The nuances of ignorance

GENDER AND SLUM CULTURE IN URBAN ASIA Susanne Thorbek Publisher: Sage Publications (Vistaar) Price: Rs 225

By Vasudha Dhagamwar
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

GENDER'S role in social organisation, economic production -- and their attendant problems -- are attracting the notice they so completely deserve. This book is particularly interesting because it is a comparative study of slum cultures in the 2 Asian countries of Sri Lanka and Thailand. As Thorbek points out, by the year AD 2000, half the world's population will be living in cities and the largest cities will be in the Third world, with very sizable numbers living in slums.

Thorbek has taken a great pains over her study, even living in the slums of Ratmalana in Sri Lanka and Khlong Toey in Bangkok until it became physically impossible for her to do so.

Nevertheless, this study has problems: first, she claims to have taken the concept of "slum culture" from the concept of "workers' culture" as developed in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Birmingham, England, and that she "has changed it to slum culture because there are relatively few wage-earners in the cities of the Third World, especially if one looks at organized workers".

The concept of workers' culture is rooted in the whole history, literature and lore about the working class worldwide. Moreover, slum culture is to do with place and style of residence; workers' culture is to do with working. So, how was the transition done?

Second, in both slums she has had to rely entirely on interpreters. How effective are such studies with this kind of major mediation? There are missed or ignored nuances, and, of course, subject inhibition by the presence of the mediators. Thorbek herself has commented on the very disparate natures of her women interpreters, sometimes affecting her relationships with the women she interviewed. Although she eventually concluded that the data was still mutually comparable, others may not share her confidence.

Third, inevitably, the 2 slums were studied at different periods of time. The problem is that the Thai study is not used in the "direct" manner as the material from Ratmalana. There are only "excerpts and quotations" from it (pg 19).

And there are some surprising observations. In the introduction itself, she remarks that half the population (male) in big cities produces things for which it earns an income; the other half (female) produces life but does not earn. It is true the world over that the women are not paid for producing life, but they do work at producing services or goods and they certainly do earn. Thorbek herself found the women she interviewed working at all kinds of occupations.

Comparing the 2 slum cultures, she found that Thai women migrate on their own while Sri Lankan women migrate with "their men". By way of evidence, she says that of the 15 women between the ages of 14-26 who migrated to Ratmalana, 10 were married. The age group she uses is too large to measure any change, especially marriage. By 18, many girls are married; by 26, even in the West, they are nearly on the shelf.
Interrogating the author There are other statements which arouse unsatisfied curiosity. Why does Thorbek say that the family in the Thai countryside is rarely as badly off as wage workers in Sri Lanka? Or that Sri Lankan slumdwellers do not maintain links with their villages? She says that the Thai women slumdwellers have preserved their understanding of gender -- that they have matrilocal settlements, sexual expression is freer, and so on; all this because they have kept close to their village culture. In Sri Lanka, the same village culture has changed, she says, through a "centuries' old process". The Indian and the Western (she could have at least said Victorian!) have imposed virginity, virtue and modesty.

Speaking about matrilocal settlements, she finds that the majority of women in Ratmalana live close to their mothers or even share the same house. These are sweeping statements: one cannot forget the prostitution that is eating into urban Thai society -- including its slums.

Thorbek finds that in both countries, a woman's sexuality is seen as being dangerous and needing masculine control. Yet she finds Thai women more assertive, with a greater sense of identity and self-assurance than Sri Lankan women. This is interesting enough by itself to be examined in detail, which is not forthcoming. Instead, in the chapter titled Material Conditions and Identity, Sri Lankan culture is literally wound up in a few half-digested phrases and unexplained bibliographical references. Why on earth should anyone accept them as the Gospel truth? A promising subject, meriting better treatment.

Vasudha Dhagamwar is director of the Market Analysis and Research Group (MARG)

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