Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 23, January 2010
Livia Holden

Hindu Divorce:
A Legal Anthropology

Ashgate: Aldershot, Hampshire, 2008
ISBN: 9780754649601 (hbk); 259 pp pp.

reviewed by Elen Turner

  1. Livia Holden's twelve years of fieldwork in Madhya Pradesh, central India, is presented in the well-written, insightful and innovative Hindu Divorce: A Legal Anthropology. Holden's aim is to prove that divorce amongst Hindus is not only more widespread than is readily conceded by orthodox Hindus, but is actually sanctioned by law and society under certain circumstances. What is more, she demonstrates that the common assumption that Hindus cannot divorce originates from the British conflation of Hinduism and Brahminism, which was then cemented in law. She explores these divorce practices as they stand today in a combination of interviews with individuals involved in divorce cases, especially women and public notaries, and through an examination of legal records. Holden's position as a female anthropologist is crucial to the form of the research undertaken, as is the fact that the majority of her case studies are women. As she notes: 'Customary divorce is mainly on the woman's initiative since, in traditional context, men do not need to divorce in order to remarry' (p. 213).
  2. In Chapter 1, 'Conceptualizing Hindu Divorce,' Holden notes that the 'received wisdom' on Hindu marriage has long been that the rites performed during a marriage ceremony are irreversible, that the wife remains ritually tied to the husband through life and death, and that remarriage (for the wife) is unthinkable. A dogmatic belief that divorce is only permitted to the lower castes, and that it is against Brahmanic codes of conduct, has been sustained. Holden's task was not simply to prove that divorce is practised, but that there have been textual and historical provisions for divorce and remarriage among higher-caste Hindus, including Brahmins. Holden states in this chapter that her approach employs feminist, legal and anthropological methods—not 'to offer parallel analysis' but as an integration of the three disciplinary methods (p. 17).
  3. Chapter 2, 'Insights,' introduces the site of enquiry—the village of Piparsod (a pseudonym) in the Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh. She recounts, in great detail, her arrival in Piparsod with her husband in the early 1990s. Her French professor—who had studied Piparsod for many years—introduced her to the village. He was well-known and generally well-liked, but Holden describes the difficulty of forging her own identity and respect amongst the villagers—no matter how she attempted to do things her own way, it was Professor Chambard's precedents that she was judged against. Revising traditional ethnographic practices in light of the reflexive turn, Holden creates a narrative around her research practices in which she is very visible, demonstrating how her presence in the community affects social relationships. However, parts of this chapter read like a personal travel diary. The inclusion of such minute details as the crowded bus journey to the village, alongside descriptions of the infrastructure of Piparsod result in a rather disjointed style to the book as a whole, as Holden jumps between writing styles that do not fit together seamlessly. This chapter also includes a section written by Holden's anthropologist husband, Marius Holden, on the making of their ethnographic film Runaway Wives, and some of the challenges associated with this.
  4. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 present the information gathered from interviews and other research undertaken by Holden, such as analysis of customary and official legal practices. Additionally in Chapter 5 she moves away from analysing the Hindu judiciary relating to divorce in India, and examines how Hindu divorce practices have been dealt with on a global level, with particular reference to immigration laws in Britain and the United States, and what this means for 'cross-cultural, socio-legal communication' (p. 189). She consistently merges anthropological practices with legal analysis through a feminist lens.
  5. The main attraction and strength of this book lies in Holden's contribution to feminist ethnography. Her self-reflexivity and constant awareness of her position as a European woman in a male-dominated Hindu town highlights how gender relations not only affect the subjects of her study, but determine the way the study can be conducted. Throughout, Holden describes some of the difficulties she faced. These provide some empathetic humour, and give a strong sense of the personality of the anthropologist, preventing the study from becoming dry and impersonal. Holden faced numerous personal difficulties —being a European in rural India; being a childless married woman (in her initial research trips); and researching something that was considered irrelevant (at best) or intrusive by some. For instance, she states that at the beginning of her research, many in India assumed that she was studying only tribal people as divorce 'does not belong to Hindu tradition' (p. xi). When trying to gain acceptance from the women of Piparsod, her womanly and wifely characteristics were constantly scrutinised:

      Feeling really clumsy in a sari I opted for the salvar kamiz … If this choice was not criticized in public, in the women's company there was plenty of advice and warnings. Such attire was not appropriate for a married woman in the village! Women felt pity for my ignorance about foods reputed to give strength and long life to my husband and freely expressed contempt for my poor jewellery. Gently yet firmly it was suggested that I change into a more appropriate sari, which I could never wear without feeling constantly on the point of losing it (p. 43).

  6. Negative judgments of her could be long-lasting. Holden describes an instance in which she was interviewing an old Brahmin woman. A group of young Brahmin men took offence at the interview and stormed in, disrupting it. Despite Holden's consistent efforts to conform to the locals' moral code of conduct, the young Brahmin men berated her over a past episode that they often used to criticise her: 'good' Hindu wives avoid speaking their husbands' names, and Holden tried to conform to this practice, but slipped up on an occasion when her infant son was in danger of falling from a high terrace, and she called out Marius' name for help (p. 70).
  7. This instance with the Brahmin woman demonstrates how difficult and sensitive an undertaking it can be to gather primary information from women in rural India. As Holden states, 'it is not only easier to collect men's points of view, it is difficult to go beyond their perceptions because the modalities of men's formulation are more widely recognized and accepted than those of women' (p. 159). Holden does everything she can to create a collaborative research project with the women of Piparsod—to not become an honorary male in village life, nor assume the position of a privileged Western outsider—in order to tell how they negotiate the end of unsatisfactory marriages and remarry 'to secure better lives for themselves and their children' (p. 218).
  8. As the title suggests, Hindu Divorce: A Legal Anthropology would be useful for those studying the intersections of religion and law, divorce customs and law, and anthropology and gender relations in Hindu societies. Holden's overarching feminist framework also makes the book useful to anyone interested in feminist ethnography and twenty-first century anthropological practices. Her marriage of three disciplinary methodologies is impressive, and anyone undertaking such interdisciplinary projects would benefit from consulting this work, especially the earlier chapters. Holden's exploration of how Hindu divorce law has 'traveled' and been taken up by immigration authorities in the UK and the USA adds an international dimension to the study, and would be of use to people studying migration and immigration, although the extensive legal details of the later chapters may be of limited interest to anyone other than legal scholars. However, the book is organised in such a way that the reader can delve into chapters organised along roughly disciplinary lines without losing the sense that this is a truly interdisciplinary work.


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