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The precarity of respectable consumption:

normalising sexual violence against women

Rohit Varman, Paromita Goswami & Devi Vijay

To cite this article: Rohit Varman, Paromita Goswami & Devi Vijay (2018): The precarity of
respectable consumption: normalising sexual violence against women, Journal of Marketing
Management, DOI: 10.1080/0267257X.2018.1527387

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Published online: 26 Oct 2018.

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The precarity of respectable consumption: normalising

sexual violence against women
Rohit Varmana, Paromita Goswamib and Devi Vijayc
Department of Marketing, Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, Kolkata, India; bDepartment of
Marketing, School of Management and Entrepreneurship, Shiv Nadar University, Gautam Budh Nagar,
India; cDepartment of Organizational Behavior, Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, Kolkata, India


Drawing upon feminist scholarship, this study offers insights into Received 11 June 2017
how respectable consumption exacerbates precarity and contributes Accepted 20 December 2017
to normalisation of sexual violence in Delhi, India. It helps to uncover KEYWORDS
androcentricity of respect that has been under-examined in market- Sexual violence; gender;
ing theory. This research identifies androcentric discourse of izzat or feminist; precarity; India;
respect as a key discursive apparatus that enframes sexual violence respect
against women. In this discourse, women are carriers of family tradi-
tions and respect or honour. Moreover, norms of consumption get
situated within discourse of izzat and alterity is created from women
who do not follow these norms. Such women, labelled as unrespect-
able, live under conditions of heightened precarity and are blamed
for the sexual violence they face. Therefore, this work offers insights
into normalisation of sexual violence that have not been understood
in marketing theory.

What we need to ask is, not ‘Why is Indian culture so brutal to women and why does India
defend rape and honour killings’ but instead ‘in whose interests, and through what processes,
is an “Indian culture” being produced, that simultaneously blames women for rape, and
justifies surveillance and denial of women’s autonomy in the name of protection of rape?’
(Kavita Krishnan [2015, p. 257], Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association)

In this research, we draw upon Mohanty’s (1984, 2003) call to connect local circuits of
power with more secular vectors of patriarchy and capitalism to answer the questions on
sexual violence posed above by Krishnan. On the one hand, we see the significance of
capitalist patriarchy, with its emphases on women as commodities and property of men
that create the woman as a subordinate subject. On the other hand, we attend to a
specific local circuit of patriarchy in izzat (respect or social honour) that helps us uncover
androcentricity or male-centric notions of respect in consumption. We see these as two
interconnected circuits of subordination that shape consumption in discourse of izzat
and contribute to violence against women.
We draw upon the writings of Judith Butler to understand gender, consumption and
violence. Butler (2004a, p. 42) delineates gender as ‘the apparatus by which the produc-
tion and normalization of masculine and feminine take place along with the interstitial

CONTACT Rohit Varman Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, Joka, Diamond Harbor
Road, Kolkata, West Bengal 700104, India
© 2018 Westburn Publishers Ltd.

forms of hormonal, chromosomal, psychic, and performative that gender assumes’.

Building on Beauvoir’s (1949) observation that one is not born but instead becomes a
woman, performativity of gender means that it is not an inherent truth but is a social
outcome created and nurtured by its everyday enactments (Butler, 2004a, 2009).
Violence is often inflicted on those who are made precarious or unreal by treating
them as lesser beings and by denying them recognition accorded to fellow humans
(Butler, 2004b). Precarious lives can be expunged or violated, and their persistence is not
guaranteed (Butler, 2009).
Over the years, several scholars in marketing have examined the question of gender
(e.g. Costa, 1994; Firat, 1991; Firat & Zolfagharian, 2008; Hirschman, 1993; Nelson & Vilela,
2012; Stern & Holbrook, 1994; Stevens & Maclaran, 2012; Venkatesh, 1994). Except for
Joy, Belk, and Bharadwaj (2016), the relationship between gendered consumption and
sexual violence is an under-researched one. We offer a correction to this lacuna by
examining the connection between respectable consumption and sexual violence
against women. In our analysis, we focus on how different aspects of consumption,
such as clothes, cosmetics, alcohol, cigarettes and spaces are brought together in
discourse of izzat to create a divide between respectable and unrespectable. We
particularly attend to the discursive apparatus through which women are blamed for
the sexual violence inflicted on them. Therefore, our key theoretical concern is not to
uncover sexual violence but is instead to understand how androcentric narratives of
respectable consumption normalise and implicate women in the violence they face.
This study was conducted in Delhi, India, over a period of 1 year. We conducted a discourse
analysis of interviews with women, a Hindi film, popular songs, and media articles. In discourse
of izzat, women are carriers of family traditions and respect or honour (Chatterjee, 1993). The
question of respect through consumption has been central to the scholarship in marketing
and consumer research (e.g. Holt, 1998; Üstüner & Holt, 2010; Vikas, Varman, & Belk, 2015) that
draws upon the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1984, 1986)). We offer insights into how respect
exacerbates precarity that leads to normalisation of sexual violence. We uncover androcen-
tricity of respect. Androcentricity implies that respectable consumption is constituted by
patriarchy and encodes violence against women. This research helps to not only understand
how consumption and violence are related but also attends to the elided question of how
women are blamed for the violence they face because of consumption practices. Therefore,
our work offers insights into the mechanisms of normalisation of violence because of
respectable consumption that have not been understood in marketing theory.

Theoretical considerations
Pierre Bourdieu (1984) richly describes the role of distinctions, status and yearning for
social honour in consumption. Social honour emanating from distinctions can be
encoded in economic and social capital, and in institutionalised, objectified and embo-
died forms of cultural capital. These different forms of capital translate into symbolic
capital that signifies social honour, respect, legitimacy and authority (Bourdieu, 1986).
Bourdieu believes that exercise of power often requires its legitimation that comes with
social honour. Several researchers drawing upon Bourdieu’s (1984) work have outlined
the significance of status and respect in shaping consumption choices (e.g. Holt, 1998;
Üstüner & Holt, 2010; Vikas et al., 2015). For example, Üstüner and Holt (2010) show how

low cultural capital consumers are influenced by local elites in consumption choices that
determine status, and high cultural capital consumers copy western consumers to assert
their superiority over others. In a more recent work, Vikas et al. (2015) explain how upper
and lower caste consumers compete for respect in a changing field with the reconfi-
guration of status coordinates in an Indian village. Despite these developments, scholars
have overlooked the issue of sexual violence and androcentricity that can inhere
respectable consumption. We examine the question of androcentricity of respect in
the context of sexual violence against women.
Drawing upon Butler’s (2004a) work, we do not interpret gender as a biologically fixed
category (see also Fausto-Sterling, 1993; Fausto-Sterling, Coll, & Lamarre, 2011; Joy et al., 2016).
Gender is performed and socially constructed through everyday enactments. Butler points to
the role of social norms and normative violence in performativity of gender. Such norms are
closely tied to the creation of subject positions that are mired in power relations. Building on
this reading of gender, Menon (2012) argues that colonialism and capitalism intersected to
produce norms that shape subjectivity of women in India. Several feminist scholars have
suggested that the intersection of colonial capitalism and patriarchy in the 19th CE created
normative frameworks to govern gendered subject positions and sexuality in India (Chakravarti,
2013; Menon, 2012). Chakravarti (2003, 2013) demonstrates how colonial reformist efforts such
as The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, 1856 took away the earlier property rights of lower caste
women and created the dominance of a brahamanical (upper caste) patriarchal order.
Butler (2009) points out that recognisability within normative frameworks is an impor-
tant feature of subject formation. She suggests that recognition of a particular subject
position may also mean a simultaneous failure to recognise another subject position.
Butler (2009, p. 141) insightfully writes,
In the first instance, a subject only becomes discrete through excluding other possible
subject formations, a host of ‘not me’s’. In the second instance, a subject emerges through a
process of abjection, jettisoning those dimensions of oneself that fail to conform to the
discrete figures yielded by the norm of human subject. The refuse of such process includes
various forms of spectrality and monstrosity.

Therefore, we draw upon Butler to question the framework that silences the question of
who counts – in other words, the forcible action of norms on creating precarity. In doing
so, we turn to discourse of izzat as it prevails in the setting.

Discourse of izzat and alterity of the unrespectable

As capitalism grew, in bourgeois families the traditional roles of women as consumers in
private spaces and men as producers in public domains were assigned (Firat, 1991). The
bourgeois family was integral to a cultural discourse through which nationalism was
imagined and articulated by Indian elite during the freedom movement against the
British (Chatterjee, 1989). Accordingly, while men were expected to create modern
political institutions, women were keepers of family honour and traditions. As Phadke,
Khan, and Ranade (2011) point out that a woman becomes the bearer of respectability –
of all moral and cultural values that define the society. In our context, it is this patriarchal
discourse of izzat that plays an important role in creating gendered subjectivity and in
normalising sexual violence.

Discourse of izzat creates an ideal subject position of a young, able-bodied, Hindu,

heterosexual, married or marriageable woman well-versed in gender roles (Phadke et al.,
2011). The gender roles endorse the ‘pativrata’ ideal of womanhood that means ‘good
women stay at home’ or in other private spaces (Mahadevan, 2008, p. 44) and those who
step out can be molested because they provoke male lust (Agnes, 2008; Chakravarti,
1983). Discourse of izzat includes a normative framework that governs women’s con-
sumption, marked by caste, class, region, community and age (Lukose, 2005). Such a
framework helps actors to recognise adherents to norms of consumption as respectable
women, who deserve to be treated with honour. As a result, in discourse of izzat
unrespectable women not only face violence but also have to take the blame for the
In a similar vein, Ismat Chugtai, in her literary pieces like Lihaaf (The Quilt), Badan ki
Khushboo (Lingering Fragrance) and Chatan (The Rock), repeatedly draws her readers’
attention to the question of sexuality, desire and standing of women in society, espe-
cially when they are in lower socio-economic classes or minority faith communities like
Muslims, and how the female body is debased with violence normalised by dominant
patriarchal forces (Katoria, 2011). Violence against unrespectable women is justified
because they fail to adhere to the norms prescribed within discourse of izzat. The
character of a woman becomes a way of gaining impunity for sexual offenders
(D’Cruze & Rao, 2004; Geetha, 2016).
Although scholars ascribe pre-capitalist origin to discourse of izzat, they see
capitalist relations reanimating this patriarchal discursive formation (Gupta, 2016).
Wilson (2015, p. 821) confirms that, ‘within the dominant upper caste ideology,
izzat is a feudal patriarchal concept which is closely linked to property ownership.
While women can easily damage or destroy it if they do not conform to prescribed
behavior, it is seen as belonging to the patriarchal, property-owning family and its
male members’. Therefore, izzat is about respect of men who own women as their
private property. A sexual offense against a woman is debasement of property that
should be avoided. Moreover, Spivak (1985) argues that women as property are
important not only for the production of the man as a dominant subject but also
for the larger system of capitalism as a system of extraction and appropriation of
surplus. Such a system of appropriation requires apparatuses of disciplining and
control that patriarchy, sexual violence and discourse of izzat create. As Krishnan
(2015, p. 257) writes ‘the current spate of sexism and culture of justifying rape and
surveillance on women, is best explained as a means of disciplining women’s labour
in a neoliberal capitalist economy, rather than as a mere vestige of a backward
culture’, and accordingly, such forms of disciplining are seen as necessary because
women easily fall prey to desires and bodily needs. Stevens and Maclaran (2012, p.
65) insightfully show that narratives of modernity depict ‘women as being prey to
their bodily appetites’, unable to ‘transcend their bodily urges’, because they are ‘at
the mercy of their needs, wants and desires’.
Feminist writers further argue that neoliberal discourses of prudential, responsible and
entrepreneurial consumers reanimate and reinforce patriarchy. Global circuits of capitalism
intersect with local meaning and power structures to create ‘culturally strategic images of
consumer agency’ (Lukose, 2005, p. 918). Accordingly, women are expected to know the
risks involved as they participate more actively in the labour market and to negotiate those

risks by taking responsibility. Under neoliberalism, such forms of responsibilisation put the
burden of safety and respect on women through self-governance (Shamir, 2008).
Therefore, there is a need to understand how discourse of izzat reanimates capitalist
relations and patriarchy in the determination of positions of respect.
Discourse of izzat relegates the act of sexual violence and the physical threat it poses to a
secondary position. The question of respect begins to assume a value that outweighs safety
(Phadke et al., 2011). Respect gets further amplified because of insensitive institutional
processes, such as an insensitive police force and hostile judicial processes that compel the
victim to relive harrowing experiences, as well as the fear of the family’s tarnished reputation
and dishonour (Puri, 2006). Therefore, sexual violence against such women occurs in a state
of silence (Phadke et al., 2011). In a similar vein, Menon (2012) dissects discourse of izzat and
laments that for patriarchal forces, rape is evil because it is a crime against the honour of a
family. Such a position differs from that of feminists, who denounce rape as a crime against
the autonomy and bodily integrity of a woman. This difference in understanding rape leads
to diametrically opposite readings of sexual violence. In fact, before the gruesome Jyoti Singh
Pandey rape case in 2012 that forced the Indian government to change the rape laws in India,
Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code recognised only ‘penetration of the vagina by the penis
as rape’ (Menon, 2012, p. 114). Drawing on feminist legal scholar Flavia Agnes’s writings,
Menon (2012, p. 115) argues, ‘penis penetration may lead to pregnancies by other men and
thus is a great threat to patrilineal property rights and the patriarchal power structure’. Such a
legal position, in effect, was for the protection of the wife’s womb as a site of patriarchal
property against the penis of another man (Das, 2015; Wilson, 2015).
In summary, in offering an overview of discourse of izzat, we attend to the cultural
situatedness of respect and sexual violence. To gain deeper insights into these questions
we need to interrogate the relationship among neoliberal consumer, gender, precarity
and sexual violence. Although some scholars have highlighted the role of consumption
in the creation precarity, there is an inadequate understanding of the role of consump-
tion in normalisation of sexual violence.

Research context and methodology

In this research on consumption and sexual violence, we respond to Mohanty’s (1984, p.
339) call that, ‘Male violence must be theorized and interpreted within specific societies,
both in order to understand it better, as well as in order to effectively organize to
change it’. In the next sections, we explain the local context of sexual violence and
describe our methodology.

Sexual violence in Delhi

The post-liberalisation era has seen more women in the workspace alongside a growing
consumer culture (Varman & Belk, 2008; Venkatesh, 1994). Consumer goods, services and
spaces such as cosmetics, apparel, domestic goods, films, magazines and shopping malls
connect upper/middle-class Indian woman to global cosmopolitan women (Oza, 2006;
Varman & Belk, 2012). While more women are stepping outside their homes and are
considered independent, confident, assertive and less traditional (Schwartz, 2013;
Venkatesh, 1994), sexual violence against them mounts. As per the Indian Penal Code,

sexual violence may take the form of rape, attempt to rape, assault with the intent to
outrage modesty and insult to the modesty of women. The number of cases of outrage
or insult to modesty in India was more than twice as many as the number of rape cases
or attempted rapes in 2015 (NCRB, 2016). Every 30 min, a rape happens in India
(Dhawan, 2014). The popular narrative is that improved security measures can reduce
incidences of sexual violence in public places. While this may address the cases of
outraging modesty in the form of eve-teasing or harassment in public spaces, the
spectre of rapes is likely to still loom large, given that data indicate a whopping 98%
of the total number of cases to be rapes by acquaintances (Sirnate, 2014). Despite
widespread violence against women, several scholars have observed that sexual vio-
lence in India is a combined problem of under-reporting and institutional collusion that
suppresses the real scale of such crimes (Desai, 2016; Gupta, 2016).
Delhi, the capital of India, has the dubious epithet as its rape capital. According to Puri
(2006, pp. 139–40), ‘Delhi accounted for 14.8% of the total crimes against women in India,
a whopping high of 30.5% of the total rape cases and 35.0% of cases of kidnapping and
abduction’. These are sobering indicators, given that only a small percentage of sexual
assault is reported. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics show that Delhi tops
the charts on reported rapes as a proportion of the population (Rukmini, 2014) with the
latest data from 2015 indicating incidents of rape at 23.7% of sexual crimes in Delhi, the
highest in India (NCRB, 2016). As high as 40% men in Delhi feel that ‘women moving
around at night deserve to be sexually harassed’, and 51% have perpetrated some form of
sexual violence in public places in their lives (UN Women and ICRW, 2013). Further, 24% of
Indian men are reported to have perpetrated sexual violence against anyone ever, with
20% reporting it against a partner (Barker et al., 2011).

In attending to discourse of izzat in this research, we draw upon the work of Laclau and
Mouffe (1985) to conduct discourse analysis. Discourses help to understand how
regimes of truth are created (Foucault, 1977; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Said, 1978). As
Butler observes, ‘discourses do actually live in bodies. They lodge in bodies; bodies, in
fact, carry discourses as part of their own lifeblood. And nobody can survive without, in
some sense, being carried by discourse’ (Meijer & Prins, 1998, p. 282). Discourse analysis
helps to map out meanings of signs as they are fixed within a particular domain.
According to Laclau and Mouffe (1985, p. 112), ‘any discourse is constituted as an
attempt to dominate the field of discursivity to arrest the flow of differences, to
construct a centre’. We interpret discourse of izzat as a sedimented or a dominant
discourse (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). Discourses fix meaning through the constitution of
nodal points or hegemonic signifiers. In this process, different signs are brought
together and given meaning through chains of equivalence. Thus, a dominant system
is created with chains of signification through which meanings are assigned to different
signifiers within a discourse (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). In our analysis, we focus on how
the meanings of different aspects of consumption, such as clothes, cosmetics, time and
spaces are fixed through chains of equivalence in discourse of izzat. Such attempts to fix
meanings are closely tied to Gramsci’s (1973) idea of hegemony or predominance
through consent. As in the case of hegemony, a discourse does not completely suture

any social reality, and there is a possibility of resistance through contrarian discourses.
Laclau and Mouffe (1985), however, warn that in discourses the logic of difference may
thwart resistance by highlighting differences among different signifiers.
Laclau and Mouffe (1985) label signs whose meanings are not fixed as elements and
signs that have fixed meanings are called moments. We particularly attend to articu-
latory practices in our discursive analysis of interviews, movie, songs and media articles.
We focused on how articulation of certain signifiers was done in relation to other
signifiers. Articulations fix meanings of signifiers by bringing about closure. Such clo-
sures may not be permanent but allow some stability of meanings within a discourse
(Laclau & Mouffe, 1985).
To understand sexual violence and discourse of izzat, we conducted 17 unstructured
interviews with adult women in Delhi. We took the help of a female research assistant
for conducting 12 more interviews. We explained the research objectives and gave her a
broad set of questions. In these interviews, we used purposive sampling to include adult
women across different classes and age groups to understand their immersion in the
gendered context of Delhi (see Table 1). We asked questions about: what is it like to live
in Delhi as a woman; what does being a woman mean; how do you express yourself as a
woman; what are some cultural prescriptions or expectations you have encountered that
have shaped your experience of being a woman; have you encountered any form of
sexual violence or harassment. We asked specific questions on consumption to under-
stand its relationship with izzat and violence. For example, on consumption of clothing,
we asked: What clothes do you like to wear? How would you describe a ‘proper woman’
in her consumption practices? How would you describe an ‘improper woman’ in her
consumption practices? Do you avoid certain dresses when you are outside your home?
We complemented the analysis of interviews with a discursive analysis of media
articles, a Hindi film and popular songs. We selected media articles that reported sexual
violence in Delhi. Our selections of the Hindi film ‘Pink’ and songs were based on their
usage of visuals or texts that were laden with sexual violence connected to consump-
tion. Our analysis focused on common patterns and overlaps in these narratives to
understand the socio-culturally normalised and institutionalised ways of thinking about
sexual violence. Our analysis surfaced different articulations and the way various sig-
nifiers were brought together in a logic of equivalence to create nodal points in
discourse of izzat (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985).
Consistent with Lincoln and Guba (1985), we deployed various techniques to improve
the rigour of interpretations: for method triangulation, we utilised interviews and
analysis of songs, film and media articles; we triangulated our data sources through
interviews with multiple actors; three researchers were involved in analysis during and
after data collection, providing researcher triangulation (Erlandson, Harris, Skipper, &
Allen, 1993). A mixed team of two women and one man enabled us to view the same
data through different lenses. In the following section, we present our findings.

We explain how sexual violence against women is normalised in discourse of izzat.
Drawing on specific aspects of consumption highlighted by our participants in their
discussion of violence and production of precarity, we explain norms in discourse of

Table 1. Profile of participants.

Interview duration (Hours: Under-class/
Pseudonym Minutes) Middle-class Age Occupation
Arushi 1:19 Middle-class 24 Software Engineer pursuing MBA
Janya 1:07 Middle-class 32 Executive assistant in a private University
Marie 1:06 Middle-class 28 Communications executive in an art gallery
Nimita 1:41 Middle-class 38 Consultant taking a break from work
to pursue PhD
Parvati 1:18 Middle-class 24 Software Engineer pursuing MBA
Preeti 1:04 Middle-class 36 Manager in a private organisation
Prisha 1:08 Middle-class 25 IT employee pursuing MBA
Rhitu 1:59 Middle-class 32 Currently taking break from work as a HR
Saraswati 1:07 Middle-class 36 Teaches at a private university
Suhasini 1:10 Middle-class 38 Senior Manager in a financial services firm,
Uma 0:57 Middle-class 30 Works with an NGO specialising in
environmental conservation
Sita 1:17 Middle-class 41 Offers private tuitions
Simran 1:24 Middle-class 35 School teacher
Sarda 1:02 Under-class 20 Housekeeping Supervisor of a University
Sarah 0:59 Middle-class 30 Freelance work on animals and wildlife
Rebecca 1:02 Middle-class 25 Works at a private firm
Preetika 1:12 Middle-class 24 Reporter
Phoolwati 0:38 Under-class 34 Janitor at a private firm
Mita 1:12 Under-class 26 Domestic worker
Mala 1:37 Middle-class 44 Offers online tuitions in English
Lucy 1:25 Middle-class 31 Beauty-therapy trainer
Geeta 0:44 Under-class 26 Domestic worker
Disha 0:59 Under-class 26 Security Guard
Binita 1:41 Middle-class 26 NGO-activist
Badam 0:57 Under-class 30 Home-maker
Guddi 0:57 Under-class 21 Works at a shop
Jyoti 0:59 Under-class Home-maker
Piku 1:46 Middle-class 30 Teaches at a University
Roshni 2:33 Middle-class 22 3rd year Sociology undergraduate student

izzat that regulate consumption of clothes, cigarettes, alcohol, make-up and public
spaces. We use this understanding of precarity to illustrate androcentricity of respect
and its relationship with violence.

The androcentricity of respect and production of precarity

Discourse of izzat creates the subjectivity of women in such a way that they are
expected to embody respect. It fixes the meanings of respectability and femininity
through the constitution of nodal points about consumption practices. In this andro-
centric discourse, different signs related to consumption and femininity are brought
together and given meaning through chains of equivalence (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). In
the creation of moment about respectability, discourse of izzat circumscribes what a
woman does and determines the possibility of actions on her body outside the bound-
aries of the patriarchal family unit or community (Menon & Bhasin, 1998). Nimita, a
Human Resources Consultant, currently enrolled in a doctoral programme, explains the
normative social biography of a respectable woman in contrast to an unrespectable one:
Our society has very clear expectations for a nice girl and a bold, bad girl. A nice girl
speaks in a low voice, never rebels against her parents. Being a good girl, being a good
daughter, good mother, and a good wife. Keep a low profile, don’t assert yourself, don’t

be ambitious when you ask for rights that have to do with your independence. Duties of
a daughter, duties of a mother – nicely prescribed duties. You are supposed to look after
your parents, you are supposed to study, but you are not supposed to top or go beyond
your brothers. You should not be barred but should not excel in studies. Listen to and
watch everything that your parents say, your teacher says, your families, society, your
uncle, your aunt. Go by all the prescribed standards that have been laid down to you
then you are a good girl. To be a good mother, you sacrifice all your desires, likes,
ambitions and then you have a baby, etc.

A woman’s respectability is constitutive of the family’s izzat. As Nimita points out, duties
are heteronormatively prescribed, and women are socialised into an implicit fear of
transgressing these boundaries of respectability, lest they bring dishonour to the family
(Mucina, 2015). While upper/middle-class women were less likely to work in the past, in
neoliberal India, the modern educated woman is idealised as economically independent
and working (Schwartz, 2013). With neoliberal transformations since 1991, the much-
maligned term ‘welfare’ has been replaced with ‘empowerment’, consistent with the
World Bank’s instrumentalist women’s liberation rhetoric that ‘investing in women was
the most efficient route, in terms of costs and benefits, to achieving broader develop-
ment goals’ (Sharma, 2008, p. 18). For instance, Government of India declared 2001 as
the ‘Women’s Empowerment Year’, and adopted a ‘gender and development’ policy
regime with emphases on educating women, reducing fertility and spurring economic
growth. In contrast to the counterhegemonic conceptualisation of ‘empowerment’ as
endowing women with critical consciousness, its neoliberal appropriation relies on
entrepreneurial women advancing their skills and self-esteem through self-help and
fulfilling their needs through market mechanisms (Sharma, 2008).
Women are under pressure to embody the new vision of modernity, economic
compulsions and to simultaneously demonstrate adherence to the norms of respectable
Indian womanhood (Phadke et al., 2011). Mita, a domestic worker, explained, ‘After my
marriage, we still haven’t been able to construct the roof of our house. My husband
cannot manage all this on his own. He’s becoming tired, that’s why I have come out’.
Mita’s life has been shaped by the patriarchal family, first as a child tending to her
siblings, and now as a wife and mother. Like Mita, other under-class participants’
articulations reflected neoliberal necessities where they take responsibility for survival.
These under-class women felt compelled to contribute to their household incomes
unlike the home-bound women in the villages they had left behind. Similarly, Disha
who works as a security guard in the national capital region, shares her construction of
respectability as an under-class women,

We should do things within our limit. We should not see big dreams – those do not get
fulfilled. We do this work; we want to meet the household expenses, all our aspirations with
this income. The woman who recognises these things, that we will live within these means,
is a good woman. If she fights with her husband and returns to her maike (natal home)
saying my husband does not give me money, she brings dishonour to both families. In our
sasural (affinal home), we should understand what our status is, how much can we eat, what
can we wear, we will stay within those limits.

For Disha, respectability is tied to living within patriarchal boundaries of acceptable

consumption, and exceeding these boundaries is a breach of honour. It is consistent
with other participants’ narratives that reflect how respectable girls are expected to

follow family traditions, adhere to gender roles, subordinate their desires and malleably
shape their lives to the rules of patriarchal families. Unrespectable girls are assertive,
strong-willed, independent, who may bring shame by violating gender roles prescribed
by the patriarchal system. Women who transgress normative boundaries of izzat are
often labelled as characterless and invite sexual violence because they are objects of
male lust (see The Modern Girls Around the World Research Group, 2008). These
positions in discourse of izzat are created through normative violence and as Butler
(2004a, p. 66) observes, ‘malleability is, as it were, violently imposed and naturalness is
artificially induced’. Thus, the neoliberal woman must now be malleable enough to be
modern, yet live within bounds of traditions, values and duties of patriarchy (Bhatty,
2005; Sundaram, 2005).
One way the power and control of these patriarchal boundaries are enacted in discourse
of izzat is by creating a carceral system around women’s lives (Foucault, 1977). Janya, an
Executive Assistant in a private university, describes her childhood in Delhi:

We were not used to girls being allowed to roam around with their friends. We used to go
with our families. They would say “Oh no, this is not a good place. You should not go.” Even
for school trips, we were not allowed to go.

Janya describes a common middle-class experience of growing up as a girl. While

allowing boys far greater freedom, middle-class families follow patriarchal norms that
restrict the movement of girls and prohibit their participation in several activities to
protect women from men. Those women who do not seek such protection and seclusion
by refusing to infantilise themselves are ‘deemed’ as unrespectable and pose a threat to
the patriarchal order of izzat. In several moments of irony and conflict in androcentricity
of respect, men are both strong enough to protect women and yet weak and threatened
by independent women. Furthermore, men are in control as protectors of women and
also the ones who are infantilised as beings who do not know how to control their
desires. Thus, there are conflicting moments within discourse of izzat. As Butler (2004b,
p. 76) insightfully observes, ‘what counts as “dangerous” is what is deemed as danger-
ous’, by the patriarchal order. As a result, mobility restrictions are tied to the fear of rape
of the body or a tarnished reputation that would bring dishonour to the family (Mucina,
2015). In this discourse, the woman’s body remains a precarious vessel of izzat as the
patriarchal baton of control over women is passed on from father to husband. Parvati, a
software engineer pursuing her Masters in Business Administration (MBA), further
explains who is idealised in discourse of izzat:

Marriage material is a girl who for one, never had any boyfriends in the past. Two, she’s a
virgin. Three, you (as a husband) yell, and you yell, but it’s well (and wife never yells back).
And four, that she is trained to stay at home and not put her priorities first. Even if the girl is
well-educated, she should not be eligible to earn more than you. She’s not marriage
material if she’s too strong. There are guys who want that money because now they are
also opening up to the fact that it takes two people to have that kind of life that everyone
wants. But not at the cost of listening to her frustrations which she gets from the office. If he
was thrashed in a meeting, he has all the right to throw the plate, to yell at her. . . or to
abuse her.

In these articulations, heterosexual marriage is the single most important goal of a

respectable woman. Heteronormativity, marriage and respectability are closely tied

together through equivalence in this discourse (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). Women’s bodies
represent the patriarchal family unit, and the purity of a woman reflects the honour and
status of the family – thus she must be a chaste, untarnished virgin passed as a property
of her natal family to her husband. Her social demeanour and clothing must reflect
exclusiveness and inaccessibility to other men (Ortner, 1978). This ideology is enforced
by control over any social behaviour that violates the family’s respect. She is continu-
ously adapting to a rapidly changing world: she must be well-educated and well-
employed, both as a status signifier and necessity of neoliberal capitalist consumer
culture, but subservient to the male. Thus, the woman’s body mediates and is inscribed
with these conflicting aspects of capitalist modernity.
Discourse of izzat is not just restricted to the patriarchal family but may extend to
other social institutions. For instance, Khap panchayats or caste councils that are active
in North India around the national capital region commonly invoke respect to settle
disputes between members. These panchayats are patriarchal institutions that function
as kangaroo courts, and chauvinistically issue diktats on the clothes women should wear
as well as punishments for transgressing normative codes. For example, a Khap pan-
chayat allegedly went as far as to order the rape of 2 sisters, aged 23 and 15 years, to
redeem their brother’s transgression of marrying an upper-caste girl (Iyengar, 2015).
Although Khap panchayats are constitutionally illegal, they are politically powerful.
Defending a Khap panchayat’s recommendation to lower the marriageable age to
16 years to prevent rapes, Om Prakash Chautala, ex-Chief Minister of Haryana, said in
a press briefing (Fernandes, 2012):

We should learn from the past, specially in Mughal era, people used to marry their girls to
save them from Mughal atrocities and currently a similar situation is arising in the state. I
think that’s the reason Khap has taken such a decision, and I support it.

Several key moments that constitute discourse of izzat come to the surface in Chautala’s
statement. First, there is a need to save girls because they cannot save their honour and
remain respectable. Second, men, inflated to ‘people’ here, safeguard a woman’s
respect. Third, and ironically, infantilised men are also capable of transgressions and
need to be restricted by other men. Fourth, as a sign of Hindu chauvinism, the Mughal
era is presented as a period of atrocities against Hindus, and Muslims are portrayed as
sexual offenders, who threaten the honour of Hindu women. And finally, in this dis-
course of saving women from men, Khap as a patriarchal body should decide when
women should get married because it is only within the bounds of a patriarchal family
that a woman’s honour can be saved.
In a similar vein, spiritual Guru Asaram Bapu, who has a large following and 400
hermitages across India, said while addressing a gathering of his followers in the after-
math of the brutal gang rape and eventual death of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in
December 2012 (Mid-day, 2013):

The five or six drunken men were not the only ones guilty. The girl was also responsible. She
should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop. This could have
saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don’t think so. . .Had she recited the
Saraswati mantra, she would not have boarded any bus after watching a movie with her

Asaram Bapu is accused of raping several women (FE Online, 2018). Despite these
serious allegations, millions follow him as a spiritual guru. Bapu draws upon the
respectable–unrespectable dichotomy within discourse of izzat and suggests that Jyoti
Singh Pandey did not follow the norms of respectability. Accordingly, ‘one hand cannot
clap’, and she acted in a manner that was unrespectable by being out late in the night
with a man who was not her husband. Therefore, she was responsible for the sexual
violence she faced. In a similar vein, on the topic of anti-rape legislation, Mulayam Singh
Yadav, an ex-chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh infantilised men and said, ‘boys
will be boys, boys commit mistakes’ (Fareed, 2014). The impunity with which such public
statements are made both reflects and leads to normalisation of sexual violence.

Consumption, ellipses and normalisation of sexual violence

Various forms of consumption are implicated in maintaining the boundaries of respect-
ability or izzat and in exacerbating precarity. We attend to consumption of clothing,
cigarettes, alcohol, cosmetics and public spaces as key nodal points in discourse of izzat.

Consumption of clothes
There are few products to which gender is as constitutive to the construction of the
product as clothing. Clothing signifies gender, not just neutrally revealing the body, but
embellishing it in a gendered way (Entwistle, 2000). The consumption space of female
clothing is configured differently from male clothing, with female clothing globally
policed as a tool of sorcery and seduction that arouses male sexuality (Duits & Van
Zoonen, 2006; Lukose, 2005). In discourse of izzat, clothing is an important nodal point
that signifies respectable women. Arushi, a young software engineer pursuing her MBA,
describes how her clothes were carefully screened by her extended family to avoid
‘provoking’ men:
Aunties, they would see, and they would say “what kind of clothes is she wearing?” My
mother is a bit cool, but my father’s elder brothers’ wives, they have this perception that,
you are not supposed to wear these type of clothes which would show your body curves.
When I wear a cut sleeve [sleeveless], or something they say no, no, no because they have
this fear in their mind, that guys out there, you know, these clothes provoke the men out

It is common to see female clothing tightly regulated by the normative framework

within discourse of izzat. An important norm is to cover as much of body as possible,
and women are often asked by family members to avoid tight-fitting clothes. This
discourse of izzat creates alterity: a woman who does not care about family honour
and wears such revealing or tight-fitting clothes is the unrespectable other. Men do not
need to directly ensure adherence to these norms because women as patriarchal
subjects internalise and enact them. Therefore, Arushi’s aunties monitor what she
wears, and any transgression is a provocation for lustful men. Like Arushi, other parti-
cipants articulated how not regulating oneself could result in questions from anyone. As
a result of the threat of violence, consumption of clothing is often auto-regulated.
Parvati explained to us:

You are wearing a skirt, you are not inviting that person, but they feel “self-invited.” [As if]
She’s showing it, so she wants attention, she wants some appreciation, let me give what she
enjoys. Like the place where I come from, if I get out of my house in a skirt, a tank top, I
would invite what not! Apart from the comments, I would be running the risk of being raped.
They feel like why not have some fun with her. They have this mentality that she knows that
[they] would get invited, so probably she’s ok with it.

In these articulations skirts, specifically short skirts, are considered particularly risky
because they are not only Western but also expose women’s legs. While young girls
are encouraged to wear skirts, they are expected to cover their legs as they grow older.
A show of legs signifies female sexuality that is considered unrespectable. Therefore, a
skirt is a deviation that women are expected to be prudential about; violating cultural
codes can ‘invite’ unwanted male attention and sets the woman up for rape. Thus,
sexual violence partly becomes a woman’s responsibility because of her transgression of
norms of consumption within discourse of izzat. Ironically, a man’s idea of fun, as an
experience of pleasure and desire, is tied to an objectified woman wearing short skirts or
tank tops. In effect, such articulatory practices regulate what women are expected to
consume and allow men to control their movements.
We see in these articulatory practices how the attempt to prevent being stereotyped
and labelled as characterless can produce normalisation of violence and self-regulation
of clothing. It is difficult to go against the dominant patriarchal framework because of
the threat of sexual violence. In these articulations, through the logic of difference,
women who break patriarchal codes of clothing are considered the unrespectable other,
who can be sexually violated with impunity (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). In Parvati’s society,
public responsibility is transferred to the individual consumer-citizen, and her choices
must be prudent; ‘it would be really foolish’ otherwise, and it is her responsibility to
prevent rape. Similarly, Preeti recounts her first experience of visiting the local market
with her husband:

I got down from the car and had a little walk of five to seven minutes. I felt that men
standing on the road, given a chance, they can tear me up right there. The look was full of
hunger and as if the woman who wears fitted clothes is something really good to eat. After
that, I made it a point that I am never going to go to Jagat Farm (a market area) wearing a
normal pair of boot cut jeans. I never go to the market without wearing a salwar kameez
(traditional Indian dress), a dupatta, a tight bun and try to look as ugly as possible.

Respectable women are expected to be prudent about not wearing tight clothes in
public places because it allows men to imagine their bodies. Thus, an inadvertently
visible bra strap or a low neckline invited stares, and scarves and handbags were
essential travel companions against this intrusive, violating gaze (Phadke et al., 2011).
The entrepreneurial, empowered woman must know how to manage the risk of vio-
lence. Particularly in public spaces and in public transport women articulated abstaining
from wearing ‘Western Clothes’, such as jeans and t-shirt, skirts and dresses, opting
instead for the traditional salwar kameez. Traditional clothes and looking ‘as ugly as
possible’ make women inconspicuous and help to avoid male gaze and sexual violence.
Although participants were cognizant of and lamented the day-to-day self-regulation of
clothing, the need for caution against attracting unsolicited male attention was inter-
nalised and rationalised as ‘men will be men if they touch her or will act smart regardless
of what she is wearing’, and ‘ultimately, boys will look’. In other words, there is a

responsibilisation of violence: it is expected that men will sexually harass women, and it
is no longer the state’s or society’s responsibility, but that of the woman, to protect her
honour and body. Such moments also reflect a specific interpretation that men are
always prone to harassing a woman, while women must be malleable and entrepre-
neurial about managing the risk.
Guddi, a shop assistant, further told us, ‘If you wear different kinds of clothes, samaj
(society) says what kind of clothes does this girl wear? What is this?’ Here, samaj or
society is an equivocation for the patriarchal order that regulates the conduct of women.
The question ‘what is this’ signifies something that is not permissible within the
normative framework and is done by the unrespectable other. As a result of alterity
encoded in consumption choices, such women can face sexual violence and bring
disrepute to families. A baton of regulating woman’s clothing as a signifier of respect
passes from natal to marital homes. Thus, Guddi shares:

My mother used to tell me you can wear trousers after marriage. After marriage who will let
you wear pants? Nobody lets you. If kismet (luck) permits, you get a husband who will
support you, or his family pushes you, people of a new culture they may support. If the
family does not support then how can others support? On everything, the woman is
suppressed, her happiness, her choice.

Guddi’s experience surfaces a key conflict within discourse of izzat that differentially
impacts different classes. Trousers signify a modern and western woman in such
articulations. Although upper/middle-class women regularly wear trousers in various
settings without transgressing the normative framework of social honour, lower classes
are more guarded in their acceptance, with the local deemed moral, while the West
deemed degenerate and characterless. Here we see the centrality of marriage as a
mechanism by which a family’s respectability is recognised, with the woman embodying
it. An unmarried girl who wears trousers can be seen as too modern or characterless and
deemed as unsuitable for marriage (Modern Girl Around the World Research Group,
2008). As a result, lower-class parents often restrict unmarried girls from wearing
trousers. This does not mean that marriage leads to greater sartorial freedom for
women, as they are expected to dress in ‘Indian’ clothes to safeguard traditions and
honour in such families. Both her natal and affinal families thus disallowed Guddi from
wearing trousers, and her lament reflects the lack of choice she experiences.
Some of our participants had dissenting interpretations of Western and traditional
clothing, attributing the former to bold women who would confront a sexual offender.
This shows that despite the sedimented nature of discourse of izzat, there was resistance
to it (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). Menon (2012, p. 142) cites a young girl defending Western
dresses: ‘The student, speaking in Hindi, and clearly not from an upper-class background,
said she had found that when she wore salwar-kameez, she faced more sexual harass-
ment than she did when she wore jeans. Her assessment? That when she was in the
former dress, she appeared seedhi-saadhi and timid, and unlikely to object, while in
jeans, she appeared confident and bold, and therefore men thought twice before taking
her on!’ In this counter discourse of modernisation, Western clothing seen as represen-
tative of modern consumption is desirable as a signifier of social, political and economic
emancipation. Sita, a home-maker, and mother of two young adults, describes how she
permits her daughter to wear pants when she goes outside the house:

My father came and told me “tell your daughter not to wear pants, tell her to wear only
salwar kameez, it looks good.” But I cannot go and tell this to my daughter because she will
be against that. “I will definitely wear pants, let me wear something [I like] at least!” I
explained to her that when your grandfather comes then wear a salwar kameez. Wear pants
when you go out. That generation has gone by. Children are intelligent enough today to
understand that if you explain to them lovingly, not by beating or scolding them, if you tell
them these do’s and don’ts they will understand.

Sita here represents the ‘New Woman’, permitting her modern daughter to have her
sartorial freedom (Modern Girl Around the World Research Group, 2008). However,
freedom in most of these cases is constrained by patriarchy. Thus, Sita’s father wants
to see his granddaughter in Indian clothes, and his wish is fulfilled even as a staged
performance (see Phadke et al., 2011). Most upper/middle-class women wear different
clothes in quasi-private spaces such as gated communities, shopping malls or restau-
rants as compared to what they wear in public spaces. These quasi-private spaces are
legitimised consumption spaces emplaced within global circuits of capital, charac-
terised by corporately managed malls, night-clubs and gated communities, and offer
a limited, circumscribed and protected idea of pleasure and leisure for upper/middle-
class women (Phadke et al., 2011). Therefore, the counter discourse of modernisation
offers resistance without completely rupturing the boundaries of traditional respect-
ability upheld by the patriarchal order (Modern Girl Around the World Research
Group, 2008).

Consumption of cigarettes, alcohol and make-up

In discourse of izzat, women who do not fit into the framework of normatively pre-
scribed codes of respectability – by going to pubs, smoking or drinking, applying make-
up – are seen as the unrespectable other and become natural targets of sexual violence.
Parvati explains how the woman who smokes becomes the other:
Guys judge a woman who smokes. One would be that she’s trying to project that she’s cool,
she’s ok with certain stuff. She won’t be very headstrong about trying out new things, trying
things which are not very acceptable to society. Like drinking, hanging out with guys,
sleeping over with a guy, pre-marital sex and all that.

In this articulation, the woman smoker occupies a position of alterity from idealised
middle-class Indian women. Smoking is primarily considered masculine consumption by
upper/middle-classes. A woman who smokes, transgresses the boundary of traditional
femininity and is seen by men to be too modern or Western. By a logic of equivalence,
she is a characterless girl: she is pleasure seeking, is associated with hypersexual
practices, flouts norms and traditions, and sets herself up as an easy sexual target.
Marie, an executive with an art gallery, further elaborates:
I have heard people saying women should not smoke because they have to give birth and
their system is different from men. Smoke is more harmful, that’s what I have heard. In a
workplace, yes people looking down on you if they see you smoking. They would think that
you know she is that type. Smoking type. The men, I don’t know how to describe those
stares, disrespectful stares like slapping. The stare is saying you know who do you think you
are, you think above us you can behave like men. Because smoking is for men. According to
them a woman is making a statement you know I am equal, I can do whatever I want.

Smoking not only violates an important code of femininity but also threatens men
because as a consumption practice it transgresses into the male fiefdom. As a signifier,
smoking has the potential to destabilise established gender codes and power relations.
Women are frequently reminded of their roles as mothers to avoid or restrict consump-
tion of cigarettes and alcohol. Spivak (1981, p. 181) provocatively argues, ‘pre-compre-
hended suppression or effacement of the clitoris relates to every move to define woman
as sex object, or as means or agent of reproduction’. Motherhood is a key marker of
women’s identities that is infused with both importance and subordination. On this
issue, Mahashwetha Devi (1987) insightfully writes in her classic literary piece,
Breastgiver, that woman as a mother is simultaneously a trophy and tool. Breastgiver
poignantly illustrates how Jashoda’s social role for 20 years is of professional mother-
hood and as a wet nurse of a landed household. Thus, smoking transgresses a patri-
archal code where the woman’s only usefulness is as a reproductive vessel. The woman
smoker is adopting masculine practices, threatening and destabilising appropriate gen-
dered behaviour at a time when norms are under flux – she may be accommodated as a
co-worker, but by smoking, she makes a claim to vestiges of male privilege. Such women
become the target of sexual violence so that they can be reminded of their place in
patriarchal order. Prisha, an MBA student who worked in the Information Technology
sector, describes the sanctioning of a woman at her previous workplace:

[She says] “I am going to a party today even if she’s not going. I am going to drink, I am
going to smoke”. Like very stupid things which nobody even mentions. I have seen some
males saying “stay away from her. She would be a negative influence, you will also start
smoking, she’s not a good person.” In our project we have the highest management level,
so he was a ‘Sir’. He used to find this problem that she is not a good lady and she will
smoke. I have heard him saying that. He did mention that point once in a party, when he
was drunk or something. “She’s not a good female, she is not good, she smokes so much.”

We see how men who can judge her from a position of privilege denigrate the woman
described here. Prisha is also complicit in normalising violence against the woman by
not contesting it, and by reproducing it in derogatory undertones. For Prisha, this
woman does ‘stupid things’ by talking about her activities that should be undercover.
She accepts her male acquaintances’ patronising warnings of her colleague’s immorality.
Women who are made into the other because of their consumption can face sexual
violence and often the victims may be blamed. Binita, a Delhi-based activist at a non-
government organisation working on gender violence, raised the case of Suzette Jordan.
In 2012, Jordan was offered a ride as she came out of a night-club in Kolkata and was
raped by five men in a moving car. Jordan was vilified by many including politicians and
angry neighbours, and branded a liar and a prostitute (Anasuya, 2015; Jha, 2013; Mohan,
2015). As a single mother of two, who smoked, consumed alcohol, visited night-clubs,
and had tattoos, Jordan’s perceived irresponsible consumption practices made her
unrespectable and she was blamed for the sexual violence she faced. ‘I was made to
feel like I was the one responsible for the assault. Because I had come out of the
nightclub [with a man], I was made to feel that I invited rape’ (Jha, 2013).
Cosmetics are yet another domain of consumption that mediates the issue of respect.
Cosmetics are a multi-billion dollar industry in India dominated by multinationals like
L’Oreal and Unilever. India is the world’s largest consumer of products like fairness and

skin lightening creams with an estimated 735 million users as of 2007 and an increasing
popularity (Mercury Policy Project, 2010). However, the respectable Indian woman must
tread a careful line in her use of make-up. For instance, Marie describes how her
autorickshaw driver mistakes her for a sex-worker one night because she is outside
her home at 9:30 p.m. and is wearing make-up.
I had make-up on but I was wearing a shawl, and I was covering my head and everything.
The auto guy actually asked me thinking I am a prostitute. You know he said, “Do you do
this work every day? If you want an auto driver to pick and drop you, you can tell me.” I had
to stop the auto guy at the petrol station. I guess because, at night, wearing make-up, and
are nicely dressed. Probably, if you are a woman wearing make-up, going out at night in
autos then maybe they think you are a prostitute.

Marie traverses a public space wearing jeans and make-up at an hour when respectable
women do not step outside their private, domestic sphere. Thus, despite embodying the
demure by covering her head with a shawl, she transgresses the boundaries of izzat and
is mistaken by the autorickshaw driver for a sex-worker. Heavy use of cosmetics at late
hours and in public spaces can push a woman over the thin line of respectability she
treads. It can create alterity and become an invitation for sexual violence. Preetika
reminds us:
President’s son, Abhijit Mukherjee went on Times Now and said “these are all dented, and
painted women, these women who go to discos are now protesting on the streets? They
have no right to protest.”

Preetika refers to a comment made by Abhijit Mukherjee, Member of Parliament and the
son of a former President of India, that anti-rape protestors were ‘dented and painted’,
implying they were fashionable, irresponsible and unrespectable. He added that protes-
tors who frequented discotheques thought it was a fashion statement to attend protests
and were disconnected from ground realities. Here a masculine gaze commodifies the
woman’s body, deeming it ‘dented and painted’ and thus unworthy of being a citizen
who can protest. In this articulation, discotheques are frivolous sites of consumption that
create departures from gendered performance within family bound spaces of respect-
able consumption. Janya confirms these assertions on consumption of cosmetics and
respectable women:
A modern woman will do a bare minimum make-up and elegantly dress up. No bold make-
up, like not a very dark lipstick. She will have very nice colour, very subtle colour. She would
not have bindi (a small coloured mark on the forehead of a woman), would not have
sindoor (vermilion on the head of a woman as a sign of marriage).

Indeed, upper-class aesthetics are circumscribed by a commodified femininity – the choice

of cosmetics and clothing. This leaves women to deal with competing and conflicting
moments of modernity and tradition within discourse of izzat. The modern woman shirks
the bindi and sindoor, seen as vestiges of a traditional culture for married women.
In stark contrast, Disha, a security guard, distances herself from this modern woman,
constructing her concept of respectability around the traditional married woman who
wears sindoor and bindi,
In our houses, we don’t have grains to eat, and if a woman walks around in good clothes
just for show, I consider her this modern woman. She knows nothing about what is inside

the house, but is only interested in the show outside. I have never crossed paths with this
modern girl. . . I have not put even cream on my face. I have never bought cosmetics. I take
my bath, and we have village traditions that we put sindoor (vermillion) because we are
married, put bindi (dot) on our forehead. If you go to buy cream, you won’t get anything
less that INR 100. If I use these things, then I won’t be able to pay for my children’s hostel
fees. In my house, we believe that everyone should stay within their limits.

For an under-class woman living in conditions of material deprivation, any expenditure

on expensive cosmetics is unnecessary. Women who do it are pejoratively called
modern. In such settings, patriarchal markers of respect are sindoor and bindi that
married women wear. For these under-class participants, a woman with excessive
make-up is the quintessential Modern Girl who attracts and seduces men. Such a
woman is unrespectable because she also puts her hedonic pleasures ahead of the
family’s interests. Guddi’s articulation of the Modern Girl who dresses provocatively and
wears make-up is instructive:

We will attract someone, we will invite attention. This will create problems for us. These
people buy dresses, short dresses, and the dress attracts attention, isn’t it? They wear a deep
neck, both in the front and the back, and then their make-up is so hi-fi. (upper class)

The onus is on the woman to dress prudently – it is her consumption of provocative

clothing and ‘hi-fi’ (upper class) or heavy make-up that invites attention and attendant
violence. These stipulations specifically apply to the unmarried girl whose virgin body
represents the family’s honour (Ortner, 1978). This account also reveals a distinction in a
middle-class consumer’s clothing (modern, Western, provocative) and cosmetics (‘hi-fi’
or upper class) to Guddi, a working-class girl. Sarda, a working-class housekeeping
supervisor, explains how she is sanctioned from wearing make-up:

The married girl can wear make-up, an unmarried girl cannot put make-up. There is this bad
thought that she must be having a boyfriend whom she is attracting, whom she is showing off.

This account reveals a regulation of sexuality: premarital sex is unthinkable for a

respectable woman and the married woman, as already the property of another man,
is also policed against the crossing of any boundary of respectability. As Spivak (1981, p.
184) has observed, ‘the repression of the clitoris in the general or the narrow sense (the
difference cannot be absolute) is presupposed by both patriarchy and family.’
In Pink, a Hindi film that centres on an incident where young and independent Minal is
out with her flatmates Falak and Andrea and a group of men in Delhi. After attending a
rock show, having dinner together and sharing a few drinks, one of the men, Rajvir, makes
sexual advances towards Minal who rejects them, and eventually hits him with a glass
bottle in self-defence. Rajvir suffers serious injuries from which he ultimately recovers but
not before his friends have harassed the three women at their workplaces and home.
Rajvir’s friends threaten the women’s landlord to evict them because they are ‘not decent’.
Rajvir and his friends are further embittered that the women have the gall not to apologise,
and they rant that ‘I am just following tradition, I need to show the woman her place’, and
‘we will have fun with her, we need to humiliate her’. Here the woman’s legitimate position
is as a compliant object of male desire, and ‘fun’ is the male experience of subordinating
and controlling the woman’s body. Minal is depicted as a brave, independent woman who
is not intimidated by her harassers. When Minal files a complaint with the police, she is

kidnapped and molested by Rajvir’s friends as a warning. Subsequently, Rajvir uses his
political connections to file multiple charges of attempted murder against Minal, and
solicitation of money for sex and extortion against all three women. As the plot unfolds,
the prosecution’s strategy is to malign the women’s character by raising questions of why
they hung out with men they barely knew, shared drinks with these men, stayed alone
when they had family in Delhi, and so on, alluding consistently to the loose character of
these women and building allegations about them as sex workers. Their presence at a rock
show and a picture of Minal fixing a drink for Rajvir are used as evidence of promiscuous
and unrespectable behaviour. It is the responsibility of the women to have walked away, to
have avoided drinking with ‘decent men from respectable families’. The women here are
particularly gullible to degenerate global cultures. In a rupture of the gendered perfor-
mance of respectability, Falak breaks down in the courtroom and (falsely) accepts that they
did solicit money for sex, agonising over how that changes the wrong that Rajvir subjected
to Minal. The plot nevertheless resorts to the deus ex machina of the patriarchal senior
figure of a lawyer, portrayed by veteran cult actor Amitabh Bachchan, who comes out of
retirement to fight the charges in court and to rescue the three women from men. Further,
the movie continues to construct the respectability of the women around middle-class
patriarchal narratives. For instance, Falak tearfully persuades her lawyer that we are
‘normal, working girls’. In doing so, the plot evicts the position of women like sex-workers
from the boundaries of middle-class respectability.

Consumption of public spaces

It is common for women to voice their fears about public spaces in Delhi. Although most
rapes take place within private spaces, during the daytime and by known acquaintances,
women associate public spaces, public transport and darkness with dangers (Menon,
2012; Sirnate, 2014). While it is men who encounter violence from other men in public,
there are no restrictions on their movement while women are advised to stay home
(Menon, 2012). Articulations about dangers of public spaces are common and fix their
position within discourse of izzat as primarily masculine spaces. Preetika, a young
journalist, articulated her experiences as follows:
In Delhi, if I am not in my car or not travelling with friends I won’t feel safe on the roads or
using public buses. I like Delhi, I have lived in Delhi most of my life, but I don’t think it
makes me feel safe if I would put it in a nutshell.

Most middle-class women ideally like to reduce their presence in public spaces. A public
bus is a common site of sexual harassment of women. Women are groped and hear lewd
comments in these arenas. Moreover, the onus of safeguarding respect lies with women
(Puri, 2006; Wilson, 2015). Simran told us,
I still take an auto back, but I am very cautious after dark. I have taken it to the other
extreme; I always carry a pepper spray. It is always uncertain, dicey and iffy situation, you
cannot ever let your guard down. You can never say that now I am doing it for so many
years I can finally think of it as safe. There is no day that I am not paranoid about passing
through narrow alleys and walking through dark patches on the roads on the way to my

For most women, like Simran, public spaces are like war zones and the only way to
negotiate such a zone is by carrying objects of self-defence. They look at public spaces
with suspicion and deep paranoia. Thus, women either withdraw from public spaces or
use different means to create private bubbles around them. When waiting at bus stops
at night, many women accentuate their large bags, glasses or wrinkled end-of-work-day
clothes to denote that they have been at respectable work (Phadke et al., 2011). Women
use these performances to access public spaces in a minimalist manner and to retain
their respectability. Therefore, in discourse of izzat, a moment is created about public
spaces that fixes their meanings as dangerous, masculine and unrespectable. Parvati
confirmed these fears and told us,

My college used to get over at around 5:00 PM and I used to be back approximately at 6:00
PM. Even though my bus stop was just 20 steps away from my place yet, every day, there’s
someone to pick me up. I was almost 19, and still, there has to be someone just to pick me
up, if it’s dark and late. That kind of thing has always been there. Once I grew up, hardly my
neighbours or anyone could see me. I hardly used to get out of my place on a scooter. My
parents always insisted on taking a car because that’s just safer than being on a two-

Parvati is an independent young woman who when compelled to traverse public spaces,
does so in a decisively consumerist manner – with a scooter or a car. Accordingly, there
is a pervasive sense of frailty in public spaces and repeated objectification. Participants
described the numerous ways in which they had been harassed on roads with com-
ments such as ‘what kind of clothes are you wearing’, ‘where are you going?’, ‘you look
hot’, ‘come with me’, ‘check out her breasts/hips’. Participants repeatedly pointed to
how men would comment, often straight to their faces as, ‘cheez’ or ‘maal’. Maal is an
article, or thing, and may also refer to loot. Cheez again referred to a ‘thing’. Such
demeaning comments were reified in popular culture through Bollywood films and
popular songs. For instance, in a popular song from a commercially successful film,
the male protagonist sings to his girlfriend, ‘Tu cheez badi hain mast’ (you are an
exciting thing). This film from the 1990’s starred actors who have a cult following.
Contemporary runaway box office top grossers include movies like Badrinath ki
Dulhaniya (2017) where the hero stalks the heroine, kidnaps her, chokes her, before
eventually winning her over. Movie scenes where heroes objectify women as ‘maal’ and
‘cheez’ are rationalised by both men and women as compliments for a good-looking
woman. The normalisation of misogyny is evident in popular culture. Yo Yo Honey
Singh, a popular singer, rapped to a vile song (TVP Editorial, 2013 for parts of the
translated song), in which he described how he would have violent sex with a girl
who was ‘fucked’ by 25 villages. He goes on claim in the song that his penis was ready
and he would beat the girl with a shoe after having sex with her. The song goes on to
praise the singer’s penis as a symbol of his masculinity and describes various ways in
which he plans to defile a woman. What is unnerving about brand Honey Singh is that
despite some women activists filing law suits against these outrageous songs, he has
gone on to become one of the highest-paid music producers in Bollywood, reflecting his
appeal and legitimacy among millions in the country (FP Staff, 2017).
Besides being catcalled, our participants articulated instances of men driving past
on two-wheelers and groping their breasts or grazing various parts of their bodies in

an act of perverse intrusion. A participant described, ‘in a public transport, you are a
public property’. Public buses and trains became hunting grounds for predatory men
who would lean into women, grope at will, and pass lewd and sexist comments
wantonly. Let alone a lack of support for such women coming from passer-by or co-
passengers, some narratives revealed how onlookers derived pleasure out of sexual
Our under-class participants shared the greater vulnerability they experienced, as
they navigated their desires to find employment and the perceived threats on the street
from strangers. Mita, who works as a domestic help confides:

I feel scared of going out alone. Suppose somebody grabs me from behind, what then?
Here the roads are so empty. . .I have come so far to work, leaving my family behind for
work. . .I go out on my own mostly in the afternoons, after I have finished my work. . .No one
is there, then – it’s totally empty, only guys are there. They sit in the empty school buses
that wait. You won’t see a single girl! I’ve realised a woman can’t go out on her own in a
place like this. . .

Like Mita, other participants articulated precarity constituted by episodes of sexual

violence such as rape, sexual assault or harassment, a pervasive sense of frailty in public
spaces, and repeated objectification. Under-class women, while incorporated into the
same new middle-class aspirations, are simultaneously rendered precarious at the
fringes of these hegemonic formations. Mita shares that her employer ‘lives in fear’
and wary of untoward incidents, always takes her car out. Mita notes, ‘The car is safer
obviously. If some incident happens, I can ask my driver to drive the car away, but if I’m
walking how far can I run to escape?’ Unlike her employer, Mita has to walk through
these deserted spaces, often at odd hours, to get to her workplaces. Mita wears the
traditional salwar kameez and reports that she covers herself completely with a dupatta
when traversing these spaces. Sarda, a housekeeping supervisor, told us,

After my father’s death, I had to go out and work for a private firm. Because I had to step
out of the house, my neighbours started questioning my character. They started calling me
a woman of loose character. They would say she goes out, loiters around, mixes up with
boys, and has a loose character.

Sarda’s experience surfaces a conflict between private and public that marks discourse
of izzat. While neighbours do not offer any financial support to Sarda’s family, they
reserve the right to deride her as a woman of loose character because she has to step
outside the confines of her home. Similarly, Phadke et al. (2011) observe that if a girl is
caught talking frequently to boys, then rumours about her morality begin to spread.
Through a form of equivalence, loose character of women, consumption of public
spaces, and men are brought together in the above narrative. This helps to discursively
fix public space as a key nodal point in discourse of izzat (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985).
Thus, for most women being out in a public space is inviting sexual violence. Such
incidents increase if men see them as unrespectable. As a result, while men can loiter
around and occupy public spaces, women avoid public spaces unless there is specific
work. Phadke et al. (2011) observe that a woman who fails to demonstrate a clear
purpose of being outside in a public space is deemed as characterless. Through the logic
of equivalence, women who are found to loiter around in public spaces are considered
unrespectable. Moreover, it is rare to find unaccompanied middle-class women in public

spaces late in the nights. This allows men to completely dominate public spaces. These
articulatory practices in discourse of izzat have made public spaces as masculine and
unrespectable for women. Simultaneously, quasi-private spaces like bars, restaurants
and shopping malls are upper/middle class-specific, valorised as inhabited by ‘good
quality community’ and secluded from the so-called ‘lewd vulgarity’ of the underclass
that typically marks public spaces. Additionally, many middle-class women believe that
under-class men sexually assault women. Indeed, when asked to describe a potential
attacker, most participants used descriptors that stereotype the under-class, such as
‘shabby looking guy’, ‘complexion was black’, ‘villagers’, ‘drivers’, ‘Uber cab drivers’, ‘dirty
clothes, unclean, unshaven’, ‘beggars, labourers’ and from ‘poor socio-economic back-
ground’. These articulations create class-based alterity and see the sexual violator as the
under-class other. Further, such articulations relegate the rural to another tradition-
bound place and time, while the city of Delhi, emplaced within circuits of globalisation,
is a modern metropolis.

Ellipsis in discourse of izzat

There are two forms of ellipses in discourse of izzat that allow violence to unfold. First,
media coverage of violence against the poor and lower caste women is muted. In
comparison, sexual violence against upper-caste and middle-class women is far more
widely covered by the popular media (Rao, 2014). For example, the Jyoti Singh Pandey
rape case in Delhi captured media headlines for a considerable period. However,
countless cases of rapes against the poor and lower castes in rural India in the same
period were rarely given adequate attention by the popular media (Roy, 2012). This
focus on the middle-class is consistent with several scholars who contend that the
middle-class holds special ideological importance in re-visioning the Indian nation
(Deshpande, 2003; Fernandes, 2000). The middle-class woman, in particular, served as
the site for production of modern nationalism as simultaneously opposed to the West
and more coarse, lower classes (Chatterjee, 1989). It is the middle-class that engages
with global circuits of production and consumption on behalf of the nation. A telling
reminder is that movies like Pink are anchored around young, upper middle-class
working women and the violence inhered in their class-specific consumption practices.
Moreover, sexual violence conducted by armed forces and police in counter-insur-
gency operations across the country are not given media attention because such
violence occurs against lives that are made ungrievable (Butler, 2004b; Desai, 2016).
We also found during our interviews with middle-class women a relative silence on the
plight of poorer women. These middle-class women were primarily concerned about
sexual violence against their class allegedly perpetrated by the under-class and rarely
talked about the violence faced by the poor. Parvati was one of the few exceptions, who
chose to talk about sexual violence against the poor. She told us about the rape of a 14-
year-old girl that happened in an underclass neighbourhood near her house,
The girl was from a very very poor family. These backward regions, people from there don’t
generally like to talk, even if such a terrible thing happens, they are so ashamed of it, they
do not realise that something bad had happened to their daughter, she’s dead or raped.
They were poor, they were from the backward classes of the society, and I guess the father
was a cobbler and mother used to, go and clean the toilets or something. . .everyone from

the neighbourhood went to see and to console them, including my grandmom, she’s a very
social person. But they were not ready to talk about anything, and they were like, “gayi toh
gayi (it is alright if she is no more).” These people, they don’t pay as much heed to their girl-
child and probably because of this particular thing, they do not want to discuss the rape. It
is such a taboo. People just don’t like to discuss it.

Illustrating the second form of ellipsis within discourse of izzat, families of sexual
violence often maintain silence to protect family honour. Parvati described to us how
a young underclass girl who was playing in a park was kidnapped by men in a car,
brutally raped and killed. However, her family chose to be silent because they felt a great
sense of shame and loss of respect. Menon (2012, p. 140) insightfully observes,

“Sexual” violence has a potency that is greater than the actual violence of the act or the
physical damage inflicted. People recover even from murderous assaults, but once identi-
fied as “sexual”, the significance of even a less physically damaging attack is radically
transformed; the shame, the terror and the pain of the victim are that much more
magnified. Sexual assault has been so constructed that it is the most feared, most terrifying
and most humiliating form of attack.

Discourse of izzat makes sexual violence so much more dangerous because it creates
social death for the entire family. A great sense of shame and dishonour that gets
associated with it result in silence that is widely prevalent across social classes. Despite
her awareness and ability to articulate her position as a woman, Parvati describes her
silence in a harrowing incident on one of the few occasions where she chose to use a
public bus,

There was this old man sitting beside me. I had my bag with a laptop on my lap. Behind that
bag, he started to touch my thighs. First, it was sideways as though, it’s just an honest
mistake, he was sitting with his arms crossed. With the little finger, he was just doing that,
and he thought that nobody could see. He started to touch me like that. Initially, because, I
don’t know, Indian girls are not properly trained the way they should be – that you get up
and punch their nose, you just don’t right away do it. You try to avoid that situation. I tried
adjusting myself a little towards the further side so that I lose touch from him physically. I
started making adjustments so that I can avoid the situation but I couldn’t. All I could say
was, even though I still regret it, “can you just shift a little bit?”. Since he was very old, I
don’t know. He took that message quite strongly, and he was like no, she can say some-
thing. That was all it took for him to take his hand off me. You are not supposed to touch
somebody’s breast. That’s what he did. I mean for a second or two, I was like what the hell!
This had never happened to me. So, but then again he was smiling.

The shame that Parvati experiences with what is sexual violence is associated with going
against a social order – she is reluctant to confront this man, more so, a ‘very old’ man,
typically a venerated position within a patriarchal structure. Within discourse of izzat,
most respectable women are not trained to react by confronting this transgressor;
instead, like Parvati, they adjust and maintain ‘dignified’ silence. As feminist writer
Meena Kandasamy asserts, ‘The first suppression starts in how loud you are allowed to
be. When you are a girl, you can’t shout the way men can’ (The Hindu, 27 May 2017).
Public confrontations are rare because women expect men to indulge in different forms
of sexual harassment and there is normalisation of violence.

It is not that women are passive and do not resist sexual violence. Some women do
challenge patriarchy and openly confront perpetrators of sexual violence. As Sarda
told us,
If a man misbehaves, he should be given a befitting reply. This is necessary because he
might have indulged in a small act of violence, but if it is not stopped by a woman, he is
likely to do something bigger tomorrow.

These women verbally challenge men for making lewd comments. They go beyond the
code of respectable women within discourse of izzat to publicly confront men. In most
cases, there is very little support that they get from others around them. Most of these
are lonely battles of resistance that rarely translate into popular protests such as the one
witnessed after the Jyoti Singh Pandey rape case. Some women described to us how
they used counter-violence to restrict sexual violence. Uma narrated the following
experience to us,
I kicked a guy where it hurts, shall we say. I was in this bar that gets crowded, and this guy
came too close to me, I was wearing a really nice pair of spiky heels, and I sort of stretched
my leg behind and bent my knee back [and kicked him]. I then said, “oh my God I didn’t
realise you were that close, are you hurt? May be you should go somewhere else.” I think he
got the message.

As outlined earlier, men believe that women who go to bars are modern. Such
modernity is both desirable and a source of displacement for patriarchy. In such
settings, men often believe modern women, if they are unaccompanied, are available
for sexual favours and try to make advances. It is common to see women ignoring
these advances. In rare cases, as Uma describes, women respond with counter-
violence to create spaces for themselves. Such counter-violence can lead to an
escalation of violence as depicted in the Hindi film Pink. In some instances, as in
the film, media and popular narratives can frame acts of resistance within discourse of
izzat that reinforce the privileged position of men. In these cases, resistance or
counter-violence against men is seen as a fallout of problems in commercial transac-
tions with unrespectable women for sexual favours.
In summary, we see that unevenness and exclusions created within the discourse of
izzat cripple the abilities of women to report and to stop sexual violence from being
inflicted. Instead, the discourse creates a heightened sense of precarity because of the
shame associated with sexual violence. As a result, discourse of izzat normalises sexual
violence against women. We highlight androcentricity of respect by showing how
patriarchy frames it and contributes to violence against women.

In this research, we investigate the relationship between sexual violence and consump-
tion in India. This examination helps us identify discourse of izzat as a patriarchal
discourse that locates women who adhere to its normative framework as respectable
and dislocates those who do not conform to positions of alterity, unrespectability and
precarity. We explain how discourse of izzat is located at the intersection of two systems
of expropriation, patriarchy and neoliberal capitalism that intersect to make women

vulnerable to sexual violence. Specifically, we explain how respectable consumption

encodes and normalises sexual violence. This uncovers androcentricity of respect that
has not been understood in marketing theory.

Androcentricity of respectable consumption

Consumption is an important marker of respectability (e.g. Douglas & Isherwood, 1996;
Tinkler, 2003). In particular, Bourdieu (1984) richly describes the role of social honour in
consumption. Bourdieu (1990) offers insights into disguised forms of domination in a
field through symbolic capital and violence. He interprets symbolic violence as a form of
coercion that is considered legitimate. Bourdieu believes that exercise of power often
requires its legitimation that comes with prestige or social honour. Several researchers
drawing upon the work of Bourdieu (1984, 1990) have outlined the significance of
honour and respect in shaping consumption choices and symbolic violence (e.g. Holt,
1998; Üstüner & Holt, 2010; Vikas et al., 2015). These scholars have examined how
symbolic power is sustained and resisted in different settings. Despite these develop-
ments in marketing theory, we do not understand how respectable consumption can
inhere sexual violence. Moreover, there is a limited understanding of how consumption
normalises sexual violence by implicating consumers. This helps us uncover two dis-
cursive mechanisms that constitute androcentricity of respect.
First, we draw upon Butler’s (2004a, 2004b, 2009) explanation of how normative
frameworks generated by sedimented discourses further and normalise violence. Our
findings show that the sedimented discourse of izzat with chains of equivalence and
difference (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985) creates a divide between respectable and unrespect-
able women. In the first discursive mechanism, we find active articulations of women who
are desubjectified as unrespectable because of their consumption choices (Butler, 2004a).
A woman because of her consumption of clothing, alcohol, cosmetics or public spaces
may be considered characterless and unrespectable (also see, The Modern Girl Around the
World Research Group, 2008). Although the ability to consume like global middle-classes,
higher education, professional degree and economic independence are desirable middle-
class qualities, women should stay within the bounds of respectability defined by dis-
course of izzat. The androcentric respectability of these women is anchored on the
centricity of the ‘sacred construct of the Indian family’ in their lives, and a ‘discourse of
balance, restraint, and “knowing the limit”’ (Radhakrishnan, 2009, p. 211).
We found that women who are deemed as characterless and thus unrespectable
transgress the androcentric norms of consumption set by discourse of izzat. For these
women, respect becomes a source of abjection (Butler, 2009). For example, Marie was
seen as a sex worker because she wore makeup late at night. A female sex worker is
particularly precarious and invites sexual violence as a characterless and unrespectable
woman. In the articulations uncovered by us, characterless women are androcentrically
talked about and labelled as unrespectable. This approach was evident in Suzette
Jordan’s rape case. Jordan was desubjectified as an unrespectable woman because she
wore Western clothing, smoked and visited a bar at night. In discourse of izzat, Jordan’s
rape was her fault because she was characterless. Similarly, in another illustration of
androcentricity of respect, in the Hindi film Pink, Minal was desubjectified as unrespect-
able because of her consumption of alcohol and Rajvir was justified in making sexual

advances towards her. Sexual violence against such women is made ungrievable and
normalised because of their desubjectification (Butler, 2004b). Thus, androcentricity of
respect implies that the unrespectable have a discursive life of alterity or the other
against whom violence is justified because of their consumption choices.
The second discursive mechanism in the creation of precariat and normalisation of sexual
violence because of androcentricity of respect is of silence that is connected to consump-
tion. Women who suffer sexual violence often maintain silence by not reporting such crimes
because they fear a loss of respect and family honour. Discourse of izzat requires women to
avoid making formal police complaints or confronting their sexual violators. Several scholars
have written about how such crimes go unreported in India (Menon, 2012; Phadke et al.,
2011; Puri, 2006). We add to this body of knowledge by showing how women keep silent
since they blame themselves for sexual violence because of their consumption choices.
Discourse of izzat implicates the woman in sexual violence because of her inability to remain
inconspicuous. As Preeti told us that her clothing was partly responsible for provoking men
to letch at her and pass lewd remarks, which could easily lead to other forms of sexual
violence. Such conspicuity may get premised on clothes, consumption of public spaces,
smoking, makeup or drinking. As Preeti says, women should not look too attractive and
restrict male attention. Women who are conspicuous threaten men and sexual violence
becomes a way of establishing male dominance. In the movie Pink, Minal is kidnapped and
sexually molested by Rajvir’s friends because she had to be shown her place by humiliating
her. While a neoliberal social order necessitates the movement of women outside of the
domestic sphere, women are expected to ‘balance’ and consume in such a way that ‘they
remain absent in their presence’.
Moreover, the underclasses and lower castes with their inabilities to become active
consumers are denied respect accorded to upper classes. These women are often forced
because of their economic compulsions to be in public spaces during hours when
respectable upper/middle-class women stay within the safety of private spaces.
Further, discourse of izzat forces women to remain silent because any loss of honour
exacerbates their already precarious social and economic existence. Such women are
considered unrespectable and may get violated with impunity. As D’Cruze & Rao (2004,
p. 503) contend, ‘slave owners’ acts of sexual violence were literally inscrutable before
the law. Owners could claim that the absolute right to private property allowed them to
discipline slaves as chattels’. Although, unlike in a slave society, sexual violence is illegal
in contemporary India, it a common occurrence against lower castes and the poor, and
often unfolds in a state of ellipsis (Rao, 2014; Roy, 2012). We found that the popular
media primarily focus on sexual violence against middle-class women and maintain
relative silence on the state of the poor and lower castes.
In summary, we offer insights into androcentricity of respectable consumption that have
been elided in marketing theory. We explain how sexual violence against women inheres
respectable consumption. Moreover, our research helps to understand how sexual violence
is normalised because of norms of consumption within a sedimented discourse.

The precariat as a neoliberal consumer

Drawing upon the work of Butler (2009), Joy et al. (2016) show how precariat is created
through gendered performances in India. Our findings concur with their reading that

precariat is vulnerable to sexual violence. We add to this line of Butlerian analysis of

gender and violence by showing how conditions of precarity emerge from and con-
tribute to the capitalist ethos of consumption.
We find three ways in which capitalism and patriarchy reanimate each other in our
setting. First, we show how women are objectified and commodified by men. Men often
refer to women as maal (an article or loot) and cheez (thing). Popular Hindi films and
songs use these terms to (re)signify women as objects of consumption and as the
property of men. While we agree with Menon (2012) that both men and women are
commodified under capitalism, there is an additional outcome that we see in our
context. Commodification of women leads to normalisation of sexual violence against
them in addition to all other forms of exploitation that men undergo in a capitalist
Second, discourse of izzat situates women as consumers who are expected to follow
specific norms of consumption. Our findings show how norms of respectability frame
consumption of clothing, cigarettes, alcohol, cosmetics and public spaces. Although
discourse of izzat situates middle-class women as active consumers, there is no escape
from the position of precarity, and respect creates dependence on men. Women cannot
consume public spaces on their own at night and require the support of men. Moreover,
if women wear Western clothes and consume alcohol or smoke, men should ideally
accompany them to ward off male sexual offenders. Underclass women, who are not
active consumers are overlooked by popular media. As outlined earlier, such women are
considered unrespectable, and violence against them can be inflicted with impunity
because they fail as consuming subjects. Indeed, as Steven and Maclaran (2012) con-
clude that women are made into slaves of the market place that resexualises their
bodies in the garb of freedom and empowerment. Therefore, women are produced as
infantilised consuming subjects in this discourse (see Coleman, 2012). We further show
that in a moment of irony within discourse of izzat, men are infantilised as well. On the
one hand, men are ‘boys’ who are prone to making mistakes when they come across
women who do not follow androcentric codes of respectable consumption. On the other
hand, infantilised men are weak, vulnerable and threatened by independent and asser-
tive women. Hence, strict codes of patriarchy have to be followed to keep the infanti-
lised order of consuming subjects in place.
Third, discourse of izzat requires women to assess the risks involved in various
consumption practices and thus become prudential. For example, our findings show
how women are expected to assess the risks involved in consuming public spaces. This
is particularly true for under-class women required to work outside the private sphere
for economic reasons. The Indian economy needs these women’s labour and pushes
them to come out of their homes, and yet simultaneously punishes them for leaving
their homes. Similarly, they should know appropriate ways of dressing up to reduce the
risk of sexual assault. Discourse of izzat dialectically creates subject positions of women
that are simultaneously dependent on men and yet responsible for their safety. Women
are responsibilised to avoid sexual violence that can bring dishonour to families (Rose,
O’Malley, & Valverde, 2006). In locating itself at the intersection of patriarchy and
neoliberalism, discourse of izzat also situates itself at the intersection of tradition and
modernity (Chatterjee, 1993). India is marked by ambivalence towards space and time
with a desire to be both local and global, modern and traditional (Chatterjee, 1993). By

drawing upon patriarchal notions of respect, discourse of izzat strengthens its control by
appealing to upper caste Hindu traditions. The Hindu majoritarian Bhartiya Janata Party
that has gained popularity by aggressively creating a vision of upper caste Hindu nation
rules India today (Menon, 2015). The ruling dispensation commonly invokes patriarchal
traditions to justify its actions. The androcentric idea of respect strongly resonates with
the aggressive form of Hindu nationhood being imagined in India. Therefore, discourse
of izzat creates a spatio-temporal justification for itself that is in sync with the current
local zeitgeist. Further, discourse of izzat builds on neoliberal ideas to create a subjective
position of women as prudential and responsible consumers. In the last three decades,
neoliberal subjectivity is considered modern and global (Gupta, 1998). Such association
with the current zeitgeist of globalisation allows discourse of izzat to further create a
spatio-temporal justification. Thus, discourse of izzat with consumption as an important
nodal point (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985) enunciates a dual mode of oppression as it draws
upon highly exploitative systems of neoliberal capitalism and patriarchy, and makes the
position of women particularly precarious.
Sedimentation of discourse of izzat does not mean that women have become passive
victims of neoliberal patriarchy. As Venkatesh (1994, p. 43) rightly points out, there are,
‘significantly emancipatory nature of women’s condition in certain urban contexts
(especially urban middle-class group, or career women, or educated professional seg-
ments)’. We find that women resist patriarchy in several ways. Despite the sedimented
discourse of izzat and androcentricity of respect, women like Sarda and Uma from
different socio-economic classes challenge sexual violators and offer resistance.
Similarly, women like Binita actively work with other women to understand and inform
them about sexual violence. We also have an inspiring feminist scholarship in the
country that critically engages with patriarchy (e.g. Krishnan, 2015; Menon, 2012;
Phadke et al., 2011). Therefore, we do not suggest that discourse of izzat has completely
sutured every possible reality with no acts of dissent. Instead, we see discourse of izzat
as hegemonic, and as with any hegemony, it remains fractured with possibilities to
countervail and to offer resistance (Gramsci, 1973; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985).
We, however, would like to add two caveats to any celebration of the feminist
resistance outlined above. First, governmentalising gender, much of the activism that
we see in Delhi is sponsored by the State or international funding agencies and is by
middle class/upper caste women with limited participation of the underclasses and
lower castes (see Menon, 2015). As a result, issues and concerns taken up in these
acts of resistance further reinforce pre-existing privileges and are of limited relevance for
subalterns. This implies that subalterns are silenced in multiple ways (Spivak, 1988).
Second, we found that many middle-class women blamed under-class men for sexual
violence. This is contrarian to the fact that 98% of rapes in India are done by acquain-
tances (Sirnate, 2014). We see this as an upper class/caste articulatory practice to create
a stereotype and to further marginalise subaltern men. As Sori (2017) insightfully points
out, ‘The stereotype once successfully manufactured, and propagated until it becomes
common sense, can come handy to put down these obviously “misogynist, criminal”
people in their place, which can sometimes be in jails’.
In conclusion, our research helps to understand androcentricity of respect and
normalisation of sexual violence through consumption practices. Several questions
arise out of this study. How can the precariat get their voices heard? How are codes

of consumption and sexual violence against children related? How can subaltern women
challenge discourse of izzat through different forms of infra-politics to create counter-
hegemonic discourses? How can women appropriate consumption to displace neolib-
eral patriarchal control? How do women create alternatives to androcentric respect?
Finally, with a study on sexual violence, we hope to offer important insights into the role
of consumption in the creation of vulnerabilities and violence that require deeper
understanding as conflicts become ubiquitous across the globe.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributors
Rohit Varman is a Professor at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. He uses interpretive
methodologies and his current research focuses on corporate violence, marketization, and struc-
tures of subalternity. He has published in leading journals, including Journal of Consumer Research,
Organization Science, Human Relations, Journal of Retailing, Journal of Marketing Management,
Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Marketing Theory, and European Journal of Marketing. He
is currently an associate editor of Consumption, Markets & Culture and serves on the editorial
boards of Journal of Marketing Management and Journal of Historical Research in Marketing. He has
also co-edited books published by Cambridge University Press on alternative organizations in
India and on critical marketing published by Routledge.

Paromita Goswami is Associate Professor of Marketing at Shiv Nadar University, India. She is
keenly interested in social equity and justice issues, and her research uses marketing/consumption
lens to delve into topics like sustainable menstruation, religious terrorism, sexual violence,
masculinity, clinical depression and well-being. Her recent publications include a monograph on
Marketing Peace, and a paper on Social Entrepreneurship in the context of taboo consumption
published in Journal of Business Research.

Devi Vijay is an Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. Her current
research focuses on inequality, institutions, and social movements, with a specific focus on the
healthcare sector. She has co-edited, Alternative Organizations in India: Undoing Boundaries
(Cambridge University Press, 2017), and has published in leading journals including Public
Management Review and Marketing Theory. Devi has been awarded the Fulbright-Nehru
Research Fellowship for her research in public health.

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