Contesting Respectability: Being Middle Aged, Middle Class and Single in Delhi

by Dr Melissa Butcher, Project leader

This project will work with middle aged, middle class, single women, to further understand ‘respectability’ as a form of spatial governmentality. The focus on respectability brings together everyday socio-economic and cultural practices, providing a means to understand persistent forms of hegemony that maintain class and gendered space use in India. Respectability as a governing concept stems from Hindu, colonial and nationalist constructs of the Indian home and the place of women within it (Waldrop 2012; Radhakrishnan 2009; Chatterjee 1989). The middle class home, in particular, has been enabled as a marker of difference from both Empire and India’s lower classes. Respectability continues to shape the articulation of national belonging even as it is transformed through processes of globalisation and individual agency. The colonial imaginings of the female body are re-placed in the contemporary city, re-versioned to ensure respectability is maintained.

However, the boundaries of this discourse are being challenged by singleness as women step outside the ‘protection’ of ‘family’ (nuclear, extended and the nation). Increasing numbers of women join new professions such as the IT industry, migrate alone to urban centres for work, divorce or simply choose to delay or not marry. For cultural nationalists this challenges not only social institutions but the fabric of Indian society. This subproject examines the impact of this shift as a transcultural process, analysing in what ways the boundaries of respectability in Delhi, that is, the permissible and impermissible in public and private, are shifting as a result of cultural encounter  (e.g. the visibility of ‘western’ media).

Using ethnographic, focus groups and visual methodologies, the project will work with a cohort of single, middle aged (40-60 years), middle class women. Despite their seeming increase in numbers and influence, empirical descriptions of India’s middle class are vague and sound ethnographic work is sparse (Waldrop 2012). Yet, it is argued that it is within the middle classes that the boundaries of respectability are disseminated (Deshpande 2003). While researchers such as Roy (2011) argue that this sector have taken on the task of ordering space in Indian cities resulting in class and gendered segregation, this research will assert that the middle class needs to be examined as a heterogenous formation with different degrees and types of agencies. The research will raise questions as to how they experience singleness, how they navigate the city and its codes of respectability, and the spaces of comfort and discomfort that they find themselves within. Space use will be documented, in particular, how the use of certain spaces, or their presence in certain spaces, challenges or reinforces notions of ‘respectability’ and the boundaries between public and private, between subjective and collective notions of self.