Gender-based violence: An index of “tradition” or social change?

A recent article in the New York Times, “Dangers come with Freedom for Indian Women,” suggests that women in India are facing physical and sexual threats because they are challenging gender norms and expanding their perimeters. As we approach the one-year anniversary of what became the notorious Delhi gang rape of December 2012, this article provides a much-needed counterpoint to popular conceptions of gender and violence. Challenging the idea that violence against women is endemic to “traditional” societies with rigid gender norms, it argues that violence may be an index of social change and cultural conflict.

Gender relations are in fact a site of immense contestation and transformation in India today. The Indian women’s movement, comprised of a loose conglomeration of women’s NGOs, organizations, and activists, continues to mobilize for legal and institutional reform. Partly due to these mobilizations, Indian women now enjoy a range of protections against domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment as well as expanded access to property rights and political representation. Social movement organizing and legal reform accompany two additional demographic shifts. First, Indian women are increasingly joining the formal labor force and, second, they are more highly educated than ever before.

While it is relatively easy to imagine how women’s mobility into historically male-dominated spaces could increase their risk of sexual harassment or stranger assault, my research with Neelanjan Sircar indicates that social mobility also increases violence within the space where women are most vulnerable: the home. Analyzing survey data on domestic violence in India, Sircar and I found that women who are more educated and work more than their husbands are significantly more at risk than their less educated, stay-at-home counterparts (here).

Our findings raise a number of questions about when and why women face violence. Gender scholars have long theorized how violence is an expression of and a technique of gendered power. But as we also know, violence is only one among a range of tactics of social control, including other tactics such as compulsion and consent. Furthermore, violence is frequently a hazardous tactic, facing relatively harsh criminal penalties and arguably involving a greater degree of physical exertion and public visibility. The fact that it is workingwomen (women with independent financial means) and women who are more educated (women with access to alternative ideas) who are most at risk to domestic abuse is interesting in this regard. Their greater vulnerability indicates that violence may occur when traditional forms of social control become ineffective. Women who become “too assertive” or threaten male dominance in some way are much more likely to encounter violence than women who simply do what they are told. In other words, violence becomes a tactic of choice when other tactics no longer work: when targets refuse to consent and when they can no longer be compelled through forces such as economic dependence.

In line with the New York Times article, this interpretation of violence departs from existing analyses in two key ways. First, it highlights how the risk of violence increases when women move beyond existing gender norms. Second, it shows how violence coincides with significant transformations in gender relations. Together, these insights challenge a predominant narrative that links gendered violence in places like India with tradition and cultural stasis. Instead, it points to the possibility that violence indexes exactly the opposite: social change and resistance.

By Poulami Roychowdhury, pre-doctoral fellow at Smith College and a doctoral candidate in the department of Sociology at New York University. Her research focuses on violence, legal reform, and political mobilization in South Asia.

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