Menstruating bodies at work: Intimate Sense-labour and domestic work in India
This paper stems from an ongoing collaborative ethnographic journey with a Delhi-based women workers’ union known as Shehri Mahila Kamgar Union since 2015. Sheri Mahila Kamgar Union has a membership of 2000 workers employed in informal sector. Since 2015 I have collaborated with this union to understand the working conditions of domestic workers. This paper draws upon some of the conversations I had with domestic workers in 2018 around smells as part of a commissioned art research project on smells of the city by Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Here, I choose to focus on one bodily smell that is at the heart of ‘intimate sense – labour’ - a term I propose to to understand the role of the senses in the everyday work lives of intimate labor. At the heart of domestic work lives is the everyday erasure of smells in the intimate corners and places of a domestic space separated by caste, class, religion, and gender. These acts of erasure of smells are socially coded. This paper draws upon workers’ accounts of their work lives during menstruation to unpack how social perception of ‘mal odours’ are constructed and perpetuated through stigmatization of gendered laboring bodies involved in Intimate sense-labour. Bodily smells are socially coded. Most work based description carry vivid descriptions about sweating bodies. It is also not a coincidence that in early Marx’s writings he did mention that history of labour could well be a history of five senses. However, as David Howes scholarship has shown Marx’s discussion on senses comes to a pause with the discussion on alienation. Given that intimate sense –labour revolves around removal of smells how do social perceptions around workers’ bodily smells shape labouring conditions around intimate sense-labour. By highlighting the social stigma around menstruation in the work lives of domestic workers I propose to address how ‘mal odours’ are socially and culturally constructed through gendered bodies at work.