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The GendV Project

Urban Transformation and Gendered Violence in India and South Africa

With a lively and flexible format—we do not follow a specific set of readings but rather decide what to read during our sessions—the Infrastructures of Gendered Violence (IGV) reading group at the Department of Sociology has allowed us to think about different frameworks and entry points to discuss the complexities of violence against women and girls (VAWG) and gender-based violence (GBV). Our discussions have spanned from the concept of patriarchal bargain (Kandiyoti, 1988) and sociological theories of VAWG (Walby 2013, 2014) to social reproduction theory (Bhattacharya ed., 2019), care economies (Gutiérrez Garza, 2018), black feminisms (hooks, [1984] 2015; Hill Collins 2000; Williams Crenshaw et al. eds, 2019), methodological questions around conducting research online (Hine 2015), the ethics of conducting violence on and around violence (Kristalli 2019), and gender and the nation (Yuval-Davis, 1997; McClintock 1991).


How did the reading group respond to and how did it help you/us make sense of the shifting nature of GBV within a context characterised by COVID-19, dramatic economic uncertainty and Black Lives Matter amongst other things? 



Since our very first meeting at Iris Cafe in Newnham College, right up until now, as we have metamorphosed into tiny grids on our laptop screens, our feminist curiosities and personal histories have taken refuge in the IGV reading group meetings. As a group that came together before the spread of the global pandemic, we continue to negotiate and grapple with the current moment and the multiple uncertainties therein and thereof. 

Weeks after our first meeting, for instance, as we began to revisit formulations of patriarchal bargains and gendered labour burdens drawing largely from our own entry points into academia- as activist, journalist, practitioner, among others- history was in the (un)making in the world outside. Global markets began to crash, borders were closing, healthcare and state infrastructures started to crumble. At the same time, there were reports of cases of gender-based violence increasing, female labour force participation plummeting, and women’s care and unpaid labour burdens shooting up. In the Global North, the Black Lives Matter movement began to gather steam. Through massive organised marches, die-ins and social media protests, feminist activists continued to reinforce the need to hear Black women’s particular experiences of brutality and violence in the hands of the racist, encasted, patriarchal state. Back home in India, the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) were growing louder, and women in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, led a sit-in peaceful protest for a record 101 days. Similar movements, led by women and students, were springing up in other parts of the country. 

With this extraordinary moment/movement as our point of departure, the IGV group has lent us the opportunity to converse and reflect on the texts and our times more critically and passionately. 



We spoke at length about the reported increase of violence against women and girls in the early stages of the pandemic and grappled with the questions that such a dramatic spike in abuse exposed. The conditions of lockdown around the world effectively revealed the unsustainable and highly unequal nature of localised and global care arrangements. With the vast majority of care work still considered a woman’s responsibility, women are facing an extraordinary burden across the world to provide education for children, sustain a comfortable and healthy home environment, support family and friends who might be ill or simply struggling with the impact of lockdown. A perceived failure to perform these highly unequal, gendered duties can trigger violence by a male partner or family member. At the same time, increased economic instability affecting marginalised women and girls exposes them to exploitation and violence, as early reports from women engaged in sex work demonstrated (Kimani et al. 2020). Fundamentally, however, the current situation can be interpreted as the extreme manifestation, or perhaps simply the exposure, of a pre-existing crisis of care and social reproduction engendered by a capitalist system that embraces nominal equality while entrenching deep material inequalities through the externalisation and privatisation of care (Fraser 2017). Violence is a characteristic of most crises and this crisis of care is not likely to be an exception to the rule.

Concerningly, research also shows that times of crisis can be sites for the re-entrenchment of patriarchal norms (Kandiyoti 1988). As we head into times of unprecedented instability, the role of the State and other patriarchal institutions in reinforcing oppressive gender norms as a strategy to maintain social control, naturalise hierarchical and unequal power structures and ‘placate’ disenfranchised men (Davis 1984; hooks 2015; Yuval-Davis 1997) cannot be ignored. Black feminist scholars encourage us to consider the connections between State-sanctioned and family, domestic or intimate violence against women and girls of colour, exploding the boundaries between the private and the public sphere and firmly situating gendered oppression across all domains of women’s lives (Bograd 1999; Combahee River Collective 1979; Davis 1981).



Worries about the increase of GBV/VAWG during lockdown grew together with the global pandemic. Referred to as ‘the shadow pandemic’ (UN WOMEN), ‘the invisible pandemic’ (OXFAM), amongst others, domestic violence escalated in particular contexts. In many cases, women were confined to their aggressors. Being restricted from having contact with their close communities left them with no mechanisms to escape or file complaints.

The response from transnational feminist organisations working on this matter was overwhelming. A plethora of webinars, research papers, policy reports are being produced since March 2020. The vast majority agree that rather than facing a ‘new’ situation of GBV/VAWG, what COVID-19 revealed was a deeply entrenched systemic problem, as Ilaria brilliantly sustained. Our reading group became a space to think about the intersectional consequences of crises through different lenses whilst acknowledging the complexities of a disastrous capitalist model which has massively deepened inequalities across the globe (Klein, 2019). 

The latter was heightened with the Black Lives Matter movement. As a result, we engaged with black feminisms as a way to better understand how contextually dependent racial systems of oppression are. Coming from different backgrounds and disciplines enriched our conversations, as I previously mentioned. 

In a way, what these discussions made visible was not just the epistemological cracks of thinking about violence through these different perspectives but also exposed the light filtered through these fissures. I conceive this light to be both the epistemological convergences and divergences as our thoughts resonate with each other. The light works as a sort of epistemic bridge, a way to move forward. As Leonard Cohen famously wrote:  ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in’.


Let’s talk about what drew us to the Infrastructures of Gendered Violence (IGV) reading group in the first place and how this space resonated with our personal experiences and research interests…



In my current PhD dissertation, I am looking at how statistical data on fem(in)icide, often defined as the ‘gender-related killing of women and girls’, is being globally quantified, compared and contested with the use of digital technologies. Doing academic research on GBV/VAWG is challenging. I often find myself embedded in a sort of affective dissonance.  By this I mean the toll of researching the pain of others from ‘afar’, mediated by screens and internet bandwidth. The pandemic exacerbated this to a greater extent. Due to this reason—and one of the key lessons feminism has taught me—is the need to (re)create communities with whom I can share collective experiences, offer alternative ways of knowing and build a compassionate ethics of care with one another. This is the main reason why I searched for other scholars and colleagues working with, reflecting on and puzzled by similar issues here in Cambridge. The IGV reading group has become that space and served that purpose.



A question that I bring to each reading and each session of the reading group is how a particular theoretical perspective, or a new insight, informs mobilisation and action against VAWG. In other words, what are the political implications of a particular standpoint on the nature of gender-based violence, its definition, its relationship with other forms of violence or oppression, its root causes? White feminist perspectives which isolate gender inequality from all other forms of discrimination have been shown to exclude women and girls belonging to minoritised groups from service provision and public discourse (Collins 2015; Crenshaw 1991; Sokoloff and Dupont 2005). At the same time, anti-feminist backlashes in recent years have paradoxically leveraged intersectional and queer theory to argue against dedicated services for women, trans and non-binary survivors of violence (Bassel and Emejulu 2017; May 2015). Theory is not neutral, and the IGV reading group has allowed me to challenge my own limitations in how I understand, and therefore act upon, GBV and, at the same time, reveal gaps in how the discipline of sociology engages with gender and violence, for example by ignoring the material dimensions of violence in favour of its discursive manifestations (Hearn 2013). 



Anchored at the intersections of marriage migration and girlhood studies, my doctoral research proposes to make visible the labour and experiences of adolescent girls in the context of a climate crisis. As a study that engages with several recent and growing conversations in feminist scholarship, it was very crucial for me to find a space in Cambridge, where I could read, reflect, challenge, and grow. Moreover, having spent much of my academic and professional career on the ‘field’ and reporting from the ground, it became even more crucial to engage with inter-disciplinary texts and conversations. 

Standing at the confluence of my interests and identities, the IGV reading group gradually became the link that has connected my own personal experiences, on the ‘field’ and at home, with broader, theoretical frameworks spanning different geographies and contexts. It has helped me to understand better and situate the individual, everyday exchanges within the wider structures and processes of the global flow of capital and historical marginalisation of communities. 


Some concluding thoughts

The IGV reading group has been a fantastic space of exchange and reflection over the past few months, where we have been able to engage, as a group, with a range of both personal and theoretical perspectives, more often than not leaving with more questions than when we arrived. The dialogical nature of this group has been critical to its success, allowing both personal experiences and interactions with texts to guide the reflection and pushing each of us to think more deeply and more critically at our research, our work and our understanding of gender-based violence. We look forward to many more discussions. 


By Reetika Revathy SubramanianIlaria Michelis and Saide Mobayed

PhD researchers at the University of Cambridge

7th October 2020


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