Gender, Violence and Indian Modernity

“The Feminist Review issue 112 is a welcome addition to the global discussion on gender-based violence from multidisciplinary perspectives”, writes Asiya Islam, a PhD researcher exploring issues surrounding gender violence and Indian modernity in University of Cambridge. This brief post by her situates India on this map to consider how violence against women in India has been subject to recent media attention, albeit selectively, and what implications this has for the narrative on modernity in India.

The most recent reference point for discussion on violence against women in India is the December 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Pandey. Pandey was a young physiotherapy student; she was brutally raped on a bus in Delhi and eventually died of her injuries. The case led to mass protests in the country and, subsequently, amendments to make rape laws more stringent and effective. Some recent scholarship that considers the media attention and the protests, reflects on how this case gained significance because it posed a threat to India’s image as a modern nation (see for example, (Krishnan, 2014; Raychowdhry, 2013).

While it is often argued that new economic opportunities in urban India have led to increased participation of women in paid work, Ghosh (2009) points out that the rate of participation of women in paid employment in urban India has actually remained relatively stable over the decades (16.6% in 2004-05 as compared to 15.6% 1977). This sense of the changing role of women in urban India alongside arguably little change in the rate of urban women’s participation in paid work presents an interesting picture of the links between modernity and gender in India. It is then perhaps not surprising to come across a lower middle class Muslim man in West Bengal, India, telling Ganguly-Scrase (2003, p. 554) – “Who keeps women at home these days? Only the most backward section of our community.”

Young women might not be ‘kept’ at home anymore because that’s not what ‘modern middle class families’ do, but there are numerous resultant anxieties, which often manifest as surveillance, including self-surveillance, of young women’s mobility. This post is a preliminary attempt to conceptualise this self-surveillance, whereby young women become responsible for their own conduct and ‘safety’, as a kind of violence in itself. I draw on Amanda Kidd’s article (2016, this issue) to understand how such responsibilization produces “an embodied ‘sense of limits’ (Bourdieu, 2010 [1984]) that helps to reproduce the structural violence of gendered and classed inequalities”.

As new sites of consumption grow in urban India – shopping malls, coffee shops, gentrified ‘villages’ – gendered and classed inequalities are heightened but also rendered invisible in multiple ways. While boundaries may appear to have become fluid, they are also increasingly considered ‘unsafe’ and are being reconstituted in new ways. The management of these ‘unsafe’ spaces by young women requires creation of distance, literally and metaphorically, from the perpetrators. This distance may be created by narratives of respectability (Skeggs 1997) produced through habitus – clothing, demeanour, and even mobility – and, as such, class and gender stick to habitus and vice versa.
We therefore need to ask – what does it then mean to conceptualise negotiating the risk of physical/brutal violence through self-surveillance as violence in itself? Does self-surveillance as violence legitimise or reproduce the risk of physical/brutal violence? And finally, what implications does this have for young women’s subjectivities in such contexts? I will be exploring these issues in my doctoral research on young lower middle class women in New Delhi.

Ghosh, J. (2009). The International Context of Women’s Work. In Never Done and Poorly Paid: Women’s Work in Globalising India (pp. 1–20). New Delhi: Women Unlimited.
Kidd, A. (2016). Networks of Violence in the Production of Young Women’S Trajectories and Subjectivities. Feminist Review, 112(1), 41–59. Palsgrave Macmillan.
Krishnan, S. (2014). Responding to Rape: Feminism and Young Middle Class Women in India. In M. Alston (Ed.), Women, Political Struggles and Gender Equality in South Asia. Palgrave Macmillan.
Raychowdhry, P. (2013). “The Delhi Gang Rape”: The Making of International Causes. Feminist Studies, 1(39), 282–292.
Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable. London: Sage.

Asiya Islam (Twitter – @asiyaislam) is a PhD researcher in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her research explores the formations of class and gender in urban India, focusing on practices of mobility among lower middle class women in paid work in New Delhi. Asiya has a Master’s in Gender, Media and Culture from the London School of Economics. She has published previously in Open Democracy, the Guardian and New Statesman, among others.

2 thoughts on “Gender, Violence and Indian Modernity

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  1. Valuable article . I was fascinated by the facts , Does anyone know if my business might be able to get ahold of a sample a form form to work with ?

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