Skip to main content

gendered discipline in globalising India


Discrimination and violence against women in India often tend to be discussed, framed and explained in cultural terms alone. It is a commonplace assumption that Indian cultural norms are responsible for women’s oppression in India and that India’s moves to open up the economy to globalisation will usher in modernity and empower women. Another similar assumption is that gendered violence and patriarchal oppression are produced and located primarily in the (Indian traditional) family and community, and that women’s entry into the globalised workforce will empower and help them confront and overcome such violence and oppression. This paper attempts to challenge this false binary between ‘family/community/tradition/culture’ and ‘modern political economy’. It looks at the methods used across various sites—household/family, college/university and factory—to subject women’s labour and sexuality to a regime of surveillance and gendered discipline. It also looks at the ways in which this regime is disrupted and challenged repeatedly by women’s protests.


The last two decades have witnessed the growth of the narrative of a globalising India. Government policy, media construction and the corporate world have contributed to the narrative, upholding it as a catalyst of social and economic change. Embedded within this narrative is the espousal of women’s empowerment. The suggestion is that globalisation will bring a host of economic opportunities which will involve women, leading to their economic and social empowerment. However, behind this narrative lies a complex amalgam of corporate practices that deploy deeply entrenched social and cultural attitudes towards women’s autonomy to galvanise underpaid women’s labour, while simultaneously the state supports organisations and policies that justify surveillance of and violence against women in the name of religious identity and cultural practice. This paper is an attempt to unpack the assumption that violence against women is located merely in the family and that economic opportunity in the shape of membership of a globalised workforce is a path towards women’s freedom from violence and oppression. This paper will map the nature of surveillance within the family as more than a question of cultural practices and norms, and understand these in terms of the structuring of women’s labour within the family, examining how this in turn is a model exploited by the conservative political establishment and manufacturing industries to pre-empt the possibility of labour organisation. It will closely examine the question of women’s autonomy in educational institutions and more specifically in the workplace to highlight the challenges such autonomy presents to established practices of gendered exploitation of labour. Finally, the apparent paradox of the support of the Indian government, which champions the cause of globalised ‘development’, for outfits that attack women’s autonomy, will also be unpacked as being a false binary, to demonstrate how there is great compatibility between the discourses of disciplining and surveillance of women, and of the curbing of their autonomy, and those of globalisation.

domestic surveillance and violence

Surveillance and tight control over social and sexual conduct is something Indian women, including teenage girls and adult women, experience as a daily reality inside homes across boundaries of class, caste and religion (Subaiya and Vanneman, 2016; IIPS and ICF, 2017).Footnote 1 Unmarried teenage girls are obsessively surveilled for signs of forbidden romantic and sexual relationships, especially across caste and faith boundaries. Young married women are, likewise, subjected to a regime of relentless surveillance in their in-laws’ homes. It is common for young newly married women to be prevented by in-laws from communicating with their parents or friends and subjected to humiliations and harassment.

We must note the relationship between such familial regimes of gendered surveillance and extraction of women’s labour and those of capitalism (Mody, 2008; Chowdhry, 2011). Kum Kum Sangari (2015, pp. 37–41) discusses how distance marriageFootnote 2 ‘uproots young women, maximizes the extraction of female domestic labour and restricts the entry of women into wage labour’ and ‘shrinks the already often limited access to public-political institutions’. She argues that distance marriage is now spreading to regions in southern India where it had little customary precedent, and that where physical distance cannot be achieved by marriage, similar conditions are ‘simulated through isolation and restrictions on mobility (limiting or curtailing contact between the bride and her family, friends and neighbours)’ (ibid., p. 39). She writes that in the case of wife purchase/daughter sale, purchased wives tend to go from poorer states to more affluent ones: ‘a correlate of the cheap labour that migrates from poorer to richer regions’ (ibid., p. 40). Sangari challenges the notion that exogamy/distance marriage should be understood only in terms of culture or tradition, suggesting instead that the social relations of distance marriage and those of migrant labour are analogous to each other and that familial patriarchal arrangements and neoliberal labour regimes accommodate each other mutually.

Domestic violence and, more specifically, coercive violence against women’s autonomy, has been documented by successive National Family Health Survey (NFHS) findings.Footnote 3 The NFHS 201516 (NFHS-4) (IIPS and ICF, 2017) found that freedom of movement is severely curtailed for a large proportion of women: only 41 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 years of age are allowed to go alone to the market, the health centre and outside the community (see Table 15.13 in IIPS and ICF, 2017). The NFHS-4 data on reasons offered by men and women in support of domestic violence also indicates how the notion that husbands are entitled to expect wives to respect in-laws, perform domestic services and seek permission to go out of the house helps legitimise domestic violence: a significant proportion of women and men agree that a husband is justified in beating his wife if she shows disrespect for in-laws (37 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively), neglects the house or children (33 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively) and/or goes out without telling him (26 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively) (see Tables 15.14.1 and 15.14.2 in IIPS and ICF, 2017).

It is significant that the NFHS-4 data does not find significant variation amongst different social groups regarding women’s freedom of movement; the findings also contradict the expectation that women from Dalit or Adivasi backgrounds enjoy greater freedom of movement than women of dominant castes. The percentage of women between the ages of 15 and 49 years of age who are allowed to go to all three places alone is 44.1 for ‘Other’ Castes, 41.1 for Scheduled Castes (Dalits), 40.2 for Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) and 38.2 for Other Backward Classes (OBC).

The India Human Development Survey (IHDS) (Desai et al., 2010, 2015), interviewing the same set of women between the ages of 15 and 49 years from 2004 to 2005 and from 2011 to 2012 and thus studying long-term changes in the empowerment process in the same individual women, also confirms severe restrictions on women’s autonomy and mobility (Subaiya and Vanneman, 2016). While the NFHS-4 does not distinguish between women being able to go out alone and women having to seek permission to go out, the IHDS does make this distinction, and from their analysis of the IHDS data, Lekha Subaiya and Reeve Vanneman observe:

Better educated women make more decisions in the household and can go to more places on their own; however, there is less evidence that they can go without asking for permission from someone in the household. Similarly, women working for pay or working in a family business can make more household decisions and can go to more places on their own, but again there is no significant relationship with whether they can go out without taking permission to do so. (ibid., p. 13)

Although IHDS findings diverge from the NFHS-4 regarding variations between social categories, Subaiya and Vanneman (ibid., p. 14) also report that variations in domestic violence against women between social groups are small with ‘surprisingly few differences’ noted between them. In addition, ‘as might be expected’, Subaiya and Vanneman’s analysis finds that Dalit and OBC women enjoy more freedom of movement, but ‘surprisingly, this freedom of movement does not extend to Adivasi women. There are no measurable differences between Hindu, Muslim, and minority religion women; and caste differences are not found in the case of the more private household empowerment measures of decision-making and the woman’s having to ask permission to leave the house’ (ibid., p 14).

Rape statistics also reveal a high level of disguised violence against women’s autonomy. A study by an English daily, The Hindu, found that nearly 40 per cent of ‘what is classified as rape (in Delhi police files)’ is parental criminalisation of consensual sexual relationships, usually regarding inter-caste and inter-religious couples (Rukmini, 2014). In these cases, women are victims not of rape but of coercion and violence by parents, families and communities. This violence remains an open secret in which the police are complicit; commonly, such violence now enjoys political sanction and encouragement. There are several documented instances of organised violence against interfaith relationships by outfits like the Hindu Yuva Vahini and Bajrang Dal, which enjoy a close relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the current ruling party in the Indian government, as well as several state governments including that of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh (Nigar and Kumar, 2015).

The police and state machinery are systematically complicit in such ‘honour’ crimes, including in the murders of couples who love and marry by their own choice. Significantly, Dalit and Adivasi women are systematically excluded from the category of women needing this ‘protection’ from the state and are rather constructed as always available for sexual exploitation. Meanwhile, the targeting of Muslim and minority women for sexual violence by the state and associated organisations is the other side the ideology of patriarchal protectionism.

Violence against women’s autonomy and against perceived violations of prescribed caste boundaries and gender roles helps maintain the caste system by forcibly preventing women from marrying across boundaries of caste and community. The hegemonic, coercive or violent denial of women’s autonomy also maintains familial patriarchal regimes that extract unpaid social reproductive work from women. The violent and coercive denial of autonomy and mobility is one of the most serious forms of violence against women. But the Indian state and various institutions, including the police force, college and university administrations and employers, prescribe restrictions on women’s autonomy and mobility as a measure to ensure women’s ‘safety’ from sexual violence.

surveillance and ‘safety’: women in higher education

College and university campuses and hostels for women students in higher education institutions subject women to discriminatory restrictions and intrusive surveillance on the pretext of safety from sexual violence (Roy, 2016). Institutional administrators plead that they are in loco parentis and must ‘protect’ women students in the same manner as would their parents. However, for parents of young women and for administrators in higher education institutions, the lines between sexual violence and consensual relationships that transgress boundaries of caste and religion are blurred, and ‘protection’ tends to mean the infantilisation of adult women and restrictions on autonomy and mobility (Mody, 2008). At the same time, many institutions avoid setting up legally mandated complaints committees against sexual harassment and discourage reporting of sexual harassment.

A report by the University Grants Commission’s (2013, p. 36) Task Force on Issues of Safety for Women and Youth on Indian Campuses cites how ‘there were protests about early hostel hours where women students had to be “in” by 6 pm; hostel terraces were locked at 6.30 or not open at all; transport between the main campus and undergraduate hostels stopped at 7 pm, and in some universities did not exist at all’. Asked by the Task Force for their suggestions to reduce sexual harassment, a considerable percentage of administrators recommended heightened surveillance of women students, alongside imposing dress codes that amounted to victim blaming: for example, raising boundary walls, increasing security, installing CCTV cameras, ‘proper’ dress codes for women, self-monitoring among students and informing parents or guardians of any problems on campus (ibid.).

Students have protested against surveillance and discriminatory regulations. From 2012 to 2013, during protests against rape in Delhi, many young women strongly warned the state as well as administrators of educational institutions not to trade women’s freedom for their safety but instead to safeguard their ‘fearless freedom’ (Sengupta, 2012). The ‘Break the Hostel Locks’ (Pinjra Tod) campaign has consistently organised to force hostel administrations to withdraw discriminatory rules, holding demonstrations and marches in Delhi and other cities (Dixit, 2015). In October 2015, a petition by the campaign, which gathered endorsements online on the platform, was submitted to the Chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women.Footnote 4 The petition argued that deadlines and curfews ‘close off numerous possibilities and experiences that a women student can explore on campus and in the city’ and that such restrictive regulations ‘are legitimised through the rhetoric of women’s “safety” and “protection”’. It highlighted that adult women students living in hostels ‘are constantly subject to humiliating processes of moral-policing by hostel authorities’ and ‘are interrogated/shamed about what they are doing or wearing or eating or whom they are meeting or where they are going’, and, as a result, the institutional space does not enable an experience of growth and learning but instead ‘reinforces and strengthens patriarchal and casteist norms and practices that exist in our families, communities and society’.Footnote 5 Campuses and hostels thus seek to reproduce and even intensify the regime of surveillance and restrictions to which young adult women are subjected in their homes. Administrators invoke pretexts of ‘safety’ as well as parental concerns about safeguarding women’s moral and sexual character to try and prevent students from enjoying freedom to form friendships and relationships.

Restrictions on pretexts of ‘safety’ are often implicitly and sometimes explicitly invoked to prevent women students from exercising their right to freedom of association and political organisation. For instance, students of Mahila Maha Vidyalaya (MMV), the women’s college on the Banaras Hindu University campus, are made to sign affidavits prohibiting participation in protest actions, as confirmed in a 2016 interview with then Vice Chancellor G.C. Tripathi (Jha, 2016). Conversely, politically active women students and campuses that do not impose gendered restrictions on activism are subjected to public shaming about their supposedly immoral character. For example, a member of the Rajasthan Legislative Assembly claimed about Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a university known for its left-wing and feminist activism: ‘3,000 used condoms, 500 used abortion injections … among other things, are found at JNU, where girls and boys dance naked at cultural programmes’ (Khan, 2016). Another political leader described women students of Jadavpur University, another campus known for left-wing and feminist activism, as ‘shameless women who are always in search of opportunity to be in the company of male students’ (PTI, 2016a) following a complaint of sexual harassment filed by some of the students.

globalised labour as ‘rescue’ and ‘liberation’

Sexual and social surveillance and violence do not disappear with women’s entry into the globalised workforce. Rather, the same surveillance and violence is reproduced by the globalised economy and helps reproduce a ‘docile’ workforce. Since 2014, the Indian government has invited global corporations to come and ‘Make in India’, promising ‘low-cost manufacturing’ (PTI, 2016b). ‘Low-cost manufacturing’ demands low-cost labour. One way this is achieved is by flouting labour laws and preventing workers from organising and unionising to seek implementation of those laws. Studies of garment and textile factories in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka show how gendered surveillance is deployed as a way of maintaining ‘discipline’ and deterring unionisation in India (Theuws and Overeem, 2014; PUCL et al., 2016). It should be stressed that a large segment of women employed in these factories are Dalit or from other subjugated castes. While patriarchal protectionist ideology (as articulated by the state, dominant castes and Hindutva) usually excludes these categories of women from the ambit of ‘protection’, we have seen how, nevertheless, patriarchal restrictions on women’s autonomy and mobility are a feature of families and households, with little variation across caste and class categories. In these factories, ideologies of patriarchal protectionism—alongside methods of domestic familial discipline—are also deployed towards Dalit women to create docile labouring subjects.

However, Indian governments and transnational corporations (TNCs) tend to present jobs for women in TNC factories as a ‘way out’ of bondage or backwardness. In 2012, nearly identical ‘news’ stories appeared in several international print media outlets about the lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret providing jobs to lift Indian women out of poverty (see Bhalla, 2012; Ramadurai, 2012; Whitelocks, 2012). These stories read like versions of a press release or advertisements for the company. One story published by Reuters reads:

Indian villager Jaya places the bright pink, sequined, moulded C-cupped designer bra under the needle of her sewing machine and carefully stitches the seams together.

The padded ‘Very Sexy’ push-up bra which 22-year-old Jaya sews is for American lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret—designed to give a ‘boost’ to buyers in hundreds of high-fashion boutiques across the United States. But a world away in this traditional rice-growing region of southern India, these luxurious bras are—in a different way—enhancing the lives of poor rural women.

‘I knew nothing but the village before,’ says Jaya, […] ‘My parents just wanted me married as quickly as possible. They never saw me as an asset, just a burden’ […] For conservative India’s rural women—lucky to finish school, married before 18 and confined to their villages—a project giving them jobs in the manufacturing sector is not just an end to poverty, but brings empowerment and respect in this deeply patriarchal society.

Located 30 km (18 miles) south of Chennai, Intimate Fashions—which also produces bras for Victoria’s Secret brand ‘Pink’ and the La Senza brand—is one of thousands of firms that have set up in Tamil Nadu’s Kanchipuram district in recent years.

Investment-friendly policies, close proximity to one of India’s largest ports and an international airport, and easy access to a large, semi-literate workforce has helped make the area one of the most industrialised in the country. (Bhalla, 2012)

In this narrative, the juxtaposition of the words ‘sexy’ and ‘bra’ with ‘semi-literate’, ‘poor’, ‘rural’ ‘women’ in ‘deeply patriarchal society’, along with the accompanying photograph of a dark-skinned woman working at a sewing machine producing a pink bra, is designed to be seductive to Western consumers, selling the idea that sexy lingerie consumed by women in the West can be liberating for the poor, rural, semi-literate women manufacturing them. There is a play on the word ‘boost’ here: suggesting that the bras pushing up the bustlines of women in the West can also boost the fortunes of poor women in rural India and push them up out of poverty and oppression.

The same story subsequently reveals telling facts about whose fortunes are getting a boost thanks to the availability of rural, female workers. Prasad Narayan Rege, then general manager of Intimate Fashions, which employs 2,500 mostly female workers, is quoted explaining:

Thousands of companies have mushroomed here and there has been increasing competition to get good employees … So when the World Bank and the Tamil Nadu government came to us with the idea of employing women from some of the poorest communities and giving them training, we saw a good opportunity. If it wasn’t for this project, we would be in big trouble. (ibid.)

Thus, if it was not for the World Bank and the Tamil Nadu government scheme to provide ‘good employees’ (as in docile employees) to the companies, then the latter ‘would be in big trouble’.

The story offers a narrative about ‘culturally sensitive’ recruitment practices (Pande, 2010; Sama, 2012), which simultaneously legitimises patriarchal surveillance and reproduces colonial notions of ‘rescue’ and ‘saving brown women’:

Under the Pudhu Vaazhvu (meaning ‘New Life’ in Tamil) project, funded by a US$350-million loan from the World Bank … Firms are … in particular focusing recruiting on young female employees. But this is not so easy in these male-dominated communities … Officials say firms have to adopt ‘culturally sensitive’ approaches such as bringing parents to see their manufacturing units to show them the environment […] ‘But now, these young women are breadwinners. Not only that, we are seeing positive social changes taking place due to these jobs. Girls, who were married off straight out of school are now delaying their marriages by three or four years.’ (Bhalla, 2012)

Behind the ‘rescue narrative’ reproduced in such advertisements and news stories is a dirty ‘secret’: the fact that companies like Victoria’s Secret employed women under what used to be called the ‘Sumangali scheme’, where children and young girls worked for three years to earn their dowry as a ‘lump sum’ amount (Solidaridad-South & South East Asia, 2012). While the Sumangali scheme was withdrawn after bad press about bonded and child labour, as discussed below, exploitative practices and virtual bondage continue in garment and textile factories producing for global brands.

disciplining women workers

All over India, especially in the private sector, management adopts a variety of means to deter and prevent workers from exercising their right to associate and bargain collectively. Workers seen as leaders of efforts to form trade unions face punitive transfers and other forms of disciplinary action or are implicated in criminal cases (Krishnan, 2017). One study by Surendra Pratap (2011, p. 4) documents case studies of attempts by workers to form unions in several foreign- and Indian-owned manufacturing facilities where management displayed ‘systematic disregard for existing labour legislation’ and victimised workers. Pratap (ibid.) argues that between 2009 and 2010, ‘the majority of well publicized cases of workers’ struggles centred on two issues: (a) the victimization and repression of trade union organizers; and (b) the demand for regularization of casual and contract workers’.

In the case of large female workforces, management invokes patriarchal notions of ‘culture’ and morality, alongside methods of public shaming and sexualised abuse, to restrict women workers’ mobility and access to means of communication, thus deterring and preventing workers from unionising. Flawed Fabrics (Theuws and Overeem, 2014), a study of textile factories in Tamil Nadu, exposes a range of exploitative labour practices including child labour, bonded labour and a variety of gendered disciplinary measures for women workers. In their study, Martje Theuws and Pauline Overeem identify textile mills as part of the supply chains for major European and US clothing brands and examine the hostels, usually located on the factory grounds, where stay is compulsory for workers who migrate from other districts or villages and which severely restrict autonomy and mobility for women workers. Among their findings, Theuws and Overeem report:

at all five investigated mills [w]orkers are not allowed to leave the hostel on their own. There is hardly any outside contact … Workers may only contact their parents through the hostel phone. Mobile phones are not allowed and after-work activities are limited. Under the pretext of cultural traditions, girls and women are effectively locked up’ […]

Among the things they are scolded for include talking to co-workers (all mills), and talking to male workers ([mills:] Premier, Super, Sulochana) […]

If workers want to make a phone call, the warden will check the number they are dialling. The workers may only contact their parents if their number has been given to the warden. Phone calls are always made in the presence of the hostel warden. […] ‘The warden will check the girl workers; where they are going, which shift they are doing’. (ibid., pp. 6, 52, 58, emphasis in original)

Studies of the neighbouring state of Karnataka document similar work conditions. Production of Torture (PUCL et al., 2016, p. 10), a report by civil liberties and feminist organisations on the working conditions of women garment workers in Karnataka, found that women were prevented from communicating with the outside world: ‘once workers enter the factories, they are required to be cut off from all contact with the external world, even in case of emergencies’. Bans on carrying mobile phones in the workplace were found to be widespread, with punishments for possession including confiscation, monetary fines and requiring workers to submit written apologies promising not to carry phones in the future. Thus, ‘many workers surreptitiously carry their phones into the factory and keep them on a silent mode, as they wish to be contacted at a time of emergency’ (ibid.). Additionally, workers are prohibited from talking to each other:

Since the shop floors are arranged one behind another, it prevents any form of interaction between the workers except during the 15–20 min’ lunch break—this prevents any form of cohesion. […]

When not being present at the work stations, workers are consistently questioned about their whereabouts. Even toilet and canteen visits are monitored by security. (ibid., pp. 12, 25)

Like justifications for discriminatory student hostel rules, arguments used by factory management invoke ‘culture’ and parental concerns about ‘safety and security’. For example, responding to a draft version of the Flawed Fabrics report, the Sulochana mill management argued: ‘because of our State Tamil Nadu culture and the expectation of girl parents, they have been provided accommodation in the hostel of the management. Only for safety and security, the parents and girls decided to stay in the hostel and come for work’ (Theuws and Overeem, 2014, p. 59).

These studies offer further insight into how women themselves internalise patriarchal ideologies of ‘culture’ and morality. Theuws and Overeem’s report describes how workers, while resenting ‘prison-like’ conditions, expect such restrictions:

In rural Tamil Nadu, it is generally felt that it is not safe for young unmarried women to stay on their own, in a place where there are no parents, relatives or community members to keep an eye on them. As one of the workers at Premier put it: ‘We are girls; we must follow some values in society’. (ibid., p. 57)

Studies from both states document the extreme emotional distress to which women garment workers are subjected. Demeaning, exhausting and exploitative conditions of work—which in some cases include humiliating corporal punishments—have made some workers suicidal. Theuws and Overeem (ibid., p. 53) detail the events related to the attempted suicide of a 17-year-old worker at Best Corporation’s spinning mill in Dharapuram which was reported in Tamil newspapers on 12 October 2013. The young woman attempted suicide after she was ‘scolded and hit in front of the other workers’ for using a cell phone inside the mill and ‘charged a INR 500 penalty and was forced to clean the wall where the workers spit out. […] The teenager’s mother came to the mill to take her daughter home but the management refused to let her go’, and she could leave the factory premises only after a trade union intervention (ibid.).

The PUCL et al. (2016) report confirms how women are subject to continuous surveillance and humiliating corporal punishments to pressure them to meet production targets. Punishments include being scolded in front of other workers or via the public address system; being made to stand outside the workplace or factory gate for taking leave without permission or late arrival; having one’s work-station machine switched off and being made to stand in front of other workers; and being followed to the toilet to ensure no time is wasted (ibid.).

Additionally, the report documents how male supervisors including managers, ‘call the women workers by abusive names … and cast aspersions on their character’ (ibid., p. 11). Such ‘scolding’ includes asking the woman worker ‘if she ate food or shit, whether she is a woman who lives on the streets, and asking her why she was late to work’ to suggest that she is a sex worker (ibid.). Such abuse draws on forms of humiliation that are shaped by caste and gender. Cleaning or touching human excreta is associated with the oppressed Dalit castes, and forcing people to ‘eat shit’ is a common caste atrocity to which Dalits are subjected;Footnote 6 therefore, this particular abuse references a caste atrocity to a woman worker if she is Dalit and is experienced as humiliation by a non-Dalit. Saying that a woman belongs ‘on the streets’ is to suggest she is a sex worker and thus to call her immoral.

These punishments and ‘scolding’ are designed to be exemplary: their public, performative character enables them to be used to discipline, demoralise and control the entire body of workers, not just the individual worker targeted. The PUCL et al. (ibid., p. 25) report observes that ‘a worker is sometimes made to stand aside for an hour … before the assembly. This often reduces the humiliated worker to tears. Equally, this isolation of the worker from the assembly … who look on helplessly and silently, makes all of them feel lost and incapacitated’.

Women in the Karnataka factories are frequently subjected to physical violence, ‘including throwing the garment at the worker’s face (most frequently reported by the workers), hitting the woman worker on her back, dragging her out from her workstation, and physically compelling her to stand away from it’ (ibid., p. 34). Sexual harassment is common, including ‘staring hard at a woman worker in a sexual manner; making obscene threats, such as saying that chilli powder will be applied on the woman’s vagina if she did not work efficiently’ and ‘scolding’ using sexual expletives (ibid., p. 15). These practices are found elsewhere where women are incorporated in the globalised workforce, including in the Dominican Republic’s export processing zone (EPZ), where practices of sexual harassment are deployed to keep women from organising (Pantaleon and Dominicana, 2003).

Regimes of surveillance, sexualised abuse, sexual harassment and public humiliation are integral to the production process and used to keep the women workers insecure by pressuring them to meet impossible production targets. The PUCL et al. (2016) report notes how systemic workplace harassment and social shaming keeps women in an emotionally fraught state, provoking weeping, depression, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts and a sense of humiliation. Workplace harassment further strains family relationships. Women workers do a ‘double shift’—that is, bear the entire social reproductive burden including care for children and/or elders, cooking, cleaning and running the household. Their husbands or in-laws ‘do not object to her work but are nasty when she is late or is unable to complete household work’ (ibid., p. 6). The social reproductive burden of providing emotional support is also largely born by women; resultantly, ‘Most women garment workers expressed an inability to share such feelings [of depression, job-related stress, etc.] with their husbands, as they feared that the husband would compel the woman to leave the job, which she desperately needs to financially support her family’ (ibid., p. 18).

Both the reports from Tamil Nadu (Theuws and Overeem, 2014) and Karnataka (PUCL et al., 2016) indicate the systemic way in which the garment industry takes advantage of women’s precariousness to exploit them financially and fashion a more disciplined and hence cheaper workforce of women’ (ibid., p. 24). Women’s vulnerability to suggestions of sexual immorality helps deter mutual solidarity; in both wider communities and factories, women are expected and encouraged to maintain a distance from ‘immoral’ women and prove their own respectability by their willing submission to regimes of surveillance and restrictions on mobility and communication. In the Tamil Nadu factories, the women workers are younger and unmarried; in these cases, factories draw on parents’ anxieties regarding dowry payments and preventing daughters from contracting ‘unwanted/undesirable’ (read: in violation of caste and community boundaries) romantic/sexual relationships to justify women workers’ incarceration in hostels. For the women workers in the Karnataka factories, who tend to be older and married, sexualised shaming tactics deter them from seeking support from families. Abusive working conditions at the site of production (factories) strain the conditions of life and social relationships at the site of social reproduction (households). Likewise, women’s vulnerability to or fear of violence and humiliation in their own households and the pressures of supporting economically precarious families make them more likely to submit without complaint to abusive disciplinary workplace regimes.

While rationalisations for gendered restrictions on workers’ freedoms invoke concerns of ‘culture’ and ‘safety’, the fact is that these restrictions have a practical value of deterring unionisation. By preventing women workers from interacting with male workers or outside activists and by discouraging socialisation even among women on the factory floor, the women workers are very effectively prevented from even visualising the possibility of unionising. For instance, Theuws and Overeem (2014, p. 70) note that although rights to association and collective bargaining are recognised by India’s labour laws, they are widely violated in the garment factories. Interviews with workers illustrate how gendered restrictions make it difficult to consider joining a union: ‘“we have no outside contact so how could we ever join a trade union?” […] “I am a female worker then how can I become a member of trade union?” […] “I don’t think that the workers are having much freedom of joining the trade union because all the workers here are girls”’ (ibid., pp. 53–54).

Exploitative practices in the Tamil Nadu factories are able to continue unchallenged, since unions cannot recruit women workers as members and are prevented from even meeting them. Theuws and Overeem’s (ibid., pp. 6–7) report also establishes that the infamous Sumangali scheme, which subjects women workers to bonded labour on the pretext that they will earn their own dowry in the form of a lump-sum payment, continues undeterred even though the scheme has been officially abandoned. In many cases, employers fail to transfer the required amount to the provident fund, or cite minor infractions by workers to deny payment. Such practices are illegal (which is why the Sumangali scheme is no longer formally in effect), and yet they are rampant.

Despite efforts to impose gendered discipline and create a cowed and docile female workforce that is unable and disinclined to unionise, there have been several mass, spontaneous protests by women garment workers.Footnote 7 In April 2016, a spontaneous strike in Bengaluru saw 350,000 garment industry workers, almost all women, blocking roads to protest against a new central government ordinance on the Employment Provident Fund which imposed restrictions on withdrawals from the fund (D’Rozario, 2016). Clifton D’Rozario (ibid.) explains why the restrictions evoked such an intense reaction among garment workers in particular: the management of garment industry factories in Karnataka systematically sack workers before they complete five years of work in order to prevent them from becoming eligible for gratuity, and the minimum wage for workers is very low. As a result, provident funds (PF) are often a worker’s sole savings and safety net in between jobs: ‘as they search for another job, the PF amount of Rs. 40,000–Rs. 50,000/- helps them survive and even invest on lease amounts for their rental houses, marriages, etc’ (ibid.).

A fact-finding report on the strike in Bengaluru, commissioned by the Garment and Textile Workers’ Union (GATWU), the leading garment workers’ union in Bangalore, and prepared by a team from the People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Karnataka (PUCL-K) and Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression-Karnartaka (WSS) (2016, p. 3), notes that ‘the protest was spontaneous, sudden, and unplanned’ and that ‘most of the participants and leaders were women workers’. The protest ‘was triggered by a newspaper article about the ordinance in Vijaya Karnataka (2016)—a Kannada daily—that appeared on 16 April 2016. The resulting demonstration was a landmark event, as it led the Central Government to withdraw the ordinance, thus benefiting lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of salaried workers across the country’ (ibid.). As the report illustrates, brutal violence at the hands of the police intensified the resolve of the workers to continue the strike. Workers said that seeing women workers being brutally assaulted by male police officers during a peaceful protest was a turning point, leading workers to decide to not call off the strike. The entire regime of discipline, intended to block and disrupt solidarity and empathy amongst women workers and between women and men workers, broke down.

D’Rozario (2016) remarks that the revolt by women garment workers challenged the gendered assumptions of bureaucrats and police officials, who wondered ‘how can women behave this way?’. Workers in sectors where greater unionisation is possible tend to raise issues of low wages and exploitative working conditions in their protests and strikes. Women garment workers in Bengaluru, however, have hardly ever been able to force factory management to enter into collective bargaining with workers. Instead, these workers have repeatedly held mass protests in Bengaluru in 1995, 2002 and 2016 against proposed changes in provident fund rules.

The PUCL-K and WSS report comments on how the opinions of those who dismiss garment workers’ protests as random and ineffective because they do not raise the issues of low wages and work conditions—which they see as more substantial and important—are informed by gendered assumptions:

The false characterization of women’s struggles as random, uncoordinated, and ultimately pointless, runs corollary to the understanding of women’s work as merely supplementary, sporadic, and ultimately secondary to their primary role as caregivers. Both assertions are steeped in gendered assumptions about women’s roles and abilities. (PUCL-K and WSS, 2016, p. 53)

Women workers facing precarious conditions at work and in households find it more challenging to unionise, enter into conflicts with factory managements and risk punitive loss of jobs. Instead, they have chosen to protest outside the factories and on the streets and enter into confrontations with the state to defend their control over their provident fund, which they see as their safety net for survival.

Evidently, gendered forms of discipline and surveillance that infantilise women workers, placing management in loco parentis for the workers, are not unique to India. Melissa Wright (2006) documents and analyses similar forms of discipline invoked by Chinese managers of multinational factories in China. Wright (ibid., p. 33) notes that while both male and female workers were expected to live in dormitories, female workers were ‘forbidden from leaving the building at any time and on any day except for Sunday’ while the male workers ‘walked between the two facilities on a regular basis’. Male workers ‘took breaks outside the doors, where they would smoke cigarettes and talk until a manager walked through, when they would head inside’ (ibid., p. 34). Explanations offered by Chinese managers for stricter control on women workers are similar to those offered by the management of Indian factories: they describe their roles ‘as those of a parent with an unpredictable teenage girl who requires a strong patriarchal hand to keep her under control’ (ibid.). Wright noted that according to one manager, ‘his own knowledge of Chinese culture and his own experience as a father meant that he was particularly suited for his job as production manager over a young female Chinese labor force’ (ibid.), and quoted the manager as saying:

The Chinese raise their daughters to be very obedient … The family is strict … The girls, sometimes, do not know what to do when they move away from their family. They can lose their obedience. They are naïve. I have two daughters, and we are very strict with them. Chinese daughters are good daughters, but you have to protect them from dangerous things in the city. (ibid.)

Gendered methods of disciplining women garment workers in Bangladesh as described by Dina Siddiqi (2009) strikingly and critically parallel the methods discussed above. Siddiqi (ibid., p. 167) observes that women workers are regulated ‘through a distinct moral regime, separating the “good” girls from the “immoral” ones’; she continues:

A highly sexualized regime of verbal discipline, as well as more overt forms of sexual harassment, also serves to keep women in their place. In this universe, the good women are the good workers, i.e. those who are morally disciplined—that is, those who do not protest or draw too much attention to themselves, are deserving of managerial protection (Siddiqi, 1996). Those who challenge such norms are much more vulnerable to managerial sexual advances. (ibid.)

As in Karnataka, sexualised abuse (such as hurling insults that question the morality of the worker’s father or mother) are common in the Bangladeshi factories. Globalised workplaces across Asia, then, draw on familial patriarchal norms and moral regimes to discipline women workers.

conclusion: the political economy of ‘familyism’

Commentators on Indian politics and society are sometimes puzzled by the apparent contrast between the current Indian government’s emphasis on modern capitalist globalised ‘development’ and its agenda of conservative paternalistic protectionism towards women. Why does a government that welcomes Indian and multinational corporations to ‘Make in India’ also patronise outfits that attack women’s autonomy, especially in the matter of inter-caste and interfaith marriages (Nigar and Kumar, 2015)?

Several vigilante groups closely linked to the BJP, the party ruling India’s central government, have been found to be involved in organised violence to prevent Hindu women from marrying Muslim men (ibid.). Such consensual marriages are projected as ‘love Jihad’, a seduction racket by ‘terrorists’ to convert Hindu women to Islam. The BJP has cultivated existing hostility to such marriages to foment communal violence and consolidate Hindu votes on many occasions. Yogi Adityanath, the BJP’s choice for Chief Minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and the head of a Hindu religious institution, notoriously has exhorted Hindu men to marry Muslim women in order to foil the supposed Muslim strategy of inducing Hindu women to elope with Muslim men (Firstpost, 2014). Adityanath also launched a scheme of ‘anti-Romeo squads’: civilian vigilante groups supposedly committed to protecting women from street sexual harassment but which have themselves indulged in moral policing against consensual friendships and relationships. Adityanath’s own private militia, the Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Brigade), has not disguised their understanding of the reasoning behind anti-Romeo squads. One of its leaders told a journalist:

The Yogi Adityanath government has formed these anti-Romeo squads with the intention of fighting love jihad. It is a huge problem in these parts. Whenever the police spot a couple, they must call the parents of both the boy and the girl. What if the girl is being trapped by a deshdrohi, an anti-national, a terrorist? […] This moral policing is much needed. […] If the parents do not know about a relationship, then it is obviously wrong. […] The police should keep the couple in the police station if they don’t agree to give their parents’ numbers. […] The police must attempt to create an environment of fear so that such things do not happen. (Bose, 2017)

Are such attacks on women’s autonomy (in the name of ‘protecting women’) at odds with the government's proclaimed aim of promoting corporate-led ‘development’? As has been discussed above, corporations are demonstrably hostile to women’s autonomy and are invested in suppressing such autonomy.

It is instructive to study the image of ‘family’ and ‘home’ in the literature and propaganda of the BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The BJP election manifesto, released for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in its section on labour reforms declares:

we propose to encourage industry owners and labour to embrace the concept of ‘Industry Family’. This concept, in which industry owners and labours [sic] bond as a family, is guided by the principles of efficiency, skill development and upgradation, productivity, appropriate wages and perquisites, and security towards this end. (BJP, 2014, p. 31)

The ‘family’ metaphor for industrial management-labour relations recasts relations between workers and bosses as harmonious within the ‘industry family’, justifying the erosion and dilution of labour laws. The implications of this metaphor for women workers are obvious: the denial of autonomy to women in the name of ‘protection’ inside families is rendered ‘natural’ in factories as well.

The RSS often refers to its constellation of organisations as a Parivar, a family. This family metaphor valorises the patriarchal family and subjugation of women, even to the extent of justifying wife-beating as necessary chastisement of erring wives (Dixit, 2015). RSS workers describe themselves as ‘familyist not feminist’ (ibid.); feminist assertions of women’s autonomy are painted as Western-inspired disruptions of the harmonious Indian family. Additionally, oppressive social practices are rationalised as having evolved to ‘protect’ women from rapacious Muslims.

The gendered narratives of cultural nationalism propagated by the BJP and RSS and their simultaneous pursuit of an agenda of aggressive corporate ‘development’, also packaged as nationalist pride and growth, are not mutually contradictory. These political agencies, committed to creating a Hindu nation, see women as a ‘maternal force’ needing masculine regulation and supervision.Footnote 8 They share with the forces of corporate globalisation a deep hostility to and fear of women’s autonomy. But why would modern global corporations fear women’s autonomy in their personal and sexual lives? For the reason that women’s vulnerability in their personal lives contributes to their precariousness and exploitability at work. Moreover, they recognise that autonomy cannot remain hermetically sealed in personal spaces of family, household, caste and community: it is likely also to leak into workspaces, spurring unionisation and collective social and political action.


  1. Freedom to go out alone varies by age and marital status (IIPS and ICF, 2017). Young and unmarried women are subjected to the greatest restrictions. Freedom of movement increases with age and marital status, but only for 55 per cent of women aged 40 to 49 years of age. Freedom of movement increases marginally with education: 45.3 per cent among women with 12 years or more of schooling report freedom of movement compared to 42.9 per cent among women with no schooling. However, household wealth matters: only 35 per cent among women in the lowest wealth quintile report freedom of movement, in comparison to 47 per cent in the highest wealth quintile. (see Table 15.13 in IIPS and ICF, 2017). At the same time, variation based on social categories is not very significant; in their data analysis of the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) (Desai et al., 2010, 2015), Lekha Subaiya and Reeve Vanneman (2016, p. 16) found that ‘women from wealthy households made less progress in empowerment than women from poorer households’.

  2. Distance marriage denotes exogamous, patrilocal marriage practices intended to isolate and control women through enforced removal of women from their natal kin and localities. See Sharma (1980).

  3. See National Family Health Survey, India, [last accessed 15 February 2018].

  4. ‘Break the Hostel Locks #pinjratod: end discriminatory restrictions on women’, [last accessed 8 February 2018].

  5. The Commission accepted the petition’s demands and issued notices to college and university administrations to review their rules (Shankar, 2015).

  6. See Bavadam (2009). The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (1989) deems it an atrocity for a person who is not a member of the Scheduled Castes or Tribes, to force a member of these castes or tribes ‘to drink or eat any inedible or obnoxious substance’.

  7. Aihwa Ong (2010) examines a similar instance in the struggles of women factory workers in Malaysia.

  8. In an essay on his website, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath argues: ‘just like if you leave energy free and uncontrolled and unregulated, it may become useless and destructive, similarly “shakti swaroopa stree”—woman as the epitome of power—does not really need freedom, but a meaningful role with protection and channelisation. […] [I]t is about controlling and channelising her energy/power. For only such controlled and protected women power will give birth to and raise great men and when required step out of home to the battlefield to destroy evil powers’ (Vishnoi, 2017).


Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kavita Krishnan.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Krishnan, K. gendered discipline in globalising India. Fem Rev 119, 72–88 (2018).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • violence
  • empowerment
  • surveillance
  • women’s labour
  • protests
  • political economy