Womanhood & Community in an Indian Homeless Shelter

A review of Women with No One: Community and Christianity in a Secular South Indian Homeless Shelter, by Connie Etter

Connie Etter’s dissertation is based on fieldwork at a homeless shelter for women in a city in South India. She provides a window to their world by exploring Tamil ideas of gender and womanhood, the physical space of the institution, the complex exercise the residents engage in about religion, and notions of sexuality and intimacy. Etter convincingly demonstrates that the women in the homeless shelter, Arulagam (House of Grace), actively engage in the debates on morality, ethics, and their place in society, even if only from the margins. The thesis consists of seven chapters.

Founded by a British woman, Margaret Harriss in 1976, Arulagam provides a “home” for women, who “had no one,” that is, those who have been abandoned by their families or have left their families behind and are in need of “social rehabilitation.” Etter’s thesis takes us through the everyday process of making and unmaking of such places. These women are believed to be a “moral danger” to society. Morality in this context is defined as “chastity” (karpu). Safeguarding chastity means everyone, the staff and the residents, have to “adjust.” Etter looks at exactly how these adjustments unravel in their everyday lives.

Etter starts by looking at the history of Arulagam, The organization is helped by foreign volunteers and local women, who work as staff in the offices and the kitchen as well as in the classrooms, where residents are taught sewing and other handicrafts that might fetch them an income. Some women are married, some are abandoned, some are mothers with young children. They are Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. While in the North American context such women are seen as lacking “home,” in the Indian context the assumption is that they lack “family.” In this chapter, Etter focuses on how these women without families go on to create a “community,” albeit one fraught with tensions and ambiguities. Every chapter in this thesis ends with a life history as told by a member of the organization, either staff or resident.

Chapter 3 unpacks “failure” (beginning with Etter’s own experiences in undertaking fieldwork). Here Etter looks at how women who are seen as having failed to stand up to the social norms of patriarchy and chastity construct very different notions of success and failure. The primary reason women with such histories come to Arulagam is safety. The outside world is too dangerous, with threats of sexual assault, kidnapping, and other forms of violence from family members. Etter documents the fights, jealousy, and insinuations that occur within the organization. She details the rather difficult task of doing ethnography on and about such a place and its people, and of getting caught in the “power politics” that goes on inside such institutions.

Chapter 4 looks at the institution as a place for “innocent women victims,” who with some help can return to “the dignified life they had lost, that had been taken away from them” (p. 80). That dignity is in getting married or returning to a married life. The “universal goal” is to “rehabilitate” the residents as family members, not just as women (p. 83). However, the women are unsure about these attempts to reintegrate them into a patriarchal family, and many members question whether marriage is the only suitable form of rehabilitation.

The Arulagam “shelter home for women” announces its presence by a huge wall, which keeps the residents “safe.” Chapter 5 uses the wall as a metaphor to look at those who remain inside and those who venture out. The homeless shelter does not fall neatly into “Tamil cultural spatial grammar” and is categorized as an intermittent space, where women “rescued” from “wastelands” are temporarily housed before they return to the ideal family setup. But inside the house there are significant differences in the way the staff members view the residents as women who should not be let out, lest they run away. Indeed, elopements are constant. One of the administrators tries to provide some room for the residents to move about by building a “wall of freedom,” but its fragility shows when, in a subsequent visit to the field site, Etter finds that the wall has been broken.

Arulagam is seen by many as a Christian charitable institution, and certainly its history has deep religious roots. But how do the women themselves negotiate their religious identities in their daily lives? In Chapter 6, Etter explores this through a “secular ethics of belonging” (p. 152). There are three ways in which people deal with this issue: by distributing snacks during the Hindu festival of Saraswati Puja; or by claiming that religion does not matter in this place; or by locating secularism in “basic Christian principles” such as empathy. Etter neatly illustrates the difficulties in this process: “How can a community talk about an ethics of belonging when they don’t share the same language” (p. 161). More than anyone, it was the people who actually lived in the shelter who had to maneuver through this difficult task.

Foreign volunteers coming to Arulagam also experience this “complexity of religious identity.” Some complain that women spend more time singing Christian songs than “counseling.” Ambivalent in their own religious affiliations, they are also unsettled by the quick friendships established by the residents and the slow pace of work in the organization. Here contrasting views become evident; the staff of Arulagam see the women as affected by “evil spirits” that need to be exorcised before they could be rehabilitated, while the foreign volunteers see the residents as just child-like, not amoral.

The last chapter (Chapter 8) goes in depth into the relations of intimacy established between staff and residents, amongst residents, and the censure and comments these relationships invite from others in the shelter (both administrators and fellow residents). Here Etter looks at the fine line between “caring for and having power over others,” through the lives of three women and the close bonds they forged with other women (p. 212). Etter calls them “risk-taking citizens,” who try to actively define and articulate notions of sexuality and womanhood within their confined spaces (p. 225).

This dissertation contributes significantly to anthropological works on gendered notions of ethics and morality. It does so by documenting the lives of those Tamil women who are on the margins of society, and the creative and arduous path they walk to create a home, a family, and a community for themselves in a homeless shelter in south India. It is also a very rich ethnography, and will be of interest to scholars in women’s studies, religious studies, and South Asian Studies.

Haripriya Narasimhan
Department of Liberal Arts
Indian Institute of Technology–Hyderabad
haripriya@iith.ac.in

Primary Sources
Ethnographic research and interviews conducted in Tamil Nadu, 2008-09

Dissertation Information
Syracuse University. 2012. 271pp. Primary Advisor: Susan S. Wadley.

Image: An Old Tamil woman. Source: Wiki Commons.

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