Bounds of Righteous Agency: The gendered subject of minority rights in contemporary India

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Dutta, Sagnik 

This dissertation proposes a contribution to comparative political theory and postcolonial feminist theory, based upon ethnographic fieldwork of a social movement for gender justice led by Muslim women and its networks with state and non-state actors in contemporary India, a liberal democracy where Muslims are a minority. Moving away from approaches in normative political theory that focus on elective affinities between religion and reified liberal categories such as individual autonomy and the individual rights-bearing person, this dissertation explores notions of agency beyond autonomy that animate the performance of rights. Notions of agency beyond autonomy are undertheorised in debates on religion and liberalism in political theory. I reconceptualise the rights-bearing person and her agency by underlining the ways in which rights-bearing citizenship is mediated by concerns of ethics and a form of agency that entails submission to authority. I argue that such forms of submission to authority are compatible with a collective struggle against everyday gendered oppression and inequality. This dissertation also conceptualises located universalism as an entry point into the paradoxes of postcolonial feminist projects by exploring the entanglement of a transnational discourse of Islamic feminism and piety, and a territorially bounded conception of minority rights and Muslim family law. I argue that postcolonial feminist projects map on to normative feminist aims of a struggle against everyday gender inequality while remaining circumscribed within the postcolonial nation’s gendered imaginary of the family. The ethnographic chapters explore the itineraries of rights claims and their entanglements with notions of piety and ethical self-fashioning in workshops on the Quran and the Indian Constitution of this movement and a women’s shariat court.I then explore the paradoxical assertion of a transnational Muslim identity in urban spaces in Mumbai marked out as Muslim minority spaces by the violence of the state. Through engagements between comparative political theory, postcolonial theory, and political ethnographic study, this dissertation aims to answer questions such as: What notions of agency and ethics vis-à-vis the family and the community underwrite the rights claims of women in particular contexts? What imaginaries of space and time do these rights claims enclose and how do they speak to a territorially bounded conception of minority rights? In doing so, I urge for exploring religion and liberalism through everyday ethical modes of negotiation and beyond reified intellectual traditions in comparative political theory. I expand the field of postcolonial feminist theory beyond putative oppositions between the universal and the contextual to explore the paradoxical entanglements of the two registers.

Hussin, Iza
Postcolonial feminist theory, Minority rights, Indian secularism, Liberalism, Indian liberalism, Gender, Multiculturalism
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge