Working in a "Dear Sir..." culture

Over the last five months with MakerGhat, a non-profit community makerspace that I co-founded in Mumbai, I have had many encounters with the “Dear Sir” culture in India.

If you’re a woman in a male-dominated industry, you have probably encountered the like at some point in your life. You send out an email or message to a hardware vendor, a startup team, management at an educational institution, or even a sales department. Two days after your carefully crafted message has been sent out, you receive a response starting with “Dear Sir…”

I have been called Sir on the phone (I wonder if I have a masculine voice), on WhatsApp (perhaps my display picture isn’t feminine enough?), though thankfully not in person. In some cases, my name is corrected to a masculine name (Arza and Azhar seem to be preferred). I can almost forgive responses from vendors, perhaps there are truly few women in this space (or perhaps they are working behind the scenes and have also been assumed to be men). But I was more than a little disappointed when the response to my request to submit a newspaper article started with a “Dear Sir”. Does this mean that women rarely submit newspaper articles? I find that hard to believe! Even when the person on the other end of line finally does realize that I’m a woman, rarely is the realization accompanied by an apology. The one time I did receive a rather sheepish apology, I was more touched than I care to admit.

As much as I try to ignore it (aided with heavy doses of eye rolling and sarcastic humor), thoughts about this manage to trickle into my consciousness every once in a while. I can’t help wondering, is it that I have a Muslim name that people (read men) are unfamiliar with? Or are they just too lazy to bother to check if it’s a woman who has responded? What is the excuse then, for being ignored during in-person interactions?

Yes, in-person interactions are not immune to “Dear Sir” culture, the mis-gendering is indicative of entrenched patriarchal norms. During conversations, men will often not make eye contact, preferring to look at my male co-founder even if I have more knowledge on that topic. I smile politely as some men ramble on with a slightly sexist conversation, not wanting to be the killjoy in the room and losing out on an opportunity because I refused to play nice.

Is it any wonder then that women refuse to work in such environments or adapt to be more assertive? It can be emotionally draining and disempowering. Thankfully, I have always been somewhat contrary in nature, venturing where others caution treading. The one thing that keeps me going is the hope that another woman after me might not have to deal with the same issues if I keep pushing.

Coming back to the issue of mistaken gender, I’ve decided to start mentioning my preferred pronouns, she/her/hers, in my email signature.

Now if only I can keep them from finding out that I’m a young woman. Oh dear…

Mind the Gap: Practicing Feminist HCI in the Global South

Conversations on feminism are increasingly taking center stage on online forums as well as offline settings, and have brought to light the diversity of approaches to feminism, often informed by an individual’s personal experiences confronting oppression. Heated debates between self-identified feminists have also exposed the gap between academic and popular feminism, as pointed out by writers such as Adichie. Further, who feminism is for has come under scrutiny as feminist movements frequently align with the agendas of those in power, and non-white non-cis identifying individuals are sidelined. In light of current discussions on intersectional feminism, we bring to scrutiny how we, as feminist/HCI researchers, engage with feminism in our everyday practice

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Dilli Dilwalon ki: but who keeps Delhi's heart beating?

The popular refrain in Delhi---"Dilli Dilwalon ki"---loosely translates to "the city belongs to the large- or brave-hearted". But in the capital city filled with loud voices and louder politics, some of the bravest hearts belong to those with the least voice.

"Madam, here is my number. Call me if you ever need anything, if you ever face an emergency. Don't worry, I will never call you." Our eyes met in the rearview mirror and I gave a tentative smile to the autorickshaw driver. We had bonded over our mutual connections to Bihar and a respect for the simple courtesy afforded there, all too often missing in Delhi. But even as I recorded his number, I knew I would never call. And the light in my eyes dimmed a little at this realization.

Blue-collar workers in Delhi often fade into the background despite their critical role in keeping life running smoothly for much of the middle-class population. These men perform thankless labor as autorickshaw drivers, nathurs, construction workers, and vendors. Many of them are migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who live hundreds of miles away from their families, sending money home to provide them a better life. They often arrive in the city with nothing, relying on making it through by being compensated fairly for their hard work. The city has been built from their sweat and tears, yet they rarely get any credit and are an easy target for blame when law and order break down in the city. Their native accents make them easy to disregard and are considered to be indicative of their socioeconomic status and poor upbringing.

In painting blue-collar workers with a broad brush, we fail to acknowledge how critical their contributions have been. If they were to leave today, Delhi would be left at a standstill. Their work keeps the city in motion; it keeps Delhi moving forward.

Delhi is not a place for the faint of hearts. A regular interaction with a fellow Delhiite sounds more like an altercation and often involves raised voices and fisted hands shaking in the air. In all the hullabaloo, it is altogether too easy to build distance from others, especially those who speak, look, and act differently than you. We need to acknowledge those whose backs we've been riding on and take a critical look at who the city has been structured to benefit.

We need to recognize that the few deeds that hog the limelight and are carried far and wide by loud voices, cannot hold a candle to the quiet contributions of this overlooked and overworked population.

What soap operas won't tell you: Self-efficacy, technology use, and Indian women

If you watch Indian television, you will find that a massive amount of screen time is dedicated to soap operas on large, messy, and dramatic Indian families. Many of these shows have pan-Indian fan followings with millions of viewers from across the country. However, despite their claims that they depict the day to day eccentricities of family life, these shows rarely provide a more intimate and realistic view of their primary and most faithful viewers---housewives.

Many of my interactions while conducting fieldwork in India were with lower-middle-class married women. These women handled the high expectations of their husbands, children, and in-laws, and juggled multiple household tasks daily with ease. Despite this, many of them had a crippling sense of self-worth. A vast majority of these women had a limited understanding of English, even if they could read and write the script. Many of them had also stopped their formal schooling in 8th, 10th, or 12th grade. It did not matter how good their Hindi or Urdu was (the native tongues of the women I spoke to), I often found these women calling themselves "gawar" which loosely translates to "uneducated" and "uncouth", simply because of their poor English. It was said with a smile and matter-of-factly, and sometimes rather jokingly. But always with a sense of disempowerment.

When it came to the use of technology, I found that women fell into two major camps. One group (generally younger women who were more familiar with English) embraced technology, the other shied away from it. The latter's poor sense of self-efficacy was immediately evident. One interaction during my fieldwork, in particular, made a lasting impression on me and motivates the work I hope to do in the future. I share this story below:

I was working with some community health workers (CHWs) who I had recruited for data collection using mobile phones. There were five CHWs, the oldest one, Saima, was uncomfortable using mobile phones while all the others were tech-savvy. After some tea and a conversation about their work, all the CHWs had left for home except Saima. She hung back and we ended up talking about her work and life. We were discussing her role at the primary healthcare center and she shared:

"I am the most informed of the ASHAs and the ANM likes me best. She told me that I was great in all ways...except in my poor digital abilities. Because I am not very well educated and do not understand English, I am not comfortable with using mobile phones. The other ASHAs know better English. I never know how to spell stuff."

What was most surprising to me, as an outsider, was that in reality, (1) the data collection app used little to no English and (2) the other ASHAs made spelling mistakes all the time! When I explained that to Saima, she was initially skeptical. I showed her the app and we went through it together and she practiced entering values for all the data fields. Convinced that she could use it, she then turned to me and said, "Hmm...I could improve my English and mobile skills over time by using the app." I left with a promise from her that she would practice and try collecting data without the support of another CHW. 

What startled me about the interaction was that Saima had convinced herself that she could not use the mobile phone, even when her peers were using it. Her association of mobile phones with English had resulted in her in viewing herself as someone who the mobile phone was not built for. This is a structural problem, one that her society has been guilty of enforcing directly and indirectly. What was holding her back was not inability, but poor self-efficacy, a lack of belief in her own abilities. If Saima, a woman who was wonderful at her job and well-respected and popular among the CHWs was uncomfortable using mobile phones, how many other women were in the same situation? While this is not a "problem" per se, in today's world, digital literacy affords opportunities to connect with family, be employed, and educate oneself. But most importantly, it can help instill a sense of confidence, one that seems to have been snatched away from many Indian women.

Revisiting the (a)typical Indian woman: Illuminating the path forward

I wrote this blog post almost two years ago while I was halfway through my degree in Computer Engineering. Busy grappling with assembly and low-level programming, little did I know that I was embarking on a journey learning about feminist theory, postcolonial computing, and design. While I have only begun my path as a PhD student, I realize how much I have already learned and how much farther there is to go when I revisit where I began.

Two years ago, I conducted ethnographic research on the health infrastructure in an underserved region of Delhi, with a particular focus on the experiences of women. During this time, I also felt rather helpless and frustrated. Faced with a highly bureaucratic and patriarchal society and a failing healthcare infrastructure, I found myself struggling to find a place to contribute meaningfully towards development outcomes (today I use the term "development" only in the most ironic sense). I think some of my frustrations are echoed in Sultana et al.'s paper from CHI 2018 that asks how Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) can contribute towards design in deeply patriarchal societies. The paper concludes that HCI cannot "solve" any problems in these settings and that there is a fundamental conflict between feminist HCI goals and the reality of HCI4D settings.

Despite my feelings of frustration and helplessness, what I did recognize then (as my old post describes) was the strength of the women I met. Women in global south contexts were not passive actors in an oppressive society. In fact, previous HCI and ICTD research has acknowledged the agency of women living in similar settings. The women I met over the course of my research had hopes, dreams, and aspirations and were interested in or already acting on fulfilling them in various ways. Casting them as passive actors is doing them a disservice. And casting the society as wholly oppressive does not take into account the nuances of family structures and relationships among women and between women and men in these settings.

So where do we go from here? Sultana et al.'s paper acknowledged that women could not be helped with technology. But, we need to also acknowledge that women in these settings are already doing much to help themselves and each other. Many of them are oriented towards feminist principles, even if this is not evident using current conceptualizations of feminism in HCI. This means that feminist HCI is inadequate, not the women and their outlook. What HCI can contribute, then, is not technology that hopes to alleviate suffering and oppression (a rather paternalistic goal), but that supports local women in their efforts to push against patriarchal structures. Moving forward, I hope to be fortunate enough to be a part of these efforts.

Designing for Use and Non-Use: The Case of Neighborhood Clinics

Urban cities, particularly those in the Global South, are often characterized by high socioeconomic differences in densely populated regions making the equitable distribution of resources by government organizations a challenge. Inequitable distribution could further increase the gap between socioeconomic groups, necessitating a dialogue on what constitutes a “fair" system. We explore the designing of interventions to encourage use and non-use by target and non-target groups respectively, in this HCIxB workshop paper.

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Let's talk about caste

Before I left the Mohalla Clinic, Saima, a staff worker asked me, “If you don’t mind me asking, what caste (jaati) do you belong to? What is your surname?”

I had no idea what caste I was technically born into, no one in my family had ever mentioned it while growing up. I told Saima that I was brought up in Abu Dhabi in the Middle East, and living there I had never even realized that Muslims in India even had a caste system until I learned about the constitution of India and the Muslim scheduled castes and tribes (SC/ST). The owner of the clinic, a personable and charismatic ancient army veteran, shared, “In India, Muslims also have a caste. For example, I would be considered a Mughal. But, I don’t believe in the caste system. People are above others only by deeds.” Saima agreed with him but was skeptical about my response, “I don’t believe in the caste system either, but everyone generally knows what caste they were born into, even if they don’t talk about it.”

This Mohalla Clinic was a 10 minute walk from where I was staying, a locality that I have visited for weeks and months at a time for almost two decades now. During all my visits to the area, I never heard, saw, or thought about caste. That incident left me more than a little shaken and shattered any perceptions I had of the locality being homogeneous in terms of religion and caste. While I respected the opinion of the owner of the clinic, I couldn't help thinking that it was so much easier to dismiss caste when you had the luxury of being on top of the hierarchy. So much so that I myself had been blind to it all this time...

Delhi's Mohalla Clinics

With its massive population of over a billion people, India is faced with the logistical challenge of dispensing quality healthcare to each and every citizen irrespective of geographical location and economic status. Today, even in the capital city of Delhi, there is a vast difference in the level of access and quality of healthcare received by people of different economic groups.

The Delhi government has proposed an interesting way to tackle this. It is planning to set up a 3-tier system where the lowest tier is a system of ‘Mohalla Clinics’, government clinics in each neighborhood which provide free consultation, tests and medicines. While the existing dispensaries are meant to cater to 50,000 people, each clinic will cater to around 10,000 people in a locality. So far around a hundred clinics have been set up and the government aims to open 1000 such clinics by the end of the year.

According to one doctor I met, the clinics have been set up haphazardly by the government as an immediate response to the crisis. Mohalla clinics are being set up in rented rooms or with pre-made structures around the city. Those running them are doctors coming out of retirement or wanting to give back to society. The government pays the doctors around Rs 30 for every patient they see which is far lower than what they would have received at a private practice. The clinics in operation have little in common save the promise to provide quality healthcare, the facilities available and the staff employed vary.

The two clinics in my area were open only from 9:30am – 1pm, 5 days a week, during the time many people work. One clinic I visited had a waiting time of around 2 hours while the other had practically no waiting time, though both saw the same number of visitors in a day. At the moment, the clinics are relying on word of mouth to bring new customers. 

It is yet to be seen whether the program will be sustainable and successful in providing healthcare to those who had limited access earlier. As I learn more about these clinics, I can’t help but think: Will the community living under a flyover, unaware of a dispensary two kilometres away, ever come to learn of these clinics? Would there even be a clinic set up near where they live, at the intersection of major roads? What about those who were aware of government facilities but couldn’t visit because of their condition or couldn’t afford the travel? Will the maid who takes her children to a private clinic she can ill-afford because she cannot afford to spend time at a dispensary ever be able to access these clinics?

Only time will tell.

The (a)typical Indian Woman

I am currently in the process of collecting data on the healthcare system in under-resourced settings in Delhi, with a focus on women. During my time here, I have repeatedly been struck by the strength of the average Indian women. Not just the women I meet during my fieldwork but also women from around my locality, who my aunt tells me about. These are women who will never be on the front page of a magazine cover or in the list of the world’s most powerful women because they are making impact closer to home.

I met women who have gone out of their comfort zone, some with kids only a few months old, to volunteer to talk to people in their locality to convince them to install toilets, visit the hospital, and get children immunized. I met women who studied till 8th or 10th grade and couldn’t further their education because they got married but have succeeded in sending their daughters to college or are working hard to do so. I have heard of an old but tireless woman, who I can see from my window---washing clothes at an age when she should be resting. She has cancer and has had multiple surgeries and her body is bent from a lifetime of work. These are mothers, wives, and daughters from humble backgrounds. Their husbands may be auto-rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers, or men who do whatever work they get. And they not only manage to run the household but go above and beyond.

One ASHA worker I met shyly told me that the reason she started working was to get an excuse to move out of the house and interact with people. Another woman told me that even today, she would like to continue her education if she gets the chance. These are women with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Over time, these may have changed or they may have found unexpected avenues to fulfil them. But their aspirations are never lost. They still strive to do the best they can in what they do. And to them, it’s all in a day’s work.

If there is one thing I take away from my time here, it is learning what it means to be a woman.

About a girl - Field Notes

This is one of my field notes from ethnographic research conducted in Summer 2016. The women I met in this slum left an indelible impression on me. They were NGO workers, teachers, optimistic young girls, resigned old women, and cheerful babies. But no one affected me more than Saima, a wisp of a girl whose slight figure belied the wisdom and strength it held.

I accompanied the NGO worker to the slum again today. Currently, she is working with the children in the slum to present a skit based on Snow White. When we arrived, one of the girls older than the rest of the lot started getting the room ready for practice. She also told all the kids to clean up and get ready. While I was standing there taking in the surroundings, one of the younger girls pulled at my bag and pointed at my phone which was in my hand saying, “ma’am photo”. She then went near a box and raised her hands indicating that she wanted me to carry her and put her on top of the box. Seeing me taking a picture of the girl, a few other kids came to the room too and said, “ma’am take a selfie with us”.


I found out later that the older girl, Saima, organized the kids for their classes at the NGO. On the way there from the far end of the slum, I could see little kids lying on their cots with their mother, and many of them looked very weak. They also had swollen bellies and bowed out legs, and some of the children who were around 2-3 year old had a different gait because of the bowed out legs.

Saima was a skinny girl, she was yet to be 18 but she seemed years older than her age. She wore western clothes all the times I saw her, she told me that she was fond of them. As we talked, she told me more about her life and her experiences with the NGO.

“Ma’am, I work in this pucca structure, the center pays me for it. My work is to get together the children, make sure they are clean and dressed and then send them to the center to study. I also keep the center clean and run any errands required. I live here with my sisters, you’ve met them, remember the woman you talked to at the center yesterday? That pucca structure is her home, two rooms are rented out to those two NGOs. I’m not living with my parents anymore. I had some issues with them.

Like every other story, it was to do with love. It happened in the village, I fell in love with the wrong person and now I am suffering the consequences of that (she choked up a little here). While growing up, I was very close to a boy my age. We were very good friends. Friendship grew into love. But my mother warned me against it. The boy came from a family with more money.

I was naive and thought everything could be solved by love. I went against what my mother said and she disowned me. The boy’s mother was completely against marriage to him and the boy never once stood up to his parents. I was thrown into this prison in the jungle by her family and for months no one found me. I had no idea who had done this at the time. When I finally go out, I learned that those people had hired goons to do this and I filed an FIR against them. When I did that, they tried threatening me, and bribing me but I was adamant. I was still willing to not press charges if the boy married me. The worst thing is that the boy I did all this for, does not even care.

Since I was young, I had a fondness for learning. Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity go to school. I had to start working from a young age to supplement the family income. I’ve done every kind of work possible, you mention it and I’ve done it. I’ve pulled bullock carts, worked as a housemaid, ran miscellaneous errands and now I’m working at the center. I haven’t been paid by the center for months though, I’m thinking of refusing to work till they pay me. They don’t pay me much, only around 3000 rupees a month. Those 3000 rupees disappear before I know it. Right now I’m struggling for money, I eat on some days and I don’t on others. Last month, it was one of the kids birthdays so we had a huge celebration and I spent 10,000 rupees on it to get food for all the children because we hadn’t celebrated in a long time. I couldn’t say no to the children. Now I have nothing left.

Even my sister, the same woman you talked to yesterday was sly about helping me. When she needed money, I lent it to her without any questions. Now when I’m asking her for the same, she’s asking for interest. I agreed anyway because I don’t have a choice.

I like working at the center, in the first couple of months I had problems with the teachers working there but now I’m on a good footing with Annu ma’am. She even taught me. I’m a quick learner and learned in a month. I learned the alphabet and how to recognize letters in a piece of text. However, I still can’t read. I can only recognize individual letters. Annu ma’am would write down the alphabet for me and I would practice writing later. I’ve told Sanjay that I can help him and so has Annu ma’am but I don’t know why he doesn’t ask for help.

Before the center started over a year ago, a white lady and Sachin Sir, the manager, came to our slum. She gathered all the women in one place and asked who was willing and capable of working at the center. All the women here came forward but I was the only one who really understood what the woman was saying because I had picked up a lot of English from working as a housemaid. From working there, I had also learned how to speak with some manners (tameez). The woman took a liking to me and gave me this position at the center.

When I started working at the center there were two teachers, one for children under the age of 6 and the other was for the rest. However, the two teachers had a lot of issues between themselves and I would get stuck in the middle. Annu ma’am would complain that the other ma’am was unable to control the class. And that was true. I think the teacher had got a fake degree. She was completely unqualified for the job, the students would say that she doesn’t know anything, how is she going to teach us? Finally, the other class was discontinued, the teacher was fired and Annu ma’am started handling more children. At one point, Annu ma’am also had issues with me and accused me of not being at the center. How could I be at the center when she kept sending me on errands? Once she would tell me to get water, another time to get food. If she told me everything at once then I could at least not waste time on that.

Finally, she complained to Sachin sir, and he asked me what had happened. I told him my side of the story and he listened. Finally, he talked to Annu ma’am. He said – We’re not the ones who have any right over her, she’s the one who has any claim over us. How can we remove her when she’s the one who is letting us work here? We’re not the ones who hired her in the first place then what right do we have to remove her? I cried that day. I generally never cry before, not even when the boy I love did not stand up for me but I cried then. After that, Annu ma’am and I came to an understanding.

Once there was an incident when the policemen who live opposite our home were being unprincipled. Seeing that there was a young woman working alone at the center, they came into the center where Annu ma’am was teaching and harassed her. She was shaken by that. When I heard of that, I went to the police station and shouted at them and told them that I would file a complaint. After that, they did not come again. I keep all the men in the community in line, they don’t even look at the women who come to work here.

There are many stories from living here. Earlier we used to live across the road, in the space you see there. There were a lot more of us then. The government removed us from there because some construction was going to take place. The government gave plots of land to those who were removed as compensation but we did not receive any land then. Soon after we were removed, those of us who didn’t have anywhere to go were just sitting on the streets and lived there for a few days. It was the winter then and it was bitterly cold. One day, when we were sleeping, someone picked up this fat lady who was with us and just walked off with her. She suddenly woke up after he had walked a 100 meters or so and screamed. All of us heard, and hurried to help her and beat up the man. If she hadn’t screamed, then God knows if we would ever have realized that she needed help and anything could have happened to her.

A long time back, someone came here with a bus and promised that he’d take us to see the sights of Delhi. He told us that we were going to India Gate. All the children believed him, and we got into the bus all excited. However, a little into the journey, I realized that we weren’t going to India Gate. I’d been to India Gate once before and I remembered the route. I said this out loud and demanded to know where he was taking us. All the children then beat up the driver and got him to take us back.”


While leaving, Saima accompanied me till the auto. On the way, we saw a group of old men discussing something. She told me that it was their panchayat, and she had wanted to attend this meeting. They were deciding what would happen to a man who had harassed a woman. They should turn him over to the police but they might not because the image of their community would be ruined.

Gupchup - About the Blog

Gupchup or Pani Puri is a popular street food in North India. It consists of a round, hollow puri, filled with a mixture of flavored water (pani), chutney, chili, chaat masala, potato, and chickpeas. A running joke in my family is on the origin of the word “Gupchup”; it meant “Gup se kha lo, chup ho jao” or eat quickly (“gup”) and quiet down (“chup”). Essentially, these bite-sized snacks would keep everyone satisfied until a full meal. It also reminds me of "gupshup" which a colloquial term for chit chat in Hindi, a perfect complement to gupchup!

On this blog, I share some tidbits---stories from the field and in academia. This is a way for me to keep track of my thoughts and progress as a PhD student. It is also an outlet for me during field visits, a chance to record impressions and not get overwhelmed by the data I collect. These bite-sized posts are meant to provoke and provide the reader a taste of my work---a light snack, if you will :). A warning - my writing may cover controversial topics and each sentence may come with multiple caveats and parentheses. It ranges from academic to personal and often refers to topics about which I am passionate (and therefore biased). Nevertheless, I hope you gain a measure of joy and hope from my ramblings and some insight into the contexts I explore!

Sidenote: I refer to anonymized women in my posts as Saima. I am generally referring to a Muslim Indian woman from the middle or lower strata of society. However, I might also use the name in my posts to refer to any woman of South-Asian origin, rich or poor, young or old, Indian or American. I simply wish to emphasize the diverse experiences of women, even though they may live and operate in, or have strong ties to the two-thirds world.

Saima, is me challenging and expanding your stereotype of a South-Asian woman.