An interview with Dr. Juhi Sidharth, FLAME University
Few areas of contemporary life are as significant as gender-relations. It is well-known as a site for debate and activism, from social media to the Supreme Court. But it is also highly contextualized within caste, class and other social markers. Here, Dr. Juhi Sidharth, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, FLAME University, shares her thoughts on the complexity of modern gender relations in India, in light of recent developments and her forthcoming paper.
1. With the recent Supreme Court judgments abolishing the criminal law against adultery, and permitting the entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala Temple, there is a sense of a great transformation occurring in gender norms in India. However, is this somewhat of an upper-middle class fantasy of change? To what extent do you see these latest pronouncements as reflective of changing gender norms, on the ground?
These judgments are a victory for those activists who have been fighting to change sexist and antiquated laws, many of which have been passed on to us by our colonial rulers. Law and legal reform has its importance and relevance for gender equality, as it is a powerful tool to get justice in this country.
However, it takes a long time to change societal attitudes. In India, we have certainly seen a shift in gender norms in the past two decades. An increase in the number of girls entering higher education has subsequently raised the age at which they get married and have children. It is heartening to see more and more middle class girls in cities making progress in their chosen careers. Economic empowerment is the cornerstone of women’s empowerment as it gives women a measure of independence. However, for many women, traditional gender norms still govern choices related to marriage as inter-caste and inter-faith marriages are still uncommon in the country.
The Nirbhaya incident in 2012 was a cultural tipping point after which we have seen a rise in the number of girls and women reporting cases of rape and sexual harassment. The incident not only led to massive, angry protests but also initiated more conversations on issues of gender justice and equality not only in women’s groups but among men as well. More importantly, the shifting attitudes have reduced the stigma attached to victims of these offences. It is also important to highlight the vital role that media has played in putting a spotlight on issues of sexual crimes and misdemeanors.
2. You have a forthcoming paper looking at young women in Mumbai and Baroda, which shows some interesting relationships between levels of affluence and active resistance to patriarchal norms. Could you share something about your findings?
This paper draws together two studies, one which explores the intimate relationships of young slum-dwelling Dalit women in Mumbai and the other of young middle class women in Baroda, Gujarat. Using an intersectional lens, Dr. Katherine Twamley of University College London and I have traced the ways that gendered ideals of respectability shape women’s freedom of movement and relationships. The comparison produces new insights into the ways that class, caste and location cut across gender amongst young women in India.
The paper argues that middle class young women in Baroda were keen to uphold ideals of respectability as they wanted to shore up symbolic capital for a ‘good’ marriage and class privilege. They also enjoyed greater freedom of movement because of their families’ presumption that the young women have firmly internalized such norms. Most of these women opted for arranged marriages as it conformed to the traditional standards of respectability, and moreover they were able to foresee romantic practices within an arranged marriage scenario. In contrast, Dalit women in Mumbai experienced far greater restrictions on their movement, since their reputation as ‘respectable’ was most fragile and their communities the most maligned. Subsequently, they were more willing to push the boundaries of ‘respectability’, questioning the limitations imposed on them and attempting to carve out more freedoms for themselves.
3. In general, why do you think social norms of respectability are so powerful in India, resisting the influences of modernity?
The notion of respectability is intimately tied to the structures of caste and class in the country. As the respectability of a caste group rests on the respectability and honour of its women, we see a close control and monitoring of female sexuality in every community. However, modernity has reshaped the notion of respectability for a large number of girls and women, especially in the cities. For instance, we find that more and more young women are challenging the traditional ideas of ‘appropriate’ femininity by entering into predominantly male dominated occupations. In the last few years, we see more women working as pilots, security guards in airports, housing societies, shopping malls, sales girls and billing clerks. Both economic growth and rising levels of education have played a role here.
Further, an increasing number of young women are challenging the notion that a respectable woman will not be seen in a public place after dark. A large number of women working in B.P.O. firms have to work through the night. The recent ‘Fearless Run’ in Delhi which was supported by the Delhi Police, is another example of how women are reclaiming the night. It is an important step towards creating a culture where women of all ages and classes feel safe while using public spaces for fun and leisure.
4. Could technology, rather than law, be a more effective tool for challenging oppressive gender norms, in intimate aspects of life? In this context, I believe you have worked on the transformative influence of mobile phones.
One cannot underestimate the importance of law and legal measures in challenging sexism and misogyny. For example, both the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act, 2005, and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, are important legal tools to get gender justice in the country today.
Talking about technology, it has certainly played and continues to play an important role in changing not just gender norms but also values and norms linked with sexuality. Mobile phones have played a vital role in transforming youth sexual culture in India, whether by facilitating pre-marital intimate relationships among young people or getting access to information related to sexuality. In particular, for young people living in restrictive and conservative environments, mobile phones have played a huge role in facilitating pre-marital intimacies, many of which challenge rigid boundaries of caste, region and religion.
And, of course, the internet and social media in particular have helped people seek out information as well as share information and personal stories on taboo subjects. The spread of feminist ideas and principles through Internet and social media have also played a critical role in challenging oppressive and entrenched gender norms.
5. When it comes to gender-relations in India, does it seem that caste and class define our attitudes more than any other factor?
In my opinion, caste, class as well as religion play an important role in shaping gender relations. What is interesting is the ways in which these structures are changing due to modernity and economic growth. These changes are redefining gender relations in complex ways for different groups of men and women in the country.