Women's Employment and Its Effects on Bengali Households of Shillong, India

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MOUSUMEE DUITA [*]

Since India's independence in 1947 the social and legal status of women has been gradually improving. The spread of education has helped women to move beyond the four walls of their homes and to engage in more productive activities, including paid employment (Agarwal, 1993; Gupta, 1994; Agarwal, 1995).

Yet, despite this, the majority of the Indian female population (about 70 per cent) still lives in rural areas and there has not been a significant improvement in the socioeconomic and legal status of these rural women. There is now a significant disparity in status between urban and rural women (Anant, 1986; Aleem, 1996).

In India women from the lower economic groups have always worked in agricultural fields, in factories and in unskilled jobs. They have also rendered domestic help in more economically established families. Because Indian society was characterised by a strict adherence to tradition until the 1970s, it was considered unacceptable for women from the middle classes to take up paid employment. Bengali society being no exception, employment of women is a recent addition to its social structure (Borthwick, 1984, Debi, 1988; Standing, 1991).

Why study the Bengalis of Shillong?

The desire to study any particular group begins with a personal interest. But in this case, my natural interest as a Bengali became a serious concern when I realised that to date, no work had been done on Bengali women of Shillong - the capital of Meghalaya. This was striking, as Bengalis constitute the third major linguistic grouping in Meghalaya (8.95 per cent), next to the two native tribal groups of Khasi (47.14 per cent) and Garo (29.87 per cent) (Statistical Handbook of Meghalaya, 1987:16).

The first settlement of Bengalis in Shillong took place in 1864. The British administration in India, especially in the eastern and northeastern parts, came to depend significantly on the Bengalis as they had been the first to receive English education. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a large number of babus [1] went to Shillong (which was then the capital of Assam) to work for the British government from the adjoining states of eastern India. [2] It was the Bengalis who up to 1897 dominated as the 'native employees' of the govermnent. The leading provision and department stores, book stalls and so on tended also to be owned by Bengalis.

With the growth of Shillong, different offices were set up which had a dominant number of Bengalis employed in white collar jobs. To some extent this continues even today. With India's independence in 1947, Bengali women in Shillong belonging to both the upper and the middle-classes, started to take up higher education. Further during the early 1970s Bengali women began to enter paid employment in large numbers in Shillong (Borkataki, 1977; Goswami, 1979; Pakem, 1984; Lyngdoh, 1996). It was this fact as much as anything which made this study imperative.

Methodology of the study

As noted, Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, had been selected for the collection of data for this study. Among other things, being the capital, Shillong had the largest concentration of employees in white-collar jobs.

A sample of 105 women was selected from two Bengali dominated areas, namely Jail Road and Laitumkhrah. Though Laitumkharah is a mixed area, in which people belonging to different communities reside, only those localities which had a large concentration of Bengalis such as upper and lower New Colony, Ram Krishna Mission Road, Bhagyakul, Goralane and Upland Road were selected for the study.

Due to the non-availability of data on the actual number of Bengali employed women (both married and unmarried) residing in these localities, I had first to contact all the Bengali households in these areas and to make a list of all the Bengali employed women in these households. After conducting the survey it was found that Jail Road had about 75 Bengali employed women, whereas the relevant areas of Laitumkhrah had about 200 Bengali employed women. …