Prajnya Gender Talks, March 2021 || The Body as Resource: New Directions in the Study of Gender and Sexual Labour by Manjima Bhattacharjya


March 2021

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

Dr. Manjima Bhattacharjya

Dr Manjima Bhattacharjya is a feminist writer and researcher who has studied gender, sexuality, and labour and the female body for over two decades. She has a PhD in Sociology and has been a Fellow of the New India Foundation. An accomplished author, her books Mannequin and Intimate City have explored the relationship between feminism, fashion and sex work. 

During this Gender Talk, Dr Bhattacharjya aims to describe the faultlines in feminist protest around the female body, share the lessons from her research experiences about women’s labour, and trace the new directions of the female body in its journey from labour to resource.  

Dr Bhattacharjya begins the talk by touching upon the history of feminist protest against the concepts of fashion and beauty. Ever since the 1960s, it was posited that fashion and feminism are enemies. The first protest in the US in support of this notion was against the Atlanta beauty pageant, where protestors threw clothing – including bras – into trash bins, which led to the infamous “bra-burning” moniker. Around this time, sexist advertisements were at their peak; so was the critique of corsets, high heels, makeup etc., which were symbolised as tools of “unfreedom.”

In contrast, Indian debates about women’s objectification were very different, focused only on their “indecent” representation, leading to the Indecent Representation of Women Act in 1986. In 1988, calls for banning beauty pageants began, which had a rather simplistic understanding of beauty and women’s bodily autonomy. 

Other media were also called out; for e.g. feminists and censors alike heavily criticised the movie Pati Parmeshwar for its depiction of “good” wives’ ignoble servility. Feminist vigilantes of the late 1980s and early 1990s blackened sexist billboards and wrote to companies who had commissioned the ads. Admittedly, skin show was often regarded as semi-pornographic and confused with sexism. In hindsight, feminists acknowledge that this approach was pseudo-moralistic, and what could be expected of the right-wing today. 

In 1994, Sushmita Sen won the Ms Universe pageant and India became a new market for beauty products. Small town girls began moving to metropolitan cities to become models, believing that imitating the physical traits and appearances of successful models would help them achieve much-yearned-for social mobility. 

In 1996, the Ms World pageant arrived in India, begetting one of the biggest protests the country has seen. Bangalore city nearly came to a standstill with half its population on the streets; the three distinct protest groups had the same objective – to such down the pageant. The left-wing protested the pageant’s neocolonial globalisation, the right protested the corruption of Indian culture, and the left-leaning feminist groups graduated from protesting the objectification of women to protesting their commodification. However, the right-wing set the direction of discourse and by 1997, the nationalism pill had been swallowed. 

With this succinct history lesson, Dr Bhattacharjya begins to describe her research which looks into the labour angle of modelling and its perceptions among all classes and ideological divides. She briefly shows the audience the We Should All Be Feminists t-shirt that took over the fashion industry in 2017 to make a point: in the last 15-20 years, the relationship between fashion and feminism has unprecedentedly changed. 

At the onset, she received two very conflicting perspectives from the models she interviewed. The first perspective was that modelling was a job like any other, in that, it was gendered, easy, and merely a paid extension of women’s natural proclivity to dress up. Dr Bhattacharjya discovered that surprisingly, modelling was informal labour, with no security or benefits to the workers. There had been an unsuccessful effort to unionise in 2002; but only from 2017 onward, did a union even first emerge in the west (Model Alliance) which voiced pitiably basic demands such as setting up private changing areas backstage at the New York Fashion Week. The second perspective was that modelling was not like any other job. The central element of this industry is bodywork: models need to be in a marketable body shape, enduring inhumane diets, gym and plastic surgery. Modelling is sexualised labour, since models perform sexuality, borrowing from a certain lexicon of poses and looks, and facing societal stigma for doing so.

Dr Bhattacharjya learned from these interviews that a new class of working women was developing post-globalisation – these were the first generation of young women to leave homes to participate in the workforce. Dr Bhattacharjya explains the framework within which working women normally experience the workplace, using the film Mahanagar as an illustration. Women’s presence in the paid public sector is based on three parameters: invisibility, conditionality, and cost. 

Women are conditioned to be secluded in the private space, to exist, but not be seen or heard. The same pattern follows even in their paid roles. Their choice to work is contingent on varying conditions: some models are allowed to model provided they don’t wear bikinis, some women are allowed to work until they get married, and others if they finish their household chores in a timely and proper manner. The cost of their work is stigma or collateral damage to relationships. This stigma extends to all female bodies at work purely by virtue; even in corporate organisations, rules dictate how women shouldn’t dress (no sleeveless or cleavage). Thus, just like the performance of sexuality in modelling, in other industries, women are expected to perform asexuality as a condition of their participation in the workforce (the #MeToo movement visibilised the prejudice that blames women’s behaviour for sexual harassment in workplaces). 

In contrast, models on their way to auditions cover themselves up fully, carry large bags with audition clothes, and wait at bus stops all the while being watched and harassed. Once they are at the audition, they take off their clothes and transform into sexual objects. Young women’s bodies are put through a recurring theme of surveillance to spectacle.  

Yet another type of bodywork that has emerged is surrogacy. Dr Bhattacharjya draws parallels between surrogacy and sex work by sharing a short documentary, Surabhi Sharma’s Can We See the Baby Bump Please? In the film, we see the surrogates describing the process, the benefits, and the conditions. It is the surrogate’s responsibility to ensure the child is born at a certain weight. If a child is born heavier, the surrogate receives more money. Dr Bhattacharjya observes that the conversations amongst the surrogates are similar to the conversations she heard amongst models at Miss India pageants. There is a certain prescribed curriculum to churn out a perfect batch of bodyworkers, evidencing that the female body is a resource that the market recognises and monetises.

When it comes to sex work, the opinions could not be more contrasting, even amongst feminists. Some abolitionists equate sex work to violence, while other feminists see it as labour. Questions about volition and consent toxify this space, further complicated by funding agendas, trafficking, criminalisation, and moral frameworks. In her book Intimate City, Dr Bhattacharjya attempts to change this lens and study a wider range of geographies, and observe the wider context and web of relationships in sex work. 

She locates women’s decisions and choices not just against broader life trajectories but also global macro shifts. She highlights the internet as a space for commercial sex transactions, where combinations of new and old kinds of sex work and different kinds of transactional sex flourish. These may be located in the idea of global smart cities but follow local patterns in their manifestations. It is common to see the deployment of caste capital in digital sex work, allowing the internet to provide access to upper caste and middle-class women. Thus, sex work conflates the use of body capital with caste and cultural capital. There are many fluid categories in such transactions; often, one who provides sex may also pay for sex and vice versa. Also seen are male service providers who cater to female clients. 

Digital spaces enabled a big shift in sex work, where transactions weren’t limited to money. Holidays, gifts, and opportunities are commonly transacted. There is a clear-cut financial decision to have or seek transactional sex, driven not just by need, but by fantasy, curiosity, alienation, loneliness, or a desire to expand life experiences. The internet brings the mind and body together, with individuals seeking connections. Such sex work does not fit into traditional categories of violence. Such new platforms and interactions require us to think about the right to privacy within which such transactional sex can be located. Dr Bhattacharjya concludes that this lens needs to be applied to research women’s agency with transactional sex.  


In the Q&A session, Dr Bhattacharjya reflects on the notion of women’s choice. Does it exist, and if so, what determines it? Even when a woman exercises her choice, she faces social punishments. So one could say freedom doesn’t exist for women. She suggests we look at both micro and macro levels to truly understand women’s choices. 

She describes how the choice framework falls short and is limited to certain caste and class circles (we should perhaps look at materiality instead). Locating sex work and intimacy within the private space can have severe consequences on marginalities. It is well-known that margins use their bodies in public spaces. This digital divide, Dr Bhattacharjya admits, is a bias in her research. However, we must note that lower caste and class women also use the digital space now i.e. the public also exists on the internet. 

As for transwomen and Dalit women in red light areas, feminists belonging to those marginalities would struggle to see their sex work as work, and instead, see it as gender-based or caste-based labour. More work certainly needs to be done to understand trans sex workers’ experiences. 

Dr Bhattacharjya mentions the absence of strong collectives for sex workers; while there exist groups of clients, there are limited groups for providers. When it comes to escorting, she wonders if it should not be seen as transactional sex at all but as gig work. After all, we maintain intimate relationships with so many types of service providers (doctors, nannies etc). Overall, she says the topic of sex work is still bridled at discursive levels, and this needs to change.

Prajnya Gender Talks, February 2021 || Muslim Women, Agency and Resistance in Kashmir by Inshah Malik


February 2021

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

Inshah Malik

Inshah Malik is an Assistant Professor of political theory and international relations at Kardan University, Kabul; a visiting Professor at the University of Washington; and previously a Fox Fellow at Yale. Her 2019 monograph, “Muslim Women, Agency and Resistance in Kashmir,” shed some much-needed spotlight on Kashmiri feminism. 


Having been raised in Srinagar, Kashmir, questions about her and her fellow Muslim women’s mobility and rights followed her through adulthood. She noticed a glaring political disconnect between India and Kashmir, which motivated her to investigate what Muslim women want and to study their lived experiences. 

She launched her study with an interventionist feminism approach i.e. when groups of people from mainland India would visit Kashmir to research the struggles of Muslim women. However, this would often lead to tropes of these women being voiceless victims of double patriarchy. She knew there were several challenges in her way: How would she talk about them without taking away their sense of agency? How would she communicate that Kashmiri women who complied with Islamic rules and wore a hijab were not necessarily without agency?

Prevailing Narratives

She began by defining the concept of agency. Mainstream western feminism is well aware of cultural patriarchy but not that patriarchy can manifest in various forms (political, social, militarist, authoritarian regimes-based patriarchy etc). Agency must be defined keeping all these patriarchies in mind. Inshah dove into the work of middle-eastern feminist scholars, which was nevertheless complicated by West-vs.-Islam narratives and countered by right-wing Islamist movements, inevitably dislocating the findings of Muslim women’s research. American imperialist interventions operate through a white saviour complex that means to “protect and save Muslim women” (the despicable counter of which is the Indian man’s complex as displayed in the aftermath of Article 370 when Indian men rushed to marry Kashmiri women); Inshah spurs us to reflect: considering that feminism is a movement against the oppression of women, how can it align itself with imperialism?

Over the past decades, researchers have studied the struggle in the Kashmiri political context and the school of self-determination that emerged. But Inshah asks, how did women articulate themselves within the (sometimes) restrictive and conservative Islamic laws, while at the same time questioning and critiquing the state’s patriarchy?

Kashmiri Women and Self-Determination

Inshah interviewed 50 women who were active in various movements since 1947 to answer these questions. A few respondents – now in their 80s and 90s – had participated in the Riverside Front Movement, fighting for the right to vote. The movement had galvanised scores of women who supported Farooq Abdullah’s campaigns for women’s rights. 

The new Kashmiri manifesto led to liberationist ideas and the Kashmiri socialist self-determination movement which fought against feudal land acquisition. The movement aimed to reshape and emancipate Kashmiris’ social public life. Mass mobilisation and education drives happened through word of mouth and community-based political discussions. Women, who were active members, had no formal education but were well aware of the nuances of self-determination. One respondent described how she was inspired by the struggle because of the sense of community and common faith that it instilled amongst women, and the sense of purpose and agency it gave them. 

Meanwhile, a class divide emerged: elitist women were creating a narrative of modernisation – one that was defined as being linguistically, culturally, and politically closer to North India. Many  Kashmiri women shed traditional headgear and reformation was influenced by elitist Indian modernity. However, women continued to discuss their individual, personal, collective and Kashmir’s political future.

Dismantling Misconceptions

Inshah highlights that Muslim societies are viewed as products of religion and not of modern transformation and industrialisation. Narratives commonly depict Muslim women as wholly oppressed and ignore the political actions that actually led to women’s behaviour. She states that Kashmir was indeed India’s first Hindutva state, where the Dogra Rule was imposed and beef banned; so Kashmiri Muslims are not as governed by Islam as people think. Such a monolithic, linear view of Muslim societies is problematic because it becomes impossible to discuss Muslim women without mentioning their religion. Such a view is also exclusionist because Islam is labelled as especially or exclusively patriarchal whereas all major religions in the world are unequivocably patriarchal. 

Even the idea of agency that we have stems from Indian feminism, where it is seen as individual autonomy. This conception of autonomy is masculinist since the concept of agency can never really be individualistic even in modern societies where gender relations have changed; it can only be exercised in relation to other people. Our feminism fails to acknowledge this idea.

Inshah next delves into the post-1980s trend that viewed Kashmiri women as “mad women, a simplistic narrative that politicised madness. This narrative traps women’s work in the web of patriarchal language, and questions how these women who fought for the rights of other women also furthered the cause of men who oppressed women. But this narrative is overly simplistic and fails to understand the depth of the situation. She cites a few examples to describe this phenomenon. 

Aasiyah Andrabi was the leader of the Dakhtaran e Millat (Daughters of the Nation) outfit, which propagated an Islamist right-wing vision. Aasiyah used feminist interpretations of Sharia law to fight for women’s rights. She broke open the locks of mosques where women were prohibited, fought social evils like dowry and divorce, and helped women regain economic independence. But even until 2000, Yousaf Raza Gillani disregarded her completely, labelling her as “crazy.” 

Kashmiri women struggle to express themselves and be heard as political leaders. In other states, the law determines life; but in Kashmir, institutions have broken down and laws work against people, delivering impunity to criminals. Asking women to take political actions that are also feminist means a dismissal of the unique and challenging socio-political and cultural realities of Kashmiri life. We must rethink women’s relationship to religion – but not without considering the context within which these women are embedded and examining why they choose to work within those tropes. 

From another perspective, the “mad” Kashmiri woman is recognised as part of a political movement but is a target of redemption. Footballer Afshan Ashiq who was active politically found herself in the midst of disparate narratives due to her “stone-pelting.” Some insulted her for doing what must be left to men, or what was a traditionally masculine and reprehensible behaviour; some Kashmiri journals painted a narrative of her journey from footballer to stone-pelter while Indian media spun it as a transformation from stone-pelter to footballer. Thus, the mad vs. sane narrative becomes a pro-Kashmir vs pro-India narrative. 

Masrat Zahra, a Kashmiri photojournalist, defied her family and community by studying and pursuing journalism. She is famously known for her photograph of Arifa Jan, a woman whose husband was shot 18 times by the Indian army, and who routinely suffers from panic attacks. Masrat was booked under the UAPA for “inciting unrest” through this photograph. However, media narratives disregard her political feminist work and instead focus on her conservative dressing.

In yet another story, top militant groups had announced that women did not need to participate in political resistance such as stone-pelting and reassured them that they would be protected by themselves – their “brothers.” In response to this announcement, thousands of women came out to pelt stones. Such stories of daily resistance by common women are lost in the feminist discourse on Kashmir. 

Inshah concludes by pointing out that Kashmiri women are wedged between two oppressive influences, one where they are disregarded and another where they are regarded as crazy. But they are smart enough to know they have to fight both these influences with their own distinct brand of political feminism.

Prajnya Gender Talks, February 2022 || Writing Histories of Childhood in India by Divya Kannan


February 2022

Rapporteur: Meghna Menon

Prof. Divya Kannan is a professor of History at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi-NCR. Her research interests are histories of childhood and youth, gender and sexuality studies, empires and colonial violence, histories of education, curriculum and pedagogy as well as public and oral histories. She is also the co-founder of The Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective (CCYSC) which seeks to bring together academics and practitioners working with and on young people across South Asia. The Prajnya Gender Talks session on the 15th of February, 2022, focused on Writing Histories of Childhood in India, which aimed to navigate through the critical questions of how childhood is to be understood as a subject of historical study and on what the history of a child can tell one about Indian societies.

Prof. Divya started off by mentioning that the objective of the talk is to unsettle the commonplace assumptions revolving around the topic and to enable practitioners and academics to historicize childhood, by broadly outlining the field of histories of childhood, supported with examples from her work. She starts off the talk by stating that childhood is inherently political and is a temporary stage of life.

Childhood, she says, is a politicised category that requires navigating and understanding the power differences. Particularly in South Asian countries, the child, as a moral and social unit, is inherently subordinated to all power arrangements. This is the case until they take on the role of adulthood. Prof. Divya supports this by stating that the norms that govern a child are social and political constraints which shift across time, space, and cultural contexts. Each child, so, does not have the same kind of childhood. Additionally, Prof. Divya also points out that there are child labourers and children on the streets, and so, if everyone is a child and must be protected, a critical question is to understand how one must navigate through the idea of exploitative phenomena. For this reason, she says that childhood must be looked at as a concept that intersects with other identity markers like gender, ethnicity, language and caste. With this, the common notions of childhood are associated with nostalgia and ideas of good and bad memories, but at the same time, also include a comparison of the current generation and the worry about the future of society.  

At the crux of it all, Prof. Divya stresses that it is imperative to understand how childhood is located in the creation of a power-knowledge system. To add, it is also critical to navigate through the different kinds of childhood which are situated in systems rooted in social structures. 

The speaker also traced the trajectory of this field, from the pre-19th century views by Philippe Aries to the 19th-century industrialisation, which included aspects of institutionalisation through the educational system, ideas of state and social protection, as well as the emergence of the western and subaltern notion of children and childhood.

With this, the speaker brings the audience to an important question – why is colonialism important for us to study? Prof. Divya notes that this is because of the rule of racial difference, along with the notions of vulnerability and innocence that are cropping up in Europe. These are not applicable to the Indian child because of the deep-rooted racialized suspicion of the colonised population. There is this political and social infantilization of the Indian population at large during the 19th century and the early 20th century, and at the same time, the Indian child is seen as incomplete.

She also briefly covered the ideas given by various historians like Satadru Sen, Soni, Jessica Hinchy, Karen Vallgarda, Ishita Pande as well as Catriona Ellis on the themes of missionaries and childhood, marginalisation, and philanthropy. 

Prof. Divya Kannan says it is not that Indian children have less agency. It is this idea of minimal agency that the colonial state wants the colonised states to think. This colonised encounter mutually constitutes the coloniser and the colonised. This eventually makes the European children also be considered the saviours of brown children. 

Throughout the lecture, the speaker also talks about how children have to negotiate at various periods of their lives to survive. So, for us to understand the location of children’s agency, we must see it in relation to adulthood and other larger structures of power. Particularly in a country like India, women are infantilized. This, Prof. Divya, elucidates by giving an example of how an adult woman is described using words like “cute” and “bubbly”. 

Prof. Divya Kannan also presented the audience with photos from the Basel Mission Archives to navigate through the reproduction of caste-labour hierarchies in the Boarding Schools set up by the missionaries in Kerala. 

The session was concluded by Prof. Divya stating that to study the histories of childhood, one may refer to the missionaries’ archives (while being wary of the biases they hold) as they produce rich information. Additionally, information can also be retrieved through visual representations (print, TV), autobiographies (which are filtered memories), journals and periodicals. The study of the histories of childhood reveals to us how we are as a society, just like other histories do.

The questions that followed the session centred around understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic is connected to various historiographical journeys, and how a historian in 2072, for instance, may write about the histories of childhood in 2022. To this, Prof. Divya responded that the use of media would help articulate how the children felt about the pandemic. However, there is also a possibility of the population of children being lesser in number either due to conflicts (environmental, or otherwise) or due to climate change, particularly with the pandemic slowly becoming an endemic. It is also imperative to look into the learning gaps that persist, especially because technologies seem to be a boon only to children who are privileged to have access to the same. She also concluded by explaining the concept of determining agency as not just acts of direct, overt and loud resistance, but also as pockets of resistance, like children running away, children participating in movements and strikes and children disobeying their superiors. 

Prajnya Gender Talks, December 2020 || The Swayam Journey: A 25-Year Celebration by Anuradha Kapoor


December 2020

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

Swayam’s Origins

Anuradha Kapoor started Swayam in 1995 right after the release of the Beijing Platform for Action. She had realised there were not that many organisations addressing the issue of GBV. The ones that did were invisible and provided limited services, as a result of which women survivors had to go to many different organisations to get the different kinds of support they needed. 

There was also a dearth of literature on the subject. In the early stages, Anuradha learned from talking to other women and activists and paying visits to local organisations, which led to her creating the first resource directory of GBV organisations in the country. Swayam published several books on the subject which were taken up by UN Women as part of their programmes. More organisations followed Swayam’s lead and more research, publications, and resources emerged. 

Swayam’s Purpose and Methods

Swayam’s goal was to fill both resource and support gaps. They began to provide mental health services, counselling, and legal aid, and also worked with the police and courts to improve survivors’ access to justice. 

A. Support Groups

Survivors tend to feel isolated, believe that their circumstance is unique and blame themselves for their situation. Swayam knew the silence around violence needed to be broken and for women to understand that the problem is systemic and not individual. Thus began Swayam’s support groups with women of different ages and backgrounds, each inspiring the other, bringing about solidarity in the consciousness that change is possible.

Now, Swayam has 15 different group activities, which have evolved through the survivors voicing their own needs. Most of the survivors are victims of trauma, depression, and anger and to norms that are internalised and ingrained. Through these support groups, the survivors work on healing themselves, moving on and becoming agents of change. 

A few of these support groups evolved organically into theatre, music, and dance movement groups which serve as therapy as well as prevention campaigns. The theatre group is now 22 years old and the music group has released two CDs on DV. Workshops help the survivors introspect – a luxury most of them haven’t experienced at any point in life. They understand the roots of violence and learn not to stigmatise survival. Swayam also conducts intergenerational workshops, working with children and the families of survivors. Its magazine Prayas has published 75 issues so far about DV. The survivors are a key part of Swayam’s campaigns – many of them are trained to do what Swayam does; they provide the first level of support in their community to other survivors and then introduce them to Swayam if necessary.

B. Research and Advocacy

Anuradha stresses the profuse networking and collaboration at the local and international levels that have supported Swayam’s preventive work. Swayam’s Aman Global Voices for Peace in the Home brought 156 organisations into the network, and Bhavna created a West Bengali network against child marriage. Swayam carries out training and capacity building for the police, state, schools, and other institutions. Its judicial training programme which is 8 years old now is carried out in association with Sakshi, Delhi, to change prevailing patriarchal judicial attitudes. It was the first organisation in the country to begin the 16-day campaign against GBV – a culmination of awareness-raising throughout the year – which is now held by 250 organisations nationally. 

Swayam also expanded to other centres in West Bengal to provide increased access to survivors. Many women approach Swayam for help but so many do not have the mobility to do so. Swayam’s centres bring together groups of women who in turn become agents of change in their communities. Swayam has also worked with groups of men and boys to show them what they stand to gain from equality. 

Anuradha closes her talk by touching upon Swayam’s prolific research, publication, and advocacy work. For over a decade, the organisation played a key role in the formulation and implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. It has published a study on the misuse – or rather the lack of use – of Section 498A of the IPC. It contributed to the chapter on violence against women in CEDAW’s 2014 shadow report. It has served as a rapporteur for UN Women on women’s experiences of domestic violence during the pandemic. Swayam has also published research on young people’s perceptions of sexual harassment (“eve-teasing”) and a book on the judgments under the PWDV Act. 


During the Q&A session, Anuradha reflects on how DV became more intense and frequent during the pandemic. One new phenomenon was that of calls from young unmarried women (college girls) who had moved back home and were facing abuse at the hands of their parents. Post-COVID, Swayam receives 2-3X the number of calls than before. Swayam’s team has learned and leveraged digital tools – WhatsApp, Zoom, and conference calling – to provide counselling and support to women across the country. 

Anuradha highlights that counselling exclusively through the telephone requires a very different approach; so the organised provided training to all caseworkers to keep up with the changing times. Overall, the phone proved to be a useful tool for mental health services: survivors were comforted by the distance it provided, and the organisation channelled new kinds of services to new locations. 

Swayam also conducted Zoom workshops for those survivors who had access to technology, communicating and addressing COVID-specific dangers. It distributed voice messages recorded by doctors about COVID, circulated an in-house video on the support it offers, and even carried out relief work by giving out rations. 

When asked about how service providers can grow the capacity to meet higher demands (1 in 3 women suffer DV), Anuradha first expresses disappointment at how the state failed to provide support to service providers and survivors during these difficult times. The state’s one-stop centres were not properly functional and nor were its helplines. She says that Swayam has responded to the crisis by maximising helplines, launching social media campaigns, and communicating through media and film.

She winds up the session with advice to other younger organisations working on the same cause. She urges them to stay committed despite all odds and retain the hope that change is possible – as is evident from Swayam’s rich 25-year journey. 

Prajnya Gender Talks, October 2020 || Addressing Impunity for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in International Law by Priya Pillai


October 2020

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar


Priya Pillai is an international lawyer with over two decades of experience in international and transitional justice, human rights, and humanitarian issues. She holds a PhD in international law and transitional justice from the Graduate Institute of International & Development Studies, Geneva. Priya has worked at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) headquarters in Geneva, at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and with various civil society organisations on the implementation of international law. She also consults with organisations such as Amnesty International, WHO and the IFRC. 

Priya’s talk on “Addressing Impunity for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in International Law” stems from the knowledge that conflicts have changed and evolved but conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) continues to remain a huge problem. Sexual violence is underreported even in ordinary circumstances, mainly because of the huge repercussions that one faces upon reporting; so one can imagine how exacerbated these repercussions become during or post-conflict. 

This type of violence has historical roots in conflict over the ages and has been used as a means to control and subjugate entire populations. It includes a wide ambit of crimes such as rape, enslavement, trafficking, forced prostitution, pregnancy or sterilisation, or any other sexual violence of comparable gravity.

International Legal Framework

A few milestones in the acknowledgement and redressal of CRSV include the UN security resolutions 1325 (2000) and 1960 (2010). However, conflict areas have been no less rife with CRSV even after the passing of the resolutions, as exhibited by the recent atrocities against the Yazidi and Chibok girls in Nigeria and the Rohingya women in Myanmar. 

In their wake, the 11th Report of the United Nations Sustainable Goals on CRSV (2020) yielded a factsheet that highlights problems with underreporting, accountability of perpetrators in the context of peace negotiations (Eg: Afghanistan, Colombia, the Central African Republic), legal aid and implementation of legislation and reparation funds (Eg: Democratic Republic of Congo), prosecution of crimes (Eg: Iraq, Mali), access to detention facilities (Eg: Libya), and the impact on men and the LGBTQIA+ community. The factsheet also shares the recommendations of the International Fact-Finding Mission and the provisional measures by the International Court of Justice (Myanmar). 

Priya proceeded to lay out the international legal framework and traces its history and evolution. Under domestic and international law, CRSV has been historically unrecognised as a crime. There was persisting legal blindness for several decades; for instance, there was no mention let alone prosecution of CRSV in the Nuremberg trials, or in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), leading to the invisibility of both perpetrators and victims. 

The tide slowly began to turn in the 2000s. For instance, the South-East Asian Comfort Women’s struggle for recognition, acknowledgement and justice had faded into the background of patriarchal military politics. The Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery, a civil initiative by Asian women’s and human rights organisations, brought this struggle to the forefront and gave it visibility.

Intersections of International Law

Priya emphasised the need to explore the broad intersecting areas of international law such as International Human Rights Law (IHRL), International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Criminal Law (ICL). 

A. International Human Rights Law

IHRL for women is governed by CEDAW obligations, primarily Article 1 which dictates the right to equal protection and General Recommendation No.19 (1992). It is bolstered by the Beijing Platform for Action (1995); human rights case law at regional courts including the Inter-American Court, the European Court, and the African Court; and is operational in all contexts, including armed conflict. 

B. International Humanitarian Law

IHL for women is governed by the Geneva Conventions, which uses oblique, archaic, and questionable references such as “women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honor, in particular, against rape, enforced prostitution or any form of indecent assault,” (GC IV, Article 27) and “…outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault are and shall remain prohibited at any time and any place,” (AP II, Article 4(2)(e)). 

C. International Criminal Law

International Criminal Law, on the other hand, has witnessed quite a bit of evolution. In the aftermath of the Bosnian conflict and the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, it became critical to include CRSV in the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Rape began to finally be seen as a crime against humanity, and proven to be so during the Furundzija and Kunarac cases by the ICTY and the Akayesu case by the ICTR. The UN security council resolutions were empowered by UN charters, and CRSV crimes were defined, their time frames delineated, and their perpetrators to be brought in for the purpose of trials. All kinds of CRSV crimes were brought into the legal framework, including rape as torture, rape as a war crime and crime against human rights (Eg: Furundzija), and rape as genocide (Akayesu).

The Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court was a major turning point for ICL for women. It defined rape as a crime against humanity (Article 7) and a war crime (Article 8). This was not without failings, however. Low sensitisation while handling CRSV lingered and plaintiffs struggled to secure justice on grounds of lack of evidence or leniency with appeals. For example, in the Lubanga case in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the court declined to confirm charges of CRSV; in the Katanga case, charges were dropped; in the Bemba case in the Central African Republic, the court allowed an acquittal on appeal, and in the Bosco Ntaganda case, the perpetrators convicted on 18 counts are on appeal three years after. Overall, legal developments have been sluggish and few prosecutions have emerged with CRSV as the focus.

International Court of Justice

Priya brings attention to the fact that CRSV cases tend to try individuals for crimes, overlooking state responsibility, apparatus, and governance structures.  A few exceptions have managed to look at broader concepts: in the Gambia vs. Myanmar case at the International Court of Justice, the court enforced that the state must provide access to all relevant evidence, prevent the destruction of evidence, and report back on the actions it undertakes to protect the Rohingya. Canada and the Netherlands’ joint statement highlighted the state’s responsibility to focus on CRSV and associated policies. Priya notes that ICJ cases appear to be starkly different from ICC ones, with the former addressing state responsibility, displaying a higher threshold for genocide findings, and indicating the gender component as the primary focus of the Genocide Convention.


Priya concluded the talk by restating that there remains continued impunity with regard to CRSV under domestic law; sexual and gender-based violence during and post-conflict remains the domain of peacekeepers and humanitarians; the role of international courts in tackling CRSV continues to grow; overall, there has been a growing involvement of women; and international law standards are gradually evolving based on case law and jurisprudence. 

Prajnya Gender Talks, September 2020 || Gender Equitable Boys: Engaging Boys and Men by Christina Furtado


September 2020

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar


Equal Community Foundation’s singular mission is to help raise every boy in India to be gender-equitable. The Foundation’s flagship program, Action for Equality (Pune), is a gender-transformative programme for boys that has not just made boys agents of feminist change but also provided 50 other organisations with the capacity to follow in ECF’s footsteps. 

Action for Equality has been active for 10 years across 20 low-income areas in Pune, where it engages 13-17-year-old boys over a year through a structured curriculum that draws on the work of gender and education giants. The material is contextualised to suit the local community, following which monitoring and evaluation tools capture its impact on the boys and the society.

Action for Equality – Ground Rules

The programme has a few firm cornerstones and principles. It believes that men and boys are not born violent and discriminatory but may be socialised into being so. It also believes that not all men may be a part of the problem but all men can be part of the solution. It trusts that men are capable of change – and want to change. It positions men as allies and not heroes or champions. It uses a participatory and not a saviour approach where participants bring their own opinions, beliefs and experiences to the table thus creating opportunities for reflection. It  keeps everyone’s needs in mind instead of pushing its own agenda, and constantly asks itself, “How do these boys want to be better people and how can we aid that?”

The programme also makes sure to provide a judgment-free safe space where the boys can unpack any thoughts and experiences. It builds and uses materials geared toward gender transformation in order to help participants identify, challenge and change gender norms. In this way, it complements other (more prolific) gender work done with women and girls. Its “theory of change” is that if boys are equipped with human and gender rights knowledge, critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills, then they can reflect on and change their own attitudes and behaviours and perhaps even influence change within their family, peer groups and communities. 

But how do you change boys?

A major question that arose amongst the audience was ”How does the programme get boys to sign up?” 

Programme associates look diligently for participants by visiting shops, community spaces, Anganwadis etc and then make trips to the boys’ homes to get consent. This part is tricky since they have to explain the full programme to the parents and get them on board. More often than not, there is backlash; parents argue that such “extracurriculars” are not as important as their boys’ education. Fathers often show reluctance when they discover their sons will learn to share in household responsibilities. But steady and consistent home visits and discussions eventually help overcome this stigma. The boys themselves influence their fathers to change. So while many fathers are unsupportive in the beginning, they begin to take more initiative later on. 

Another question that arises is “How does the programme communicate with boys about gender?” 

Action for Equality takes complex concepts and simplifies them into easily digestible parts. In the talk, Christina gives two examples of this “known-to-unknown” teaching methodology. 

In the first, boys learn the concept of human rights through a simple activity where they write down and draw basic rights they think everyone deserves to have. They are asked about which ones they are allowed to practice and which ones they are denied. By digging deeper and deeper, they eventually get to those whose rights are violated more. They also understand determinants such as lack of money or education, discrimination on the basis of caste, class, religion, and gender, and finally connect these concepts to their sisters’, mothers’ and peers’ experiences – where girls they know are pulled out of school or where they see their mothers are victims of violence. 

In the second example, Christina illustrates a simple drawing activity through which the boys are taught to distinguish between sex and gender. They learn that there is nothing in their biology that prevents them from cooking and likewise, girls don’t have anything in their biology that should keep them from education. 


The outcomes of these activities are measured both qualitatively and quantitatively. Within the first few weeks, the boys start sharing household responsibilities. Later on, some boys take it a notch further and become agents of change in their community; some participants exceeded expectations when they challenged menstrual taboos, challenged child marriages, and conducted street plays to raise awareness. 

Action for Equality also conducts a Gender Attitude Survey (based on the Gender Equality Male Scale (GEMS)) with questions on three scenarios; Scenario 1: “Violence and Intolerance,” Scenario 2: “Manhood and Masculinity,” and Scenario 3: “Gender Roles and Responsibilities” to monitor outcomes. The responses are coded and categorised as “inequitable,” “less equitable,” “moderately equitable,” and – the very rare due to the programme’s high standards – “equitable.” Usually, it is noticed that the boys are able to identify gender issues but unaware of how to challenge them. Their attitudes shift easily with regard to Scenario 3 but Scenarios 1 and 2 take longer to be transformed. 


Christina Furtado’s talk on the Equal Community Foundation’s work was eye-opening. Most work that happens for gender equitability happens with women and girls – Action for Equality is changing that narrative by doing work that is visibly changing the next generation of men, and breaking new ground on gender equitability.

Prajnya Gender Talks, August 2020 || Surveillance, COVID-19 & Women: How is surveillance being experienced by women at the margins during COVID-19? by Radhika Radhakrishnan


August 2020

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar


Leading the resurrected Prajnya Gender Talk Series was this talk on “Surveillance, COVID-19 and Women” conducted post the first COVID lockdown of 2020. Even during the first few months of COVID, chilling stories about women’s domestic safety during the pandemic gave cause for feminist researchers to consider the exact implications of the pandemic for women, especially those on the margins. 

With that in mind, we organised this talk with Radhika Radhakrishnan, a feminist researcher with a master’s degree in Women’s Studies from TISS, India. Radhika was at the time studying the intersections of gender, sexuality, technology and politics at the Internet Democracy Project (IDP) and was excited to share recent research findings about the lived experiences of a variety of marginalities with respect to surveillance during COVID-19. 

What is data?

Radhika began the roundtable by asking the audience a fundamental question “What do you think is the meaning of data?” 

Participants responded with their ideas: privacy, evidence, thoughts, research, that which is authentic, useful information, statistics etc. Radhika then went on to explain how the purpose of her research – and this roundtable – was to show that data was so much more, especially in the COVID-19 context. The genesis of this particular research was from the buzz in policy circles that described data purely as a resource and a public good. Commonly heard was the phrase “Data is the new oil.” But is that so? Does data even exist separately and autonomously from our own bodies? Radhika’s aim was to show why and how we need to reframe these dominant but inadequate notions of data.

Human beings take their bodies very seriously. We are cognizant of violations, infringements, and attacks when it comes to our bodies. Similarly, organisations and platforms take privacy violations seriously. But when there is a digital injury to our data or information, we take it far less seriously: this is because we view the data as separate from our bodies. Radhika’s research intended to investigate if this idea was true. 

Radhika began explaining her findings by defining surveillance as a process of controlling bodies through data. This is of critical importance to feminists since this offered a new dimension; historically, women’s bodies have been the objects of control – more so if one was a marginalised woman. This new and data-fied world would enable even more control over women’s bodies. It was now important to find out exactly how data is used to control women, and how it affects various intersections to give a complete view without erasing any identities.

The Methodology

This research started out as informal conversations with people about the difficulties they faced with respect to data. It later evolved to a more structured approach, where investigators conducted 25 interviews (both Hindi and English) over four months and listened to the candid storytelling of the experiences of various communities such as sex workers, transpersons, queer persons, Muslim women, Dalit women, gig workers, Asha workers, working-class people, women’s rights organisations and activists, activists working with Adivasis, and public health activists. 

The four key findings from the research are as follows:

  • Surveillance led to increased control over bodies during COVID-19.
  • Data proved to be a key factor in the way surveillance was being carried out and experienced.
  • Within the field, conversations were limited to privacy issues with data. This needs to transform into an acknowledgement that with data privacy violations, fundamental rights such as bodily integrity, dignity, and autonomy are at stake.
  • Those at the margins experience surveillance more, facing maximum costs and bearing the maximum brunt. 

The research categorised surveillance based on three spaces: 

  1. The private space (family)
  2. The public space (community)
  3. The state

It is important to look at all these spaces because of the differing power hierarchies within each space. Women at the margins are most likely to negotiate with this power to gain concessions that are otherwise not accessible to them. 

Space 1: The Private Space (Family)

During the pandemic, the outside was regarded as unsafe and the inside safe. This was not the case for women, where the household was a space for constant surveillance, invasion, and abuse. During this time, women had to live in close proximity to those they most feared and needed protection and privacy from. As the pandemic wore on, domestic violence rates skyrocketed. While the rest of the country bemoaned the overuse of technology and the associated data risks, for women, data presented itself as the only escape route. Women facing abuse needed phones, the internet, and data about crisis centres to call helplines. But in lower socio-economic households, the phone is often a shared resource and women were afraid to report crimes through the family phone. These dynamics of surveillance in the household and often overlooked. 

Source: Point of View, Internet Democracy Project

Similarly, LGBTQIA+ persons run the risk of being outed when family members surveil their phones. Sex workers often use two phones, a personal one used openly and a professional one that is often hidden and used in secret. They have to constantly worry about their families discovering the hidden-phone or have to deflect questions about their source of income. Their income and livelihood are also directly affected by their limited ability to use the phone. These are a few of the intersectional lenses through which we need to view data and tech in the household space. 

Source: Point of View, Internet Democracy Project

Increasing control and restrictions over women’s use of data and technology have had devastating consequences. Society has a persisting fear that if women have access to data and tech, they will be liberated from patriarchal constraints: they view data as an escape for women from traditional confines. Thus, we can trace a direct link between controlling women’s data and controlling women’s bodies, and thus we need to question the universal distinction between data and bodies. Data is not just a resource. It is not independent of our bodies. And it is not just a good for human consumption. Control over data is experienced intimately; it extends beyond issues of privacy and beyond current policies over data harm. It extends to sexual, bodily, and financial autonomy – embodied experiences which are currently not captured. 

Space 2: The Public Space (Community)

Surveillance of marginalities in the community shares commonalities and differences from surveillance within the household. Some examples include the surveillance and ostracization of transgender folks in Hyderabad during COVID, the effect of which was critical and life-threatening. Here, the stigma associated with COVID was transferred to the trans community. 

Source: Internet Democracy Project

This type of community surveillance extends over several axes and marginalities: Kashmiris, Muslims, single women, queer persons, domestic workers etc. In all cases, the dominant community surveils and harasses the marginalised community. In most communities, this type of surveillance was already happening, but data only made it easier. CCTVs in resident welfare associations monitor movement and community WhatsApp groups broadcast community COVID+ patient information. 

The government was an ally in the process on several occasions. The government of Punjab for example created the CovApp, which the public could use to report mass gatherings; this encouraged communities to surveil for state purposes. In the case of Rajasthan’s Raj COVID Info app, the state even released watchlists with the names and information of COVID+ patients to the masses. 

During the pandemic, surveillance took on a heinous form: data was in the hands of powerful stakeholders in the community (smartphone apps and CCTV footage were always used by the more privileged to gaze upon the marginalized) and in all these situations, there was no accountability when action was taken against the marginalized. When the entitled mobility of domestic workers, Kashmiri women, and Muslim women were restricted through the use of data, the distinction between data and bodies blurred. 

Space 3: The State

The power differences that exist between the Indian state and its citizens are harder to question because, according to the constitution, such power differences are to not exist. The state uses surveillance data to create hierarchies of citizens and thus all are not equal in the eyes of the state. Citizens should not have to negotiate with this type of unfounded power. 

During COVID, Aadhaar cards, identifiers that the state uses to surveil citizens, took on a larger role. People required them to access benefits such as rations, vaccinations etc. A transgender person would communicate their identity through their bodies, and not their Aadhaar cards. But the only way they could avail of benefits was if the state authenticated their identities through the (dysphoric) data on their Aadhaar cards.  Bodies have become so data-fied that we need data to prove our bodily identities. 

For minorities such as Muslims, police surveillance is not protective but dictative. Due to resources such as drones, police do not even need to be present to surveil these marginalities. These bodies are policed through data and technology, no longer requiring the previously present physical threshold to govern.

How do people respond to surveillance?

Data has proven to be a double-edged sword: as much as it is used for surveillance, it is also central to the resistance of surveillance. People have moved protests online; while this is convenient, it is also exclusionary since only those with access to tech can join the resistance. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that Foucaltian and Orwellian theories of “the one power entity” no longer apply since now, there are many powerful entities, exerting their control in multiple spaces. These new types and spaces and perspectives of power demand newer strategies of resistance. Technology has made surveillance ubiquitous, and the resulting asymmetry in power and knowledge lead to even lesser control for individuals in the margins, if at all they are aware of being monitored, that is. 

During the pandemic, surveillance was justified, making it harder to resist. In this post-pandemic world, surveillance continues and is even normalised, thus requiring new forms of resistance to battle it.


Surveillance is regarded as a useful tool for disease control but in the COVIDian context, data became central to surveillance and technology was used against people, thus acting as a tool of control than of liberation. The overwhelming switch to reliance on technology also creates a loss of the “care” element, since no people are involved anymore in the process. We need to reimagine data as being embodied and having intimate connections with our own physical existence. Only then will we respond to the manipulation of data with as much vehemence as we do to the manipulation of our bodies. Only then will rights and dignities remain guaranteed and intact, even during trying times like COVID-19.  


The first question in the Q&A that followed was regarding people’s difficulties with resistance to apps. Radhika responded with a few examples: In order to access the Delhi government’s COVID drives, the Aarogya Setu app was mandatory. Some citizens were able to resist this due to their negotiating power while others who wanted to couldn’t because of their marginalities. 

At the time, Muslim compliance with these procedures was especially monitored closely. What’s more, Muslims couldn’t refuse to participate in practices such as banging thalis, lighting lamps etc because they would be attacked. 

Asha workers, who are mostly lower-class women, were at the forefront of the COVID-awareness drives. They were compelled by the government to have the Aarogya Setu app on their phones which to led to several protests. Many of these workers did not have smartphones so were told to borrow phones and download the app. They had to go door-to-door to collect information for apps, and faced severe physical, sexual, and epistemic violence since people became scared that the government was at their doorstep. Muslims in particular heavily distrusted the government because they thought their data would be used for the NRC database. Thus, Asha workers were at the intersectionality of several margins (gender, caste, class). While it is the government that organises the surveillance, it is their workers and representatives that bear the brunt of the backlash. To make matters worse, it was discovered that the Asha workers weren’t being paid properly or given deserved promotions. 

The COVID migrant labourers’ crisis is still fresh in our memories. Migrant labourers from Jharkhand who were stuck in Surat were supposed to benefit from the Chief Minister’s special assistance scheme which was to facilitate their mobility. But this scheme came with the condition that the labourers must have bank accounts registered in Jharkhand to get the services. These workers had been in Surat for many years and only had Surat accounts, which proved useless at this time. Moreover, due to low digital literacy, the workers were unable to understand the error message that was displayed on the app. They each spent INR 4000-5000 to take trains and buses back home, where they opened new bank accounts to receive the scheme. But they noticed that even after several weeks no money was credited. This was because the app was designed in such a way that if registration failed, one could neither receive the money nor lodge a complaint about this issue. Thus, data acted against the interests and lived realities of people.

The next question in the Q&A was about public-private partnerships that enabled data surveillance. To answer this, Radhika explained the case of Uber requiring that drivers set up the Aarogya Setu apps on their phones while not requiring the same of passengers. In a similar fashion, Swiggy executives were mandated to have the app. But this did not benefit them at all since they had no information about whether the order was placed from a red zone or not. 

Another question was about feminist responsiveness to data and surveillance. Radhika’s reply was that feminists have seen tech as an institution of power for many decades and are vigorously studying how it affects women. The understanding, however, is tricky because people struggle to understand and tackle tech within use in civil spaces.

The final question was about Radhika’s stance on the anonymity that accompanies digital spaces. She stated that anonymity has both pros and cons: for a resistor or a victim, data anonymity may mean life or death, whereas, for perpetrators, anonymity may serve as a tool to wreak harassment.

Women’s History Roundtable November 2019: “Grandmother, Mother, Daughter: Writing Women’s Lives” by Dr. K. Kalpana


K. Kalpana is Associate Professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT Madras. Her research area is development studies with a focus on the interfaces between gender and the development experience. Her academic publications are in the intersecting domains of gender, poverty, microcredit, women’s work in the informal sector and collective action in solidarity economies. Her book ‘Women, Microfinance and the State in Neo-liberal India’ was published by Routledge in 2017.

This post is extracted from a story written by KV Navya for The New Indian Express titled ‘Paati’s story across five decades’ (published 12 November 2019). You can view the original story here.

‘When Kalpana Karunakaran, an associate professor at IIT Madras, was looking out for material to write a book on her mother Mythily Sivaraman, a trade union activist and leading organiser in the women’s movement in Tamil Nadu, she stumbled upon a wooden box in her home.

“The box was filled with my grandmother Pankajam’s writings. I have always known about her literary interests as I have read her essays, poems and short stories. But what I found in this box surprised me. It was her autobiographical writings that she had written from 1949 to 1995. I was struck by her vivid and evocative prose, in which she narrates the story of a girl child growing up in the second decade of the 20th Century amid salt pans in small towns along the Coromandel Coast in the Madras Presidency,” says Kalpana, while delivering a talk about her upcoming book at the Prajnya Women’s History Roundtable Series recently.

Kalpana realised this was a treasure trove and says her grandmother herself encouraged her to write the book. Mythily too, had written a book on her grandmother (and Pankajam’s mother), Subbalakshmi. The book, titled ‘Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive’, was published in 2006.

“My mother makes Subbalakshmi’s diary come alive, very creatively supplementing it with what she has gleaned from other sources about Subbalakshmi’s life. On the other hand, the subject of my book, Pankajam, speaks naturally from the heart and has a lot to say about herself, her life and her times. I rely on her autobiography. But I also juxtapose this with many other sources to present a full picture of her,” she says.

Talking about her grandmother, Kalpana said, “Pankajam had six years of schooling in Madras, receiving a double promotion twice. Her mother Subbalakshmi wanted to educate her to be a doctor. However, Pankajam was pulled out of school by her father when she was halfway through class 9 and got her married the year after, when she was 17.”

Yet Pankajam’s hunger for learning and knowledge was enormous. She read extensively on all themes including Science and Physics.“She kept up her diverse interests even as she raised her five children, managed her household and cared for her ailing parents. Hers was an ordinary life that was extraordinary in so many ways that I describe in the book. She raised me when I was a child and my love of books and reading and writing comes from her,” the author says.

Kalpana gathered the material for the book from Pankajam’s autobiographical writing, three short stories she had written that very closely mirror events in her own life, her essays and reflections on science, religion and the meaning of life, her letters and correspondences, her travel diaries as she was a global-trotter who travelled alone, interviews with Pankajam’s children and Kalpana’s recollections of conversations with her grandmother.

When asked how relevant she thinks books on family history are, she was quick to reply, “I find them fascinating. They are a rich source of social history and everyday lives of ordinary people — a vital departure from much of our usual focus on big events — wars, conflicts, dynasties and so on. This is also the reason that my grandmother gives for wanting to write about her life.”

The book is likely to be released by the end of next year.’

Women’s History Roundtable August 2019: “Handmaidens of God or Common Prostitutes: Perspectivising the Devadasi Tradition in India” by Professor V. Bharathi Harishankar


V. Bharathi Harishankar is Professor and Head, Department of Women Studies, University of Madras. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, gender studies, translation, web based pedagogy and open educational resources. She has successfully completed projects on OER, Devadasi System and Impact of CSR on women empowerment. She is currently engaged in Erasmus Plus project.

Professor Harishankar presented the key findings of a report on the Devadasi system submitted to the National Commission for Women (NCW), based on a study conducted in 2015-2016 for which she was the principal investigator. She began by highlighting the inherent ambiguity in the term ‘Devadasi’ itself (as the title of her talk indicates), which literally translates to ‘Handmaiden of God’, but is now synonymous with prostitution. She outlined the systemic exploitation that Devadasis are subject to, extending beyond the physical or sexual to encompass cultural, social economic and religious aspects as well.

Professor Harishankar explained the historical origins of the Devadasi system, citing scriptural evidence of its ancient roots and temple inscriptions across the subcontinent. She highlighted the shift from the ‘dedication’ of girls and women to their ‘appointment’ around the 8thcentury, signalling their occupational status. Their elevated social position allowed them to learn how to read and write, excel in the arts, buy property, and adopt children and grant them inheritance rights, setting them apart from other women at that historical juncture. Their venerated status could also be seen in a number of practices. When a Devadasi died, for example, the sanctum sanctorum of her temple was closed to visitors for three days, as the gods were said to be in mourning, indicating the respect Devadasis were afforded. During the Chola era, there were 400 devadasis who worked in service of the temple, and were seen as being on an equal footing with male ministers of the court. Their high social standing derived in part from their being outside the caste system, giving them the status of an occupational caste group akin to a guild. Moreover, Professor Harishankar asserted that prostitution had never been the primary occupation of Devadasis before the 19thcentury. Some temples had up to seven categories of Devadasis, each of whom performed different roles within that socio-religious space.

Over time, however, Devadasis were absorbed into the traditional caste system, giving them a fixed caste status that eventually lowered their social positioning. In addition, while the Devadasi system had begun to decline in North India from the time of the Mughal invasion, it continued to flourish in South India until the advent of colonialism, when Devadasis begun to be treated as immoral ‘dancing girls’, with their public performances subsequently banned. This was followed by calls for a complete eradication of the system from Indian social reformers, including Devadasis themselves.

While the goal of these reforms was to prevent sexual exploitation, they diminished the artistry of the Devadasis as well, with their dancing seen as illicit. This view persisted, despite Devadasis generally covering their entire bodies during performances, and specialising in restrained movements with a focus on abhinayaor facial expressions. Compositions by devadasis were also seen as obscene, even while male, upper-caste composers’ own sexually-charged compositions, at times inspired by certain Devadasis themselves, were considered acceptable. Professor Harishankar noted that the Devadasi’s body, rather than being inscribed as an artistic body, was objectified and reduced to a corporeal body alone; simultaneously, upper-caste women began to perform a more sanitised form of Bharatanatyam in much greater numbers. She added that these socio-cultural shifts resulted in an erasure of the ‘handmaiden of God’ aspect of the Devadasi system from public memory, and of their previous status as accomplished women who entertained visitors.

Professor Harishankar then spoke about the study she was invited to conduct by the NCW. She noted that the system has moved from one of respect for Devadasis to one of exploitation of young women and girls, as well as transgender people. She conducted her research in areas of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Maharashtra where the system is still prevalent (although Devadasis and the Devadasi system are known by a number of different local names). After providing an overview of the methodology adopted for the study, she highlighted the terrible conditions of most Devadasis today, who are forced into the system at an early age by their families, largely due to poverty, and who rely on prostitution and begging as their main sources of income. She also outlined the rampant corruption and lack of awareness across stakeholder institutions, including the police, judiciary, government departments, NGOs and the education system, that impeded reforms to the system.

In addition to this lack of awareness, rescue and rehabilitation efforts were also hindered by the dearth of family support that many Devadasis faced, preventing reintegration into their families. Despite the existence of numerous laws and rehabilitation schemes specifically addressing Devadasis and the Devadasi system, progress was far from adequate. She noted that NGOs’ efforts were often ill-conceived; occupational training, for example, focussed on skills such as basket weaving or tailoring, which earned them significantly less than prostitution. Moreover, these attempts at rehabilitation did not address the root cause of the persistence of the system in its current form, such as family poverty or caste-based oppression. The system is also intricately linked with the idea of dedication, even today, and is thus seen by Devadasis themselves as being beyond an occupational categorisation. As a result, Devadasis often fail to demand or expect employment rights associated with sex work, making them even more vulnerable to exploitation. Professor Harishankar also outlined the challenges faced by the children of Devadasis, such as stigmatisation within the education system and a lack of opportunities for social mobility.

In her conclusion, Professor Harishankar reiterated that despite the origins of the system, Devadasis are seen primarily as prostitutes today. She noted the loss of their art forms that accompanied efforts to eliminate sex work, and highlighted that attempts at reform had systematically erased Devadasis’ agency while inscribing their bodies with the narrowly-defined identity of ‘prostitute’, giving them few options outside of this exploitative system. She called for greater regulation of NGOs and other institutions tasked with overseeing the system, as well as education campaigns and awareness-building. She also suggested that a return to the artistic elements of the system and intensive training in traditional art forms might provide a better career path than those currently being offered by support groups.


Rapporteur: S. Shakthi

Women’s History Roundtable February 2019: “What’s Love Got To Do With It? Emotional Labour, Call Centre Work, and Romantic Love” by Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy


Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Her new book “1-800-Worlds: The Making of the Indian Call Centre Economy” published by OUP in 2018 chronicles the labour practices, life-worlds, and media atmospheres of Indian call centre workers, and locates them within the socio-political context of the new Indian middle classes.


Dr. Krishnamurthy presented her work at the February edition of Prajyna’s Women’ History Roundtable. She began by describing the difficulties of entering the space of the Call Centre as a researcher and an outsider. At first, she approached the question through the lens of a dichotomy in terms of gender perspectives, examining the different reasons why women and men take on night shifts. She noted that this was particularly relevant given that most call centre employees come from middle-class backgrounds, where discussions about female respectability often include fears about pre-marital liaisons, leading to aborted pregnancies, etc. Given that these discussions are still taking place in the face of increasing globalisation, Dr. Krishnamurthy wanted to examine the place of global capitalism in forcing middle-class women away from institutions of higher education and influencing them to enter into the exploitative labour regime of a call centre, thus changing their life cycles. At first, she tried to interact with call centre employees as a researcher while doing her field work. She noted that she found it difficult to penetrate the wall of secrecy around events within the call centre. So she decided to suspend her fieldwork and began to apply for jobs in call centres. She found that she was not eligible for any of the jobs, being older than the age limit of 26 years. A friend suggested that she should apply to be a call centre American accent trainer instead, and with some help from an Indo-American friend, she was able to master the required accent. This allowed her to get a job at a call centre, and her observations on gender, capital, and globalisation in the call centre became the theme of her research, constituting her first book.


Dr. Krishnamurthy explained that each new employee goes through a process of acclimatisation, adjusting to the artificial environment of the call centre that prioritises “feeling good” and discourages employees, managers and others who inhabit the space from feeling otherwise through its training practices. The space of the call centre is created on the basis on flexible capital and flexible labour (i.e. interchangeable labour). Most new entrants therefore slowly come to accept flexible labour as their natural way of life. This acceptance is helped along by the repetitive nature of the work – there is no “buzz” or challenge in the actual work, but most employees seem to find it addictive and have difficulty transitioning to a more daytime-oriented routine of work. This artificial environment is created in part by enforcing arbitrary tea and lunch breaks during the night – at a time when it is not really natural for us to eat. This sort of reprogramming of the body clock encourages employees to embrace the artificial environment and schedule.


Dr. Krishnamurthy’s research was particularly focussed on the experience of women employees, in an environment where gender plays a major role in the constitution of the workspace. Women are encouraged to leave at the age of 22, but men often stay on for longer. This creates a highly gendered environment, as age and gender differences create power hierarchies. Young women (aged 18-21 years) make up the bulk of the female population in call centres, and are enticed by visions of upward mobility as their salaries can be put towards EMIs as they work towards building a different life for their families. If their parents are reluctant to permit them to work at call centres, the parent too receive counselling pointing out that this job offer is an opportunity for a middle class family to access social and economic progress and better their situation.


All these tactics work towards putting a high burden on young women. Apart from the obvious difficulties of being tasked with improving the lives of their parents and family, they often have difficulty finding accommodation due to the unconventional working working hours required by their jobs. In addition, the creation of this artificial “feel-good” environment encourages women to aspire to call centre jobs rather than college degrees, leading to a complete breakdown in the education system – in more ways than one. It is not just their formal education that suffers from a lack of college education, but call centres also take the place of colleges as a “community” which teaches young women how to socialise, especially with the opposite gender.


This replacement of the college by the call centre often means that romantic encounters in the workplace become a part of the “desiring complex” that is built within the call centre – the job itself is advertised as being desirable, so it is natural that romantic desire becomes entangled with job-related desire. This desire complex is reinforced in every aspect of the job – recruitment, retainment, and even exit interviews. Since the cost of hiring and training a new employee is high, the employer goes to great lengths to try an retain young women in call centre jobs during the exit interview. Especially if the employee is a “high performer”, the management often makes it difficult to allow her to move out of the job by offering high incentives to stay.

Dr. Krishnamurthy’s presentation was followed by a lively discussion about the status of employees, particularly the relations between male and female employees, and the emotions of the women in call centres towards their colleagues and supervisors.

Notes for this Roundtable were taken by Sudaroli Ramasamy