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Embodying modernity: reading narratives of Indian women's sexual autonomy and violation

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References are often made in contemporary Indian discourse, both popular and academic, to the 'new Indian woman', a subject position that is seen as coterminous with the emerging identity of the Indian nation as modern - the 'new India'. This article unpacks key discourses that construct the 'new woman' in the public imagination and suggests that the modernity of this imagined figure is founded upon a notion of autonomy that is deeply embodied. While the characteristics of this embodied modernity challenge influential feminist arguments as to the 'shallow' modernity of the 'new Indian woman', it nonetheless has problematic implications from a feminist perspective. The narrative shaped by these discourses around the question of what it means to be modern not only perpetuates an historically pervasive reductionism in which woman is seen to be defined and determined by the corporeal but also, and more problematically, constructs a boundary around the notion of modern womanhood that excludes women whose bodily autonomy has been compromised, for example through sexual assault. This narrative exclusion is perpetrated in at least three ways: through a discursive rendering of the woman as passive, the objectification of the woman, and a narrative structure that mimics the act of violation. Such erasure of the autonomy of sexually violated women is not inevitable, however, and an analysis of two 'counter-narratives' demonstrates how discourses of rape may both reinscribe the autonomy of such women and re-orient the reader to a position of empathy rather than opposition.
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Keywords: India; embodied; modernity; sexual violation; women

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Geography Department, Durham University, UK

Publication date: February 1, 2009

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