ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Religious Power and Gendered Agency


Menon Kalyani Devaki - DePaul University, Religious Studies, Chicago, United States


11 – Rethinking governmentality: Sovereign agency beyond the state in South Asia


While conducting fieldwork with diverse groups of Muslims in Old Delhi, I often heard Muslim women say, “Allah ek bahut bada badshah hain” (God is a very great king/sovereign). In this paper I examine how Muslim women call on the sovereignty of god to reshape their lives and circumstances in contemporary India. Marginalized by intersecting axes of religious, class, and gendered identities, Muslim women are not only adversely affected by the economic and political marginalization of Muslims in a country where Hindu supremacy is ascendent, but also experience gender-based violence in public and private spheres. They are often depicted as helpless victims, rather than as agents who draw on available resources to change their lives, and those of their families and communities. Islam is often constructed as a force that inhibits women’s agency and power, rather than one that makes space for them. Contesting this view, I draw on fieldwork with Muslim women in Old Delhi to show how they draw on the sovereignty of god to change their lives and worlds. Their acts challenge stereotypes of Muslim women, reconfigure tired notions of agency, and force us to reconceptualize our understandings of sovereignty to include the divine. This reconceptualization of sovereignty allows us to see how religion creates space for women’s agency, and imbues women with powers, both transcendent and immanent, to reimagine and reinscribe their worlds.