Fieldwork in a ‘total institution’ is perhaps among the most challenging sites for ethnographic exploration and Suvarna Cherukuri’s attempt to represent the lives of women in a prison in India, is commendable for taking up this challenge. The book is based on fieldwork conducted over a three and a half month period in the Chanchalguda women’s state prison in Hyderabad. The author attempts to understand the power structures that define the lives of women prisoners, both within and outside the prison and argues that there is a continuity between the structures within and outside. While this may be an obvious and expected argument for a feminist sociologist, the book offers interesting ethnographic insights into women’s worlds within prison and outside it, especially in the context of women as perpetrators and victims of dowry. There are six chapters, of which the first three outline the theoretical perspectives, the historiographical setting and the methodological orientation of the study.
Two chapters focus on the ethnography of life in prison and feature some of the narratives of the women prisoners. Chapter 6 is the conclusion, which summarizes the highlights of the chapters and presents a discussion on the policy implications of women’s crime and its response through incarceration, and a critical comment on the lack of engagement of civil society in issues of punishment and rehabilitation. In her words, ‘the book tells a story. A story narrated by the incarcerated women prisoners’. But to my mind, this story is lost in the reviews of theoretical approaches to female criminality and discussions on the historiographical silencing of women prisoners as a category in understanding penology and crime in India.
The author has attempted to combine the anthropological methodology and style of doing fieldwork and the sociological theoretical perspectives on feminism and criminality in this research. However, she does not pose the problematic and complex issues that emerge from attempting such a blend. The chapter on methodological framework and positioning the self could have made a significant contribution to the discussion on using traditional fieldwork methodology to an unconventional site as the prison. But this chapter remains at best, a systematic listing of factual information. One instance of the author’s lack of critical engagement is implicit in her statement: ‘The superintendent and officers were absolutely non-intrusive. They were very helpful and did not impose any restrictions’. When is a total institution non-intrusive? Was there no surveillance of the author or of the research process? If not, this contradiction between a defining characteristic of the prison, i.e. control and its practice, i.e. non-intrusiveness, presents a curious paradox and a sociological insight, which needs further analysis. It is interesting to note that in her discussion of life in prison, the author addresses the invisible ways in which control is exercised in prison. One wonders whether there were similar mechanisms of control exercised on the fieldwork process.
Chapters 4 and 5 are the most interesting and come closest to the author’s promise of an insight into captivity. In chapter 4, the author presents narratives of women prisoners in the context of the crimes they were accused of. These narratives are used to challenge typical causal relationships to explain female criminality and instead, focus on the multiple, contradictory and repressive patriarchal structures which lead women into their prison lives.
Life within prison is the subject matter of chapter 5 and the author takes us through different forms of control that women prisoners are subjected to. The author argues that gendered social control is symbolic and invisible. She demonstrates this strongly through discussions on the lack of skilled work for women, the replication of monotonous household tasks, religion as a form of invisible control, the control of sexuality through its silencing and the moral horror associated with homosexual relations. The chapter devotes a section to the strategies of resistance, which pose an interesting counter to practices of control. But the implications of the relationship between control and resistance and their impact on each other are not explored. Also as a social anthropologist, I am intrigued by the choice of the concept ‘control’, rather than power. Perhaps the Foucauldian understanding of power would have illustrated the structure and dynamics of control and resistance.
The book will be of interest to the general reader and to the social anthropologist for the interesting ethnographic glimpses it offers into the world of women in crime and incarceration. However, the analysis does not do full justice to the ethnographic material that is presented here. The structure of the book, which appears much like a dissertation, is perhaps an impediment in this regard. Yet, since in the Indian context, literature on prisons and criminality is scant, particularly so from a social anthropological perspective, the book is a rare addition.
Mahuya Bandyopadhyay is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Miranda House, Delhi University.