AbstractsWomens Studies

Let the "Dirty" Women Speak: The Agency and Divergent Aspirations of Devadasis and Development Interventions in Karnataka, India

by Patricia Nicole Aaron

Institution: University of Otago
Year: 0
Keywords: Devadasi; India; Karnataka; Postdevelopment; Postfeminism; Postcolonialism; Development; Religion; Religion and Development; Sex work; Agency; Poverty; Rural development
Record ID: 1302948
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10523/5609


In this dissertation, I examine the relationships between development organisations and religious beneficiaries through an ethnographic exploration of devadasi women in rural North Karnataka, India. Contemporary devadasis are both religious and poor. As Hindu, Dalit women, they are dedicated to the goddess Yellamma by their mothers, and practice sex work to support themselves economically. Their histories are bound up in colonial interventions and reform movements, but their pre-colonial histories are largely unknown. The early twentieth-century saw a rise in debates around the “woman question”, largely centred on “respectability” and “morality”, which had significant consequences for devadasis, who were slowly forced out of the temples, where they are said to have once acted as priestesses. The process of this transition out of the temples is unclear, but today’s devadasis are seen by NGOs and reformers to be nothing more than prostitutes—understood to be “dirty” women lacking respect. Since 1982, the devadasi practice has been criminalised in Karnataka, and the government has implemented reform and rehabilitation schemes purportedly to help the women out of sex work. Additionally, the rise in HIV/AIDS amongst the group has led to an increase in development interventions, seeking to mitigate both HIV/AIDS and poverty. Through the influence of these reform and development interventions, I argue that the devadasi practice is changing, and the women’s identities are changing. Utilising life stories of devadasis, interviews with staff of development organisations, focus groups between the two, and participant observation over the course of twelve months, this thesis seeks to reveal how devadasi women use their new identities to negotiate poverty with the organisations trying to help them. I argue that, while these new identities have previously been portrayed negatively, we may detect the agency of devadasis in the various narratives they use to get what they need from these organisations. Moreover, while these organisations advance their own religious beliefs onto the devadasis, the religious importance of the devadasi practice continues to be seen as irrelevant and/or superstitious. The findings from this research indicate that development organisations are patronising towards devadasis and uninterested in listening to them. Consequently, I demonstrate that divergent aspirations emerge between development interventions and what devadasis express as their needs, which prevents interventions from being effective in this context. Development organisations do not tend to consider devadasi paddhati (tradition) in development interventions. This research contributes to existing scholarship in religion and development, through an analysis of the divergent aspirations that exist between religious beneficiaries and development interventions. Using postfeminist theory, I explore alternative conceptions of agency, which recognise the difference that exists between devadasis and their desires. I also examine how…