The Work of Love: Domestic Violence and Bodily Experience in Kolkata, India
The World Health Organization estimates that almost one in three women worldwide have experienced abuse by an intimate partner (2013). Despite its high prevalence, global definitions of domestic violence do not travel well across contexts. Based on 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Kolkata, India, my doctoral research offers a new account of domestic violence. The women I studied are laborers who live in low-income (slum) neighborhoods and face a continuum of violence in daily life; I followed their stories at home, in clinics, and in NGOs. Through attention to women’s bodily experiences, I found that not all violence is marked as abuse and not all abuse is violent. Even when women “stay” in relationships, they do not stay silent. In scenes of complaint, we see how women set thresholds for what they can endure and the stakes of doing so. Based on these findings, I argue that existing models for domestic violence in South Asia—the American model of “Power and Control” and the cultural model of “Suffering Sita,” the good wife who suffers in silence—are both inadequate in explaining Bengali women’s realities. As a physician and anthropologist, I hope that a nuanced analysis of domestic violence, based in cultural theories of intimacy and the body, can allow us to better hear and attend to women’s stories within clinical encounters and spaces of care.