Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 28, March 2012
Mangai Natarajan

Women Police in a Changing Society: Back Door to Equality

Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2008
ISBN: 978 0 7546 4932 8 (hbk); xviii + 288 pp.

reviewed by Kalyanee Rajan

      Women in open (western) societies compete with men, not because they are women, but because they see themselves as independent and autonomous individuals. These expectations help them to survive in society and also help them to achieve success in male-dominated jobs such as policing (p. 3).

  1. It is against this premise that Mangai Natarajan builds a case for the basic contrast between the 'open' western model and the 'closed' or traditional Indian model of women's policing in her book Women Police in a Changing Society: Back Door to Equality. Natarajan argues that the unique Indian experiment, or more specifically, the Tamil Nadu experience of establishing All Women Police Units (AWPU) on one hand provides an emulative model for similar traditional societies while on the other, presents valuable observations for western societies today in order to enlist and engage women police officers.
  2. In the title there is an interesting play on the word 'Police' which is used as a noun, 'Women Police' instead of the usual 'policewomen'. The word is also used as a verb in the title and hence, refers to how Women police in a changing society are heading towards greater gender equality. Natarajan explains, that being 'policewomen' rather than 'women police' is a sign of growing professionalism and an increased level of confidence and assertiveness among women officers (p. xv).
  3. Natarajan presents a detailed account of her extensive research on women police in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu over a period of twenty years. She brings her related studies together to provide a descriptive evaluation of the role and function of policewomen in Tamil Nadu since the establishment of the AWPUs. She administered questionnaires to different samples of policewomen in the USA and India, interviewed them and analysed random samples of court cases to arrive at inferences crucial to her project.
  4. The book is divided into four parts and has nine chapters interspersed with thirty-four tables reflecting a wide range of data collection and analysis. It also contains an updated and exhaustive bibliography spread over forty-seven pages.
  5. In the first part of the book, Natarajan presents the international picture as suggested by the title 'Women Police Worldwide'. The first chapter 'Women Police and Societal Change' delineates the major theoretical aspects of the research describing in detail the two models of integration in policing—the integrated model, which derives agency from the idea of equal opportunities and representation and the model of 'gendered policing' which springs from a belief that women 'have a specialist role in the police that they are uniquely qualified to fulfil' (p. 12).
  6. The second chapter, 'Three Decades of Research on Women Police: What Has Been Learnt,' offers an extensive overview of all related studies conducted worldwide in the past three decades. Natarajan reviews the western experiences in policing in developed countries—the United States and Britain—and discusses impediments to integration. Natarajan adds to this discussion – an examination of police in traditional and developing countries, and argues that 'western models of integration do not necessarily hold for traditional societies and that the experience of Tamil Nadu may hold more relevant lessons' (p. 18). She points out that while the setting-up of women police stations was perceived as a creation of the feminist movement, the policewomen themselves have to be careful not to be seen as 'feminist agitators' owing to the 'predominant male police culture' (p. 37). From this survey of worldwide research, Natarajan draws crucial inferences—the need for women officers in the police is amply documented in these studies; women have been neglected by their organisations and disparaged by their male counterparts; they have also been subjected to widespread sexual harassment; gender bias is more acute and prevalent in traditional and developing societies; most of the studies are focussed on identifying and explaining barriers to the integration of women in police; and there has been little discussion of the choices women themselves make in joining the police or their choices once they have joined. The current shift to community policing in western countries might give greater importance to crime prevention, which many women may find more satisfying than law enforcement, she concludes (p. 41).
  7. The second part of the book, 'Women Police in a Traditional Society', maps the status of policewomen in India through various cultural and social changes. She explains the structure of the Indian police and presents statistical data for the number of policewomen deployed within various Indian states. For any reader, it is surprising to note that in her brief survey 'Women Police in India', Natarajan does not mention Kiran Bedi, the first woman IPS officer who transformed the way policewomen were perceived in Indian society. Famously known as 'Crane Bedi' for towing away the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi's official vehicle for parking violation[1] and winner of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award,[2] Bedi rightfully claims mention in any book written on the subject of policewomen in India. The fourth chapter 'Women Police in Tamil Nadu' provides a similar survey focussed on the history, structure and functions of policewomen in Tamil Nadu thereby introducing the reader to the unique concept of AWPUs. On the recommendation of the Police Commission of Tamil Nadu, the AWPUs were established and modelled on the all women police station at Calicut, Kerala. These were set up against the backdrop of rising crime against women in the 1980s. The first AWPU was set up in Central Madras on 13 April 1992 and the majority of women police personnel in the state were commissioned to serve in these units. These units currently total 195.
  8. The third part deals with 'Studies of Women Police in Tamil Nadu' which spans exhaustive research and analysis spread into three chapters. In chapter five 'Tamil Nadu Women Police in the 1980s', Natarajan uses four of her studies to present a comprehensive picture of the status of policewomen in Tamil Nadu during the 1980s and a coherent comparison with that in the United States. The sixth chapter 'Tamil Nadu All Women Police Units – An Assessment' examines the AWPUs in detail and sets forth specific studies of the experiences of policewomen deployed in the AWPUs regarding their roles, career commitment and gender-role conflicts. Natarajan also discusses the effectiveness of AWPUs in reducing domestic violence. She includes an evaluation of training given to policewomen in fields including dispute resolution, interviewing, and data management. Chapter seven 'Women Police in the Battalions' follows her later studies to discuss the impact of labour law legislation in Tamil Nadu, which required more women to be recruited by the police force. The findings of Natarajan's studies reiterate Simone De Beauvoir's argument that women are judged and measured by the standard of men, and when they are found wanting, they are considered inferior.[3] It is well documented that this applies clearly to the traditional practice of policing worldwide where women are not only considered unsuitable for the job in the first place but are also looked down upon by their male colleagues as an unnecessary extravagance.
  9. The fourth part of Natarajan's text is 'Women Policing in a Changing Society' which delineates the conclusions drawn by the author in the final chapters. Chapter eight 'Reconciling the Needs of the Police, Women Officers, and Tamil Nadu' describes the experience of segregated policing in Brazil and Pakistan and analyses various ramifications of policing in traditional societies. Chapter nine 'Prescriptions for Twenty-first Century Women Policing: Theory, Research, and Policy' discusses prescriptions considering the inferences drawn from the AWPU model in terms of three vital operative factors: theory, research and policy. De Beauvoir proposed that in order to bring about an effective social transformation, women must take charge of their own choice instead of trying to fit themselves into the pre-ordained mould of gender-roles.[4] This tendency to take charge is amply demonstrated in the course of Natarajan's studies where policewomen, after their stint at AWPUs, express a willingness to undertake the same duties as policemen instead of being relegated to the background. Natarajan emphasises the importance of gendered policing as a precursor to full integration of women into the police force with reference to traditional societies. She concludes with a pertinent and thought-provoking question to western countries and feminists alike: 'Why not use gendered notions as a back door to improve the status of women police and simultaneously to provide peace and security to the citizenry, women in particular?' (p. 174). By means of extensive research and analysis, Natarajan makes a powerful case for 'gendered policing' as a suitable alternative to the traditionally followed integrated model of policing. She concludes that due to the surprising success of the Tamil Nadu model, gendered policing may actually prove to be a 'back door' obliquely leading towards meaningful integration and equality within the police force in the true sense of the word.
  10. In bringing to light the significant differences between western and Indian experiences of women policing, Natarajan is essentially suggesting what Chandra Talpade Mohanty[5] has argued, that the Eurocentric conceptualisation of women completely ignores the unique and peculiar situation of women from the third world and in this case, that of women police officers from a traditional society like India.
  11. Apart from a few grammatical and stylistic errors which have crept in, Natarajan's book emerges as a thoroughly researched, authentic and significant endeavour in the field of policing in India and the West. From systematic investigation and analysis, Natarajan claims that when most western nations are finding it exceedingly difficult to attract and enlist women officers to their folds, there may be a back door towards equality and a resolution may be found in the unique and successful experience of a traditional society. In addition to being an effective means of revisiting and exploring gender studies in relation to occupational choices like policing, the book will be immensely useful for those interested in studying the intricacies of the complex discipline of policing and criminal justice. It would also be of interest to researchers, as it provides important data and crucial insights into methodologies of conducting research and data analysis.


    [1] Tinku Ray, 'First Female Police Officer Quits,' BBC News, Delhi, Tuesday, 27 November 2007, online:, accessed 28 February 2012.

    [2] 'Citation for Kiran Bedi,' in the 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, online:, accessed 28 February 2012.

    [3] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Pashley, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

    [4] De Beauvoir, The Second Sex.

    [5] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, 'Under western eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial discourses', in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991, pp. 51–80, p. 51.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 1 March 2012 1403