networks are different from her parents’ networks or her husband’s networks, she establishes that she is a person different from they are with her own relationships. And thus, not fully under their control.

This movement has not come without a backlash though, and this ‘liberation’ is currently a source of anxiety for many Indian people.

A woman with a mobile phone, as has been reflected in a myriad of articles as well as Bollywood film, can be very dangerous and can be seen to corrupt society.

According to anthropologist Geneviève Bell, in 2002, on the front cover of India Today, it was suggested that SMS stood for ‘some more sex’ and that ‘mobile phones were the new viagra’.

Articles within had details of how, through their contacts, women were able to deviate from the wishes of their parents in terms of courting and finding a suitable partner or were able to deviate from the control of her husband by talking to other men and arranging to meet with them.

The use of mobile phones in India has been described as ‘the root cause of unethical relationships with the opposite sex.’

In Bollywood films, such as Cell Phone Wally, women with mobile phones are seen as promiscuous and as individuals able to control men. The idea is that, when you can’t control who is on the end of the line, the woman is out of control. She is able to cheat on men, date multiple men and hold men complete emasculate men.

This is to the point in which some feel that these liberated women are equaly endangered. As Armrit Dhillon writes in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, managing relationships separate from one’s parents can also be dangerous for the women involved.

Given that dating is relatively new to India, Dhillon argues that young women have few experienced role models to guide them. Their mother’s marriages have usually been arranged for them and would have never dated a man.

As a consequence, young women don’t know how to tell if a young man is lying about his feelings for her and he just wants sex, she has no advice to use and no warnings about the possible exploits of young men.

In some instances, establishing and maintaining the networks of people these young women have created for themselves, they have to rely solely on their own judgement to ensure their own safety, which is not always a fool proof plan.

So while many women may reap the benefits of the newfound freedom brought by mobile phones, this has come with a degree of cultural backlash.

This story of women’s liberation in India is situated in worries about potential promiscuity and a leap away from traditional relationships.

Erin Stewart is an Associate Editor at The Scavenger.


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