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Women, Gender and Everyday Social Transformation in India

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‘Women, Gender and Everyday Social Transformation in India’ explores key processes of gendered change in contemporary India through stimulating and ethnographically grounded case studies.


The pace of socioeconomic transformation in India over the past two and a half decades has been formidable. This volume sheds light on key processes of gendered change by exploring how macro-structural processes of social transformation interface with everyday life-worlds to generate new contestations and contradictions that impinge directly on the everyday lives of ordinary Indian women, and on the relations between genders.


Through ethnographically grounded case studies, the contradictory and contested co-existence of discrepant gendered norms, values and visions in a society caught up in wider processes of sociopolitical change are portrayed. ‘Women, Gender and Everyday Social Transformation in India’ moves the debate on gender and transformation into the domain of everyday life to arrive at locally embedded and detailed, ethnographically informed analyses of gender relations in real-life contexts that foreground both subtle and not-so-subtle negotiations and contestations.


The chapters take the reader inside the university classroom as well as the NGO, the urban slum and the rural health clinic; they visit the Pentecostal church, the call centre and the beaches of Goa; they venture into the men’s rights group, the court room and the anti-land acquisition rally; they engage with Maoist writings and the ideology of neoliberal governance and they analyse the use of grinders, mixers, make-up, smart phones and solar photovoltaic mini-grids – to name but a few.


Acknowledgements; Women and Gender in a Changing India; Part I: Work, Technology, Aspirations; 1. Today’s ‘Good Girl’: The Women behind India’s BPO Industry – Reena Patel; 2. Gender, Intersectionality and Smart Phones in Rural West Bengal – Sirpa Tenhunen; 3. The Introduction of Electricity in the Sunderban Islands: Conserving or Transforming Gender Relations? – Tanja Winther; 4. Changing Consumption and the Negotiation of Gender Roles in Kerala – Harold Wilhite; 5. Gender, Work and Social Change: Return Migration to Kerala – Berit Helene Vandsemb; 6. Showtime and Exposures in New India: The Revelations of Lucky Farmhouse – Nicol Foulkes and Stig Toft Madsen; Part II: Democracy and the Developmental State; 7. Gender and Democratisation: The Politics of Two Female Grassroots Activists in New Delhi – Stein Sundstøl Eriksen and Anne Waldrop; 8. The Reproductive Body and the State: Engaging with the National Rural Health Mission in Tribal Odisha – Arima Mishra and Sidsel Roalkvam; 9. A Veiled Change Agent: The ‘Accredited Social Health Activist’ in Rural Rajasthan – Dagrun Kyte Gjøstein; 10. Disciplining Gender and Gendering Discipline: Women’s Studies in Contemporary India – Mallarika Sinha Roy; Part III: Assertions and Activism; 11. New Subalterns? Feminist Activism in an Era of Neoliberal Development – Srila Roy; 12. Family, Femininity, Feminism: ‘Structures of Feeling’ in the Articulation of Men’s Rights – Romit Chowdhury; 13. Women’s Activism in the Singur Movement, West Bengal – Kenneth Bo Nielsen; 14. The Women’s Question and Indian Maoism – Lipika Kamra; 15. Caste and Class in Gendered Religion: Dalit Women in Chennai’s Slums – Karin Kapadia; About the Editors and Contributors

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Women, Gender and Everyday
Social Transformation in India

Anthem South Asian Studies

The celebrated Anthem South Asian Studiesscontinue series
to lead the field with first rate studies on history, sociology, anthropology and
economics. The series addresses academic and professional audiences, and confronts
issues of colonialism and postcolonialism, economic development, and the religious
and political dynamics of the region. Titles in the series have earned an excellent
reputation for the originality of their scholarship and
their high production values.

Our editorial advisors includeAnthony P. D’Costa,
Nandini Gooptu, Christophe Jaffrelot, David Ludden, Patrick Olivelle,
Raka Ray, Tirthankar Roy, Romila Thapar and John Zavos.

Women, Gender and Everyday
Social Transformation in India

Edited by
Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Anne Waldrop

Anthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company
www.anthempress.com

This edition first published in UK and USA 2014
by ANTHEM PRESS
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or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK
and
244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA

© 2014 Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Anne Waldrop editorial matter and selection;
individual chapters © individual contributors

The moral right of the authors has been asserted.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above,
no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into
a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means
(electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise),
without the prior written permission of both the copyright
owner and the above publisher of this book.

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A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

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A catalog record for this book has been requested.

ISBN­13: 978 1 78308 269 8 (Hbk)
ISBN­10: 1 78308 269 0 (Hbk)

Cover image courtesy of Dagrun Kyte Gjøstein.

This title is also available as an ebook.

Acknowledgments

C

O

Women and Gender in a Changing India
Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Anne Waldrop

PART I

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

PART II

Chapter Seven

N

TEN

TS

WORK, TECHNOLOGY, ASPIRATIONS

Today’s ‘Good Girl’: The Women behind India’s
BPO Industry
Reena Patel

Gender, Intersectionality and Smartphones in
Rural West Bengal
Sirpa Tenhunen

The Introduction of Electricity in the Sundarban Islands:
Conserving or Transforming Gender Relations?
Tanja Winther

Changing Consumption and the Negotiation of
Gender Roles in Kerala
Harold Wilhite

Gender, Work and Social Change: Return
Migration to Kerala
Berit Helene Vandsemb

Showtime and Exposures in New India:
The Revelations of Lucky Farmhouse
Nicol Foulkes and Stig Toft Madsen

DEMOCRACY AND THE DEVELOPMENTAL STATE

Gender and Democratization: The Politics of
Two Female Grassroots Activists in New Delhi
Stein Sundstøl Eriksen and Anne Waldrop

vii

1

21

33

47

63

75

89

105

vi

WOMEN, GENDER AND EvERYDAY SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

PART III

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

The Reproductive Body and the State: Engaging
with the National Rural Health Mission in Tribal Odisha
Arima Mishra and Sidsel Roalkvam

A veiled Change Agent: The ‘Accredited Social
Health Activist’ in Rural Rajasthan
Dagrun Kyte Gjøstein

Disciplining Gender and Gendering Discipline:
Women’s Studies in Contemporary India
Mallarika Sinha Roy

ASSERTIONS AND ACTIVISM

New Subalterns? Feminist Activism in an Era
of Neoliberal Development
Srila Roy

Family, Femininity, Feminism: ‘Structures of Feeling’
in the Articulation of Men’s Rights
Romit Chowdhury

Women’s Activism in the Singur Movement, West Bengal
Kenneth Bo Nielsen

The Women’s Question and Indian Maoism
Lipika Kamra

Caste and Class in Gendered Religion: Dalit Women
in Chennai’s Slums
Karin Kapadia

About the Editors and Contributors

123

139

157

175

189

203

219

235

251

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The editors would like to thank the Norwegian Forum for Development Research
(NFU) for opening the doors of its 2012 annual conference in Oslo to our workshop on
‘Transforming Gender in Contemporary India’, where the idea for this volume was first
aired. We are grateful to the participants at the workshop for their valuable contributions
and input. While many of the chapters in this book were drafted for the NFU workshop,
some authors joined the process in its later phases. We are grateful for their efforts, which
have enabled us to secure a wider regional coverage. Special thanks are due to Pamela
Price for moderating and stimulating the discussion at the workshop over two days in late
November. We also wish to express our gratitude to the Centre for Development and
the Environment (SUM) at the University of Oslo, Norway, and to Oslo and Akershus
University College, Norway, for the financial support extended to the project. Lastly, we
thank Tej P. S. Sood, Rob Reddick and Brian Stone at Anthem Press for their efficiency
and kind encouragement along the way.

WOMEN AND GENDER IN
A CHANGING INDIA

Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Anne Waldrop

The pace of socioeconomic transformation in India over the past two and a half decades
has been formidable. In this volume we are concerned with examining how these
transformations have played out at the level of everyday life to influence the lives of
Indian women, and gender relations more broadly. The 15 chapters in Ge, erndWenoma dn
Everyday Social Transformation in India eosngehoei ntgyo fdea riyvvceernoofcsnart yrotam
churnings as undercurrents that play out well below the radar screen of the national and
international media, and beyond the realm of the spectacular. To analyse these everyday
transformatory churnings our authors look closely and ethnographically at a diversity of
everyday ‘sites of change’ (Rao et al. 1996) in which macrostructural processes of social
transformation interface with everyday lifeworlds to generate new contestations and
contradictions that impinge directly on the everyday lives of ordinary Indian women, and
on the relations between genders. In doing so, they combine to identify the ambiguous,
contradictory and contested coexistence of discrepant gendered norms, values and visions
in a society caught up in wider processes of social transformation. They also provide us
with some cause for cautious optimism. Thus, while much of the current debate on
women and social change in India is, for very good reasons, dominated by the pessimism
triggered by the apparent increase in brutal sexualized violence against women, and the
very low child sex ratio that makes India ‘a terrible place for girls’ (Reddy 2012; see also
Jha et al. 2006; John 2011), the chapters in iclaT arsnofmrtaion WnemoeG ,rednnd ave EdarySoy
in India 02 ot 01 tsap eh Te.urctpiy orctaridoctnna dti empose co mornt apaiave years h
seen an increasing number of women moving out of the domestic domain and into
the ‘public’ domains of education, work and politics (Reddy 2012); female literacy has
gone up; more women pursue higher education and are an increasingly common sight
on buses, in cafes, markets and other public spaces in the big cities; new and affordable
communication technologies blur the gendered boundaries between the private and the
public; there is greater participation of women in economic activity in the cities; the
large number of women elected to village and municipal councils across the country give
women a permanent political voice; there is a strong women’s movement; and in some
states women now ‘outvote’ the men. These changes, we argue in this book, are deeply
implicated in everyday lives and have had a considerable, if contradictory, impact on
how Indian women and men live, work and dream.

2

WOMEN, GENDER AND EvERYDAY SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

We have organized the 15 chapters in nioatrmfonsra TaloSicad yevyrdnE er aGenden, Wom
in India ormeedDncuarc yt eerht h lacipos:ngdieaor W1) (cenh,kT ,yA logoatiospir(2) ns;
and the Developmental State; and (3) Assertions and Activism. The key questions that
we address include: How does women’s ability to participate in an increasingly globalized
and volatile Indian labour market alter the terrain upon which gender relations are
negotiated and organized? How does the entry of new technologies into everyday­life
domains alter the relationship between men and women, and between the private and
the public? How do global cultural flows impinge on local imaginaries and desires to
reconfigure subjectivities? Does the growing policy focus on maternal health change local
views of women and motherhood? How is contemporary Indian feminism articulated
and contested? And how does women’s grassroots political activism reconfigure gender
relations and practices?
Our move into everyday life is guided by an ethnographic approach that aims to
arrive at locally embedded and fine­grained analyses. The chapters reflect a common
concern with locating the analysis at the intersection of agency and structure,
crisscrossed by flows of objects, ideas, and modes of governance. They take the reader inside
the university classroom as well as the NGO, the urban slum and the rural health clinic;
they visit the Pentecostal church, the call centre and the beaches of Goa; they venture
into the men’s rights group, the court room and the anti–land acquisition rally; they
engage with Maoist writings and the ideology of neoliberal governance; and they analyse
the use of grinders, mixers, makeup, smartphones and solar photovoltaic minigrids.
In this introduction we contextualize the chapters that follow along two axes. First
we offer a brief account of how the ‘women’s question’ has surfaced at three different
historical junctures in India; we then map out some of the current processes of social
transformation that India is undergoing in the spheres of the economy, politics and
class/caste relations. Needless to say, these are big issues that we can only address in
slightly simplified form; but the condensed ‘big picture’ that we seek to paint constitutes
an essentially broader context within which the 15 ethnographic accounts are set. We
also elaborate on the ethnographic mode of inquiry that informs the chapters, and on
the way in which our authors approach the issue of women, gender and everyday social
transformation. We conclude by presenting a brief overview of the individual chapters.

‘The Women’s Question’ at Three Historical Junctures

India is a land of multiple hierarchies rooted in caste, class and gender. Patriarchal
hierarchies rank men above women in most spheres of life and, put very simply, assign them
different social roles and responsibilities: men are the heads of the family, breadwinners
and decision makers in the public realm; women are responsible for reproductive tasks
and everything that has to do with the domestic domain; and her behaviour impinges
directly on the honour of her family.
In academic analyses and public debates on power and social inequality in India,
patriarchy has historically been overshadowed by issues pertaining to caste and class.
However, one can identify three historical junctures at which the question of women’s
position in society has been raised with enough force to make an impact on public debates.

WOMEN AND GENDER IN A CHANGING INDIA

3

These are: (1) during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the colonial
critique of the so­called ‘savage’ nature of Indian patriarchy provoked a strong nationalist
response (e.g., Chatterjee 1993; Chakrabarty 1994); (2) during the 1970s, with the
emergence of what has been termed ‘the second wave’ of the Indian women’s movement
and the publication of a highly influential report by the Committee on the Status of
Women in India in 1974; and (3) at the contemporary moment characterized by large­
scale demonstrations protesting violence against women, massive media coverage, and
general public outrage triggered by a brutal gang rape in New Delhi in December 2012.
The prolonged first ‘juncture’ saw the social position of Indian women emerge as a
crucial issue in political debates between the British colonizers and Indian nationalists.
In order to justify colonialism as a civilizing mission, the British colonizers emphasized
the ‘savage’ nature of Indian cultural practices such as untouchability and sati. The
social position of Indian women was thus turned into a political question – a question
which, according to Partha Chatterjee’s (1993) much­quoted formulation, was eventually
‘resolved’ by Indian nationalists through the construction of a series of gendered
dichotomies (such as home/world, spiritual/material and inner/outer) that combined
to constitute the ‘reformed’ and domesticated Indian woman as the embodiment of
1
authentic cultural­spiritual values (Chatterjee 1993). In this way, women’s position in
society was made part of a national political debate.
In contrast, the first couple of decades after Independence are, from a feminist perspective,
generally regarded as constituting a backlash when compared to the late colonial period.
The new Indian government, although sympathetic to the cause of women, had its hands
full building the nation, keeping India secular, fighting poverty, and simply keeping India
together (Brass 2000; Das Gupta et al. 2004, 251). And the role of women in the polity did
not figure high on the political agenda. This changed, however, with the emergence of the
‘second wave’ of the Indian women’s movement in the 1970s, and the publication in 1974
of the landmark report by the Committee on the Status of Women in India. Internationally,
the 1970s were characterized by the high visibility of feminism and the situation of women
in development, with the first UN Conference for Women held in Mexico City in 1975,
followed by the UN Decade for Women from 1976–85. Yet in spite of a conducive global
climate, the second wave of the Indian women’s movement would probably not have
emerged so quickly and with such force in such a short time had it not been for certain
domestic developments. One such development was the publication of the abovementioned
report, which documented that although Indian women had on paper come a long way in
terms of equality, the situation in practice was – when it came to matters such as inheritance,
political participation, health and education – far below par (Sen 2002, 482; Sinha Roy this
volume). In addition, many of the oppositional groups that had gone underground when the
Emergency was imposed by Indira Gandhi in June 1975 emerged stronger and more vocal
when it was lifted in March 1977. In this sense, the Emergency functioned as an unintended
midwife for political mobilization, including women’s mobilization.
Compared to the ‘social feminist’ first wave of the Indian women’s movement in the
late colonial period, parts of the second wave engaged with the women’s question and
Indian patriarchy in a much more revolutionary manner. The causes taken up varied
extensively, although it generally focused on three particular issues: (1) fighting violence

4

WOMEN, GENDER AND EvERYDAY SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

against women, both in the domestic domain and by the state (so­called custodial rape);
(2) ensuring equal pay and economic security through organizations such as SEWA; and
(3) fighting for women’s political participation and representation. As a result of these
efforts, the Indian government passed a series of laws in the 1980s concerning rape and
dowry violence, and set up a commission to review the working conditions of women
in the informal sector (Das Gupta et al. 2004, 255). In combination, the second wave
of the Indian women’s movement generated an increased awareness about violence
against women, led to important legal reforms, and paved the way for the introduction
of reserved seats for women in the panchayatsapicoc licnu.slciun) lsd annimu( ivllga eoc
The current historical juncture is first and foremost characterized by the intense public
debate on sexualized violence against women in public spaces that arose in the aftermath
of the Delhi gang rape in 2012. In spite of the concerted efforts since the 1970s of Indian
feminists and the Indian women’s movement at turning violence against women into a
major political issue, the topic can hardly be said to have consistently made the headlines
for any prolonged period of time – until now. This makes the current sudden widespread
public and political outcry all the more interesting to explore.
A key question that has animated the public exchange so far is whether the Delhi gang
rape is in fact indicative of a more general increase in sexual violence against women, or
whether it rather points to an increase in reporting only. While measuring the full extent
of sexual violence against women is always complicated by the fact that violence against
women all over the world happens primarily within the private sphere, there are good
reasons to believe that sexual assaults in public spaces are in fact an increasing problem.
There is an obvious paradox inherent in this situation as the considerable improvements
in the social position and mobility of especially middle­class women over the past decades
may in fact be closely related to the increase in sexual assaults. As Patel’s chapter shows,
educated, assertive women who move about in public spaces are more likely targets
of sexual abuse; but they are also more likely to report such abuse, or to confront the
perpetrator. The increase in reporting can, equally paradoxically, at one level be read as
a positive development insofar as reporting ‘shameful’ incidents of sexual abuse demands
great courage on the part of the victim – and often the active support of husbands
and in­laws. It is also pertinent to note how the large­scale demonstrations demanding
state action against the rapists and more concerted efforts at ensuring women’s safety in
public spaces has drawn large crowds of both men and women. This is clearly an issue
that is a matter of great concern among many Indians, even if some commentators
have dismissed the protests as simply yet another short­lived middle­class revolt. To us,
however, the current historical juncture in which sexual assaults against women in public
spaces has emerged as a crucial political issue of nationwide concern is indicative of
some of the broader gendered transformatory churnings that have occurred in India
over the past twenty­five years. We turn to these below.

Social Transformation in Postreform India
The early 1990s witnessed four key events that are now regarded as marking a
watershed in the development of postcolonial India. These are: (1) the introduction of

WOMEN AND GENDER IN A CHANGING INDIA

the recommendations of the Mandal Commission on reservations for Other Backward
Classes (OBCs) in 1990; (2) the introduction of economic reforms and liberalization from
1991; (3) the rise of Hindu nationalism; and (4) the introduction of reserved seats for
women in village and municipal councils in 1992. While all four events have undoubtedly
had significant consequences for the everyday lives of women, we will here concern
ourselves mostly with examining the impact of economic and political reforms.
Two of the most immediately visible consequences of the process of economic reform
from 1991 are high rates of economic growth, which have brought about a considerable
2
decline in poverty, and a vast in­flow of globally produced goods, images and cultural
ideas to India; as a result, a new type of consumer culture has emerged that was unheard
of during the years of Nehruvian socialism, state­led planning, and the much­derided
Hindu rate of growth. These two developments have combined to produce an ostensibly
‘new’ and growing middle class that has been counted, measured and celebrated to a
3
large extent on the basis of its capacity for consumption (Deshpande 2004).
Politically, the reservation for women of one­third of all seats in village and municipal
councils has had a major impact on women’s participation in public life. Although more
than twenty years have now passed, we are only just beginning to see the contours of
the changes that this potentially revolutionary policy has brought about. While India
may not have seen the emergence of ‘a million Indiras’, as Evelyn Hust (2004) phrased
it, it has certainly witnessed the emergence of more than one million women elected
for public office. According to some estimates, this is more than the rest of the world
combined.
As Corbridge et al. (2013, 260) point out, mainstream economic and political theory
would incline us to think that the position of women in India must therefore have
improved significantly over the past few decades: economic growth generally leads to
increases in literacy and creates new opportunities for paid employment, including for
women; and democratic deepening and affirmative action, including women’s quotas, give
greater voice to formerly marginalized groups. Nonetheless, from a feminist perspective,
liberalization has had contradictory and mixed effects at best, and the most positive
impact has been on middle­class women’s agency (Waldrop 2012). Since the middle class
is mainly high caste, and since high­caste Hindus (and Muslims) are widely regarded as
the most gender conservative and have practiced veiling and purdah most rigorously (see
Gjøstein this volume), one might have expected a conservative backlash from this social
segment against affirmative action for women, and against women increasingly taking
up paid employment. Yet while the feeling that paid female work is undignified and even
shameful does indeed continue to exert an influence among segments of the urban middle
classes, the combination of (1) an improved living standard, (2) the consequent craving
for new consumer goods (Wilhite 2008, and this volume), and (3) the strong focus on the
value of education have generally combined to create a situation where more women,
with the consent of their families, are studying at university, and where many middle­
class women are expected to take up paid work to contribute to the household, even after
marriage (Fernandes 2006, 162). Thus, although the general normative picture is still that
married middle­class women should be ‘maternal goddesses’ (Donner 2008) and ‘homely’
(Waldrop 2011), a whole new generation of young middle­class women are now becoming

5

6

WOMEN, GENDER AND EvERYDAY SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

an everyday sight, not least in public spaces like coffee shops, cafes, workplaces and public
transportation systems. These women – particularly students and career women in the IT
and IT­enabled sectors (Patel 2011, and this volume) – challenge, by their very movement
in public spaces, traditional patriarchal high­caste gender ideologies. Yet as we indicated
earlier, the economic and IT boom in India that is providing employment to many middle­
class women is turning out to be a double­edged sword: many women increasingly face
alarming levels of virtual abuse online, ranging from sexual harassment to rape threats
and gender­based hate speech (Padte 2013), and their increased movements in public
spaces make them more likely targets of sexual assault.
The impact of economic liberalization on poor Indian women is not as positive.
Unlike among the urban middle classes, among the rural and urban poor, women have
always had to earn a living. But in the informal sector of the economy, where most
of India works (Harriss­White 2003), there are in fact signs of women’s employment
declining (Mazumdar 2007, 42). And as is well known, women’s wages invariably tend
to be lower than men’s. Women also appear to have been hit particularly hard by the
general casualization of the labour force, including the agricultural labour force, which
has occurred over the past decades (Corbridge et al. 2013, 274). In this regard, there is
little evidence that the feminization of poverty in India is being reversed; and relative
to Indian men, or in fact to many other women elsewhere in the developing world, the
ability of poor Indian women to shape their own lives still remains depressingly low (ibid.,
269). What appears to be new, however, is the growing feminization of the countryside
that follows in the wake of large­scale migration of males to India’s towns and cities in
search of work. While this may on the one hand be seen to tie more women to life in a
crisis­ridden agrarian economy (see Reddy and Mishra 2009), it may on the other hand
in fact allow more women to exercise greater tcaf edork in they woehfi lesd lvoret ortnoc
(Corbridge et al. 2013, 274).
The impact of reservations for women on patterns of representation, influence
and voice has been equally contradictory. Never before has India been home to so
many women grassroots politicians as it is today; yet what Da Costa (2010, 99) calls
‘the patriarchal constitution of political society’ can hardly be said to have crumbled
overnight. This fact is commonly ascribed to how too many women politicians function
as proxies, who act only on the orders of their male kin and who have no independent
voice of their own. Yet while the nexus between gender and power is prone to change
slowly, there is some basis for being optimistic about the effectiveness and independence
of elected female candidates (Corbridge et al. 2013, 283). To the extent that male bias
against female leaders is prone to decline as more elected female grassroots politicians
prove their mettle, affirmative action may, in the long run, lead to greater gender­neutral
voting behaviour (Beaman et al., cited in Corbridge et al. 2013, 279–82) and thus to
more women holding positions of power.

Everyday Social Transformation: Approaches and Methods

The broader transformations we have outlined above are often contradictory, creating
new opportunity structures while also reinforcing old patterns of gendered exclusion.

WOMEN AND GENDER IN A CHANGING INDIA

7

The chapters in vE ddyreS yaaicomeWo Gn,deenanr nIidi n aansfl Trtionormagrapple with
these transformations at the level of everyday life and at the intersection of agency and
structure. Some chapters proceed from a study of select aspects of the broader social
changes outlined above, and move on to analyse how these play out in the everyday lives
of women and men; others take their point of departure in the concrete and localized
efforts of individual women at expanding their own agency and freedom within a given
set of structural constraints: as Roy writes in her chapter, such individual attempts at
piecemeal transformation are never wholly autonomous ventures undertaken in spaces
‘entirely outside the structures of power’. In the same vein, Gjøstein’s chapter reminds
us – drawing on the work of Sherry Ortner – that people can never act outside of the
multiplicity of social relations in which they are enmeshed; as vandsemb writes, the
exercise of individual agency aiming for change is thus always conditioned, and human
agency is both enabled and limited by those social structures within which change is
sought.
At the same time, it is clear that human agency, enacted through individual and
collective practice, has the capacity to make both norms and structures malleable. People
seek to examine the possibilities and limits of their own agency, vandsemb argues, often
with considerable effect. Sometimes the limits of the possible are tested through overt
feminist mobilization; at other times, people navigate their own exclusion (see Skoda and
Nielsen 2013) by testing the limits of everyday patriarchy through what Nielsen (2012) has
elsewhere called ‘covert feminism’ – that is, locally embedded transformative practices
that lead to greater gender equality in one or more spheres, intentionally or otherwise,
without having this as its overtlyegats ieors tr ss vo – trejective.tated obows ytelT ehest
mobilization and covert practices – may fruitfully be thought of as two distinct modes of
political engagement that are more or less available to different categories of women and
men, depending on the sociopolitical matrices within which they are positioned.
A related argument raised by several of the chapters is that social structures combine
with materialiretrew e.sW form the premises rtcuuter sot‘ ncge, y’ Wasthinof sep relpoa s’
argue that material structures should be thought of in a broad sense as encompassing
both ‘the sticky materiality of practical encounters’ (Tsing 2005, 1) in everyday social life,
as well as the physical spaces within and across which people move, and the objects they
use and relate to. Of particular interest to us is what Wilhite (2012, 89–90) elsewhere
calls ‘the agency in materially embedded knowledge’. Drawing on the work of the
anthropologist Madeleine Akrich, Wilhite argues that the knowledge embedded (by
designers) in technologies has a scripting effect on human action. As new objects and
technologies enter into everyday­life domains, they bring with them new and materially
embedded ways of knowing and acting that alter, often ‘by stealth’, everyday gendered
labour routines, forms of mobility or patterns of consumption, to name just a few.
Several of the chapters address how the global flow of material objects and images work
to either reinforce or modify women’s agency and gender relations and subjectivities in
localized settings.
Lastly, these processes play out in a context of altered state–society relations. To
Chatterjee (2008, 2011) and others, primitive accumulation is the inevitable companion
to the kind of capitalist growth that is currently transforming India. The state is,

8

WOMEN, GENDER AND EvERYDAY SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

however, actively involved in ‘reversing’ the worst effect of this process through the
transfer of resources from the accumulation economy to governmental programmes
aimed at providing basic sustenance for those who are left dispossessed and marginalized
(Chatterjee 2011, 232). The result has been an expansion of the forms and reach of
governmental technologies; India has, in other words, never been more governed than
it is today (Chatterjee 2012, 318). This is evident from the emergence of a plethora
of new welfare programmes and apuRilerw fo tahhe‘tew ncaa s llr gith sise he rom tfr
agenda’ – that is, the enactment, since 2004, of ‘a series of national legislative acts that
enshrine new civil liberties and socioeconomic entitlements through legally enforceable
rights’ (2013, 569). These include, for example, the Right to Information Act, the Right
to Food Act, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, and the
National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. While the chapters by Gjøstein and Mishra
and Roalkvam focus most clearly on the impact of the developmental state on the
everyday lives of Indian women, it constitutes an important backdrop to most of the
chapters.
Methodologically, the contributions to Wa dndnre ,eGmone Transformation E evyrad yoSicla
in Indianf imeorbyd b aera lla re aemirojam eht fo ytapprhic . Thoachyle ordargpahton
based on long­term fieldwork in one or more localized settings. This includes Wilhite’s
work in urban Kerala; Waldrop’s long­term engagement with women in two Delhi slums;
Nielsen’s work in two villages in rural West Bengal; Roy’s study in urban and ‘rurban’
areas in the same state; Gjøstein’s study of a village in Rajasthan; Mishra and Roalkvam’s
analysis of the impact of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) among Adivasist( eh
indigenous population) in Odisha; Kapadia’s long engagement with Dalit women in both
rural and urban Tamil Nadu; Tenhunen’s extensive study of rural life in a Bengali village;
and Patel’s work in India’s business process–outsourcing industry. Other chapters are not
to the same extent grounded in prolonged fieldwork, but still adhere to ‘the anthropological
process of meaning making’ (Melhuus 2002, 78), which has ethnography and personal
experience from the field as its base, even if the fieldwork has not been particularly long in
each and every case. These chapters thus combine qualitative data derived from shorter
periods of field research with secondary data sources, statistical information, analyses of
government policies and regulations, news reports, or declarations by political parties,
leaders or other authorities. This includes Foulkes and Madsen’s study of the short­lived
but spectacular career of a Swedish model in Bollywood and Goa; Kamra’s analysis of
the Maoist movement’s ideological engagement with the women’s question; Winther’s
work on electrification in the Sundarbans; Sinha Roy’s account of her experience with
teaching women’s studies at JNU; and vandsemb’s contribution on return migration to
Kerala.
What unites the chapters is thus a shared commitment to think ethnographically and
contextually about women, gender and everyday social transformation. To this end,
several chapters focus in considerable detail on the life histories and projects of one or
a few women (or, occasionally, men). Eriksen and Waldrop compare the political work
of two women in two Delhi slums, while Roy portrays the NGO work of a grassroots
feminist from rural West Bengal. Nielsen focuses extensively on the activism of three
women from Singur in the same state, while Gjøstein’s analysis centres on the work of

WOMEN AND GENDER IN A CHANGING INDIA

9

a health activist in rural Rajasthan. And Foulkes and Madsen trace the footsteps of
Swedish model Lucky Farmhouse (and of some of the men who surround her), while
Patel narrates the life histories of two high­earning career women from South India.
While other chapters cover a broader field of investigation not to the same extent tied to
individual persons, they share a common concern with locating the analysis of women,
gender and social transformation within everyday­life domains.
While the chapters in edneG ,nvE dna r SayyderTrl iaocroamnafsi nitnoaIndioWem offer
insights into the lives of subalterns, elites and everymen alike, we have not aspired to
provide an exhaustive account that is applicable to India as a whole. Indeed, the consistent
focus on the minutiae of everyday life, and on contextual ethnography, complicates any
such attempt at grand generalizations. To capture the diversity and contradictions at
play, we have aimed for a relatively broad regional coverage within the space available
to us. Some papers adopt a pan­Indian perspective, whereas others present case­based
research from the states of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Delhi, Rajasthan, Goa,
Maharashtra and Kerala. While this in geographical terms leaves much of India without
representation in this book, we hope that many of the microdynamics and processes that
the chapters analyse may be found to be operative in other contexts.

The Chapters
Work, Technology, Aspirations

The opening section deals with how new employment opportunities, the proliferation
of new technologies, and changing aspirations combine to change the contours of
women’s everyday lives. India’s booming IT and IT­enabled services sector has given
India a global image as the IT and call­centre hub of the world. Here, many of India’s
highly educated career makers – men and women alike – are drawn into a global circuit
of communication and consumption that see them aspire to new lifestyles and ways
of living. Lower down the social hierarchy, a large number of rural men and women
migrate to urban centres in search of work. The chapters by Patel and vandsemb engage
with some of the high flyers and slow movers in a globalized Indian labour market.
While the growth of the IT­sector in India is probably the most spectacular and
talked­about case of technology­driven social change after 1991, technological change is
also deeply implicated in transforming the everyday lives of ordinary Indians outside of
the large metropolises. The ability of new technologies to act as a contradictory resource
that may both reinforce and undermine gendered hierarchies and inequalities is widely
acknowledged (Winther 2012). A sad example of the former is the ability of cheap and
easily available forms of prenatal diagnostics to perpetuate female feticide and thus
reproduce skewed sex ratios (George 2006; Jha et al. 2006). In contrast, the spread of
electrification and electricity­related services are generally a precondition for advances in,
inter alia)500sah andDes ev N(2e onticadu ee,arhctlaeh ,t. Apmenvelol deutarcilua rga dn
shown, the spread of even simple handloom technologies to new rural areas – associated
with subcontracted weaving for the export market – may open up new and empowering
earning opportunities for women. The contributions by Tenhunen, Winther and Wilhite
in this section focus on the contradictory impact of new technologies on the everyday

10

WOMEN, GENDER AND EvERYDAY SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

lives of men and women. Implicated in these processes are also the new global flows of
commodities, ideas and images that, especially after 1991, have entered the Indian market
and polity with considerable force to generate new aspirations and new gendered ways of
being both Indian and modern. Indian womanhood has been considerably reconstituted
through mediated images, representations and television to render them different in
certain significant ways from colonial and early nationalist representations (Mankekar
2009). Similarly, the often contradictory push and pull of global economic, cultural and
political forces has spawned a broader debate on ‘the new Indian woman’ (Sunder Rajan
1993; Dhawan 2010) navigating a slippery terrain of tradition and modernity. The
chapters by Wilhite, Patel, and Foulkes and Madsen examine these changing aspirations
as simultaneously part of and drivers of gendered social transformation.
Patel’s chapter tells the story of two of India’s successful new ‘career women’ in
the business process–outsourcing industry. Shilpa and Poonam, the main characters
in Patel’s narrative, both come from middle­class families and have had to walk the
fine line between being devoted wives who literally ‘stand by’ their husbands, and
migrating – sometimes alone – to where the bright lights and well­paid jobs are; between
earning enough to support the family, but certainly not more than their husbands; and
between being a good, caring and homely mother, and working outside the home the
better part of the day (or night). Caught between the desire for prosperity and upward
mobility, and the restrictive gendered demands of middle­class respectability, Shilpa
and Poonam emerge as skilled navigators of contradictory demands and expectations.
Neither trivial nor revolutionary, the changes in middle­class gender relations that the
likes of Shilpa and Poonam effect make it incumbent on us, Patel argues, to examine
more closely in the years ahead the kind of complex impact they have on the social
fabric of future generations.
Access to new means of communication and channels of information is the subject
of Tenhunen’s chapter. Based on several periods of prolonged fieldwork over more than
a decade, Tenhunen analyses the considerable impact that the arrival of mobile­phone
technology and smartphones has had on the lives of both women and men. At one level,
the arrival of mobile­phone technology in rural West Bengal is refracted through the
prism of gender and other social identities such as caste and class. Yet at the same time,
the transformatory potential of the new technology is evident in how, for instance, both
communication and social relationships are simultaneously diversified and extended
across time and space. Among the concrete outcomes from the point of view of (some)
women have been an increase in women’s role in marriage negotiations, increased
communication between married women and their natal families, and the possibility of
maintaining secret or illicit contacts with persons of the opposite sex.
Winther examines the impact of a solar project in the Sundarbans in West Bengal.
As elsewhere in the global North and South, the arrival of energy and energy­related
products and services is refracted through local gender relations (Winther 2012) which,
in the Sundarban case, are very hierarchical. While Winther thus cautions us against
reading electrification as uniformly empowering across gender, she demonstrates how
electrification facilitates female education, increases women’s leisure time by reducing
time spent on cooking (see Wilhite 2008, 62), and gives them access to new channels of

WOMEN AND GENDER IN A CHANGING INDIA

information and communication. Such changes, Winther suggests, may well turn out to
have considerable long­term transformatory potential.
Wilhite analyses the complex nexus between economic development, consumption
and gender relations in Kerala. Kerala scores higher than most other states on a range of
development indicators and has a very high level of consumption of a range of consumer
goods. The way people consume, Wilhite shows, is deeply embedded in local, historically
produced understandings of womanhood and gender ideologies. Yet while gender thus
shapes consumption, the entry of new goods and services into local everyday lifeworlds
in turn has a transformatory impact on the way gender is lived. By following the journey
of a woman from bride­to­be to mother and household manager, Wilhite brings out
the simultaneity of the empowering and limiting dimensions of changing patterns of
consumption from the point of view of women’s agency.
vandsemb explores the link between return labour migration to the Persian Gulf
and everyday gender transformation in the context of Kerala. Focusing both on the men
and women who migrated as well as those who stayed behind, vandsemb points to the
contradictory and often ambiguous effect of migration on men and women’s agency. As
a result of men’s migration, for instance, the women who stayed behind often have to step
in to act as de f otcaoh fo sdaehraKen idsolehusla. This means ah aeivrew rolkaoand d
more responsibilities, but also new opportunities to manage household finances and bank
accounts, and an increased freedom of movement without male surveillance. Similar
ambiguities beset those women who migrate to the Gulf to become independent earners:
earning one’s own salary is often a source of pride, but it is routinely clouded by a sense
of guilt for leaving the children behind in Kerala. The multifaceted picture that emerges
from vandsemb’s account is one that depicts labour migration as a source of change
in everyday gender relations, although the scope and direction of those changes often
appear opaque.
The chapter by Foulkes and Madsen narrates the spectacular journey of Swedish
actor­cum­model­cum­whistle­blower Lucky Farmhouse, to India and back again. Lucky
embodies a newly emerging trend of gendered labour migration that sees young, blond
Western women travel to India to work and live the high life to the best of their ability.
Along the way, Lucky uses her erotic capital in an attempt to transform India through
a (largely unsuccessful) anticorruption campaign of her own, targeted at an Israeli drug
lord, the Goa police and leading Goa politicians. Although Lucky may be seen as an
early pioneer of such newly globalized gendered forms of migration to India, where
blond women replace erstwhile male colonial administrators, it is telling that the number
of Western women appearing in Bollywood films is now so large that the xenophobic
regional party, the Shiv Sena, has launched a campaign against it. Whatever the long­
term outcome of the efforts of migrants such as Lucky, women like her undoubtedly
represent a visible broadening of ways of being a woman in India

Democracy and the Developmental State

Notwithstanding the reservation of one­third of all seats in local governing bodies for
women candidates, and the visible presence of powerful female political leaders such

11

12

WOMEN, GENDER AND EvERYDAY SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

as Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and Sonia Gandhi (Nielsen 2010a, 2014),
statistics reveal that India has a considerable gender democratic deficit. At the national
and state levels, the percentage of women holding seats in the legislatures rarely
exceeds ten, and the number of women at the higher political echelons is generally
low (Rai 2011). According to a recent survey, India ranks only 105th in the world in
terms of female representation at the higher political levels, well below its South Asian
neighbours Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh (Economic Times 2012). Political parties in
India are reluctant to field women candidates, and male voters are inclined to see female
politicians as less capable than their male counterparts. And even a cursory glance at
development indicators will reveal considerable differences in the quality of life between
men and women. This notwithstanding, perhaps the most significant change in the
last fifty years of democratic elections in India has been the massive improvement in
the sex ratio of the electorate: female participation has increased substantially across
states (Rukmini S. 2013), and women voters have turned out at a higher rate than men
in states as diverse as Kerala, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and (parts of) New Delhi. The
Indian government appears to increasingly recognize the country’s gender development
gap and has adopted several measures to deal with it. Important among these have been
the Janani Suraksha Yojana (safe motherhood programme) and the NRHM, which,
through various new mechanisms, have sought to improve healthcare delivery across
rural India. The four chapters in this section explore how popular democracy and the
institutions and policies of the developmental state are implicated in everyday forms of
social transformation.
Eriksen and Waldrop focus on the ability of two women in two informal settlements in
Delhi to act as mediators between people in their locality and the government. Mediation
is no easy task. As women, it is difficult for them to access decision makers in government
institutions since such access depends on participation in inherently masculine patron–
client networks. Moreover, neither of the two women have been involved with party
politics, which is often the main avenue through which marginalized groups achieve
political influence. Women also often feel uncomfortable approaching state officials, are
kept waiting longer than men to see public officials, and very often only do so in the
company of male relatives (Corbridge et al. 2013, 276). Thus, while the two activists
portrayed by Eriksen and Waldrop appear relatively successful in terms of empowering
women in the locality through grassroots mobilization, they face several obstacles when
it comes to accessing local structures of governance.
Mishra and Roalkvam’s chapter analyses how tribal women in Odisha engage with the
NRHM. Mishra and Roalkvam conceive of this engagement as a form of tacit contract
between the women and the state under which women must carry out their reproductive
function and bring up their children, while the state, in turn, assists them in doing so
through institutionalized care for the female reproductive body. It is in this capacity,
Mishra and Roalkvam argue, that the NRHM may have a transformative impact on
local gender relations, u as cinotc nert eeisn tribal women idO :ahs ti hsupri tl baeaarins
stage as ‘state subjects’ and citizens with rights and entitlements. But paradoxically,
Mishra and Roalkvam point out, the very cash incentive offered to popularize the
scheme may eventually come to reinforce traditionally gendered notions of women as

WOMEN AND GENDER IN A CHANGING INDIA

13

productive labour – the money is easily appropriated by the men and spent on anything
but postpartum care.
Gjøstein’s chapter focuses on the work of Anya, one of India’s nearly one million
accredited social health activists (ASHA). Based on fieldwork in rural Rajasthan,
Gjøstein zooms in on the difficulties Anya faces when it comes to reconciling her role as
a public health activist conveying the intentions of the developmental state to transform
its population’s health practices, with that of a respectable bahu ad(thgui­real­nw), who
traditionally occupies a subordinate and partially secluded position in rural Rajasthan.
This notwithstanding, Gjøstein demonstrates Anya’s ability to navigate local gender
and kinship structures skilfully and in ways that allow her to expand her own sphere of
mobility and agency, while also improving local women’s reproductive agency. While such
changes are not revolutionary in nature, they contribute to a piecemeal transformation
in gender relations that extend beyond the purely subjective. In this regard, the NRHM
may not just contribute to improved maternal health, but may also institute and make
acceptable new forms of gendered agency and activism.
Sinha Roy’s account of the trajectory of women’s studies in India focuses on the
strong link between feminist activism, the women’s movement and women’s studies
and knowledge production in academia. The dynamics inherent in this link, Sinha Roy
argues, have been a remarkable source of strength in nurturing the development of a truly
interdisciplinary approach to gender in Indian academia. Interestingly, Sinha Roy points
out, this interdisciplinary practice is realized in many women’s studies centres through
an everyday struggle againstyllacitarcuaeruba s aenom wngtirtae emtn ’‘develop defined
category, rather than as a political category of critical inquiry and mobilization. Women’s
studies, as Sinha Roy demonstrates, remains alive and well, even as it has to constantly
deal with new challenges emanating both from within and from without. Sinha Roy uses
her own teaching experience to illustrate how matters such as institutionalization, student
recruitment, curricula development, classroom teaching and the like provide new sources
of frustration and joy among those involved, even as it revitalizes the dialectic between
studying gender and changing it for the better.

Assertions and Activism

Organized feminism has a long history in India. The successive ‘waves’ of Indian feminism
that we briefly alluded to above can be seen as both distinct and yet connected to a longer
tradition of recurrently addressing particular social issues in changing contexts. Thus, to
Mary E. John (2005, 107), the women’s movement in India is an ‘old’ social movement that
has played a substantial role in contemporary struggles, ebbing, flowing and reinventing
itself in myriad ways. And, as Nielsen argues in his chapter, women have historically been
active in a diversity of social movements and grassroots political work, whether explicitly
feminist or not. The chapters in this section delineate the changing contours of feminist
debates, assertion and activism in India among feminists and antifeminists alike in the
context of neoliberal transformation. The chapters by Nielsen and Roy map out the
role of women in new forms of popular politics, and analyse the consequences of their
activism. Chowdhury and Kamra analyse two ‘new’ public debates about the role of

14

WOMEN, GENDER AND EvERYDAY SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

women in society in two very different contexts, namely the men’s rights movement and
the Maoist movement respectively. And Kapadia explores the links between caste, class
and gender in the context of religious conversions in South India.
Roy’s compelling portrait of Sumana, a feminist activist in West Bengal, demonstrates
the transformatory potential of new forms of grassroots subaltern feminism. Locating the
study of Sumana within the broader changes occurring in West Bengal’s feminist field,
as well as in Indian feminism more generally, Roy’s detailed focus on political subjectivity
underscores the everyday struggles, negotiations and practices involved in fighting for the
piecemeal empowerment of women through sport, play and politics. Eschewing grand
generalizations about the trajectory of feminist political activism in India under the impact
of neoliberal globalization, NGOization and the like, Roy’s account of Sumana directs
our attention to how everyday forms of resistance and fine­tuned strategies of change may
lead to minute shifts of consciousness and a gradual transformation of the female self.
If some feminists are concerned that the institutionalization of Indian feminism in
the form of nongovernmental professionalization is a sign of co­optation and a loss
of radical edge (Menon 2004), there are other organizations who feel that feminism
in India has already advanced much too far. In his chapter, Chowdhury takes us inside
one such organization, the Save the Indian Family Foundation (SIFF), which seeks to
counter what it sees as the unbridled misuse of pro­women laws such as the Protection
of Women from Domestic violence Act (PWDvA). To the men’s rights activists of
the SIFF, feminism combines with a general process of Westernization and new legal
measures to reconstitute Indian femininity and womanhood in ways that undermine the
Indian family and nation. Combining Hindu mythology and cultural nationalism with
an eclectic mix of elements from an imagined Indian tradition, SIFF seeks to muster a
powerful defence of the threatened family and nation, and of the beleaguered masculine
identity of its activists.
Because few rural social movements in India are studied ethnographically as they occur
(Shah 2004, 264), we often know little about the gendered organization, constituency and
leadership of such movements. In his chapter, Nielsen analyses the role of women in one
of the most talked­about rural mobilizations in recent years, namely that against the Tata
Motors factory in Singur, West Bengal (Nielsen 2010b). Nielsen shows how historically
produced notions of womanhood, rooted in caste and class, served to both facilitate and
limit women’s participation in various forms of agitational politics undertaken by the
Singur movement. Locating women’s participation at the intersection of conformity and
transgression, he suggests that the mobilization of women into new forms of popular
politics may have transformative effects on how gender is lived and understood locally,
even in a context in which the mobilization of women generally took place within a
relatively well­demarcated gender hierarchy that proved considerably more resistant to
change.
Kamra takes us to another site where the question of women and feminism has
historically been a source of consternation, namely the organized Left. Classical Marxism
in India as well as elsewhere has routinely held that having, for instance, separate women’s
organizations was anti­Marxist since women were not a class by themselves, and that
the revolution would automatically emancipate women (Reddy 2005, 306). Through an

WOMEN AND GENDER IN A CHANGING INDIA

examination of the historical transformation of ‘the women’s question’ in radical left­wing
discourse, Kamra argues that unlike in the past, the contemporary Maoist movement,
spearheaded by the Communist Party of India (Maoist), takes the women’s question
seriously. To this end it has developed a comprehensive ideological programme that seeks
to liberate Indian women from the chains of everyday patriarchy. There is thus an explicit
recognition that the social position of women cannot be transformed simply by reducing
the women’s question to a question of class. This realization on the part of the Maoists,
however, is not simply the result of introspection, but also of the impact of the writings
of Anuradha Ghandy, a feminist intellectual of the contemporary Maoist movement. By
analysing her writings, Kamra points to an important source of change in radical left­
wing activism, even as she takes care to point out that challenging patriarchy in theory
and in practice may turn out to be two very different things. Indeed, although the CPI
(Maoist) allows for new ‘relations of intimacy’ between men and women revolutionaries
(Shah 2013), and count many young women among their cadre, the Maoist movement is
not immune to gender tensions (Corbridge et al. 2013, 210–13) – nor to tensions along
caste and class lines for that matter (Kunnath 2009).
Kapadia’s chapter focuses on a rapidly globalizing form of Pentecostal Christianity that
is becoming increasingly popular in both Latin America, Africa and Asia. The Pentecostal
churches have long had a considerable presence in Chennai; but in recent years, Pentecostal
spirituality has thrived particularly among sections of the poor Dalit population, and
especially so among Dalit women. Kapadia’s chapter is particularly concerned with the
relationship between class, caste and gender in the context of Dalit women’s conversions
to Pentecostalism. Identifying a range of reasons why poor, urban Dalit women have
increasingly converted, Kapadia argues that the organizational structures and liturgical
practices of the Pentecostal Church have shown themselves to be remarkably conducive
to protofeminist goals. The transformatory impact of women’s conversion on local
gender relations include, Kapadia shows, a heightened sense of solidarity among Dalit
women, stronger kinship­like support networks and structures based on the fictive kinship
embedded in prayer groups, and access to new forums for publicizing private grievances
and problems. Conversion, Kapadia argues, leads not just to a sense of personal spiritual
fulfilment, it also recreates and re­establishes much of the autonomy and moral authority
that Dalit women have traditionally enjoyed in rural locations.
In sum, the chapters that follow focus on a diversity of everyday ‘sites of change’ which
have a bearing on women’s position in society and on gender relations more broadly. They
bring out the often contradictory and ambiguous nature of these transformations, and
point to overlapping trends, similarities and discrepancies between and across contexts.
The analyses are firmly rooted in rich ethnographies of everyday life which, we hope, will
invite further comparative work.

Notes
1 Chatterjee’s argument has been criticized from several quarters. Nair (2011, 46), for instance, has
noted that a large body of feminist historiography has given us ample reason to doubt whether
the ‘very simplicity and elegance of framing’ of Chatterjee’s argument may not gloss over more
complex historical processes of change that were in effect marked by considerable ambiguity and

15

16

WOMEN, GENDER AND EvERYDAY SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

variation. In line with this, it has been argued that the social feminism of the so­called first wave
of the Indian women’s movement, which emerged during the late colonial period (Forbes 1982;
Sen 2002), represented a somewhat different ideological take on gender roles.
2 The rate of poverty decline is contested and varies according to where one locates the poverty
line. And in spite of high growth rates, social and regional inequalities have widened, and
upwards of four hundred million Indians remain stuck in poverty (Banik 2011).
3 It is, however, debatable to what extent this middle class is really ‘new’ since it largely consists
of a high­caste segment that has been able to take advantage of the new economic possibilities
associated with liberalization (Fernandes 2006; Baviskar and Ray 2011).

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