The sociologist and feminist researching the challenges facing India’s aspiring young women

She was raised as an atheist in a predominantly Muslim town and went to a Catholic school. Asiya Islam’s experience of India’s complex society gives her a strong foundation for research into the lives of young urban women whose ambitions are constrained by societal expectations.

Asiya Islam in a New Delhi rickshaw

I like to say I was born a feminist. But it was in college that I learnt to articulate myself as a feminist. I went to Women’s College, Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh. As a student there I got the opportunity to fight restrictions based on gender. This friction and women’s studies classes led me to decide to specialise in gender studies.

My research explores gender and class in urban India through a study of women’s work. More specifically, as a sociologist, I’m interested in lower-middle-class women’s employment and the implications these jobs have for changing gender and class relations, which I argue are co-related, among India’s urban populations.

I’m spending the second year of my PhD in New Delhi carrying out fieldwork. It’s important to be immersed in the environment I’m studying, mainly because academic work in the area of gender, family and employment has so far been driven by statistics and surveys, which don’t capture the complexities of women’s own narratives and experiences.

My respondents are young women working in cafes, malls and offices. They come from low income neighbourhoods of South Delhi. Typically, their parents are or were in working class jobs but this generation of women have gained skills — in basic computing, English language or retailing — that enable them to be in more ‘respectable’ professions.

Khanpur — one of the sites of Asiya Islam’s research

A lot of my time is spent with these young women in their own spaces — their one-bedroom homes, their workplaces, and their leisure spaces, mostly shopping malls and parks. Their narratives have challenged my presumptions and pushed me to examine my own privilege. Their life stories are unique, multi-layered and insightful.

My respondents’ career progression is often limited. Despite the promises made by privatisation of the Indian economy, opportunities are limited, exploitative and restricting. Although the jobs these women hold would be categorised as ‘regular employment’ in surveys, the reality is very different with women frequently becoming unemployed and struggling to find new employment.

When young women are earning an income, most of it is used for family expenses although sometimes they manage to save a small portion for ‘luxuries’ that their parents wouldn’t approve of. However, simply by being in work, these young women are carving out a space for themselves.

I grew up in Aligarh, a small university town, in a family of academics. My parents and grandparents engaged in long debates on almost everything under the sun. As a result, I became one of the people that the economist Amartya Sen describes as ‘The Argumentative Indian’, true to India’s long tradition of public debate. I was brought up as an atheist, a challenge in a Muslim-dominated town. It instilled in me the spirit to question and challenge.

At my convent school we were taught in English. The school was one of many set up in India as missionary educational institutions during and soon after the colonial era. It ran classes in Hindi in the evenings for those who couldn’t afford the tuition fees for education in English. Very early on, this made me aware of how life chances are determined by the family you’re born into.

I spent my spare time reading. I read comics, all the Enid Blyton series, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, the Harry Potter books, and then moved on to volumes I found in my grandfather’s bookshelves — Kafka, Camus, Tolstoy, and many others. More recently, I’ve enjoyed reading Orhan Pamuk, Margaret Atwood and Alice Evans. It might sound like a cliché but this reading opened up a world for me beyond the immediate.

I went on to do a Master’s in Gender, Media and Culture at the London School of Economics (LSE). At the LSE, I met people from all over the world. I learnt as much from them as I did from my coursework. Once I’d completed the course, I joined LSE’s equality and diversity team, and worked on policies and communications for five years. I fell in love with London.

Aisya Islam in Maidangarhi

With time, I realised that that my heart lies in research. I applied to take a PhD at Cambridge and once I found out that I’d been selected as a Gates Cambridge scholar, I had no second thoughts about quitting my job. I’m as happy about this decision almost two years into the PhD as I was on day one.

My PhD is a step in the direction of building an academic career and allows me to spend an extended period of time in India after seven years in the UK. During this fieldwork, I have been enjoying exploring the city of New Delhi, where I’ve never lived before, as well as warmer weather. Cambridge put me on course to be an effective researcher and my rich experiences in India are informing my work.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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