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Matters of the womb: Muslim women's narratives of fertility, family, and the Indian State

Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
India's population control policy has long narrowly focused on curtailing reproduction, even after it was rebranded in the late 1990s as family planning. It continues to prioritize a target-oriented approach limiting birth rates instead of promoting the well-being of families. In particular, deep-seated class prejudices against the low-income Muslim community have led to academic debates and policy interventions to curtail what is considered to be the high fertility rate of Muslims across the nation. Against this backdrop, my dissertation examines the ways that low-income Muslim women imagine, embody, and negotiate family planning in the context of their everyday lives. Drawing on fourteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Delhi, I explore how women limit fertility and build families. Their narratives provide a critique of the neoliberal framework of choice that celebrates freedom, autonomy, and individual rights in the pursuit of reproductive goals. In contrast, women's decision making reveals how reproductive choice is embedded within the context of social, familial, and kinship relations, gendered dynamics inside and outside the household, neighborhood and migration histories, and state-imposed programs. Through a feminist analysis, I foreground the relational and contextual aspects of family building practices. I argue that women challenge the state's classed, gendered, and prejudiced discourses through their pragmatic family building rationales, which they commonly refer to as samajhdari ki yojana, or wise planning, especially within the context of scarce resources and infrastructural constraints. Women cultivate an ethos of judiciousness and responsibility; they understand their own physiological and mental health to be intrinsically connected to the well-being of their families. Thus, women navigate state and familial institutions while negotiating the use of both invasive and non-invasive contraceptive technologies such as sterilization, intrauterine devices, and oral pills. In this regard, I illustrate how their willingness to use IUDs is intertwined with their hopes for the safe delivery and immunization of their infants; how familial, medical, and social anxieties compel them to seek different contraceptive pathways to avoid failures and side effects; and how contingent circumstances and relations with community health volunteers motivate them to adopt or evade sterilization. This dissertation contributes to an understanding of women's challenges and contradictory and ambivalent negotiations with care arrangements within both familial and institutional settings. It also contributes to an understanding of how social ties and the dynamics of neighborhood building shape the parameters of intergenerational family building.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Pigg, Stacy Leigh
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