Why is overseas migration of women as domestic workers clustered spatially even within the south Indian states?  How did women obtain access to overseas migration from specific source regions?  These questions were at the core of Prof. Praveena Kodoth’s special lecture entitled, Historicizing Women’s Labour Migration: The Case of Domestic Workers from South India. The lecture was organised by the Department of History, University of Hyderabad, under the initiative of the ‘Brokering Mobility’ Project funded by the Institution of Eminence (IoE).

An alumna of the University of Hyderabad and a contributor to the Subaltern Studies anthology, Prof. Kodoth currently is a Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum. A recipient of the prestigious fellowships like the New India Fellowship and Ratan Tata Fellowship to the London School of Economics and Political Science, her research revolves around the sites of gender, migration, human development.

In the lecture, Kodoth sought to historicize women’s labour migration in post-independent south India which is spatially clustered in specific source regions and suffers from a form of statistical invisibility.  Invisibility is an outcome of a restrictive state policy that has curtailed migration through regular channels combined with spatial clustering because of which women as a proportion of all migrants shrinks at the macro national or state level.  Women’s migration to the Middle East is historicized in generic terms that place it the context of pre-colonial trade relations between the west coast of India and the near and far east which gave rise to settlements of merchants in some of the Middle Eastern regions and which were overlaid by the British colonial connections.  She sought to flesh out more specifically the connections and networks that contributed to women from specific regions of Andhra Pradesh – the Godavari delta and Kadapa – and Kerala – the coastal regions of south and north Kerala – obtaining access to migrant employment in the Middle East.  An important question is how did Dalit women come to dominate migration from the Godavari delta region from the start in the mid 20th century in a context where Dalits have lacked access to international migration in other regions.

Kodoth used the story of Subbamma, who moved from the Godavari delta region to Rangoon in the early 20th century to situate the development of a migrant sensibility and migration aspirations among Dalits in the region.  Large scale migration to Burma and significantly higher wage rates there made it possible for Dalits from the region to achieve upward mobility.  When the border with Burma closed between the 1940s and 1960s, Dalits from the region turned to the Middle East.  In this quest, their sizeable presence in Bombay at the time was an enabling factor as was the transformation of traders from Kadapa who had business relations with Arabs businessmen into recruitment agents and the spawning of recruitment ties between Bombay and the Godavari region.   Migration was an opportunity for women to escape the rigors of caste patriarchy at home and built lives that offered greater dignity, she argued.  Malayali women from the coast also drew upon a previous history of mobility to South East Asia to tap opportunities in the Middle East mediated by connections in Bombay and opportunities arising from demand for domestic workers from migration of more educated Malayalis as nurses and other professionals.

At the end of the lecture, she criticised the selective visibility of the women migrants as illicit sexual agents. Through the comparative study of the life story and the archival records, she elaborated on the way women migrants were represented as merely sexual providers, which did not do justice to the complex nature of their work and personal lives at the destination.

The lecture attracted a large audience from across various departments of the social sciences and humanities and was followed by a regenerative question-answer session with active participation of faculty members and students.The lecture was held in the Conference Hall of the School of Social Science and was moderated by Dr. V.J. Varghese, Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Principal Investigator of the of the ‘Brokering Mobility’ Project.

Contributed by: Jiji K.V, Research Scholar, Department of History