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.