Marriage, Violence and Choice: Understanding Dalit Women’s Agency in Rural Tamil Nadu

By Nitya Rao

Within development policy and practice, women’s agency has been equated with the ability to make decisions, with freedom of movement and access to resources. It is rarely seen as including the more subtle processes of bargaining, negotiating and resisting, or the more intangible, cognitive processes of reflection and analysis. Agency is framed in terms of positive action rather than patience or endurance, as reflected in the image of an ‘assertive, modern woman’, who speaks rather than remains silent, who goes out and works rather than stays at home with the children, who is schooled rather than not literate, and so on.

In India, the agency of women is framed by the intersections of gender, caste and class, as well as the ways in which marriage and kinship systems operate. This paper is based on empirical evidence from a village in Tamil Nadu, collected using a mix of methods – a survey of 400 rural couples, selected randomly from a cluster of five villages, and in-depth interviews with 40 of these couples – as part of a larger project on intra-household allocations in 2009-10. It challenges some of the assumptions about women’s agency by examining how intersecting identities of life cycle position, family status, work and educational histories shape the diverse, everyday forms of agency exercised by low caste women. They are neither passive victims nor egalitarians of stereotype; rather their lives reflect a complex mix of subjection, conformity and resistance, of compassion for a violent husband or producing middle-class honour through performing respectable femininity, in their struggle to lead a life of dignity.

If agency is understood in this broader way, then the evidence of men’s enhanced control being read off women’s seeming acceptance of violence can be reinterpreted. While enduring and reconciling to their life together, women have not remained silent victims – they have used a host of strategies to resist violence. These range from personal ones like talking back, to drawing on informal help from friends, neighbours and relatives to more formal support systems such as the police. They have invested in both material and human resources and demanded reciprocity from their husband. Their strategies reveal an appreciation of social constraints, as they change through their life course, and the deep interconnections with the external environment.

Kinship and marriage systems have often been seen to subordinate women, especially in the context of marriage to a ‘stranger’ and ‘natal rupture’. Even though the women in the research context potentially knew their husbands prior to marriage, this did not necessarily ensure voice in key life decisions. Rather the presence/absence of children, economic opportunities and the availability of support systems, alongside their own confidence, shaped their responses.

What one finds then is fluidity in gender relations, the continuous negotiation and building of new alliances that shape the social construction of roles and responsibilities. While structures of caste, class and gender do exist, they are not insurmountable barriers to women’s agency. The narratives presented in fact point to the inseparability of agency and the apparent lack of it, of action and patience, as a continuum of strategies in which women invest to challenge hierarchy but equally to strengthen their own position in the household. They draw out the ambiguities embedded in the small, everyday actions undertaken to expand the spaces available to them, demonstrating that they have not necessarily accepted their devaluation and submission to kinsmen or indeed upper caste employers in their conception of selfhood.

Nayita Rao is a Professor of Gender & Development at University of East Anglia, UK. Her article “Marriage, Violence, and Choice: Understanding Dalit Women’s Agency in Rural Tamil Nadu” is published in the June 2015 issue of Gender & Society.


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