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Feminist Review (2009) 91, 113–134. doi:10.1057/fr.2008.


the conditions of politics: low-caste women's political agency in contemporary north Indian society
Manuela Ciotti Top of page

In this article I analyse the structural and cultural conditions of low-caste women's political agency in urban north India. Whereas in Western feminist political theory, the sexual division of labour is considered to be a key constraint for women's political participation, I show how this has a secondary relevance in the context analysed. I argue that issues concerning the division of labour are intertwined with and subject to those of male consent and support for women's activities. I illustrate how it is often the supposedly „oppressive‟ household boundaries rather than alternative outer spaces that, under a series of enabling circumstances, initiate women's political activities. Against this backdrop, I show how Indian women activists‟ political agency is shaped by men's role, and how agency's relational nature is embedded in women's lifecycles, everyday practices and cultural expectations; in essence, in overall gendered agency. Comparative analyses between Western and non-Western models of political participation and discourse have only just begun. In this respect, I contribute to this nascent field in the following directions: not only do the arguments I present in this article challenge the individualistic Western subject of political action, but they also complicate the idea of the resulting empowerment as a culturally constructed process whose understanding arises from the dialectics between insider and outsider values. Keywords: low-caste women, political participation, agency, comparative politics, household gender relations, north Indian society Top of page

Drawing on an ethnographic investigation of everyday political participation among historically marginalized women activists in contemporary urban north India, in this article I explore the structural and cultural conditions shaping women's careers in grassroots party politics and the nature of their agency and its relation to empowerment in the context analysed. This article concerns women from Dalit (formerly untouchable), backward castes and lowranking Muslim communities in the city of Lucknow, the capital of the large state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). These groups of women were brought into politics by a new democratic upsurge

beginning in the 1990s and marked by a high electoral turnout among low-caste and Dalit groups (Yadav, 2000). This upsurge was the product of a radicalization of identity politics in which a number of low and middle-ranking castes claimed a share of political power in the upper-caste dominated north Indian polity. The creation of specific parties catering to the above communities‟ interests was pivotal to the revitalization of identities and rights awareness. During this period, images documenting the relationship between women and democracy in India have proliferated, testifying to an increase in women‟s participation. Women's political presence has been highly contradictory however. I refer here to women members of Hindu Right organizations who have been very visible in connection with their use and incitement of violence against the Muslim population (Sarkar and Butalia, 1995; Bacchetta, 2004). This phenomenon has sparked reflections on the nature and consequences of women's activism in South Asia (see Sarkar and Butalia, 1995; Jeffery and Basu, 1998). The 1990s also witnessed the entry of an impressive number of women into different levels of the local rural governance system (or Panchayati Raj), as well as into urban governance bodies, as the result of the 33 per cent reservations established by two constitutional amendments.1 Women‟s new visibility across the political spectrum has called for investigation, in view of cross-cultural evidence suggesting that democratic waves and improvements do not benefit women in equal measure as they do men (Bystydzienski and Sekhon, 2002: 11–12). With particular reference to India, Corbridge and Harriss (2001: 209) have claimed that very little is known about women's routes to empowerment in state and national politics. While studies of the democratic upsurge in the 1990s abound (see Mendelsohn and Vicziany, 1998; Corbridge and Harriss, 2001; Jaffrelot, 2003; Chandra, 2004), there is a paucity of empirical studies exploring what exactly democratization has meant for women from low-caste backgrounds, whether it has had the same meanings and consequences as for men, and how these women‟s political activities compare with those of Indian women activists from different parties, classes and castes, both in historical perspective and across the contemporary political spectrum. The ethnographic fieldwork I draw on in this article was part of a large project on historically marginalized women's political participation analysed in a number of contexts.2 Women informants I interacted with during fieldwork were local low cadres from a number of parties, former members of the National Parliament, members of the UP Legislative Assembly (MLAs), women elected at different levels of the Panchayati Raj System in the Lucknow district, women elected in the city municipal corporation and women in informal village politics. In this article, I focus on women's grassroots activism within the folds of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).3 This party is the representative par excellence of the Dalit vote bank in north India, historically drawing the overwhelming majority of its supporters from UP and from the former untouchable Chamar caste. The BSP draws its ideological roots from the writings and teachings of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, a historical Dalit leader and father of the Indian constitution who acquired mythical status both in India and globally as a result of his pervasive critique of the caste system and Hinduism. The BSP emerged from the efforts of a union of government employees from Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, Other Backward Caste and Minority community background called BAMCEF.4 According to the ideology underpinning the creation of this organization and subsequently of the BSP, this coalescence of communities accounted for the „Bahujan Samaj‟, which forms 85 per cent of Indian society and which is ruled by the remaining 15 per cent – the

Although the arguments presented here draw from a specific.: 10ff). ibid. class and caste spectrum. and they are not influential. Women are almost absent at the higher levels of the party organization. 1990: 2). During the 1980s and 1990s. this leader.upper caste population. the agenda of promoting the interests of the Dalit community put forward by the charismatic BSP leaders focused on the attainment of political power through electoral democracy to implement social transformation. but it is a trade unionturned-political Party formed to protect the interests of the educated and better off sections. who believe they can provide leadership to their more backward brethren‟ (2002: 3). these findings might well have a resonance for women in party politics belonging to a wider political. which led to the party's woman leader Mayawati becoming UP chief minister (CM). the city offers an excellent viewpoint for women's political participation. three times during the 1990s. the party gained an absolute majority of the votes and put an end to a series of unstable coalition governments that had ruled UP for over a decade. the BSP pursues its reformist agenda from within the parliamentary system (Pai. the urban environment facilitates women's access to politicians and political structures and their travel within their constituencies. with the exception of the party leader Mayawati. Top of page the genesis of political participation: entering the household . No research work has been carried out on BSP women activists and no recent comparative ethnographic material exists on women in grassroots politics in other parties. the highest authority in the state.8 These considerations echo the contradictory relation between progressive political organizations such as the Congress. This yielded the BSP a landslide victory in the last state legislature elections held in 2007. As a result of continuous and visible political activities. has infused the masses of the underprivileged Dalits with caste pride. a process accompanied by the creation of an inclusive social identity for the BSP termed as sarv samaj (all castes). Over recent years. Pai further argues that „Although a Party of the most disadvantaged groups. and left parties and women's issues (Sen. Women actively involved in BSP politics at the grassroots level are a minority compared to male workers. The role of gender issues in the party manifesto and policies is marginal however7 and unlike other major parties. With her distinctive and assertive political style. the BSP does not have a women's wing. Sudha Pai has emphasized „the uniqueness of the BSP as a product of both democratization processes and affirmative action policies of the state in post-independence India‟ (2002: 3).5 On this occasion. the party has embarked on a strategy of progressive enlargement of its vote bank. Further. albeit politically significant ethnographic setting. an unmarried woman with a charismatic personality. On the origins of the BPS. given the historical continuities I found in women's experience related to political participation. Lucknow is the centre of state political activity as well as the location of the State Assembly and parties‟ state and district headquarters. Rather than an „anti-systemic‟ party or movement. it was not born out of a struggle against oppression. The party's development has been marked by strategic alliances.6 The BSP leader Mayawati again became the state CM. and represents a powerful role model for women in her party.

the role of party recruitment processes. Family responsibilities are seen as a major barrier to women's participation‟ (2001: 30). in this article I offer a microlevel reformulation of „descriptive representation‟ (Lovenduski and Norris. 2004: 4). a concept originally applied to the analysis of women and public office in Western political theory. With regard to the conceptual biases surrounding the analysis of this nexus. To this end. The nexus of household gender relations and political participation has emerged as pivotal in Western feminist political theory. In post independence India. MacKay points out how „Many studies acknowledge that the main barrier to women's participation is structural and relates to the position of women in society. With reference to the nationalist movement for Indian independence which also saw the presence of elite women from upper strata of society for whom the observance of purdah (a system of segregation and mobility restrictions in place for women) was most pronounced. I will start my investigation of this „participation economics‟ from the household. aiming to „identify the reasons why so few women are elected to legislative bodies and the importance of barriers such as the electoral system. This element relegates the sexual division of labour to a secondary importance. Agnew has stated that „Such activity of women was not in any way in defiance of the male authority in their families. the sexual division of labour has emerged as the key constraint for women's political participation. their domestic and caring responsibilities and cultural expectations and attitudes in respect of their role. 2003). I found an equally important element with a significant impact in determining forms of women's political participation: the support and consent of male family members. exclusive and dyadic relationships between husbands and wives‟ (Walsh. My reformulation of descriptive representation implies the analysis of the supply and demand of women activists in party politics. Lovenduski has argued that „The very definitions of politics are commonly built around notions of democratic processes that do not encompass struggles over power and advantage in domestic life and resist explicit addresses to problems about the location of boundaries between public and private life‟ (1996: 8). Notwithstanding the complexity which Indian women's political participation has taken historically – and the range of highly contesting activities enacted by women – male support and consent to women's activities has featured in some form within this history.Comparative analyses between Western and non-Western models of political participation and discourse have only recently begun to be attempted. Against this backdrop. „a younger generation of men sought to undercut family authority through the creation of more nuclear. and the resources and motivation that women bring to the pursuit of elected office‟ (2003: 86). at the critical juncture of their transformation under the impetus of colonial modernity. On this matter. in her study of the . economies and political institutions include and exclude women as well as how differences among women enable or reduce their access to the sphere of public power‟ (2000: 13). Turning to the Indian context analysed. more precisely.9 A strong point about the role of men in women's political activities is made by Forbes who claims that „There would have been no women's movement in India if Indian men in the nineteenth century had not been concerned with modernizing women's roles‟ (2004: 252). The archetype for such male roles is found in the Indian history of gender relations and. In this process. but was rather supported and encouraged by male family members and Congress leaders‟ (1979: 4). I complement the notion of descriptive representation with two intertwined analytical lines exemplified by Shirin Rai: „How far ideologies. Walsh (2004) has argued that male reformers aimed to re-cast wives into suitable personas to attend to family life in British India.

do not alone explain why a number of housewives with no previous experience joined a political party while others remained outside the political sphere. resembling the same fictive kin relations that apply in public spaces. In the first scenario. BSP women's political agency is shaped by cultural ideologies of womanhood. Thus. notions of purdah. Women's financial dependence on husbands is culturally accepted in north Indian society and is often actively pursued as a sign of high status. or even when women did not seek male consent. In addition.: 73). I observed how women's husbands and other male family members were often not only responsible for women's „release‟ into public life but also a source of advice. the role of the sexual division of labour and issues of class reproduction.10 With regard to the unique origin of the BSP. Basu also adds to this reflection that „[…] even then. Relations within the BSP party were codified as one of a bhai behen (brother and sister) type. Moreover. given the crucial issue of money in politics – for instance to contest elections – women's financial dependence may significantly limit their activities unless women live in affluent households. As an example of the isomorphism between forms of political activism across colonial and postcolonial India. but also how a certain kind of activism was often facilitated by male agency. a collaborative notion of agency tied to the issue of male consent and support. These considerations. not all male relatives of BSP women were interested in. honour and social respectability also concerned internal relations within the party. many BSP women activists were not involved in paid employment. However. If honour and respectability needed to be preserved when going out to carry out political activities. the household sexual division of labour either altered – so that women were relieved from housework or set up flexible arrangements – or remained unvaried as women carried out both political activities and domestic work. supported or persuaded women – most of whom were housewives – to enter BSP politics. virtually all the husbands of the married women who were CPI(M) members or supporters were involved in party activity themselves‟(1992: 73). this datum further contextualizes the space opened up for their political participation and the (higher) class milieu in which it took place – compared to the underprivileged socio-economic status of the majority of the low-caste population. . Moreover. man-samman (respect) as well as notoriety. which was never the case among the women analysed in this article. BSP women's activities are very often not in defiance of their male relatives. politically active women are suspect in the public eye‟ (ibid. women operated within a framework of social respectability norms. When husbands or other male family members encouraged. Marxist) in West Bengal. Basu has remarked how „Women can generally become politically active in the CPI(M) only with their husbands‟ consent. In this moral economy.CPI(M) (Communist Party of India. In the ethnographic setting analysed. or were explicitly supportive of women's political activities. encouragement and financial support for women's political activities. in turn all women claimed politics „returns‟ izzat (honour). female and sometimes male family members helped in the household management. This also often signifies an identity of political views between husbands or other family members and women whereby the former often „send out‟ women to pursue the Dalit political cause in which they also believe. together with a motivational explanation. Importantly. Many Dalit women surveyed were married to government employees. Having a wife working in a party or elected to a municipal corporation is surely an asset in terms of power for husbands and relatives.

The sex ratio is one of the most adverse to females in the whole of India. Female literacy rates trail behind those of males. Constraints on women‟s mobility (because of seclusion practices and concern about sexual harassment in public space) combine with their low educational attainment to obstruct women‟s access to lucrative employment. as well as their „legal literacy‟ and awareness of constitutional entitlements. they reduce the multifarious reality of “women's being” to this single logic of production and labour‟ (Hirshman. Moreover.11 First. Drawing on Mohanty's criticism of the universal applicability of notions such as the above – without considering the way in which these are inflected by place. 2003: 30–31). especially those Western women on whom feminist political theory mainly draws. 1995: 46. these features both render . About this state. the centrality of the sexual division of labour itself has attracted critiques for obliterating cultural specificities and distorting women's priorities. for instance by excluding women from ownership rights to land.These features of women's participation call for a comparison with women activists in other cultural contexts. Women in Western democracies are primarily considered as individual political agents. this hampers women‟s involvement in political and official business. that is the assertion of a relational Third-world personhood shaped by a layer of local and global factors (Chaudhuri. and in some contexts “culturally oppressive” definition of “woman” and “woman's work”. largely because of differential care given to girls and boys (see Lerche and Jeffery. their limited presence in politics and constraints to participation stemming from an inflexible sexual division of labour to their disadvantage suggests a relational element to the analysis. history and culture – Hirshman has argued that this gives „a false sense of legitimacy and universality to a culturally specific. but might also be affected by considerations of a different order. However. Customary practices further compromise women‟s access to resources. UP has very poor socio-economic indicators. inadequate provision of health care – and high levels of marital violence and dowry harassment/murder.) vs Western individualism. UP is also notorious for the appalling conditions of its women.12 The next two sections shed light on women activists‟ sociological features and household relations. emphasis in the text). viewing political activities as a type of „work‟ which can only be performed after other productive and reproductive tasks have been performed might well obliterate the ways in which in some contexts the two sets of tasks – non-political and political – are tied in a relation of precedence in which the two can become mutually exclusive. the role of male consent and support to women's activities and the relational dimension of women's agency reflect one of Indian feminism's key concerns in its debate with Western feminism. Indicators of health status also testify to considerable morbidity among girls and women. There are also extremely adverse conditions for childbearing – high fertility. Lerche and Jeffery have commented: „Its social development record is dreadful and in the 1990s it has become known as one of the main development failures in India‟ (2003: 18). Top of page mapping out women activists: an unusual sample? Being a woman in the UP political scenario is undoubtedly a drawback at all levels of participation. poor female nutrition. 2004: xxx ff. With a population of some 166 million in 2001. In combination. By making women's labour (both as producers of basic needs and reproducers of human beings) the structural determinant to women's existence. Against this backdrop. especially among the most disadvantaged communities (such as Dalits and Muslims).

Women often presented a number of unique features that are significant towards the understanding of their freedom of mobility. the climate of violence which permeates UP and its political scenario – and the atrocities committed against the Dalit population – constitutes an intimidating environment for both women and men in their daily activities. BSP core activists. The former left small children at home to join political mobilization. In the 1980s and early 1990s. with a small percentage of Muslims. Separated and widowed women activists also enjoyed greater scope for action and mobility as a result of their non-married status. A group of about forty informants formed the lower female cadre within the party in the city. These arrangements removed them from in-laws‟ control. Some local women who grew up in Lucknow practiced matrilocality (both married and widowed women). There seems to be a difference in approach to childcare between the first generation of women activists who joined the party and its previous organization in the 1980s and the present generation of activists. however. were not the only significant factor explaining women's political participation. Most women were married at a young age. women's political activities took place in an urban location. there is a sense of generational change among women following different periods of mobilization within the party and the organizations which preceded it. Last but not least. inter-religious and love marriages. almost all activists lived outside the patrilocal joint family system. The main active core of women began their activities in the 1990s and the numbers of both women workers and voters had increased since then. All of them had children and a number of women subsequently underwent sterilization.13 They were at various stages of their political career. This is an important factor as it suggests an agentive and unusual choice in matter of marriage by women and men. a formal position in the party. were married. plus a higher number who participated at demonstrations and meetings and worked at the polling stations. although very rarely was the position of crucial importance. rather than being constrained by more conservative village life-style rules. From the ethnography. Despite residing in Lucknow for many years. or had been assigned. For instance. Unlike the customary pattern of postmarriage patrilocal residence. BSP women activists I interacted with were spread across five state assembly constituencies (out of a total of eight) within the Lucknow district. women recalled a very small number of women activists within the BSP. These were the formative years of the party and therefore mobilization and proselytizing efforts might well have been significant for women and men activists alike. among married women who formed the overwhelming majority of the group. I found intercaste. Among the second generation of women . Data on marriage. Almost all of them had. and some were Buddhist. aged between 30 and 50 years. They were mainly Hindu. separated and widowed – all with grown up children – as well as one unmarried woman. if compared to the standard rule of arranged marriage. Many migrated from their in-laws‟ villages to Lucknow as a result of their husband's government employment or his search for work. A few informants had been important activists in the past but were no longer working for the party. travelled widely in UP and outside the state while their husbands or their older children looked after younger children and the household.women‟s empowerment very difficult and compromise efforts to improve women‟s well-being over this wide spectrum of disadvantage. most women were not originally from the city. Moreover.

given their early marriages. using time for political activities – which can also accrue women status and power – can also be viewed as part of a strategy of upward social mobility. not only did women not work but they also spent money while involved in politics. They were not compelled into mazdoori (labour work) or menial jobs such as domestic work in other households (which I instead found among slum-dwelling women workers who had recently joined the party). including politics.who joined in the 1990s. women's self-help groups and with social work. financial issues linked to political participation appear only to be of secondary relevance to the more crucial question of male consent. In the case of the BSP women. local women leaders would pay for the transport of poor women. some women activists fought elections in the city municipality and were provided financial support by their husbands. 1999. Education levels ranged from illiteracy to graduation (not necessarily features of the old and new generations of women respectively) with graduates representing a very small minority. a minority of BSP women were active within women's organizations. 2003. In addition. the nexus between time. in the view of women informants. It followed that women's expenditure in politics implied a degree of purse control within the household and the male breadwinners‟ consent. Similarly. Although recognizing the value of education in politics (and considering that it is in the party culture that all communications be written) education was not unanimously recognized by women as necessary and those who are uneducated took the help of educated people on matters such as court cases and various applications. Compared to the mass of Dalit or low-caste (Hindu and Muslim) women. Forbes. Pai has observed that „Persons who have heavy family responsibilities. When I asked one of my most politically active woman informants whether she would consider money or consent the most important element for women to engage in politics. For example. the trend was for most women to start working actively in politics when their children were grown up. Time availability and the ability to move freely within their assigned constituency constituted a key criterion shaping the demand for women activists and marking their suitability to hold posts within the party hierarchy. More important. . childcare responsibilities and political involvement and the very low rate of education among Dalit women. but they need their husbands‟ consent‟. not all activists were literate. although they might have been in paid employment in the past. charitable activities and women's organizations (see Caplan. In addition. she replied that „poor women would still be able to do something in politics. while going out for meetings or local activities and while attending rallies or larger gatherings. Kumar. helping the party financially through collection of donations was one of its supporters‟ main activities. 1985. Hancock. Moreover.and middle-class women have historically deployed their free time in associational. In turn. Further. The following section explores the flexible arrangements within the household regime when women enter politics. Before entering politics or while working for the party. Not being forced into waged labour enabled women to engage in other activities. BSP women's financial dependence on men placed these women at risk of being withdrawn from the political arena. understanding and support. a number of women political activists – those who were married to government employees – can be considered as an elite in relative terms. 2004) as a display of status and towards its reproduction. debts or do not have organizational abilities are not selected‟ (2002: 103). class and women is important here: Indian upper. in her analysis of the BSP organizational structure and recruitment of party members. Concerning education.

The amount of time women engaged in such activities often depended on the post assigned to them in the local party hierarchy. conforming to the role of daughter-in-law. female maid . she argued that „gender analysis […] does not in and of itself provide us with a language to talk about gendered subjectivities and forms of consciousness‟ (ibid. at the time of fieldwork women activists did not have cohabiting mothers-in-law or elder brothers‟ wives. (home to home) and collection of donations. women's activities intensified and they spent a great deal of time outside the home. in very few instances. They consisted of regular meetings. day to day proselytizing. campaigning at the time of elections. It followed that they had the right to delegate the household work and childcare to others. In addition. at the time of structured interviews often both women activists and their husbands were present. with the opportunity to participate in our discussions. It is the negotiation of women's intentions more than of chores that opened up spaces of participation for them. These activities were very demanding and took place all year round. Exceptional times aside. Through participant observation in a number of households I observed how men and women negotiated their roles. Equally important. no real „revolution‟ took place in the household as its management often followed the pattern in place in any household where rules of women's seniority apply. 1997). In her analysis of women in Hindu right political organizations.: 146). Some women activists managed household chores and childcare. by getting up earlier or by rearranging some of the work with their daughters. During elections. attendance at the different levels of the party organization (from the constituency level down to the smallest unit. Moreover. I contend that household arrangements and the issues of male consent and support should not be taken at face-value but be inscribed within the local language of gender relations and culture-laden avenues of self-realization. the sector).Top of page the domestic economy of politics Most BSP women began their political activities as housewives. political rallies. In the case of BSP women. women helped people in trouble by going to police stations or with other needs. Sarkar has remarked how political activism increases women's bargaining power in the home (1995: 210). male consent and support did not inevitably constitute a constraining element to women's activities and gender consciousness. Along with their relationship with husbands and male relatives. changes in the sexual division of labour did not figure as a central element towards women's attainment of selfrealization or failure. daughters-in-law or. staging demonstrations. and therefore represented the highest female authority in the house. A number of women informants lived for a period of time with their in-laws after marriage and had to perform a significant share of household chores. In revisiting her idea. While my findings confirm Sarkar's observation. Similarly. As specified earlier. In this process. which is carried out in a very traditional way. Kandiyoti observed that the notion of bargain had been conceived as a pure and simple negotiation of spaces made up of contestation and resistance within „the limits of the culturally conceivable‟ (1998: 147). I suggest that the processes through which women built their local careers around male consent and support do not simply translate into forms of „patriarchal bargains‟ (Kandiyoti. I will show how this is achieved through no dramatic changes in the sexual division of labour. women's experiences testified to the biographical aspects of their political agency and its link to life-cycles.

Many women informants attended to the time-consuming activity of cooking. Her husband. especially newly married ones and those living in rural areas. My informant Mira. and had to attend to their children. For example. field note 2004) After revealing to me her inter-religious community love marriage with a Hindu man. used to carry out the housework and was involved in childcare. Sunita. Yet. it presents a degree of flexibility concerning the way women enacted their domestic roles. She had spent many years in politics during which she had to leave her small children behind. field note 2004) The first field note extract speaks of the socialization experience many Indian women from all castes and religious communities have. usually carried out the housework early in the day. a local slum leader. Her children and husband helped her. an activist who had a love marriage. A number of activists were relieved from all kinds of housework while others'ch for a daughter-in-law was oriented towards a (docile) girl who would carry out domestic work rather than „being busy outside‟. was not active any more at the time of my fieldwork. Sometimes. used to cook for her and she was relieved from all domestic work.servants. the husband of Rita. Work was not redistributed only among female relatives. women's conceptualization of this role and reflections on their empowerment trajectories. Top of page just good patriarchy? „In every caste. in case of necessity she would go out for politics regardless of whether the housework had been completed or not. One of my elder informants. The second surely marks an „anomaly‟. I have also shown how an understanding of women's biographies is essential to capture the diversity of women's experience. at times were not educated. She married her first son quickly so that her daughter-in-law could attend to the housework. women preferred to carry out the domestic work themselves rather than passing the burden onto daughters who might have been busy studying. In this section I have argued that the domestic economy of politics does not show drastic changes when women enter politics. In women's narratives and from my observation during fieldwork. Given that women married at a young age. someone who could contribute to free up time for the mother-in-law who was busy in politics. . In the next section. our women are so under pressure that they can‟t speak or eat in front of their husbands. Nevertheless. However. a Muslim woman activist informant told me „don‟t you see that I‟m free to go out‟. a government employee dedicated to the Dalit cause. despite the fact that inter-religious marriages are not unusual in Lucknow. they had supposedly fewer chances for self-realization outside the household. many women acknowledged the cooperation they received from their husbands both in terms of flexibility and practical help. I examine the role of male family members vis-à-vis women's political activities. If they can‟t speak in front of their husbands how can they do politics?‟ (Hindu Dalit woman activist. after which she would leave the home for her political activities. this woman activist still needs the consent and support of her husband to carry out politics. (Muslim woman activist. a freedom she obtained as a result of her marriage arrangement.

the birth of Dalit feminism does not only point to Dalit women becoming vocal vis-àvis mainstream Indian feminism(s) – often upper. At the time of fieldwork. and her sons guard her in old age‟ (Laws of Manu.and middle-class dominated – and acknowledging the caste-dimension of women's issues. I once attended a meeting during which two women local leaders were persuading BSP worker Asha's husband to let her take up a formal position . her husband guards her in youth. the idea of purush pradhan echoes a passage from the „Laws of Manu‟. as this surely deserves a more nuanced description according to the different caste communities and the contexts analysed. however. In a meeting with a very active and assertive Chamar informant called Sujata. an ancient Sanskrit text in which the mythical king Manu legislates on every aspect of social life. but also invokes an introspective look into Dalit patriarchies. a Chamar woman informant with a long history of mobilization. Khare has described the condition of Lucknow Dalit women as one in which they „struggle most with their own men and their immediate society‟ (1998: 212). she recounted how once she and her woman neighbour had came back from a political meeting at midnight and were both beaten up by her husband. did not prevent Sujata from carrying on with her political activities. at which her husband was also present. Her father guards her in childhood. Patriarchal norms and restrictions formed a shared gendered knowledge repertoire among many of them. The brother-in-law of Chandra. Interestingly. Similarly. sons and fathers-in-law after marriage. Dalit women have also been described as having a greater degree of mobility. given that they are not subject to the strict seclusion regimes in place for higher caste women.14 Not all BSP women's biographies were exemplary cases of flexible gender roles. There were cases of domestic violence among women informants who nevertheless did not stop their political activities and showed their resilience. a woman can start looking for labour work. 1991: 197). up to four days? Then it is over. she was in paid employment and an active union member at her workplace. The idea of purush pradhan („man head‟) was recurrent among many informants. Consent. resistance to and support for women's activities were also found among male relatives. As reflected by the shared idea of purush pradhan. Dalit women activists too are aware of the restrictions originating from within their own communities. When I asked Sujata about the difference between her and other women who are subject to domestic violence. for instance as agricultural labourers sexually predated on by landlords. start earning and then her husband will understand when he sees the money and the change‟ (field note extract 2005). With reference to Dalit women who form the majority of the activists. objected to her activities. they have been described in the literature as vulnerable vis-à-vis upper castes. also known as Manusmirti. Sujata claimed „How long can someone beat up a woman for. The theme of Dalit patriarchy has visibly emerged in the literature. A passage from the book recites: „Men must make their women dependent day and night […]. she argued that the difference lies in the efforts she makes travelling within her locality to spread gender equality awareness. However her husband did not pay attention to his complaints and she could carry on with her political career. There is a need to deconstruct this „freedom myth‟ associated with Dalit women as a homogeneous category. The beating.Leaving the home and challenging the segregation regimes in place for women has been a necessity for activists. This expression encapsulates the concept of women's subjection to fathers and brothers before marriage and to the latter as well as husbands.

significantly repeated to me that she is „free‟. While women's choices of expressions are effective in conveying the degree of autonomy and freedom they exercise. using the English term. or „mera husband khule azad chor dete hai‟ (my husband lets me be completely free). A widowed informant. Urmila. The former also supported her financially in the 2000 municipal corporation elections which she lost. The justifications for women's acceptance of men's decisions ranged from expressions such as „one cannot ruin a family‟ to „first the home and then politics‟. Anticipating their thoughts. Many of my informants believed that there is no such a thing as women participating in politics without the support of their husbands. he said „they would say that my wife is going out and this has never happened in our family!‟. a number of BSP women – while still enjoying their husbands‟ support – claimed they would still be active in politics against their husbands‟ will. The use of this English adjective for self-representation was not only confined to widows or single women but also included married women who showed a visible degree of independence. used the expression „mene nikal lya‟ (I myself went out). Her usage of the term was particularly significant at times when both of us listened to and commented on stories of women's curtailed freedom. Nita Kumar has called attention to women downplaying their agency's subverting power (see Kumar. Conversely. as the former were unwilling to create conflicts in the household. Whereas male consent is not a guarantee for women's smooth political careers. Her husband as well as another local male politician were the source of her political experience. which does not imply the presence or consent of a different agent other than Sunita herself. Both sentences imply the intervention of another agent to accomplish an action. Women leaders had tactfully asked the opinion of Asha's husband on this matter to ease things within the family. This strongly suggests that BSP women's desire to appear respectable vis-à-vis their husbands and others while describing themselves in reverent ways cannot entirely be taken at face value. to carry out party work). He was not opposed to the idea of Asha becoming more politically active but was worried about what his khandani (his brothers and relatives) living next to this house would say and his extended family's honour. she described his role as follows: „husband ne mujhe chunav laraya‟ (he made me contest the election) implying an „abdication‟ of agency vis-à-vis him. who had a love marriage rather than an arranged one. they would follow their decisions.within the party. On this matter. A number of women expressed the possibility of engaging in politics in relation to their husbands‟ will as „unhone muje nikal dya‟ (he made me go out). Nita Kumar has highlighted „the use of language as a means for retrieving feminine subjectivity‟ (1994a: 13). Sunita. explained to me how „mere husband ne mujhe aghe kya. the woman informant mentioned earlier who had been a very powerful leader in the past. the language used by BSP women to express the relationship between their husbands and their own „conditions of politics‟ is revealing and I refer to this language as „talking agency‟. However. A Chamar informant. however. My informant's independent activities. Should their husbands oppose their . suggested this verbal abdication as a way of acknowledging her husband's contribution and showing him gratitude. Interestingly. Certainly this was not the case for Kavita. 1994b). The expression kisiko chunav larana (to make someone contest elections) is also used in the case of women without previous political experience placed as candidates by their husbands or male family members in Panchayati Raj elections. most women activists claimed that were their husbands to withdraw their consent and support. named Kavita. party ka kam karne ke lie‟ (my husband made me [go] ahead.

attempting to predict the exact translation into empowerment of a new factor in women's life which opens up new opportunities for them – such as credit schemes or reserved quotas in local governance bodies or. rather than questioning women's desirability for autonomy or evaluating their „disempowerment‟ and their „need for emancipation‟.15 Her analysis clarifies the position of BSP women. Thus it is not simply that women cannot act autonomously‟ (1994: 131). Drawing on material from the UP context.: 462). Moreover. I instead call attention to the broader and substantial question which Moore finely captures as follows: „how we are going to develop a feminist theory of what constitutes women's liberation‟ (1988: 172–173). the degree of freedom of movement and decision-making shown by women would make it very difficult to envisage the end of their careers. autonomy and empowerment and their interplay with insider and outsider values is exemplary of the construction of such a theory.). It follows that when women make strategic choices in terms of marriage and reproduction. This might well go against women's overall interest and reinforce their subordinate position. Naila Kabeer's fine analysis of the nexus between status. which is to enhance women's capacity for self-determination‟ (ibid. be followed elsewhere‟ (1988: ibid. She further argues that „The western feminist model of women's emancipation cannot be extended to cover the rest of the world. vs the danger for people analysing them to „opt for those meanings which most favour their own values regarding what constitutes appropriate choices for women‟ (1999: 461). participation in party politics like in the case of BSP women – without assessing structural conditions and what women value in that context „runs into the danger of prescribing the process of empowerment and thereby violating its essence. she argues that gaining status for women as well as autonomy understood in terms of decision making and resources control might signify upholding insider values (such as dowry and son preference for example).: 458). shared local views of autonomy and empowerment avenues. In the context of research on education in UP.activities. But how do values driving agency and choice interact with measurements of empowerment? To explain the workings of insider values. I would add. and beneficially. and the ways in which politics might represent an avenue for empowerment cherished by them. the plurality of voices in their attitudes towards male consent and support. Jeffery and Jeffery (1994) have highlighted the linguistic and conceptual complexities of translating the concept of autonomy when the local terminology referring to it points to something that „may not be valorized by women because it seems unattractive and frightening. for example. On the other hand. . Kabeer considers the notion of women's status – bound to community values – vis-à-vis autonomy. says Kabeer.16 Kabeer's powerful lesson here is that empowerment indicators need to be context-sensitive. it refers to the expansion in people's ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them‟ (1999: 437). Kabeer's notion of empowerment is „about change. comments Kabeer. but we need to establish the „extent to which this normative standpoint expresses values which are relevant to the reality it seeks to evaluate‟ (ibid. These data invoke a discussion of the intricate relationship between agency. outsider values are „an external normative standpoint‟ (1999: 458). and it seems that the first step towards a recognition of this fact will necessitate more research which […] makes a determined effort to break away from the idea that the trajectory of Western political development will necessarily. the variable of status might become antithetical to autonomy and empowerment. Therefore.

not just a cooperative husband is required. My ethnographic data show how women's activities can be curtailed or stopped when husbands decide so. but an extremely supportive and resourceful extended family and in addition a strong movement-based organization ready to encourage women into public life‟ (2003: 144). I have shown how understanding household gender dynamics is essential to comprehend women activists‟ political agency not as a mere individualistic endeavour as it is linked to men's agency – in ways which might be different for women elsewhere. Resistance to this decision can be difficult even if women find ways to carry out their . However. The well-known Indian activist and writer Madhu Kishwar once commented on a woman MLA in western India: „They say that behind every great man there is usually a great woman. However. behind each politically effective woman. However. As a result. women's political agency's dependency and interrelation with male presence and agency render the former volatile and uncertain. As a result. I have shown how a number of women at the grassroots level present unusual sociological features and that women's atypicality is a prerequisite for their activities. the nature and extent of women's political agency is often dependent on their male family members. I have also demonstrated how women have often been prompted into politics by their husbands and male relatives who have acted as a source of experience and support. As mentioned at the beginning of this article. the male consent and support I found among Lucknow Dalit women is a déjà vu in the history of Indian women's activism. The latter's consent and support might override all other constraints and enable or obstruct participation. especially concerning disenfranchized Dalit women. The image of women presented in this article is different to that found in many accounts of gender in India. women activists‟ atypicality also lies in their male family members‟ enabling role. BSP women have independent political personalities and carry out activities which do not involve their husbands‟ or male relatives‟ presence. the particular genesis of the BSP and women's trajectories of social mobility lead to the reproduction of upper-caste gender patterns in social life and politics.Top of page conclusion: the politics of doing politics In order to pursue BSP women's micro-level „descriptive representation‟. in this article I have explored the conditions for their agency at the intersection of the domestic political economy and party politics. Where the analysis of Indian women's agency needs to encompass the male presence as performing a gate-keeping and supporting function. Rather than major changes within the sexual division of labour – the latter seen by Western feminists as universally disadvantaging women in political life in Western democracy – it is male consent and support which have often made possible women's participation. I argue that reproduction is more significantly exposed by women's political activities and biographies and this continuity might well supersede in importance the social and cultural difference usually attributed to Dalit groups. These findings might also reflect the „conditions of politics‟ not only historically but also at higher levels of the polity in contemporary India. what difference does it make to be a Dalit or lowcaste woman rather than a woman belonging to a higher status community? Despite the fact that the aim of the political formation these women are part of is to subvert entrenched hierarchies governing caste communities in India.

Niranjana has highlighted the analytical problems with the view that „agency. when and what to emancipate. the ethnography discussed here has highlighted forms of women's agency often prompted by male agents from within the household. By contrast. nor do I suggest any agency trajectories towards „emancipation‟. Concerning Lucknow women. contrary to forms of empowerment originating from „outside‟ – for example through the participation in grassroots movements leading to better relations within the family (Bystydzienski and Sekhon. I suggest that political agency be viewed not as separate but as part of overall gendered agency of women activists with its transformative potential. that of the relationship between women's political agency and „overall‟ agency. However. 2002: 10) – in the case of Lucknow women the genesis of forms of individual empowerment often stems from within the supposedly „oppressive‟ household boundaries. violence and subjection. On the other hand. Where relinquishing the male consent rule might not be a shared goal for all women. Women's empowerment is then reflected back onto the household and in the public sphere. Ultimately. Any reflection or evaluation of this change must result from a dialogue between insider and outsider values and views. it is useful to discard an unchanging and generalized notion of patriarchy and analyse women's agency as the result of their individual biographies. Using a relational approach to agency can be more effective than analysing these women from an „individualistic‟ Western perspective. descriptive representation . and given the continuities between the household and the realm of public politics. Furthering this debate. as is the case in Western democracies. with perhaps unintended consequences. Here I draw again on Kabeer's ideas when she claims how „we need to make a distinction between forms of change which have been prioritized in the feminist or in the development literature and forms of change valued by those whose lives an intervention is seeking to transform‟ (2001: 81). by and large. I have not analysed political agency among Lucknow women with a prescriptive notion of agency in view. this decision lies with women themselves as it is constructed through their biographies. I argue for a more encompassing notion of agency – including women's political activities – and this should be read as a biographical process in which women have emerged from their status as young daughters-in-law and mothers to enjoy a greater room for manoeuvre with decreasing family responsibilities such as domestic chores and childcare. The large body of literature on gender in India has rightly demonized male agency on the basis of a great deal of evidence of women being caught up in structures of domination. It can be argued that. This article has been primarily concerned with an examination of women activists‟ entrance into the political arena and the elements shaping this process.activities challenging their husbands‟ decisions. In this article. an additional issue arises. such as their assertion and freedom of mobility. The issue of what forms of autonomy are women's ultimate goal rests on the ethnographic data and remains an open-ended question. these women's attitudes cannot be labelled as false consciousness or absence of autonomy but should be seen as prioritizing women's local interests. is taken to mean transformative. Against this backdrop. While acknowledging the issue of agency as central to feminism in India. which neither in the context analysed nor in others is heuristically fruitful when the obstacles to women's participation are to be found in collective dimensions of social life such as the sexual division of labour. or how. overtly political action alone‟ (2004: 148).

and this might well be a strategy to maintain respectability and social acceptance. Contextually. In their own way. Finally. This suggests the idea of what I would call „idiosyncratic‟ democracy vs a „standard‟ and globalized one. Thus. the household. In this article. The consequences of women's participation for their individual selves within the household and outside are framed by the broader party's agenda and power-seeking strategies. By focusing on household gender dynamics. I have focused on the conditions of women's political agency at its very onset. to formulate one such alternative model. nurtured and at times curtailed. Women activists are not explicitly striving to change accepted gender models. we need to examine how women navigate their way across household. Women within the BSP are members of a political labour force. Such an approach is very likely to provide a more nuanced explanation for the absence of large numbers of women in politics at the grassroots and higher levels of decisionmaking.also involves an assessment of the demand for women workers within the party. this article brings back the study of politics at the very micro-level – if we imagine a woman's ideal political career from grassroots to state and national level. And it is within the household where the first political battles are initiated and gender relations negotiated and reconfigured. Constraints deriving from party politics necessarily complicate the relationship between what Kabeer has identified as the individual role of agency vs the collective dimension of empowerment and the role that community values might have in making strategic life choices (1999: 457) and the possibility that these might contain „the potential for challenging and destabilizing social inequalities and the extent to which they merely express and reproduce those inequalities‟ (ibid. the consequences of their participation – although limited in numerical extent. we need to take into account these micro realities and start from the household. we need to investigate the reasons for women joining politics which might well be of an entirely different nature from other contexts. especially in consideration of identity politics in north India. a proletariat of politics (together with many male activists). However. . with few chances to graduate to positions of power. If we aim to draw conclusions regarding women and the democratic wave which started in the 1990s in north India not just as an electoral phenomenon. conceptualizations and practices of democracy have increasingly begun to be seen as the product of specific caste cultures and contexts. power and consequences – are to be reckoned on both within the household and outside. where political agency is first constituted. Moreover. They serve as a catalyst for other women's mobilization although they work with both female and male constituents and many activists do not differentiate between them. 1995) within the party very fragile and difficult to articulate. This renders women activists' (micro) „politics of presence‟ (Phillips. there is the need to reformulate gendered models of political participation and agency which take into consideration the specific cultures in which they take place. party and society gender relations. Top of page Notes 1 See Hust (2004) for a comprehensive analysis of women in Panchayati Raj.: 461).

For example. pointing to the criticality of the concept of the female communist subject over that of the „rational individual‟ (2002: 240). during mobilization activities and in their constituencies. This is in contrast to Maharashtra. . but the mobilization of women has no place on its agenda. and serve to mobilize other women rather than acting as policy-making bodies towards a gender progressive agenda. 9 Surely the nature of women's activism – whether women are involved in labour struggles.2 During 2004–2005 I carried out eighteen months‟ fieldwork for a project entitled „Popular Democracy in northern India: an ethnographic study of political participation amongst historically marginalized women‟. 10 Government employees are not allowed to carry out political activities. where the parties that represent the interests of Dalits. the Samajwadi Party – another protagonist of identity politics in UP representing the interests of middle-ranking castes – held political power in the state and the post of CM. 12 For example biographical considerations: we might think of Indian women's increasing freedom of mobility attached to seniority. in party offices. The field methods used consisted of participant observation. tribal and low. Fodor (2002) has made this point in relation to the analysis of women's political participation in state socialist Hungary. 5 During my fieldwork this strategy was already quite evident in the social heterogeneity of the party supporters I encountered. 11 The issue of differently constituted „subjects‟ of political participation has emerged also in contexts other than the South Asian one. 7 Srivastava (2002) has commented that „The rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh symbolizes the political aspirations of Dalits. 8 It should be noted that women's wings in parties often are subordinated to male leadership. have made extensive efforts to woo women‟. 3 Most of the data I collected during my research project refer to BSP women while fieldwork with the several groups of women I mentioned earlier added a precious comparative angle to the analysis. structured interviews and daily interaction with activists in different contexts including at home with their family members. 4 The first three labels are the legal denomination for communities of former untouchable. 6 Throughout my fieldwork.and middle-ranking caste background who benefit from a policy of positive discrimination. the feminist movement(s) or party politics – inflects the modalities of women's participation in terms of the negotiations occurring within the household and the role men might have in these. During this time. the BSP was in opposition.

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and two book monographs. is entitled „Retro-modernity. youth issues. The second one draws on the research she carried out during the tenure of a Nuffield Foundation New Career Development Fellowship and is entitled „Political agency and gender in India‟. and she is currently working on a number of articles. mainly Dalits (former untouchables). the experience of modernity among the poor. The first http://www. an edited volume on femininities and masculinities in Indian politics. gender and class transformation. Her research interests range from ideologies of education. to women in politics. based on her doctoral dissertation. Her work has appeared in several leading journals.Top of page author biography Manuela Ciotti is a social anthropologist who has carried out extensive fieldwork in north India with historically marginalized communities. Being 19th century and low-caste in contemporary India‟. Both monographs will be published by Routledge.html Accessed on 30 March 2011 .