Capable Women, Incapable States: Negotiating Violence and Rights in India

ISBN : 9780190881900

Poulami Roychowdhury
256 Pages
156 x 235 mm
Pub date
Dec 2020
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  • Uses long-term ethnography and interview data with survivors, activists, and law enforcement personnel
  • Advances a unique theory of gender and governance in developing, postcolonial democracies
  • Highlights the extra-legal consequences of legal claims
  • Provides a normative argument for legal rights in a context of legal failure

In recent decades, the issue of gender-based violence has become heavily politicized in India. Yet, Indian law enforcement personnel continue to be biased against women and overburdened. In Capable Women, Incapable States, Poulami Roychowdhury asks how women claim rights within these conditions. Through long term ethnography, she provides an in-depth lens on rights negotiations in the world's largest democracy, detailing their social and political effects. Roychowdhury finds that women interact with the law not by following legal procedure or abiding by the rules, but by deploying collective threats and doing the work of the state themselves. And they behave this way because law enforcement personnel do not protect women from harm but do allow women to take the law into their own hands.These negotiations do not enhance legal enforcement. Instead, they create a space where capable women can extract concessions outside the law, all while shouldering a new burden of labor and risk. A unique theory of gender inequality and governance, Capable Women, Incapable States forces us to rethink the effects of rights activism across large parts of the world where political mobilization confronts negligent criminal justice systems.


List of Terms

Section I Opening
Chapter I Introduction 
Chapter II Stalled

Sections II Negotiations
Chapter III Running a Family
Chapter IV The Business of Mediation
Chapter V Incentivizing the Law
Chapter VI States of Disempowerment
Chapter VII Incorporating Women

Section III Citizens
Chapter VIII Running a Case
Chapter IX Aspirational-Strategic Subjects
Chapter X Illicit Justice
Chapter XI The Allure and Costs of Capability
Chapter XII Conclusion

Section IV Appendices 
Appendix A Methodological Discussion
Appendix B Key Legal Reforms
Appendix C First Information Report
Appendix D Domestic Incident Report


About the author: 

Poulami Roychowdhury is Assistant Professor of Sociology at McGill University. Her research examines the relationship between politics, law, and social inequality, with a focus on the global south. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, the American Institute for Indian Studies, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Fonds de Recherche du Québec.

"Capable Women, Incapable States meticulously takes you through the struggles of domestic violence victims as they seek redress from a weak and low capacity Indian state, learning to play the system, leverage allies, make the most of the accommodations, and in the process build their capabilities as citizens. Roychowdhury weaves together a narrative of women's situated agency that is as empirically rich and compelling as it is theoretically powerful. For anyone who cares about gender justice, how the law works and how rights have to be seized to make them work, this is the book for you." -Patrick Heller, Lyn Crost Professor of Social Sciences, Brown University
"Roychowdhury has authored one of the most original, richly-documented works on gender and states to appear in a long time. Her work brilliantly examines how civil society actors are left to struggle among themselves, leaving state officials 'off the hook.' This exposes those who suffer abuse to deal with risk on their own or, fascinatingly, to activate their ties to grassroots organizations, which may carry out what might otherwise be state functions, such as punishing domestic abusers. Roychowdhury's subtle analysis of relationships among state officials at all levels of government and various civil society groups puts her work at the forefront of scholarship on states--their capacities, their boundaries with the 'private,' and potentials for transformation. Her work should inaugurate a new wave of scholarship on politics in the broad range of cases in which state capacities cannot be taken for granted." -Ann Shola Orloff, Northwestern University
"How does Amartya Sen's notion of 'capabilities' play out on the ground, as ordinary women negotiate the law, the state, the police and the family in contexts of domestic violence? Roychowdhury's deep and thorough research in Bengal reveals the limitations as well as the possibilities of engaging with questions of capabilities in relation to women's rights and empowerment, and the masculinities of the law and the state in India. This is an illuminating and important contribution to the study of gender and violence and post-development thought." -Inderpal Grewal, Professor Emerita, Yale University

"Poignant, insightful, surprising and analytical, Poulami Roychowdhury's book beautifully illuminates how, far from being an issue within a home, domestic violence implicates the world in which homes are embedded: neighborhoods, fictive kin, local political interests, and multiple levels of the state. It shows how, in highly unequal conditions, survivors of domestic violence must transform themselves into capable women rather than victims in order to claim their rights. In so doing, the survivors take on the work of very state which continues to fail them." -Raka Ray, Dean of the Division of Social Sciences, and Professor of Sociology and South Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley

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