Neoliberalism, Capitalism and Gender Violence

Last week I was at a conference where I was invited to give a paper. The conference, on the interactions of capitalism and music, was convened by Dr Anna Morcom of RHUL in association with the Institute of Musical Research, London. It was a very interesting conference with presenters from different aspects of the music industry and music genres sharing their work. In addition to being exposed to those genres of music that I was unfamiliar with (such as Rap, Hip Hop, traditional Irish music, a specific type of evangelical gospel music, etc.), the conference helped understand capitalism in other ways to what I have been doing so far. An interesting argument that was raised often during the conference was the presence of multiple capitalisms, in plural. In other words, it was argued that it is problematic to reify capitalism as a uniform system that can be described using one definition.

Earliest works on free market and mobility of labour transcending geographical borders such as that of Thomas Friedman, whilst useful in understanding the idea of nation-state in alternate ways, have made the arguments as though capitalism is a seamless phenomenon (and thereafter, a system) that works uniformly across all societies. Of course, those ideas have been severely contested by academics, in general, and economists, in particular. However, it was rather refreshing and very interesting (to me at least) when each presenter at the conference used their corresponding examples to show how making capitalism a ‘it’ does not work. For instance, Dr Jayson Beaster-Jones discussed this disconnect, between ‘popular imagination of capitalism’ as he accurately put and how values of capitalism functions in the society, using his ethnographic work on music chain-stores in India. He argued that there was an uneven upward mobility within the economic classes even if the social contexts within which representatives of such classes were working represented a different, imaginative and a rather rosy picture.

I want to extend this critique of capitalism, as a product of neoliberal economic policies, to the issue of gender norms and specifically, gender violence in contemporary India. For a while now, I have been attempting to formulate a way in which gender norms and identities can be understood within the context of neoliberalism (and capitalism) and to see what this interaction does to the questions of gender norms, gender equality and constructions of gender identities. These questions came to me after incidents of violence against women were reported by the Indian news media, more often now than in the past.

In 2012, the Guardian published an article citing a poll that India is the worst place for women to work. There is nothing specifically remarkable about the article except that India was ranked amongst all the rich G20 nations. Of course, there is a rationale to taking economic growth into account: arguably, when a country’s economy grows, the government can afford to provide public safety, healthcare, jobs, which ideally would help is closing the gender gap (I know am taking leap here with my simplistic assumptions as the article rightly gives the example of Saudi Arabia to make a case of not being so; however, economic indicators have been taken into account as a measure for gender inequality and violence, as the article points out). After the gang rape and essentially, murder of a student in Delhi in 2012, Ratna Kapur, a columnist wrote about the crisis (perceived…?) of masculinity that has occurred since women have entered the workforce.

Women’s entry to workforce has largely been due to the ‘economic expansion’ that set course in the early 1990s India. Until then whilst it was common for women to do engineering and science degrees, historically seen as fields of study for men, newer ‘economic boom’ certainly provided more employment opportunities for women studying these courses. In addition, women in general found positions in the outsourcing sector with increase in migration to ‘tech-cities’ such as Bangalore, Gurgaon, Noida, Hyderabad, Chennai, etc. One of the seeming merits of neoliberalisms is to create a common economic sphere where all gender identities can participate. Thus, workers/employees are generally seen as labour, in a broad sense, and their productivity is measured based on profits, surplus value, etc. There is some goodness in all gender identities being treated equally, right? (If we were to ignore Marx and look for silver lining here…!).

Running deep within this issue is the assumption that economic power awarded to women must result in gender equality and agency for women—this economic power, in this context, brought by these economic policies. Another assumption is that neoliberal policies will have a uniform effect on any society that either adopts it or is imposed upon. This neoliberalism of ‘popular imagination’ is severely contested when instances of gender violence are reported. [Note that I said reported and not occur because it is the naiveté of non-occurrences of such incidents that I am attempting to critique here]. The question then arises as to why economic opportunities do not solve all problems in a society. Of course, popular response to these incidents is that of ‘Othering’ the societies that do not conform to the ‘popular imagination’ of neoliberalism—to say, for instance, that these societies are inherently ‘backward’, ‘uncivilized’, etc. and hence no amount of economic progress can transform these ‘barbarians’. At least, the international media will be quick to come to that conclusion.

And here is where it helps to see neoliberalism(s) and capitalism(s), which I will discuss soon, in plural. Subjectivity of these economic policies within different societies is something that ‘popular imagination’ grapples with or overlooks completely. Call centres that predominately have night-shift work pattern might seem as creating an equal ground for all gender identities to work together. To be fair, companies with night-shift work patterns have organised taxis to pick up and drop off employees, mainly for the safety of female employees; however, so many incidents of rape-and-murder of female employees by cab drivers have been reported on a daily basis. Economic opportunities, for instance, does not help women in a context within which women are expected to learn self-protection skills to walk on the road at night, returning from work, to fight sexual harassment. As I have argued previously, it is very disconcerting to see that I have to earn my right to walk on a road safely! In contemporary India, women’s right to go to pubs is cited as a mark of freedom the ‘New India’ has brought. However, reports of women being attacked inside the pubs, and stalked and attacked outside is all too common. There are not many reports of sexual violence at work place, but does not mean it does not occur. The how question—what solutions we can find to end such violence is discussed by, if I may cite her article again, Ratna Kapur and myself here.

Where does the question of capitalism arise here? In everyday contexts, capitalism functions through the existing status-quo. It is, for instance, not entirely accurate to argue that capitalism perpetuates gender inequality- at least not in all contexts. If we were to rephrase that argument, it is accurate to say that capitalism feeds upon the existing gender inequality for its own end. There are multiple forms of capitalism(s) at function here: on the one hand, through neoliberal economic policies, women have been given the economic power to participate in the capitalistic economy. At the same time, capitalism functions on the existing gender norms and stereotypes that restrict women from participating with agency. Take the example of marriage industry. Women can now earn and pay for their weddings and have the power to reject dowry system. However, the marriage industry has become so bloated and extravagant, partially due to the same spending power of everyone in general, that staying unmarried is still not a socially acceptable option; rather, the market keeps emphasizing the role of women as a bride, wife and a mother. How does this relate to gender violence and specifically, violence against women? Marriage industry is only an example of the incongruences in the way capitalism(s) work. Whilst it gives economic agency (albeit limited due to various reasons) to women, it also functions in the public sphere by feeding on the existing gender roles and norm. Thus, we see an unevenness, a contradiction to the ‘popular imagination’ of capitalism. Cutting across this issue is the issue of class, which I do not wish to explore here. However, it is suffice to say that gender identities along with class complicates it further.

This is not to say that the economic opportunities available for women in contemporary India is a complete failure. Rather, it is helpful to acknowledge that economic development is not a uniform phenomenon that works across all societies. This helps in finding ways to address the problems of gender violence in a productive way rather than ‘Othering’ these societies. In addition, it will also help us to see that gender discrimination at work place, gender violence are problems that prevail in all societies, even in the ‘developed world’, that need to be addressed as Everyday Sexism project has been showing to us.

This argument is a work-in-progress for me; I welcome comments and criticisms to think through these issues more clearly.


Everyday Sexual Harassment

Ever since the rape and murder of a student in Delhi became publicised in the west, specifically the U.K., I have been besieged with questions about the specific case and the issue in general. It felt rather odd, at least initially, to say that sexual harassment is prevalent in Indian society at a more fundamental level than it can be imagined (misogyny and patriarchy is not exclusive to the Indian society, but that will be a topic for another blog post). That is, it is not about an ‘incident’, rather everyday women and young girls face these challenges on a day to day basis–in public transport, schools, colleges, on their way to work, etc. Every girl and woman I know has faced sexual harassment or assault in one form or the other. Thus, when a friend posted a YouTube link of Anurag Kashyap’s short film, it prompted me to think about women’s issues, rights and their place in the Indian society. My own research on gender identities have prompted me to rethink issues in relation to this. The short film called That Day After Everyday shows three women who face sexual harassment and assault on their way to work as a daily occurrence, learn martial arts and learn to defend themselves. The final scene shows a until then complacent husband of one of the women doing household chores for her the day after she defends herself against her attackers. The comments underneath the video expressed views on men’s fear of women and their expression of power over women through such attacks. Whilst the premise is generally acceptable, this conversation, that women need to learn to defend themselves, has been around for many years.

In the case of the Delhi student, while the lawsuit was in the court, The Hindu published several op-eds discussing the problem of everyday sexual harassment in India. Among these writers, Prof. Ratna Kapur, Global Professor of Law, Jindal Global Law School, NCR, wrote some thought-provoking articles; whilst predominant focus in the public sphere was on stricter laws, Kapur argued that the problem is more deeper than a law and order situation. She alone argued that these incidents are “the crisis of Indian masculinity” (albeit a constructed one!) and that what we need is a societal change, a cultural change in understanding these issues and how to deal with them.

The short film also shows, albeit implicitly,  a sense of solidarity the women in the film develop as victims of everyday sexual harassment. That particular feeling of solidarity is common amongst women in India, in general, who deal with these situations on a daily basis. For instance, girls are advised by parents to stay closer to women at bus stops even if the women are strangers. Our shared gender identity provides us with a sense of safety-a community. Of course, such solidarity is comforting (I can assure, having done my fair share of such waiting in bus stops in the past). But the core of the problem does not change. That men (not all, but some) continue to behave towards women in a particular way, that it is common for them to do so, and that it is women’s responsibility to mitigate or subvert the unfolding of the situation. This includes everything from ‘wearing modest clothes’ to ‘learning martial arts’ and everything in-between. It is common for mothers to teach their daughters to defend themselves in public spaces and public transport. Should the conversation now be about what kind of effort men should put in to treat women as human beings? Shouldn’t the conversation change and the responsibility be on men as well? By laying the onerous on women to defend themselves, men who commit these acts are being treated complacently. The idea that if women didn’t learn to defend themselves, men would still commit these crimes does not empower women but feed into the same misogyny that fuel these attacks in the first place!

Performing Gender and Sexuality in Early 20th Century India

Contemporary understandings of Karnatic Music and Bharatnatyam (also known as Indian classical music and dance, respectively) as ‘religious’ arts that represent Hinduism and Indian culture originated within a very specific historical context: the Indian nationalist movement in the 1920s colonial city of Madras; Partha Chatterjee, discussing a similar movement in Bengal, describes this as ‘Classicization’ (Nation and Its Fragments, 1997, p73). The nationalist movement in Madras was a ‘culture-defining’ project in which music and dance were carefully re-constructed by pruning specific practices and traditions to represent the ‘pure’ inner sphere of spirituality that would displace the outer sphere of colonial politics. Such re-defining of performance arts mystified music and dance performances as ‘religious’ (read: Hindu) experiences and gendered the performances by defining femininity within the politics of nationalism. According to this emerging nationalistic patriarchy, whilst the outer/’material’ world belonged to men, the inner/’spiritual’ world ‘assigned’ to women had to be protected and nurtured. The nationalist politics created a new hyper-feminine middle-class woman defined by monogamous conjugal relationships as the Hindu way of life. This woman was defined by her sexual propriety who, through her spirituality, had to maintain the cohesion of family life whilst the man succumbed to the pressures of the material world.

Discourses on women’s sexual propriety as a pivotal point of re-defining performance arts specifically targeted communities traditionally performing music and dance, thedevadāsisDevadāsi (literally: ‘Servant of God’) referred to diverse categories of women (and occasionally men) who learned and performed dance and music within diverse settings such as temples or royal courts, festivals and private ceremonies for their patrons. They lived in a matrilineal set-up within a patriarchal society in which they had the right to education and property and enjoyed a high societal status asnityasumangali (eternally auspicious). However, in the early 20th century discourses on ‘purifying’ performance arts focused on two aspects of their tradition: a) they were not bound by monogamous conjugal arrangements; these courtesans went through dedication rituals after which they entered concubinage of the king or became mistresses of their patrons; b) traditionally they performed (among others) compositions that were erotic poems portraying explicit sexual acts (usually between the hero and heroine of the poem/story). A focus on the devadāsi community, which had a historically significant presence in South India, as a symbol of immorality emerged due to a set of historical developments beginning in the mid-19th century. As court patronages diminished devadāsis moved to Madras and set up salon performances for the newly urbanized audiences, both native and European. The mid-19th century saw transformations in colonial representations of devadāsis from performers of arts (from a tradition outside of monogamous conjugal relationships) to ‘prostitutes’ who could perform dance and music. This description, ‘prostitutes’, was affirmed by a series of Anglo-Indian laws passed during the late 19th century modeled after Britain’s Contagious Diseases Act that targeted ‘prostitutes’ catering to British soldiers, and brought devadāsis under the laws. Judicial definitions, coupled with the influence of the Purity Campaign in 1880s Britain, triggered a politics of morality that resulted in a ‘devadāsi-reform’ movement, which saw devadāsis as moral deviants from whom sacred music and dance had to be rescued.

The early 20th century focus on nationalism and Hinduism, in addition to transforming perceptions of devadāsis, resulted in the movement that defined female sexuality in the public sphere by drawing distinctions between the divine and the erotic. Thus, not only was the divine redefined to indicate a nostalgic pure religious and Hindu past, but the erotic was also redefined as sexual impropriety. Reformers petitioned the government to abolish the devadāsi tradition; the movement was spearheaded by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, who was born into a devadāsi family but rejected the tradition. Her movement received support from (among others) the theosophist Annie Besant and Gandhi, who argued that music and dance were sacred but had been despoiled by devadāsis who had to be rehabilitated to become respectable middle-class women bound and defined by their monogamous conjugal relationships. Despite opposition from the devadāsi community, the Devadāsi Abolition Act was passed in 1947. Devadāsis were thus banned from performing dance and music within a salon set-up.

Whilst the vacuum in the performance space left by devadāsis was being filled by middle-class Brahmin women encouraged by nationalists and organizations such as the Madras Music Academy, these spaces were also being deified. Specifically, Rukmini Devi Arundale, a prominent theosophist and protégé of Anne Besant, employed stagecraft that reified Bharatnatyam as ‘religious dance’ by conducting a series of performances where she incorporated chants of Sanskrit verses and displayed an icon of Natarāja, an incarnation of the god Shiva in his form as a cosmic dancer, thereby representing the cosmic connection between art and the divine. She introduced sets of compositions in her performances that extolled Natarāja. While the devadāsi repertoire was removed from temple settings, Arundale adopted temple settings to her performance stage through portable temple background sets, thereby deifying the performance space. In contemporary Bharatnatyam performances, the presence of Natarāja idols and temple-setting backgrounds are ubiquitous.

For example, in this video, The image in the background is of Shiva, of whom Natarāja is an incarnation. The song is about Natarāja.

The history of Karnatic Music and Bharatnatyam posits a focus on (among other issues) questions of embodiment and the female body. That the female body is impure had been established in the case of devadāsis within the politics of nationalism: music and dance representing the divine, their ‘sacred’ (read: ‘Hindu’) past therefore had to remain ‘pure’. The dimension of embodiment of music and dance permitted by patriarchy represents a dichotomy between the soul and the body in which the soul is the pure inner sphere that connects the performer to the divine, whilst the body represents the material outer sphere that needs to be removed from the context. Women as custodians of this inner spiritual sphere were to learn and perform these arts, thus embodying them, but had to remove the erotic from their performances, which were seen as belonging to the sacred inner space. This solidified the understanding that ‘true religion’ was sacred and must be distinguished from the non-sacred.

[Original version of this article was published in The Critical Religion Association blog:]