Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009
Henrike Donner

Domestic Goddesses:
Maternity, Globalization and Middle-class Identity in Contemporary India

Ashgate: Aldershot and Burlington
ISBN: 978-0-7446-4942-7 (hbk); xii + 215 pp.

reviewed by Nivedita Basu

  1. Henrike Donner's Domestic Goddesses: Maternity, Globalization and Middle-class Identity in Contemporary India explores the shift in meaning of marriage, motherhood, conjugal relationships and family values for Indian middle-class women in order to find out the ways in which the household and the family reconstruct Indian middle-class identity. Based on detailed fieldwork spanning over a decade (1995–2005), this work of urban anthropology attempts to analyse the intricate interplay of class, gender and power through middle-class women's narratives as they negotiate modernity in Calcutta.[1] Donner's long association with Calcutta—with years of living and working there—gives the work an exceptional sensitivity as it explores the intimate lives and concerns of these women.
  2. In the 'Introduction' Donner provides a discussion of the important terms of this study—like the architecture of middle-class residences, the para or the neighbourhood, neoliberal reforms, and the socio-political terrain of Calcutta in the 1990s. These large-scale denominators are shown to determine women's mobility and material conditions in distinctly modern ways. The anthropologist is also conscious of her own position as an outsider (as a white woman from the 'West') which proves enabling in the long run as she is able to forge long lasting relationships of trust and intimacy.
  3. The first chapter provides an absorbing theoretical discussion of motherhood, kinship and reproduction. Indian culture is deeply informed by the myth that motherhood is woman's inevitable destiny and lasting happiness can come only through it. The maternal role places the virtuous self-abnegating mother on an exalted position while depriving her of real power of control over material resources. Donner examines the reforms introduced in the colonial period in order to show the ways in which the idea of the 'ordered' home, central to which were conjugal marriage and devoted maternity, change over time. In spite of the glorification/deification of Indian woman as life-giver, nurturer, and goddess, her status in the household is determined by her ability to produce a male child for her husband's lineage. Her identity revolves around the wife/mother roles beyond which no individuality is established or recognised. The wider ideas about modernity, Hindu nationalist thought, and transformations in socio-economic relations are studied through the institution of motherhood.
  4. The second chapter, 'Of Love, Marriage and Intimacy,' brings us to the core of the middle-class concern with issues of love and marriages. In spite of the transformations that middle-class marriages have undergone over the last century, the ideas about an 'appropriate marriage' are definite and entrenched. Whereas social spaces for love, premarital relationship and courtship within negotiated marriages have opened up, marriage is still defined very much in terms of collective interests over individual desires. The rich ethnographic material is used actively in combination with theory in order to locate changes in ways marriage is perceived. The chapter provides a thorough analysis of what makes a good match through discussions of changing relationships between women and men, daughters and parents, in-laws and their son's wives.
  5. The third chapter, 'Place of Birth,' is a detailed account of the shift in birthing practices among Bengali middle-class women. The shift from giving birth to the child in the natal home with the help of a dhai to giving birth at the in-laws' house or a nearby hospital has considerably damaged women's customary privileges. The weeks after a delivery are the only time that a woman could delegate her household duties and enjoy rest and food provided by her mother. But if the post-partum period is spent in the in-laws' house, 'the most enjoyable aspect of confinement is turned into a matter of control,' considerably exercised by the affines (p. 110). However, the increasing medicalization of childbirth in the post-liberalization era of India has helped young women to make up for the loss of customary rights in certain ways. Opting for high-tech caesarian sections is one of the most widespread phenomena whereby a birthing woman is able to negotiate individual privileges at her in-laws' house. Along with effective management of the ideology of 'shame' and 'pollution' associated with childbirth, medicalization of childbirth is a way for middle-class women to gain agency within the limits of patriarchal ideology.
  6. That motherhood is central to the making of middle-class identities is most forcefully shown in the fourth chapter, 'Education and the Making of Middle-class Identities.' Educational achievement is an important marker of middle-class status. So, the role of the mother in supervising the early formal schooling of her children is of extreme importance here. Donner points out the ways that girls are educated with an eye on becoming successful middle-class mothers in the future. English-medium education and teacher's training are desirable qualities for brides across this class. The chapter provides rare insights into contemporary parenting practices of the Bengali middle class whereby even apparently insignificant activities like the preparation of lunchboxes are imbued with meaning. The role of the mother is crucial in reproducing middle-class ideals and tastes.
  7. The fifth chapter titled 'Motherhood, Food and the Body,' explores the middle-class woman's agency as a consumer. Donner notes the increasing trend of mothers belonging to the Bengali middle-class to opt for vegetarianism. Vegetarianism, however, in this case is associated not only with class and its idiom of purity but also with the control of women's sexuality. Dietary restrictions are part of the wider need for self-discipline which is directed at maintaining the middle-class ideal of the single male-child family.
  8. Donner clearly points out that there is a sense of insecurity in the Bengali middle-class with the neoliberal restructuring of the Indian economy. In India, reduced employment opportunities in the state sector and lack of funding for education and health care have affected the ways in which middle-class women perceive love, marriage and motherhood. They sacrifice their own interests and desires in favour of their children's future success. Within this context, Donner says 'less security and a more consumer-based lifestyle emerge hand in hand with new anxieties about familiar relationships' (p. 181). Thus patrilocal residence, arranged marriages and lifelong unions are the normative discourses in post liberalization era.
  9. Donner engages with a rare area—how intimate relationships are undergoing a change in the wider climate of socio-economic transformations in India. She tries to emphasize that local changes in families and neighbourhood are as significant as those on the global level. However, I think the book could have gained from engaging with the public lives of the women under study. Donner restricts herself almost entirely to the domestic sphere, while surely, the middle-class status is as much produced and reproduced through the daily interactions of these women with the outside world. The views of men and a discussion of the role they play in the production of the Bengali middle-class status would have added other dimensions to the study, though as Donner says, she intentionally excluded this aspect for coherence of her work.
  10. Overall, Domestic Goddesses stands out as a thoroughly researched work in urban anthropology which makes an important contribution to the current understanding of how globalization and consumer-oriented economies influence kinship and marriage systems in urban India. The lucid language and rich ethnography makes the work interesting and useful not only for specialists but also for a far wider readership.


    [1] Much of Donner's fieldwork was carried out before the city was renamed 'Kolkata' in 2001.


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