Negotiating discourses of womanhood in India : an ethnographic study of young women in a Chennai hostel

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Doctor of Philosophy
University of Canterbury
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Varghese, Josephine

There is a burgeoning body of literature tracing the changes that ensued India’s process of economic liberalization in the last decade of the 20th century. Scholars have identified an ongoing re-conceptualization of womanhood happening parallel to the changing identity of India as a nation. This ‘new Indian woman’ is positioned somewhat ambiguously between competing discourses of ‘tradition’ vs ‘modernity’; ‘Indian’ vs ‘Western’; ‘individual’ vs ‘community’; ‘global’ vs ‘local’. Young women, often expected to be the authentic bearers of culture, are at the centre of the tensions unfolding between these competing discourses. Many postcolonial feminist scholars argue that this positioning of Indian women between oppositional discourses is reminiscent of colonial discourses, and are an effect of processes which have been termed as ‘recolonization’.

In this thesis, I employ a feminist poststructuralist approach to study the perspectives and experiences of young migrant women living in a hostel in Chennai as they navigate competing discourses on womanhood in neoliberal India. Based on 10 months of ethnographic fieldwork done across two stages, this thesis delves on the experiences of young women, particularly around four themes of contemporary significance, namely safety and street harassment; dowry; relationships, sex and marriage; and practices and ideals of beauty. Rather than positioning women with respect to binaristic categories such as traditional vs modern this thesis strives to situate women within the complexities and contradictions of their daily lives.

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