A common rhetoric in news coverage about the spread of the Internet is that it is a potential equalizer in society because it gives new power to those who do not traditionally have it. Recent news coverage touts digital technologies as having the ability to alleviate gender inequalities, particularly in emerging markets, because these technologies theoretically empower women to move beyond societal norms surrounding gender roles. However, if we examine the issue closer, questions arise. How do women actually use technology that may not have been created for them in the first place? Does this technology alleviate or exacerbate existing inequalities? I decided to probe into this issue by examining mobile phone use amongst women in India.
The introduction of the mobile phone undeniably allows women to have more autonomy and access to public spheres because of a newfound avenue of privacy surrounding their actions. In traditional Indian societies, arranged marriage is an institution and women have little agency over their own over their choices, especially in who they want to court or marry. Mobile phones allow women to meet people beyond their traditional networks and familial constraints. Once they have made contact with someone they are interested in, private phone conversations can allow for a new form of intimacy. Meeting a romantic partner in person would be a public declaration of a couple’s interest in each other. Conversely, private phone conversations allow (sometimes non-traditional) relationships to flourish without the judgement of family and friends. Privacy afforded by mobile phones has allowed for women to transcend the boundaries of traditional matrimony.
While some Indian women have the privacy and autonomy to use mobile phones in a way that allows them to break past gender norms relating to marriage, the reality of mobile phone usage in the home in India renders this privacy almost impossible. Individuals in the Global North may be accustomed to having a mobile phone being a one to one device that is extremely private, but this digital technology has been redefined particularly in the low income Indian context as being a shared device. The sharing of mobile phones in the Indian household not only reflects the economic situation of the family, but also the family dynamics and the state of technological literacy. Families with less money may not be able to afford multiple devices — forcing individuals within a family to share a mobile phone. Women also often do not have their own phones and rely on a family phone or their husband’s phone. Technological literacy also plays a role in why not everyone gets their own device — often times children in the household are better adept at using the technology than the mother in the house is. She would need to rely on her children to use the device. The traditions already in the society on the basis of economics, gender roles, and technological literacy have resulted in the mobile phone being domesticated in India in a very different way from how it has happened in the Global North.
Thus, despite the introduction of mobile phones giving women power, the societal norms and power dynamics as reflected in the socialization of this technology at home have worsened gender inequalities. The very power that mobile phones are supposedly giving women is seen as a threat to gender norms, and there is tremendous backlash against women for having this newfound independence and power. In many cases, women in lower class Indian households do not have their own private mobile phones, but instead have access to “household mobile phones” which are closely monitored by other members of the family, thus severely limiting their autonomy. Even newly married women who may have access to their own phones often live in joint families and could have their mothers-in-law eavesdropping on any conversations that they choose to have on their mobile phones.
The effects of digital technologies on gender inequality are complex and cannot be characterized as solely beneficial or detrimental. In the Indian context, women can certainly find new freedoms, but a deeper analysis shows that codified gender roles in society are actually being amplified due to mobile phone technology in many cases. The actual use of the mobile phones as an avenue to freedom in the Indian context really depends on whether women can afford the luxury of privacy. Women who are able to get private access to a mobile phone (because of economic reasons or their own inherent family dynamics) are able to expand their social and romantic networks through the use of the phone. However, many women from lower socio-economic backgrounds and traditional families are subject to the redefined use of the mobile phone as a shared device in the home. They are therefore unable to actually reap many of the benefits that a mobile phone affords, and are instead under further surveillance from their families.