Unspeakable Inequalities: Dangerous Freedoms: Some thoughts on Gender, Caste and Development in India

by K. Kalpana    

Gender violence cannot exist on the scale it does in India unless there is endorsement and social sanction for it or at least for the conditions that breed violence against women. To understand better the idea of social sanction, I suggest we see gender violence, not only as the horrific acts of sexual assault, rape and torture that seize public attention and evoke visible protests and outrage, but as a spectrum, a continuum of everyday practices that are part of the ‘normal’, the ‘routine’ and the ‘taken-for-granted’ as we experience it. Take, for instance, the pervasive tolerance for street sexual harassment or ‘eve teasing’, its rationalization or indulgence even as a form of masculine sport associated with the young (vaaliba vilayattu, in Tamil), an upsurge of ‘young hot blood’ or a legitimate exercise of manhood. Or take the condoning of ‘domestic’ violence or violence within households. There is a very popular Tamil song ‘adikkira kai thaan anaikkum’ that has a drunk man alternatively beat and embrace his wife who sobs and weeps her way through the song even as she supports her staggering husband! The notion that women are fully human autonomous actors is a radical idea that simply does not find purchase in many parts of India. But how do we account for the failure of this idea to take root and flourish in India more than sixty years into the life of the Indian republic? Perhaps some of the answers might be sought in the nature of development and of capitalist modernity in India and in the paradoxes and contradictions they have spawned for Indian women.

Social science research shows us that when state-sponsored development interventions/projects intersect with community and household patriarchies and ‘commonsense’ notions about the proper place of women in society, the outcomes are complex and unpredictable. They do not follow linear trajectories of modernity and progress. Take the case of the agrarian households in several parts of India that have gained a measure of economic prosperity due to developmental policies that include infrastructure growth (new roads and highways), the promotion of agricultural production, support prices for crops or access to new markets. These households signal their upward economic mobility through the withdrawal of women from the workforce and their seclusion within the household. The women partake in the relative affluence of their households, but experience a trade-off in terms of the loss of economic independence and autonomy and the socially valued and visible status of paid workers. Even where women have won the right to higher education and to participate in paid employment, what choices does this translate to for them? In a paper written in the late 1990s, the economist Nirmala Banerjee points to an emergent and growing class differentiation amongst women, given that a minority of women, belonging to the upper middle and upper classes have secured professional education and experienced an expansion of their life-worlds. She asks, provocatively, if the class-derived differences amongst women are more apparent than real, given the enormous social anxieties there are across classes to contain young women’s sexualities within the ‘safety’ of family-arranged marriages.

Banerjee’s poser is particularly resonant when we consider the ‘choices’ that were available to Divya, a young woman from the Vanniyar caste of Dharmapuri district who fell in love and eloped with a young Dalit, Ilavarasan. Divya, who had clearly enjoyed some degree of personal mobility and professional education as a nursing student, discovered to her cost and that of the man she chose, that her freedoms did not include the right to love, or to choose a partner across caste lines. What Divya’s case illustrates is that men act as intermediaries/brokers between the women of their households and caste groups and their constitutionally guaranteed rights. They decide what rights women may access and where the lines must be drawn. And the stakes have always been high. Lest we forget, the sexual control of women of the dominant castes and land-owning classes – the enforcement of their sexual ‘purity’ – has, historically, been indispensable to the transmission of property from father to son (to patrilineage) and, equally, the purity of the bloodline (and therefore of caste). Indeed, this control is central to reproducing caste and class dominance and is a vital ingredient, one of the building blocks as it were, of a deeply stratified social order. As the historian Uma Chakravarty shows through her scholarship on the making of patriarchy in Ancient India, if women could have moved easily between and across caste lines, the boundaries of caste (or lineage) could not have been maintained at all.

The continuing control of women’s mobility and sexual and reproductive lives and choices in post-independence India is thus hardly incidental. What is interesting is how this imperative to (re)-establish clan, caste and community control over women has come to be seen as urgent and pressing in the face of new developmental trajectories that offer the possibilities of challenge to the status quo, of resistance and defiance by subaltern groups and by women. For instance, researchers situate the growing intolerance of the dominant and intermediate backward castes to ‘love’ marriages and cross-caste elopements in Tamil Nadu with reference to the shifting patterns of labour and livelihoods, the increased migration of the young in search of employment, the diversification of jobs that make it possible for the Dalit poor to refuse degrading agricultural labour on farms and fields and the growing caste mobility of young Dalit men. The objection of the Khap Panchayats in the Northern states of India to the use of mobile phones by young women, amongst other things for instance, likewise hints at the enormous anxieties that are at play. These include the fear that the new technologies and the new public spaces outside the household that women have come to inhabit may foster dangerous liaisons and connections that imperil an existing social order. In the face of the severe and ongoing backlash against women who seek to exercise dangerous freedoms, we might ask, following Banerjee, if the emancipatory possibilities opened up by higher education and employment are more apparent than real for women, more specter than substance.

The state is not a neutral spectator to any of the developments discussed here. The signals it sends out to social actors and entities on the question of women’s right to an autonomous existence and to identities not defined by male kin or household-based relationships are incredibly important. For instance, women were not granted an independent status by economic development programmes for over three decades after independence. India’s famous Green Revolution targeted its package of seeds, fertilizers and bank credit to men, re-instating men in their ‘natural’ role as household head and disregarding the overwhelming evidence of women’s work in agriculture on family-owned or leased land. The distribution of land to the landless poor, as the economist Bina Agarwal has persistently argued, invariably meant titling men. Independent land titles for women in their own names (and not as joint patta holders) is seen as a dangerous demand as it gives women the means to quit unhappy marriages and abusive partners and sends out the message that women’s interests and identities cannot be subsumed within family and household interests. More recently, the state’s categorical refusal to legislate on marital rape following the recommendations of the Justice Verma committee report may be construed as sending a socially retrogressive, nevertheless unmissable signal to household, kin and community patriarchies that their suzerainty over the bodies of married women is quite right and may continue undisturbed.

States might act in ways that shore up patriarchy and state developmentalism may have the effect of exacerbating the inter-locking inequities of gender, caste and class, rather than dismantling these. But what of progressive social and political movements and parties wedded to inclusive notions of social justice and anti-caste politics? Even when they have condemned the attacks on cross-caste marriages and espoused support for the right of the young to fall in love, equally strident calls for women’s emancipation or the denunciation of patriarchal control over women’s life-choices and sexualities have not been forthcoming. And this is disappointing indeed. For the writing on the wall stares us in the face. To parcel out and ration women’s democratic rights and to permit some entitlements while proscribing others will simply not cut it any more.


Agarwal, Bina (1994) A field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia, Cambridge University Press

Anandhi, S and Vijayabaskar, M ‘Where buying a motorcycle can spark a riot’, The Hindu, January 7, 2013

Banerjee, Nirmala (2002) ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Sea: Shrinking Options for Women in Contemporary India’ in Karin Kapadia (ed) The Violence of Development: The Political Economy of Gender, Palgrave Macmillan

Bardhan, Kalpana (1985), ‘Women’s Work, Welfare and Status: Forces of Tradition and Change in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 20(51/52), 21-28 December

Chakravarti, Uma (2003) Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens, Stree.


Dr. Kalpana Karunakaran was with the Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF) for a number of years, part of its rural microcredit and community health initiatives. Impelled by her interest in poverty and gender issues, she then went for a PhD at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, and is currently an Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Madras.

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