Why do we need to share stories of dignity? – Pankhuri Agarwal

As persons in an increasingly precarious world of work, we perform a variety of labour at the workplace, home, and beyond – intellectual, physical, mental, emotional, and political. For many of us, these different kinds of labour cannot be performed in isolation. These merge and overlap with the experience of – our everyday lives, our social standing, and our sense of being – improving or challenging our sense of dignity. In this piece, I will share two snippets from my fieldwork journals to illustrate the changing, relative, and evolving meaning of dignity at work.

Back in 2019, during my Ph.D. fieldwork in India, I spent much time with informal workers in India. To document their lived experience with the anti-trafficking law, I accompanied them through various sites, including the police station, courtroom, shelter home, red light area, informal worksites, and government offices. The process of following workers meant that I had often occupied multiple (assumed) positions and identities simultaneously – that of a researcher, female friend, student, journalist, lawyer, intern, and so on. This also implied that I was ‘seen’ through a kaleidoscopic lens of class, caste, race, occupation, and age. Inquiries and curiosities surrounding my marital status, age, or clothing were common. Many a time, it was also assumed that I was unaware, innocent, or naive.

For example, when I interviewed some elite male participants, they ignored my questions and began offering me basic definitions of terms and concepts that I did not even ask for. On some occasions, I was stopped with an angry hand gesture (while I was talking) and, in a very aggressive tone, “Stop talking; listen to me first.” I was subjected to this gesture even though I had researched these issues for many years. Many senior officials told me that to research “those women” (i.e., sex workers) would have an adverse emotional impact on a young woman like me and that even they felt ashamed to talk to me “about them.” Others told me that I should do ten-minute interviews on the phone, as according to these officials, I might be in a rush to get home to my partner. This exposure to the ‘masculinist sexual-social behaviour’ often makes the workplace a staple ground for the perpetuation of misogyny blurring the boundaries of home and workplace.

However, it was not just my gender but also my race that made fieldwork challenging. This was visible briefly in the field when two researchers from the global north inhabited the same field site as mine. They were also provided access via the same NGO; I worked with for four months now. The difference in how the gatekeepers treated them, prioritised their research needs, and gave them access to participants, was in stark contrast to how I was treated. I had to be extremely useful for the NGO for the same information and access. This experience was a first-hand experience of whiteness in India and was related to my wellbeing and performance in the field.

Such experiences of how one is seen or not seen can be observed in the accounts of historically oppressed communities who take us through their vision of a world where one can have dignity and respect irrespective of race, gender, sexuality, or class. For example, Maya Angelou, through her brilliant and unapologetic writing, showed vividly how she stumbled through life from one role to another. She fought and discovered the multiple ways women are made to feel minor and incompetent and yet reclaim the home and workplace in their quest for equality. bell hooks wrote about the trails and joys of writing. She encouraged us to write to ‘transgress’ the boundaries of race, gender, or class to challenge dominant political or social ideas around work, home, and labour.

Many other writers help us to materially visualise a world of indignity but also a possible world of dignity. Writing and reading such stories can be empowering and discomforting. Discomforting not simply because such experiences are difficult but also because writing (and especially writing in English) is a privilege not available to everyone. As a first step to understanding the different notions of dignity in terms of access, equality, justice, honour, worth, or esteem, in the workplace and beyond, we invite you to share your stories of (in) dignity in the form you want to. You can write to us at pa591@bath.ac.uk, and we can help tell your story in various formats – short interviews, stories, drawings, poems, or videos.

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