Managing mobility: Commuting domestic workers, mobile phones, and women’s ‘honour’ in Kolkata

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Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Kolkata and rural West Bengal and engaging with literature on mobile phones in the global South, and on gender and sexuality in India, this article seeks to understand the incongruence between widespread mobile phone use in India and commuting domestic workers’ own accounts of their mobile phone use. It illustrates the important role that mobile phones play in enabling commuting workers (who are mostly women) to find work and manage relationships, but also how commuting workers play down their mobile phone use, guarding against suspicion from husbands, sons, and others. Such suspicion reflects the stigma around women’s mobility/sexuality, connected to ideas about women’s ‘honour’ and the perceived risks associated with women’s work and journeys. When workers’ mobile phone use is, then, perceived to be ‘inappropriate’, or if workers transgress norms and expectations relating to ideas about women’s ‘honour’ in other ways, they can face (further) surveillance and abuse, their access to phones thereafter often being controlled by men. Contributing to gendered analyses of mobile phones in the global South, the article shows how phones can at once create new possibilities and freedoms for commuting domestic workers while at the same time reinforcing gendered power relationships.
Original languageEnglish
JournalContemporary South Asia
Early online date12 Feb 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 Feb 2021


  • domestic work
  • commuting
  • mobile phones
  • mobility
  • women's 'honour'
  • India

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