Indian Matchmaking: Deepening gender stereotypes
September 13, 2020
The recent Netflix show called “Indian Matchmaking” was criticised for different reasons ranging from promoting gender stereotypes, portraying people in a bad light and being a scripted show in the garb of a “reality” show. As gender geographers, we decided to watch and discuss the show for its transnational outreach and the controversy surrounding it. The show revolves around a transnational Indian matchmaker Sima Taparia who matches men and women through her database of eligible profiles. The two women protagonists on the show who hold strong views about their choice of men are described as “fussy” and “arrogant” by the match-maker who writes them off as “difficult” women to work with.
One question that came up in our discussion was why people based in the US would rely on a matchmaker in India. Diasporic communities of South Asia have their own local mechanisms of matchmaking. Given the current context in which individuals in the US have access to dating websites and social networking options, it seemed curious that they were relying on an India-based matchmaker. The show seems to have shifted the international spotlight on the reliance of Indian men and women in the US on traditional matchmaking practices in India. The matchmaker is shown to be a judgemental person who reiterates the commonly held belief in India that women have to be more “adjusting” and “flexible” in the marriage market. The matchmaker and the couples and families she works with serve to reproduce tropes of traditionalism associated with India and Indians vis-a-vis the US.
Some themes that emerged out of discussion:
How relevant are arranged marriages in India today? Are the narratives of traditionalism represented in the series accurate?
The series focused on the dating experiences and the relationship between the couples. These are character driven and do not really say much about the intense pressures that women in particular face when it comes to marriage. A young scholar from India who was at our discussion session shared about the immense pressure she faced from her family to get married. The series Indian Matchmaking engaged with the dating experience and to some extent the issues of parental pressure. For instance a male lead in the show is constantly pestered by his mother to finalise a bride for himself or she would have to do it for him. Indians based in America were thus portrayed as still living under the control of their parents unlike other young people in America who are dating and finding partners without the interference of their family.
Marriage is also more of an economic transaction in the Indian cases that were shown in series. For example, all the families that were picked from India belonged to the elite class and based in cities. They were seeking families from similar class backgrounds for matrimonial alliances. The materiality of marriage is however highlighted more in the Indian case where the mother of one of the male leads has already prepared a huge trousseau of clothes and jewellery for her prospective daughter-in-law. In India, dowry is still a big part of the matrimonial alliances except in the North Eastern communities which are generally viewed as more gender egalitarian and some of them are even matrilineal. In the American context the show emphasised more on compatibility of the prospective couple rather than the material aspects. The diasporic community consisted of highly educated professionals seeking similar profiles. They were professionals who believed in gender equality and were more focused on compatibility rather than the material exchanges associated with traditional Indian marriages in India.
And yet there were some efforts to show that things are changing in India also. For instance the show also portrays the changes in the urban educated women in terms of their increased agency to make choices with more education and employment opportunities that are available to them. For instance, the Delhi-based woman called Ankita on the show was very clear that she was career-oriented and would not fit the bill of a “conventional Indian daughter-in-law”. She was looking for a partner who would accept her as an independent person. Usually North Indian families expect the daughter-in-law of the house to put hot meals on the table and be available at home to take care of the elders and children. This trend is however changing in metropolitan cities where young women are choosing to stay single to focus on their careers or agree to get married only after they have negotiated their career arrangements with the grooms’ families.
I felt uneasy while watching this show for several reasons. The foremost was that it portrayed the anxiety and obsession of Indian youth and their parents to be “married” in a heterosexual arrangement. It shows that Indian communities both at home and abroad are stuck in between maintaining their traditions and embracing modernity. Matrimony is still the end-goal for many young people and their parents alike. In the present day there are multiple ways of making a family. The heterosexual marital arrangement is not the only way of doing “family”. During the discussion, some YES! Members shared that they were not able to watch the show beyond the first fifteen minutes and others who continued watching said that they found it very offensive in certain places especially where the traditional gender stereotypes are emphasised. The show was oppressive since it did not touch upon alternate ways creating families and leading a happy life. Overall as a group we felt that Indian families need to embrace the concept of “happily single” for all the men and women who choose not to get into matrimonial alliances, remain single or take alternate routes to make families. Perhaps we need to make more progressive shows that display the diversity and alternatives to the heteronormative family rather than shows like “Indian Matchmaking” that promote traditional, sexist ways of forming alliances.
Kanchan Gandhi is a postdoctoral fellow at IISER, Mohali. She specialises in urban, disaster and gender studies. She is trained as a geographer-planner and has over 12 years of professional experience spanning the academia and the development sector in India.
Fieldwork and Ethics in the times of COVID-19
Balawansuk Lynrah and Ananya Bhuyan
August 31, 2020
“How am I going to finish my fieldwork on time?”, “Will I be able to do fieldwork?”, “Should I start thinking of alternative methods to conduct my research?”, “Will I be able to do it?”, “How will my research participants respond to alternative methods?”
These are some of the many questions that most early career social science academics continue to struggle with, as COVID-19 thrusts our world into chaos, leaving in its wake a series of new restrictions and limitations.
However even as the pandemic has found its way into our lives, it is equally true that various researchers have also found their way through the pandemic. There is no dearth of scholarly material in the form of journal articles, opinion pieces, personal blogs, webinars, and podcasts where the academics have engaged with this issue from various angles. There is also a wealth of resources about how to use alternative methods for fieldwork.
Many academic institutions responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with a combination of new ethical guidelines, travel bans and halts to face-to-face research with research participants. In response, academics have been busy sharing interim (or perhaps long-term, even?) strategies for remote research, via interviews on Zoom and Skype about how to conduct social media-based research and make use of online diary entries kept by research participants. The adaptiveness in research methods shows the resilience of the research community and it is certainly heartening to see the novel ways in which researchers are re-skilling and re-adapting – even maintaining social networks and strengthening social ties across new distances. However, these also pose questions about how to adapt the long-established ethical practices into these alternative methods, and new ethical questions have also emerged from using these methods.
The Young and Emerging Scholars (YES!) of the IGU Commission on Gender and Geography organised a webinar where these questions were tackled. The discussion took place on 29th July 2020 and was part of YES!’s monthly webinar series. The guest panelist for the discussion was Assistant Prof. Yasmin Ortiga from School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University who shared with us her experience of research in the times of Covid-19. This was followed by a group discussion on ethics and fieldwork during a time of pandemic. Two key points emerged from the discussion: tackling the challenges and the implications of shifting to a virtual mode of research and the need to rethink ethical engagement with the field in the current global scenario.
Shifting to a virtual mode of research: challenges and implications
One of the major differences in shifting from fieldwork to virtual methods of research, is the change in geographic setting of research.
We found that this poses multiple obstacles. Feminist research is heavily based on immersion in the social world of participants, where often connections are made with the research participants by forging in-person relationships through familiarity and trust. This is important given the sensitive nature of research feminists sometimes engage in. Furthermore, the geographic setting of fieldwork provides a level-playing field, where the researcher and the participants are able to overcome their differences.
For example, one of us is involved in a youth activist-based research in India and will need to set aside time to engage with activist groups to become fully accepted members. This immersion is critical to occupying an insider position that enables us to be more reflexive and sensitive of our competing identities, ethical dilemmas, and the tensions between institutional and activist goals. It involves not treating the research as just data that is “out there for the taking”, but might include being involved in the everyday and mundane activities of the research participants, including taking minutes and notes for the activist groups, creating webpages or simply taking part in moving furniture for meetings, or sitting down in informal meetings for a spontaneous cup of tea. All of this is impossible to achieve when research moves online.
While there are no easy ways to overcome the differences in geographies between the researcher and the participants, one of the ways to reduce this gap could be the use of a research assistant from the field. During the webinar we also discussed how existing research could remain productive even if it is being conducted remotely provided there is logistical support to connect between multiple research sites and data security concerns are also met. However, conducting new projects remotely can be more challenging unless the researcher has already built strong working relationships in the field site during previous projects.
A research assistant could help the researcher with setting the interviews, providing a conducive environment (including a safe venue for interview) to the participants, and in troubleshooting technical problems during the interviews. They may also be an avenue of human contact for the participants. Yasmin, who has worked with fellow collaborators/ assistants for her research drew attention to this point - her collaborators have been vital modes of contact by establishing and strengthening chains of connections with the participants in her site of fieldwork, i.e., Philippines. This also led to a discussion on the transformation of how the research is conducted; i.e., who becomes the gatekeeper in these renewed modes of knowledge production as the researcher sees the site through the reports and materials generated by the collaborators.
In addition to this, we conferred that feminist research often includes participants whose lives are, and may be for some time to come, in turmoil because of the pandemic. Our research will also need significant ethical adjustments. The ethical context is made more complex when there is a significant digital divide between researchers and the communities they research. It is thus important to remember our privilege and positionality as researchers who can conduct interviews from the comfort of our office/room, while our research participant may be struggling to survive in a very different and challenging context of pandemic.
Re-thinking ethical engagement
Valentine (2005: 485) reminds us that “the danger is that the rubber stamp of an ethical committee can both bureaucratize ethical reflection and also lull us into forgetting the need to take responsibility for thinking ethically on a day-to-day basis”. There is no better time to reflect on these thoughts than the ongoing pandemic. Changing research methods from fieldwork to digital methods may also pose a challenge for researchers in terms of getting clearances from the Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). IRBs may provide broad guidelines but these do not necessarily address the new ethical questions and contexts researchers may find themselves in.
This thought made us reflect upon the different IRB policies that vary from institution to institution and how challenging it can be to plan for every possible scenario. In this situation, it becomes even more important for researchers to critically reflect on every move they make before, during, and after their interaction with the participants. One possible circumstance we thought of was what if our research participants become infected? How would we handle such a situation? Of course, the first step is to stop research, but what are our ethical duties to the research participants, and those who have assisted us in the field?
There are no easy answers to any of the questions we ask but all of us agreed that we have a personal responsibility as feminist researchers to ensure that our research timelines and plans make time and space for ethical research. During a time of pandemic when we are forced to conduct research from a distance, it might be easier to forget our moral accountability to participants we may not meet in-person. We are committed to making sure this does not happen.
Valentine, G. (2005) Geography and ethics: moral geographies? Ethical commitment in research and training, Progress in Human Geography, 29, 4, 483-487
Balawansuk Lynrah and Ananya Bhuyan are PhD candidates of the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
YES! Covid-19 Statement of Solidarity
July 4, 2020
Members of the YES! met online on 25 June 2020 in a show of solidarity and support for each other during this pandemic. As more universities consolidate their expenditure in preparation for the economic downturn in the wake of Covid-19, the struggle for early career scholars is likely to intensify. The challenges and anxieties faced by early career scholars who are in, or will soon be, entering the job market are very real.
Covid-19 also means that more of us are working in isolation and facing the pressures of having to keep up the pace of academic publication even as we continue to face added pressure brought on by the pandemic. While quarantine and stay home orders may suggest greater flexibility in terms of our workday, most of us find it difficult to set aside time for research and writing while working from home as this also the space where we shoulder responsibility for care work. For others, the stress comes from having to learn how to use new software and technical equipment to produce online teaching material without access to funding or institutional support (e.g. restricted access to libraries, funds to purchase equipment and upgrade Internet connectivity or training to use software). Finally, there is the challenge of conducting field work as we navigate the new terrain that is emerging out of social distancing measures. For some, this has meant being trapped at their field site, unable to return home. For others, this has resulted in added delays to our research timeline or graduate programme.
We see these challenges as an opportunity to come together to discuss what is important to us and the kinds of changes we would like to see in our communities and institutions. Where in the past we would have met face-to-face at various conferences and meetings, Covid-19 has also inspired us to rethink how we might connect with each other using other platforms. Moving forward, we would like our monthly YES! webinars to be a space where we meet regularly to share our experiences and strategies for survival and success. We hope that by providing a space for feminist scholars to meet regularly, we are better able to pool our collective knowledges to engender change in our respective communities. These include a commitment to the following:
Uphold feminist solidarity in academia that transcends geographical and institutional divides.
Recognise the importance of slow scholarship and multiple pathways to ‘success’ in academia.
Generate a space where feminist politics and friendship can thrive.
Engender change that advances the feminist commitment to social justice.
Kamalini Ramdas is a senior lecturer with the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Confessions of a Returning Student Migrant: Another Facet of Post-PhD Blues
Menusha De Silva
February 20, 2018
After the euphoria of submitting my PhD thesis waned, I began to struggle with the familiar anxiety about my career prospects in the difficult academic job market. While reading blogs on post-PhD blues has been a comfort, I was not able to relate to some fellow-sufferers’ sense of loss after handing over the thesis. To the contrary, I grappled with unexpected demands on my time that disrupted what I had expected to be a stress-free, laidback period of writing for future publications and research projects. I’m hoping these experiences may resonate with some post-PhDs, especially with those who were student migrants and have returned to their home country.
After submitting my thesis for examination (meaning no longer a student, no student accommodation, and a soon expiring student visa), the following evening I was on a flight back home to Sri Lanka. The sudden shift from Singapore to Sri Lanka was disorienting to say the least. While thesis writing is a lonely experience, I felt a greater sense of isolation upon my return to Sri Lanka. The library, the student lounge, my go-to stall for comfort food – the physical landmarks of my PhD experience – were no longer available. Little pinches came in the form of emails on various talks that I couldn’t attend because I was in another country. Yet when in Singapore, updates on the latest family gossip and gatherings always made me pine for Sri Lanka.
Although occupying a liminal space is inescapable as a migrant, I worsened the situation in my naïve attempts to maintain an academic-like routine despite the utterly contrasting milieu of my home. With the “good you have submitted, now think about publishing” words of my supervisor ringing in my ears, I was eager to churn out a few articles from my thesis. Being away from the rigour of the university setting, I was rather worried that I would ‘let myself go’. By this time, I had secured a 6-month teaching post-doc for which I was preparing material, while also applying for post-doc positions.
During the final six months of the thesis writing, my movements revolved mainly around my apartment, the Geography department, the library and the food court (no gym, I brisk walked from one place to another). Back home I realised that my individualistic routine of work (and Netflix) collided with the rhythm of the household. In other words, I preferred to come down for dinner on time rather than be questioned by my grandmother as to why finishing a tricky paragraph had kept her waiting at the dinner table. I realised that I was getting a taste of the much-discussed academics’ struggle to maintain a work-life balance. Somehow I didn’t expect to experience it so early in my career, partly because most blogs I avidly read focused on struggles of parenting; we rarely talk about obligations to other family members.
Apart from the occasional visits home, living in another country and being married to my thesis (some clichés do hit the nail on the head) meant that I had kept my family duties on hold. Returning home made me feel strongly that I am much more than a PhD student, I am also a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, a cousin and a friend. Although I treasure the company of family, relatives and friends, it was always accompanied by the nagging anxiety ‘is this enjoyment at the cost of securing a post doc or sending an article to a journal sooner?’ In addition, I couldn’t set boundaries on my time as ‘work’ and ‘pleasure’ without offending my family and friends. I was supposed to be on ‘holiday’ after finishing my PhD, so why should an unexpected visitor stress me so much (unannounced visits are still common in Sri Lanka)?
But a care crisis, where my 92 year old grandmother had a serious fall and required one month bed rest (meaning my mother and I provided intense caregiving) was the turning point of how I handled the constant tussle about spending my time on work or family. The sheer necessity to be both physically and emotionally available for my ailing grandmother made me realise that I am capable of pushing work-related thoughts out of my mind. What had been lacking was the incentive to do so. During that month, I didn’t have the time to contemplate on the possibility of missed opportunities. I simply applied myself to the task at hand. Now that my grandmother is up and about again, I catch myself returning to the old habit of worrying. I try to hold on to what I managed to do right – live in the present moment. I don’t always succeed but the pangs of guilt are less frequent.
My work on gendered eldercare relations within transnational families (published in Gender, Place and Culture) makes me wonder if some post-PhD blues are gendered. My male colleagues rarely shared these issues; many said a PhD gave them an elite status among their family and community members. I suspect they were more at the receiving end of care (and adulation). If not for some frank discussions with female post-PhDs, I would have attributed my situation to the idiosyncrasies of my family and social circle. Despite returning home with a PhD, my friends felt pressured to prove that they were equally capable in other aspects of their lives, especially in roles deemed to be natural to women. My own struggles to balance work and family are due to both gendered expectations of care and my gender conditioning to feel responsible for the well-being of my family and obligated to fulfil certain societal roles e.g. serve biscuits and copious cups of tea to visitors. Feminist politics on care does not give a go-to solution, it’s not supposed to, but it does give credence to my quandaries to fulfil commitments to those I care for and myself.
Menusha holds a doctoral degree in Geography from the National University of Singapore. She is now a postdoctoral faculty in the Humanities and Social Studies Education Academic Group at the National Institute of Education. This is an Institute of the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.