Governing Gendered Violence

How do law enforcement personnel govern gender-based violence? The answer, it turns out, depends on howdisempowered they feel relative to women making legal claims.

Law enforcement disempowerment, its sources, and consequences for the regulation of gender-based violence, is the focus of my article “Incorporation: Governing Gendered Violence in a state of disempowerment” (American Journal of Sociology, 2021). Using 26 months of ethnographic and interview data with police, protection officers, and court personnel in West Bengal, India I trace the emergence of a set of governmental practices I call “incorporation.”

Law enforcement “incorporated” women by illegally reassigning casework and encouraging extra-legal repossessions and punishments. They told survivors to gather evidence, round up witnesses, deliver subpoenas. And they encouraged survivors to assault abusers, confiscate property, and regain custody of their children.

But there was one catch. Law enforcement only “incorporated” women with sizeable collective resources: those with connections to NGOs, political parties, and criminal gangs. And they did so because women used organized groups to disrupt daily operations, lay siege to government offices, and threaten state officials’ physical safety and job security.

Incorporation, in other words, was the way state officials governed violence when they felt disempowered relative to specific legal claimants.

Incorporation, not Protection

Within gender and legal studies, researchers frequently assume that state officials are and feel empowered relative to all women. The standard story is one where law enforcement exercise discretion, selectively protecting “good victims” – women from dominant social groups and those who perform hegemonic femininity.

This story, however, simply did not hold up within the Indian criminal justice institutions where I was conducting research. By approaching governance through a post-colonial lens, where standard assumptions of state capacity and political behavior are called into question, I found that law enforcement personnel do not always find it advantageous to protect “good victims.”

Faced with sizeable personnel and resource constraints and contending with organized threats, law enforcement decided the best course of action was to eschew social control and let women take the law into their own hands. Instead of selectively protecting women who fit narrow descriptions of virtuous femininity, law enforcement personnel delegated regulatory duties to aggressive and well-connected women.

The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Women’s Capability

My research underscored the myriad ways politics shapes how the law works. Political mobilization impacted every aspect of law enforcement decision making and response in my field site, from law enforcement’s willingness to listen to women’s complaints, to their decisions to outsource tasks and encourage extra-judicial punishments.

Much more can be said about the relationship between politics and the law. My article is part of a larger book project. Capable Women, Incapable States: Negotiating Violence and Rights (Oxford University Press, 2021) shows how political mobilization not only influences the emergence and trajectory of legal claims, but also reshapes women’s legal consciousness and gendered subjectivities.

By “incorporating” women who could mobilize, threaten, and do the work of the state, law enforcement personnel encouraged women to become socially connected, to hustle around, to be aggressive. Just as state protection demands victimhood from women, incorporation demanded women’s “capability.”

While fighting a legal claim, survivors became capable of many things. They started feeling they deserved rights. They confronted their abusers. They spoke to police officers without trembling. They joined women’s groups and entered job training programs. They cajoled people to testify on their behalf. They bribed the court clerk for a faster trial date.

Being capable of executing all these tasks felt empowering. Many women told me that the decision to seek rights had transformed their lives in positive ways, allowed them to make new friends, and boosted their self-confidence. 

Some women, however, had an easier time being capable than others. Middle-class, educated, Hindu, upper-caste women who lived in cities – the most privileged women within my sample – had a leg up in assuming this identity. They had the financial, social, political, and emotional resources to threaten and do the work of the state.

Even though law enforcement personnel “incorporated” women from diverse social backgrounds, by demanding women’s capability over the long course of a legal claim, they advantaged women from dominant social groups.

But even for privileged women, “capability” had its pitfalls. Capability, after all was not a conduit to rights, it was an alternative to rights.

A mere 10% of those who registered criminal cases in my sample received a favorable verdict. Meanwhile, over 78% of claimants (39 out of 50 women) were pending either investigation or trial at the conclusion of my research. Very few of the women I met received rights through the law. In this way my results mirrored aggregate results for domestic violence cases from India’s National Crime Records Bureau.

By incorporating politically mobilized women and encouraging capable women of taking the law into their own hands, Indian law enforcement continue to avoid doing their jobs. By making it clear to civilians that the only way to secure a better life is to mobilize, threaten, and do the work of a neglectful state, law enforcement personnel also undermine rule of law and their very own monopoly over violence.

Author’s Statement

Poulami Roychowdhury is Associate Professor of Sociology at McGill University. She focuses on politics, law, and gender. Her book, Capable Women, Incapable States States: Negotiating Violence and Rights in India (2021), is available through Oxford University Press. Her research has won awards from The American Sociological Association, Law and Society Association, Eastern Sociological Association, and The Society for the Study of Social Problems.

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