Gender, Migration and Identity: Malayali Women in Pune City

Gender, Migration and Identity: Malayali Women in Pune City
Sonia Krishna Kurup


Feminist migration scholars have often contested the dichotomy associated with gendered analysis of internal migration in India that identifies male mobility primarily within the purview of labour and female migration as marriage driven. Many historical studies have explored women’s early migration in skill-based professions such as nursing and teaching. In this research I have studied the experiences of educated, middle class women from Nair and Christian communities who had migrated from the southernmost state of Kerala, between the late 1960s to early 1980s, to work in the various Defence establishments in Pune.
In the early years following Independence, before the increase in flow of migrants to the Middle-Eastern countries in the late 1970s, internal migration to other cities and regions in India for employment was a common feature among certain communities in Kerala, especially those who were the largest beneficiaries of higher education and had dispersed lineages in urban areas. By then, migration to other regions had emerged as a solution to Kerala’s growing number of ‘educated unemployed’. The political economy of the state in the early postcolonial period was such that increasing literacy and educational attainment was accompanied by rising unemployment rates and poverty. Educated women from these communities – mainly upper castes and middle classes - in Kerala also migrated during this period in search of work, mainly as nurses, teachers and in secretarial and clerical positions.
The current research shows that women migrated to join their extended kin in the destination with the intention of using their help to access better employment opportunities. They eventually found employment in clerical and administrative positions in union offices in Pune. A combination of factors facilitated their migration and employment. These include the presence of an influential, caste-based migration network of Malayalis in Pune; the female migrant’s desire to supplement familial income and enable social mobility; and their status as single and educated women at the time of migration. Significantly, in some cases the close relations who enabled the migration often extracted the labour of their migrant female kin for household work particularly childcare.
The thesis proposes an alternative conceptual framework that incorporates the concepts of ‘saving’, ‘smart femininity’ and ‘guilt’ to examine the experiences of women who undertook interstate migration for labour in early postcolonial India. The three main concepts that run through the thesis are: Rakshapadutuka (saving), midduki penne (smart femininity) and kuttabodham (guilt). These concepts are tied together in succession in the life course of the working women.
Firstly, the concept of saving that helped strengthen bonds across class and mainly kin relations helped women especially from economically poorer families find employment after migration. Secondly, the notions of the smart, brilliant girl became the ideal based on which they functioned as they sort work immediately after the completion of their formal education in a sense to prove to themselves and others that they were worthy of being the ideal women. Being a single (or to be married) and educated woman from certain regional, caste and/or religious background involved in internal migration is central to this concept of smart femininity. Here, the ‘single’ migrant women are those who were unmarried at the time of their migration from Kerala to Pune during the period under study.
Thirdly, guilt was a major emotion older immigrant women, who had been employed, express especially with respect to their children. In the absence of communal or kin support, the children of some of the working women often assumed adult responsibilities early on. The older children took care of their younger siblings (Roberts 1984). The parents particularly the immigrant mothers felt that they paid less attention to their children during their growing up years due to hectic schedule and the women expressed a feeling of guilt and compensated for this by empathizing with their working children by taking care of their grandchildren in the later years of their lives. Due to the concept of guilt and structural limitations enforced through socio-cultural expectations of gendered roles, the women continued to function within the world of domesticity even when their identities conflicted with their enacted roles. In the absence of an alternative, developed sphere outside the realm of the domestic/private, the women continued to remain ambiguous in the performance of their identities.
This research reveals that neither the higher education of young girls nor their desire to seek out employment was a smooth process. The notions surrounding female education and employment were situated in an ambiguous space that questioned the purpose of female higher education and employment while also assigning an inferior status to women’s involvement in domestic and other allied activities, and in child rearing.
The everyday realities of work and family, and the ensuing double burden made some women want to opt out of the workforce through early or voluntary retirement. The earlier aspects of their life as working migrants shaped their current experiences as older immigrants in the city. Although they did not have any regrets with respect to their work in the later years of their lives when the interviews were taken, their desire to remain in the workforce was a continuous struggle to re-imagine the boundaries of social acceptance for working women and to match the gendered expectations of a familial woman and the communal expectations of a skilled migrant worker.
The thesis examined the internal labour migration of educated Malayali women in skilled professions in pre-liberalisation India in order to find out what factors facilitated their migration as unmarried women and in what ways gender constructs influenced their lives thereafter, in order to understand the operation of period-specific gendered practices on women’s labour migration. Using oral narratives of women along with archival data and participant observation, it situates their lives and memories within the socio-political economies of Kerala and Pune. The work contributes to the historical understanding of internal migration, women’s labour force participation, and formation of gendered identities in India, and reinforces the significance of feminist migration research.


Sonia Krishna Kurup

Defended in


PhD defended at

Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune






Gender and Identity
Diasporas and Migration