India. The Influence of Disability on Gender Roles and Identity

Term Paper, 2015
20 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical framework
2.1. Indian notions of personhood
2.2. Indian perspectives on disability

3. Disability and masculinity
3.1. Challenges
3.2. Negotiating identity

4. Disability and femininity
4.1. Challenges
4.2. Negotiating identity

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The Indian feminist movement has until recently neglected the plight of those women that are not healthy and functional in the normative sense, but rather impaired and thus, almost consequently, disabled. By taking disability into account, the general burden of being born female might become evident in even sharper contrast. In order to achieve a more complete picture and understand the mechanisms behind gender ideologies in the context of disability, the situation of the disabled men needs to be considered as well. This way, a comparative analysis of the impact gender ideologies exert on persons with disabilities (PWD) of different sexes is possible. How does incapacity, physical or intellectual, affect the standing of a PWD in the eyes of their community and subsequently their general outlook in life? In what ways does the experience of disability influence the perception and performance of culturally determined gender roles and gender identities?

Due to India being so culturally diverse, no single formulation can be given that encompasses all the different ways in which disability is viewed and experienced.

The study of the disabled experience of men and women in relation to gender is impossible without taking into account the ideological background upon which gendered ideals, norms and expectations are socially constructed. Thus, before delving deeper into the literature review, an outline of the construction of personhood as well as the perspectives on disability in the Indian context shall be given. Afterwards, an analysis of the different genderspecific challenges, but also opportunities for identity negotiation of men and women with disabilities is attempted consecutively. In this section it will be shown that men generally suffer from the same normative ideals as women, albeit to a lesser extent depending on their impairment, its degree and also their social setting.

Much emphasis has been placed on the situation of disabled women in India, whereas there are hardly any works mainly focusing on the disabled experiences of Indian men. James Staples‘ text offers a unique insight into the ways masculine identities are negotiated within the context of disability and a demanding patriarchic society. Nilika Mehrotra’s work, although focused on the situation in Haryana, explores the strategies of women with disabilities. „Disability studies in India“, edited by Renu Addlakha, probably offers the first compilation of essays that cover a wide range of topics related to the experience, culture and history of persons with disability in India. Many valuable case studies dealing with the everyday lives of PWD, their strategies and challenges are herein included. A large portion focuses on the intersection of disability and gender, particularly the female gender.

2. Theoretical framework

2.1. Indian notions of personhood

Being disabled poses a major challenge to one’s status in society, which is, in turn, commonly defined in terms of masculinity or femininity. Throughout scientific literature, the Indian notions of personhood are repeatedly juxtaposed to Western ideas. According to these comparisons, South Asian societies stress the importance of familial and communal bonds rather than independency and individuality so valued in Western countries. The South Asian „dividual“ is thus contrasted with the Western „individual“ in terms of interpersonal fluidity and their own personhood as being „substantially transformed through their interactions.“1 According to this thought, identities evolve from within the context of the family and its social relationships as well as from the interaction with - and differentiation from - people outside the wider social group. As always, generalising statements such as the above need to be taken with a grain of salt; nonetheless, the studies incorporated in this paper largely support them.

Competent personhood is exemplified by the able-bodied, fit and healthy person who fulfils his or her role in society and maintains good relationships - an area strictly regulated as well. There are differences along gender (and religious) lines, however, that need to be acknowledged in order to gain a more comprehensive picture of Indian personhood. These differences ultimately root in the biological fact that the female body undergoes risky entries and departures of bodily substances during menstruation, sexual intercourse and childbirth, rendering her more fluid and open than men and thus „more dangerously vulnerable to impurity, sexual violations, and receipts from the outside [...] and also more exudative.“2

The feminine ideal is traditionally associated with physical perfection in terms of function and appearance as well as the ability to shoulder a wide range of responsibilities in the household and for the family. A sentence from the ancient Manusmriti describes the subservient role women are supposed to obediently assume even today: „In childhood a woman must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband and when her Lord is dead, to her son. A woman must never be independent.“3 Marriage and motherhood must be attained in order to gain a respected place within the social order. What if a woman is unable to live up to the expectations her family and wider society impose on her?

The same question is of utmost relevance for the Indian men as well: Virtually all South Asian societies traditionally expect a man to earn a living for himself and his family outside home and to be visible in the public sphere4. Among the attributes commonly linked to masculinity are physical strength, sexual dominance and potency as well as qualities as the head of the family5, the latter of which involving the capacity to sustain the family’s livelihood. „True masculinity is almost always thought to proceed from men's bodies - to be inherent in a male body or to express something about a male body.“6 Even though this quotation is taken from a Western-centric context, it might equally apply to the Indian case as the examples following below will show.

2.2. Indian perspectives on disability

In academic literature and disability rights discourse, the term „disability“ commonly encompasses both the medically defined impairment of the body or of the mind and the social responses and restrictions the impairment elicits. This is of course not the case where popular perceptions of disability in India are concerned. Far from utilising academic vocabulary, the common views on disability are shaped by everyday-issues and also religious traditions.

„Embodied difference“ is a crucial term as it signifies the very body of a PWD as deviant. Those unmarked by disability, however, could easily pass as normative7 unlike those whose surface has been modulated or transformed by illness or impairment8. It is in this context that the fact of only obvious, physically visible markers of „abnormality“ - a missing limb, a deformed face and the like - qualifying as disability in Haryana9 becomes understandable. By implication, those with intellectual and mental incapacities, as long as these are either not accompanied by physical conditions or particularly severe, are not regarded as deficient and in need of support in any way. Seeing as intellectually handicapped persons are commonly assigned agricultural work and thus contribute to the family’s livelihood, this notion might become understandable, for as long as participation in the agrarian economy is possible, no need arises to view the person as dependent on others in order to survive10. Disability is thus primarily defined in terms of dependency. Although this observation was specifically made in reference to the situation in Haryana, there is no harm in presuming an at least similar attitude to prevail in India in general.


1 James Staples, „At the intersection of disability and masculinity. Exploring gender and bodily difference in India“, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17 (2011): 549.

2 Sarah Lamb, White saris and sweet mangoes. Aging, gender, and body in North India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 281, quoted in Staples, „Disability and Masculinity“, 549.

3 Manu quoted in Maya Thomas and M. J. Thomas, „Status of women with disabilities in South Asia“, Asia Pacific Disability Rehabilitation Journal. Group Publication. Selected Readings in Community Based Rehabilitation Series 2 (2002), 2, accessed Jan 2, 2015,

4 Thomas and Thomas, „Status of women“, 2.

5 Staples, „Disability and Masculinity“, 549.

6 R. W. Connell, Masculinities (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 44 quoted in Tom

Shakespeare, „The sexual politics of disabled masculinity“, Sexuality and Disability 17, no. 1 (1999): 56.

7 The term „normative“ is given preference over its better known alternative „normal“ because of the latter’s lack of neutrality.

8 Cf. Staples, „Disability and Masculinity“, 553.

9 According to the SRS Statistical Report of 2012, Haryana is the state with the most skewed sex ratio in the whole country; per thousand men there are only 857 women. Corresponding to these figures is the low status of the female sex in general; the widespread use of sexselective abortion as well as female infanticide serves as a probable explanation which might be even more pronounced when the child has shown to be disabled in addition to being female.

10 Nilika Mehrotra and Shubhangi Vaidya, „Exploring constructs of intellectual disability and personhood in Haryana and Delhi“, in Disability studies in India. Global discourses, local realities, ed. Renu Addlakha (London/New York/New Delhi: Routledge, 2013), 152f.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


India. The Influence of Disability on Gender Roles and Identity
University of Göttingen  (Centre for Modern Indian Studies)
Disability and Society - Global Historical Perspectives
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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india, disability, gender roles, identity, gender, challenges, identity negotiation, indian feminist movement
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Nejla Demirkaya (Author), 2015, India. The Influence of Disability on Gender Roles and Identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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