Dr. Anindita Chatterjee (Fellow, Ph.D. scholar, JNU, Delhi)

Uneasy Coexistence: Religion and Patterns of Exclusion of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in Homes and Public Spaces

1 September 2019 – 31 March 2020

During my Seven-month fellowship, I had the opportunity to conduct ethnographic research on stratification, social isolation and politics of discrimination amongst the female migrant domestic workers. The conflict and exclusion experienced by workers within their own colonies has remained largely under-studied. This study explores the biased relations created within the workers’ own squatter settlements and attempts to answer the lack of solidarity among worker community through their own inter-personal narratives.

This paper utilizes narratives to examine the dialectics of relationships that operate trans-regionally among a diverse group of female migrant domestic workers in Kolkata, Delhi, and Noida (National Capital Region. The larger research for this project was drawn from an extensive ethnographic fieldwork since 2015. However, for this paper, I began to focus my study to understand the profound shift in India’s imagination of itself from a secular state to a mono-religious and intolerant nation with the advent of ‘Bharatiya Janata Party’ as the governing body.  For the purpose of this paper, I have taken the most recent four narratives documented from 2018-2019 and few from early 2020[1]. This study engages in multi-sited locations to address and compare the viewpoints among a diverse group of domestic workers on issues that focus on caste and religious identity. I carried out my ethnographic research in two different migrant colonies, adjacent to posh south Delhi neighbourhood. Since, my research is on domestic workers, I had to pay particular attention to the participant’s time constraints. Hence, I tried to give equal consideration in both the colonies. I particularly chose Noida, since the numbers of inter-state female migrant domestic workers in the cities have increased, and a large number of them are Bengali Muslims. Many of whom reside in Noida. My research period coincided with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act and discussions over the implementation of National Register of Citizens.  

Over the course of my fieldwork, research in Kolkata was covered during the period of my doctoral dissertation. Though, in 2018 and 2019, I visited Kolkata to exchange interaction with my participants. I got a chance to meet my research participants to discuss about the current political developments, which took a better shape in 2020 when I went to meet them again. I maintain close ties with my research participants, and try to maintain a relation with them. In Kolkata, I had many heated debates and discussions with the participants, and some complained regarding a shift or transformation in the political scenario creating more gender inequality. My Kolkata chapter is always very enriching since I can meet many professors, and experts on South Asia who arrived for research. I last visited AIIS (American Institute for Indian Studies) in Kolkata branch in 2019, for an open forum and our topic discussion.

Most studies done till date have relied on structured interviews, random questionnaires, and secondary sources. These do not capture the dynamism of the relationship that take place among the workers in the squatter colonies. It is only through conversation that important aspects of sociality and behavior are revealed. I have used a qualitative analytic approach with a focus on interpreting the transcription of the recorded interviews and narratives based on language meanings, both within the texts and situated contexts. I combined casual interactions with ethnographic research that involved going out with women in daily-life contexts, like shopping, hanging out in tea stalls, sitting and chatting while discussing about caste, gender and religious issues in their own network groups, and finally talking in their own homes. Grounded on the narrative accounts, I explore the lived experiences that construct certain discursive practices among workers which create boundaries of differences.

Domestic workers’ own articulations focus on power hierarchy and social isolation, and suggest a shift in focus, with an emphasis on the workers’ own domestic spaces. In doing so, the paper focuses on divisive clusters and ghettoization that disrupts the collaboration among the workers who have migrated from different regions in search of work. The key themes that emerge from the compelling narratives of four women help this study to understand broader operations of caste, religion, gender, and identity in India today. Based on such accounts, I explore the ways in which food habits and national appearance/clothing act as markers of identity formation. The stories emphasize the workers’ new found ways to adapt and adjust, and gain forms of recognition and belonging within the social system. This facilitates our understanding of what the workers mean to live well as they try to redefine what is good and normal.

After finalizing my paper, and consulting with several renowned professors in the field of South Asia, Gender Studies and Anthropology, I intend to submit in Gender and Society or Journals related to South Asian Studies. I was supposed to present this paper at International Gender and Language Association (IGALA-11) at London, which got postponed.

During my postdoctoral tenure, I have also examined other allied projects based on a workshop “Gender and Reproduction” where my paper on “Reproducing Sons: An Analysis of embodied gender inequality and motherhood among migrant domestic workers” was selected. This project aims to map the identities of domestic workers who face health issues due to medical procedures undertaken for resisting to produce sons, while for some it is respectable to produce a son. The narrative accounts drawn from women reveal insightful issues related to marriage, motherhood, and childbearing. The findings suggest an important contribution in studying motherhood cross-culturally, especially in South Asia, where the study on language, gender, and agency is much underplayed.


Anindita Chatterjee has received her doctoral degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (2019). By training, she is a linguistic anthropologist and has been associated with International Gender and language Association (IGALA) since 2005. Her dissertation is a comparative study on how labour relations operate trans-regionally in Kolkata and Delhi, consisting of bi-lingual migrant workers. In 2020, she will be joining as an Assistant Professor in Pune. Her research and teaching areas are: Culture and Communication, Migration, Globalization and Gender Studies. During her post-doctoral period she has a chapter accepted in a book entitled as Leaving and Living: Social and Cultural dynamics of Migration in South Asia, Vol. II. New Delhi: Routledge. Her next research project shall be the transformation of her dissertation into a monograph.

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