Keep my share of rice in the cupboard [Elektronische Ressource] : ethnographic reflections on practices of gender and agency among Dalit women in the Central Himalayas / von Karin Margret Polit

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Keep My Share of Rice in the CupboardEthnographic Reflections on Practices of Gender andAgency among Dalit Women in the Central HimalayasDissertation zur Erlangung der Doktorwur¨ de.Vorgelegt an der Fakultat¨ fur¨ Verhaltens- und Empirische Kulturwissenschaftender Ruprecht-Karls Universit¨at Heidelberg im Fach Ethnologie.vonKarin Margret PolitHeidelberg, den15. Februar 2006For SuluAcknowledgementsI am deeply indebted to the kind people of Chamoli, who invited me into theirhomes and their lives and allowed me to be with them with my questions, my cam-era and my presence. They were valuable informants and teachers, they fed me andgave me shelter, and most importantly, they became close. I thank all the villagerswho taught me their language and introduced me to the hard physical work on theirfields and in their households. Special thanks to the late Sulochana Devi Silpakar,who was my friend and my guide throughout the first year of my research. I amextremely obliged to Sulochana Devi and Kuschlanand Tamota, and their children,who supported me during difficult times and shared their house, their food andtheir knowledge with me. My dept to them is enormous. My thanks also go to ChiMadhawa, from Gomati Prayag Jan Kalyan Parishad at Bhakunda, who was like afather to me. He always had a bed and a warm shower. I also thank Kamla DeviButola for her friendship. Without the help of my field-assistant Poonam, this workwouldnotexist.

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Keep My Share of Rice in the Cupboard
Ethnographic Reflections on Practices of Gender and
Agency among Dalit Women in the Central Himalayas
Dissertation zur Erlangung der Doktorwur¨ de.
Vorgelegt an der Fakultat¨ fur¨ Verhaltens- und Empirische Kulturwissenschaften
der Ruprecht-Karls Universit¨at Heidelberg im Fach Ethnologie.
von
Karin Margret Polit
Heidelberg, den15. Februar 2006For SuluAcknowledgements
I am deeply indebted to the kind people of Chamoli, who invited me into their
homes and their lives and allowed me to be with them with my questions, my cam-
era and my presence. They were valuable informants and teachers, they fed me and
gave me shelter, and most importantly, they became close. I thank all the villagers
who taught me their language and introduced me to the hard physical work on their
fields and in their households. Special thanks to the late Sulochana Devi Silpakar,
who was my friend and my guide throughout the first year of my research. I am
extremely obliged to Sulochana Devi and Kuschlanand Tamota, and their children,
who supported me during difficult times and shared their house, their food and
their knowledge with me. My dept to them is enormous. My thanks also go to Chi
Madhawa, from Gomati Prayag Jan Kalyan Parishad at Bhakunda, who was like a
father to me. He always had a bed and a warm shower. I also thank Kamla Devi
Butola for her friendship. Without the help of my field-assistant Poonam, this work
wouldnotexist. Thetimeathermother’shousetaughtmealotabouthard-working
women and about the difficulties of caste and class.
I also thank the people from H.N.B. University of Garhwal, who supported my
research and helped me with my first contacts. Special thanks to Prof. Dinesh P.
Saklani and his wife who taught me Hindi, stimulated many discussions and helped
me with my many questions. I also thank Prof. Data Ram Purohit who introduced
me to a vast network of people and provided support and guidance in many ways.
Special thanks also to his wife and his theater group, who all became valuable
friends. Special thanks also to Ragini Deshpande, who collected so many songs
among the women of Chamoli, never published them and let me use her recordings
and transcriptions. Cathrine Bublatzky shared a few weeks of my field experience
with me and shot wonderful pictures.
This doctoral thesis would not have been possible, nor would I have ever known
about the beautiful mountains of Garhwal without the guidance of my mentor Prof.
William S. Sax, head of the Department of Anthropology, South Asia Institute,
University of Heidelberg. His academic inspirations provided a most valuable in-
tellectual base for my work. He was also the initiator of the research project thatfinanced the research on which this thesis is based. I am obliged to the German
Research Council (DFG) for funding this research for a period of three years.
On a more personal note, I wish to thank Wolfgang Polit for his patient assis-
tance concerning academic English and Prof. William S. Sax and Dr. Gabriele Alex
for reading previous versions of my work and their critical comments.
Heidelberg, February 2006
Karin PolitContents
1 Introduction 1
1.1 Habitus, Performativity, and Gender . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
1.2 Chamoli . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
2 Growing up to become
a Garhwali Person 32
2.1 Childhood and Gender . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
2.2 Theories of Childhood . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
2.2.1 The Social Construction of Childhood . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36
2.2.2 Growing up in Garhwal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
2.3 Friendship, School, and Agency . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 76
2.4 Adolescence, Obedience,
and Spirit Possession . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82
2.5 Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98
3 Engagement and Marriage 102
3.1 Preparing for Marriage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106
3.1.1 Family Decisions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109
3.2 Change, Agency
and Gender Performativity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119
3.3 Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 142
iv4 Taking over Responsibility 144
4.1 Residence: Between Sauryas and Mait . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147
4.1.1 Inside and Outside . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 158
4.1.2 Sexuality and Shame . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 162
4.1.3 She is like a Devi . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 163
4.2 Work and Honour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 169
4.3 Separation and the Economy of Kinship . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 187
4.4 Wombs, Spirits and Male Offspring . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 212
4.4.1 Female Sexuality and Male Duty . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 213
4.4.2 Pregancy, Motherhood and Shame . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 217
4.4.3 Wombs and Sacrifice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 225
4.4.4 Like a dried up old Flower . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 239
4.5 Conflict and Affliction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 255
4.5.1 Bhairav, my Brother . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 256
4.5.2 Bhairav, the Protector of the Dalits . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 259
4.5.3 Curse and Cure: Family Unity and Women’s Conflicts . . . . 261
4.5.4 Dangerous Brother . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 282
4.5.5 Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 290
5 Coming of Age 295
5.1 Powerful Women . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 297
5.2 Old Age . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 319
5.2.1 Defining Old Age and Family Unity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 320
5.2.2 Old Men and Old Women . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 326
5.2.3 Loosening Power and Providing Honour . . . . . . . . . . . . 327
6 Reflections on Agency and Performance 332Bibliography 344Note on Transliteration
I have used Anglicised spellings according to the simplified conventional system
of transliteration for all Garhwali, Hindi, and Sanskrit words. All of these words are
italicized. The Pronounciations follows the following logic:
• “c” is used for the Hindi “ca,”
• “ch” for the aspirated cha
• “s” is used for the Hindi “sa”
• “sh” is used for the apirated “s˙a” and “´sa”
• “d” stands for the Hindi letter “da”
viiChapter 1
Introduction
In this work I seek to understand how gender is constructed, to explain the practices
that constitute a gendered habitus, and to shed light on female agency in terms
of performances of gender amongst low-caste women in Garhwal. Based on my
research in the villages of Chamoli, a high altitude district in the Central Himalayas
of North India, I examine women’s songs, ordinary conversations, my ethnographic
observations and especially the stories women told me about themselves, in order
to understand what shapes their lives and how female agency – that is, their ability
to shape their lives – is constituted through habitus, gender performativity, and
performances of gender. Gender identities are constituted in people’s daily work,
speech, and songs. They pervade all aspects of life: for example in the way Chamoli
persons bring up their children, handle old age and death, or in the way they solve
family problems and other conflicts. I seek to present the people of Chamoli, male
and female, children and adults, as agents, constantly shaping and reshaping their
own lives and those of others. To many people in India, agency is not restricted
to humans (see also Inden 1992; Sax 2000, 2003a), and in Chamoli, spiritual beings
play major roles as agents in people’s daily lives. How people relate to them highly
dependsongenderandage. Atthesametime,humanagencyisneverunconstrained,
italwaysexistsinasocialfieldthatregulateshumansociety. Recognizingthemutual
influences of persons, places, spirits, and deities in Chamoli, I want to formulate a
view of agency and femininity that acknowledges Chamoli women as active agents
while not denying the power relations at play.
11.1 Habitus, Performativity, and Gender
My ethnographic analysis is informed by a number of theoretical interests. At the
most general level, I wish to position my arguments about gender in the Central
Himalayas to comment on current understandings of agency and resistance within
anthropology. I am especially interested in gender studies insofar as it has been con-
cerned with the deconstruction of the concept of “woman”, and in subaltern studies,
insofar as it is concerned with recovering the voices of those whose subjectivity and
agency are commonly concealed by earlier historical and anthropological writing.
Both disciplines offer useful theoretical perspectives on the interpretation of power
and subaltern subjectivity.
I wish to investigate whether Chamoli women can be said to engage in what
JamesScott(1985)calls“everydayformsofresistance”ortobeinvolvedin“women’s
moral discourse and everyday resistance” as identified by Raheja and Gold (1994:
1). I ask whether Chamoli women can be considered to form a group and whether
this group of women can be understood as muted and subordinate to hegemonic
structures more than men. In this way, I wish to understand how female identity
is constructed in Chamoli, and whether an important part of female agency centres
around individual females or groups of females resisting hegemonic structures. I
am also interested in the practices of Chamoli society that perpetuate gender dif-
ferences and hegemonic powers. To examine personhood and agency in this light,
I draw heavily on Bourdieu’s understanding of habitus and practical mastery and
on Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus
is useful because it replaces the notion of a transcendent rule with the idea of em-
bodied practices that govern the social world, ideas, and identities and out of which
apparent “rules” for societies develop. In the 1970s, when Bourdieu first developed
hisideasonhabitus, socialfield, andpractice, structuralistideaswerestilldominant
in social sciences. The structuralist view on society assumed uniformly imposed and
fixed rules to govern social life. In contrast to that, Bourdieu understands the social
life of people to be governed by generative structures formed in dynamic relations
with social fields. As such, “culture” neither consists of a fixed set of rules, nor is it
a state of mind and a set of beliefs. It is rather, an embodied way of being, a state of
2