ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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At the Intersections of Patriarchy and Informality

Mobility as Capability: Women in the Informal Economy by Nikhila Menon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020; pp xvi + 196, price not available.

Afalling labour force participation rate in India for women has been a cause for concern over the last few decades; underlying this concern is the retreat of women from paid work into the private site of the home tied to reproductive labour. This phenomenon is bemoaned attributing greater agency to women who participate in paid work outside the home. Nikhila Menon’s book, however, rooted in a study of women in the fisheries industry in Kerala, suggests that the answer to greater autonomy for women may not be as simple as seeking greater access to public space and paid work. Menon, thus, seeks to unpack the assumptions baked into a general understanding on labour and gender, that women’s participation in paid work and the ability to be in public and be mobile translates into improved gender relations and autonomy for women.

Challenging these insights, Menon con­ceptualises in its place a specific form of mobility—transformational mobility—that emerges within specific conditions which the book explores, using the site of the fisheries and women’s work within it. Drawing on Amartya Sen’s capability approach, Menon unpacks the impact of the nature of informal work and its asso­ciated mobility on a woman’s “sense of self-worth” and their ability to exercise decision-making powers. She suggests that mobility has “not been researched” (Chapter 5) as related to the assumptions on accessing paid work and its associ­a­tion with the capability approach. Thr­ough the nine chapters, Menon draws the reader’s attention to the women workers engaged in the fisheries sector in Kerala—a state that is well-regarded for its development outcomes especially where women’s access to education is concerned. She unpacks the paradox that confronts Malayali women, who are considered to be in an ideal position to realise their capabilities but remain trapped by patriarchy. In this context, Menon considers the woman worker in the fisheries, working in the informal economy, marked by caste, and navigating stigma around work and poses the question whether these conditions have enabled transformational mobility to take place? To ans­wer this, Menon devotes considerable attention and care to the methodology to highlight how transformational mobi­lity can be mapped and assessed thr­ough a measurement scale of permissibility using a Rasch rating scale model; this is sure to be of interest to those fami­liar with the technical aspects of such methods, which the reviewer is not. Menon’s conclusions from this analysis enable her to distinguish between the levels of mobility across cate­gories of vendors and peeling workers, as well as to identify how age and marital status contribute to mobility. Yet as she notes, “mobility associated with work is not a capability that enhances the overall freedom of women” (p 80).

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Updated On : 20th Feb, 2023
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