Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Taking Action: The Desiring Subjects of Neoliberal Feminism in India

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Taking Action: The Desiring Subjects of Neoliberal Feminism in India

Article excerpt

Taking Action: The Desiring Subjects of Neoliberal Feminism in India

In December 2012, a 23-year-old student, Jyoti Singh Pandey, and her male friend were on their way home from watching a movie in India's capital city New Delhi, when they both were brutally attacked on the bus they were riding. Pandey was gang-raped and later died from injuries sustained during it, and her companion was severely beaten. This incident caused widespread national protests, and focused media attention on public sexual violence in India. Thousands of protestors in different parts of the country expressed their anger over the lack of safety for women in public spaces and their disapproval over state apathy in handling cases of violence against women (Burke, 2012). International media sustained coverage of the incident and represented Pandey as "professionally successful and consumer-oriented," symbolizing new India "in a way that fits easily into a growing consumer-oriented, neoliberal economy" (Roychowdhury, 2013).

Feminist commentators have marked the stark contrast between the widespread public mourning at Jyoti Singh Pandey's death with another recent death--the passing, in 2015, of Suzette Jordan three years after she was raped (Agnes, 2015). Jordan was also a middle class woman who was gang-raped following an evening of leisure after she left a pub in Kolkata's Park Street. Feminist lawyer Flavia Agnes remarks on the difference between public reception of the two women's cases: Jyothi Singh was christened "Nirbhaya" ("Fearless") by media and created as an "icon," India's rape laws were reframed following her death, government schemes were instituted, marches taken out, and public vigils held (Agnes, 2015). Suzette Jordan, on the other hand, had her soiled panties held up on a stick at her trial, and faced a series of humiliations while fighting her legal battle (Roy, 2015). Flavia Agnes analyzes the divergent responses to these two incidents, suggesting, "We hate those who survive to tell their tales of their violations (2)" (2015). The figure of the middle class woman circulating around the city in the context of leisure (as both women were) is a contentious one, easily blamed for violence inflicted upon her, brutalized for protesting it (3) and shamed for not conforming to public expectations of propriety for middle class women in India.

This paper analyzes recent feminist interventions in India that center the figure of the middle class woman, her desires, practices, and aspirations, as the subject of their feminism. Jyoti Singh and Suzette Jordan represent gendered consumption--and its consequences--amongst India's middle class (4). The body of the middle class woman that symbolized Indian tradition during the nationalist struggle now represents the consumer-citizen guiding economic transformations initiated in the 1990s (Lukose, 2009). In this vein, Pandey's representation in media is of a "new kind of 'Third World woman'" whose demands for physical and sexual rights are tied to the yoke of capitalist development as an agentive middle class actor (Roychowdhury, 2015, p. 285). Krupa Shandilya's analysis of the media representations in the New Delhi rape case points to the construction of Pandey as "everywoman," the normative Hindu, middle class, upper-caste woman as the de facto subject of Indian feminism (Shandilya, 2015).

India's economic reforms in the 1990s included a rapid opening up of international trade, the loosening of bureaucratic regulations and a growth in private businesses creating consumptionled growth dominated by emerging middle classes (Menon & Nigam, 2007). They were also undertaken in the spirit of neoliberalism and it is the connection between the spirit of neoliberalism and an emergent feminism that is the subject of this paper. As an economic and political project, neoliberalism is understood widely as:

... a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade (Harvey, 2007, p. …

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