Family Counseling and Women’s Rights in Northwest India


A review of Claiming Care: Family Counseling and Women’s Rights In Northwestern India, by Julia Kowalski.

Julia Kowalski’s dissertation, “Claiming Care: Family Counseling and Women’s Rights in Northwestern India,” provides interesting new insights into the role of non-government organizations and the state in re-figuring the family, gender, and violence in contemporary India. Kowalski’s dissertation is written from long-term ethnographic research with two family counseling organizations in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.

In Chapter 1, “Nation and Family in the Indian Context,” Kowalski writes that family counseling in contemporary South Asia, lies “at the intersection of a series of discourses about how the family ought to mediate social transformation in order to produce an ordered social world” (p. 55). Unlike Indian women’s rights advocates, who claim that the family reinforces women’s vulnerability through reproducing patriarchy, family counselors argue that re-ordering the family can improve women’s position in the family. Family is the solution, rather than an institution from which women must be rescued. This conflict is mirrored on the nationalist stage: does the family further women’s oppression through practices like dowry and sati, or is the joint family as an essential Indian cultural institution? Yet Kowalski poignantly describes how family counselors maneuver through multiple discourses in their work as they reference nationalist concepts of the family, women’s rights language, and complex individual cases. In this way, she deftly avoids the trap that other scholars have fallen into in their analyses of development by referencing “local moral worlds” that are in contrast to “global development discourse.” Counselors’ work is messy, she argues, because “the very patriarchal joint family that women’s activists argue damages women’s well-being and inhibits their agency and independence…is imagined as a central mechanism for ordering Indian society” (p. 56). She describes family counseling as an innovative practice to promote individuals’ wellbeing through examining a series of social interactions that collectively promote household wellbeing. Practitioners of family counseling and family psychology will be interested in the insights she offers into family systems theory and family therapy that she offers in this chapter.

Chapter 2, “The Everyday Pragmatics of Seva in Jaipuri Families” shows how family members creatively deploy kinship ideologies to make demands and justify their behavior. Departing from past research which has explored South Asian kinship as a set of rules and hierarchical expectations, Kowalski effectively describes how care (which she glosses as the Hindi seva) is negotiated and always up for debate. She emphasizes the interaction surrounding seva rather than assuming informants’ statements about care are objective indicators of family life, much less social changes. “Negotiating how best to care for dependents, how best to serve elders, how best to order the interdependencies of family life into some kind of reciprocal whole,” she writes, “these challenges were less about the content of what family members did or didn’t do for one another, and more about how they were able to frame their actions both in the moment as well as after the fact, as they described family life to counselors, to each other, and to me as an interviewer” (p. 92). In this way, Kowalski importantly challenges researchers’ tendency to morally interpret their research subjects’ narratives, asking instead what impacts subjects try to affect through their narratives.

Chapter 3, “Family counseling and institutional landscape of Women’s Protection in Jaipur,” illustrates the challenges that family counselors face in their work. While many scholars approach the professionalization of NGOs critically, Kowalski manages to describe their work respectfully yet honestly, showing how they balance their separation from the private and from other public forms of redress. She takes seriously counselors’ argument that “familial ideologies of care constituted a legitimate form of rights-based intervention” (p. 144) as an “alternate model of how public and private might engage with one another” (p. 164).

Chapter 4, “Not Violence but Seva: Disciplining Dependence,” offers a crucial re-framing of intimate partner violence by considering how both family members and counselors interpret violence. In counseling centers, it was seva, not violence, that received the most attention. Counselors focused on incidences of physical harm as symptoms of household care imbalances rather than labeling them as violence. Thereby, they located violence on the possible spectrum of household care instead of inherently opposed to it. With this move, counselors could repair family interactions to better offer care, rather than eliminating violence through removing women from families or dangerous family members. She describes how counselors use family hierarchy to produce better care—reminding senior members of their obligations to protect fairly and junior members to care reciprocally. Kowalski corrects researchers’ historic bias toward privileging physical violence and material neglect by concentrating on local concepts that show how sentiment and material result in harm through each other. Yet she also shows the bind that counselors faced in working within family hierarchies, “where to demand care” could result in ceding women’s “very entitlement to it” (p. 195).

Chapter 5, “Asking and Giving: Authorizing Claims of Seva” examines ideologies about proper family language through which family members can make claims to care from one another. Kowalski skillfully examines the complexities of family speech by showing how requests can be intertwined with desires to control family members.

Chapter 6, “Kinship Ideologies, Social Transformation, and the Limits of Seva Claims” shows counselors differentially evaluate women’s claims about family conflicts depending on their perceptions about women’s backgrounds. Kowalski shows the contradictions between different types of empowerment discourse. When women appropriate different registers of empowerment discourse alongside one another, their claims can be de-legitimized. Here, she productively shows how women must balance the hierarchies within their families with other social hierarchies of class and development as they advocate for themselves.

Chapter 7, “Sensitizing the State: the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act and the Contradictions of Dependent Citizenship,” situates Kowalski’s ethnographic work within the broader legislative context of contemporary India. She describes the inherent conflicts in the emergence and execution of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), which, in 2005, was the first law to legally define domestic violence in India. Family counselors were named as agents responsible for implementing the law through processing women’s claims. While feminists played a role in designing the law so that it would accurately capture women’s dependence on their families, many—including counselors—felt that the law was not able to capture the nuances of family interactions. Instead of showing vulnerability to emerge from multiple family members interdependent actions, the law requires family conflicts to be described from an individual viewpoint that makes women “seem more and more like a threat to the forms of familial relationality” (p. 262). Kowalski effectively shows the difference between PWDVA definitions of violence and counselors’ definitions of family conflicts when she contrasts the resolution process that counselors enact for each.

Kowalski’s fine-grained analysis uses her own participant-observation to offer examples of how kinship is negotiated in everyday life, offering these details as an alternative way for researchers to understand interpersonal violence, claims for care, and unequal family relationships. She vitally shows the tension between human rights (and public health) language used to describe domestic violence and the way that women understand it—a tension that should be followed up by other scholars cross-culturally. Furthermore, Kowalski offers exciting insights into the ways that, in their efforts to further women’s security, legislators and NGOs diverge in their creative reinterpretation of the relationship of the public and private in contemporary India. In contrast to previous feminist analyses, Kowalski shows the power of how women’s advocates—whether counselors, as in this case, or domestic violence workers—can work within family hierarchies to make claims for better life for women. This dissertation will be useful not only to scholars of South Asia, but will be vital to researchers exploring gender, violence, and development on the global stage.

Claire Snell-Rood
Department of Behavioral Science
University of Kentucky College of Medicine

Primary Sources
Ethnographic research at two family counseling centers, Jaipur, India
Various visual materials (posters, advertisements) collected by the author from research sites and popular media

Dissertation Information
University of Chicago. 2014. 338pp. Primary Advisor: Jennifer Cole.

Image: A family counselor speaks with a participant in an awareness-raising program in a local settlement colony. 2010, photo taken by author.

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