Girlhood Studies and Disability in India

Epistemological Shifts

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 University of Alabama


Anita Ghai. 2015. Rethinking Disability in India. New Delhi, India: Routledge.

Anita Ghai’s Rethinking Disability in India (2015) offers a comprehensive and critical analysis of disability from the vantage point of a disabled scholar-activist living in the Global South. Since most of the scholarship in disability studies has its roots in the Global North, Ghai’s book, with its transnational focus, is refreshingly different. Contesting the dominance of Eurocentric thinking about disability, Ghai engages the broad pantheon of contributors to transnational feminist studies and to the scholarship in disability studies in search of epistemologies that will reframe disability outside of oppressive hegemonic paradigms. For someone unfamiliar with disability studies and its intersection with feminist studies, this book offers not only a comprehensive overview of the intersecting fields of study, but also a fresh perspective on thinking through some of the challenges encountered on the way. Unable to do justice to the comprehensive issues in this book, I will foreground, instead, arguments that are in keeping with the theme of this special issue of Girlhood Studies.

The central locus of this book is India (Ghai’s home country) and it is in this context that she examines, through national and international social policies, autobiographical narratives, religious and cultural mores, and social and psychological theories the changing ways in which ability and disability as social constructs have an impact on identity, autonomy, and selfhood. Frustrated by the way disability is not conceived of as a critical knowledge base similar to caste, gender, race, sexuality, and sexual orientation, Ghai laments the fact that contemporary scholarship and social movements continue to accept “the ‘naturalness’ of conveying inferior and defective personhood to individuals with … physical and cognitive impairments” (xv). Enmeshed in such ideologies, social and educational policies (in India and elsewhere) conceive of disability in terms of the medical model with its focus on cure and/or rehabilitation and the charity model with its emphasis on pity rather than rights. Thus, Ghai asks, “What are the implications of … a medical [and charity] paradigm [for disabled girls and women] as a mode of interpretation?” (xxi). The book provides possible responses to this question.

Ghai begins autobiographically, delineating her journey into adulthood as a disabled girl. Her autobiography addresses how the “self-conscious appraisal of my ‘Self’ becomes activated through the gaze of the Other which evaluates me” (17). The gaze of the Other is the medical gaze—the gaze that already marks disabled people as deficient and that is manifested in the unsolicited interrogations to which Ghai is often subject: “How come you had polio? Were you not vaccinated? Why were your parents not more careful?” (1). Rather than responding to these interrogations with a cheerful overcoming-disability narrative (what in the disability community is popularly called “inspirational” porn), Ghai proposes, as an alternative, a narrative she describes as a “mental state of deferral” (2) that teaches us to learn to own our bodies even when the world is telling us that we are defective.

Political economic conditions also affect the life experiences of disabled women and girls. Ghai observes how poverty both separates and connects disabled girls and women across the globe. She writes, “If you are poor you are more likely to be disabled, and if you are disabled you are more likely to be poor” (103). Within Indian public policy, disabled girls and women are included in the category of “vulnerable groups” (107) in ableist language that constructs disabled girls and women only as reliant on state welfare or private charity. But Ghai’s focus is not on the political economy but on culture as central to framing how ability and/or disability has an impact on the lives of girls and women. She defines culture as “not so much a product of sharing [but] as a product of trouncing each other into shape with the well structured tools already available” (24). For example, Hindu scriptures serve as one disciplinary force; the three major elements of the Hindu worldview: moksha (salvation), dharma (pre-ordained duty) and karma (action) combine to place disabled people in a constant quest for cure, redemption, abuse, and neglect. Within this religious-cultural milieu daughters are constructed as parai (Other) needing a dowry in order to be married off and, as a result, are perceived as representing a fate worse than death (140). Within this same religious-cultural milieu, langri (crippled) daughters are seen as a punishment from God because they are now considered unmarriageable (140). Disabled daughters are, therefore, denied the realization of the most traditional notions of femininity because of their cultural construction “both [as] a threat and [as] a reminder of imperfection” (6).

Even though Ghai’s family has been both caring and supportive, its members were not immune to the social pressure of finding a cure—the inevitable fallout of feeling compelled to align with the mythical norm of the perfect mind/body. Thus, Ghai’s girlhood was punctuated with “shamans, gurus, ojhas (exorcist), tantric priests, and faith healers, as well as miracle cures” (3) in the quest to achieve this fantasy of what McRuer (2009) refers to as compulsory able-bodiedness. Some of these “miracle cures” Ghai remembers as traumatizing, like, for example, being buried neck deep in mud during a solar eclipse, having heavy stones placed on her girlish body, and witnessing disabled children being shackled in chains while undergoing an exorcism. While it is easy for a reader from the Global North to cringe at what may seem like backward practices, I hasten to remind that reader that comparable cringe-worthy practices also happen in their own backyards. Take, for example, the case of Ashley X, a teenage girl with cognitive disabilities whose body was medically altered so as to keep her perpetually small so that her parents could better care for her (Kittay 2011). There are, therefore, transnational continuities in the medical and cultural modes by which we continue to do violence to disabled girls’ bodies.

Ghai’s narrative located in a transnational context has critical implications for girlhood studies. She writes,

Feminist discourse has developed without disabled women taking a hand in shaping it. What now can be done about feminist’s inattention to disabled girls and women, and how would feminist discursive attention look and read if, initially, they had been involved in its development? (149).

Several chapters in Ghai’s book offer some tentative responses. For example, she reminds us that even traditional ideologies of girlhood are usually denied to disabled girls and women. Ghai writes of her own situation here.

Within the dominant Indian ethos, to be a mother was the greatest achievement as a woman. … However, it is also a culture that privileges only legitimate motherhood. Any desire to have a child outside wedlock is deemed to evoke further stigmatization … . While it is perfectly justifiable for feminists to engage in ‘natural’ and constructed motherhood, the pain and agony of not being able to have a child was demoralizing (9).

This yearning for motherhood locates disabled girls and women in a contradictory relationship with non-disabled feminists (Erevelles and Mutua, 2005). Additionally, Ghai describes how Indian mothers of disabled girls experience divorce, abandonment and even torture, thereby reminding us that a radical feminist politic would necessarily also have to include the women who bore these girls.

Ghai also identifies access to sexuality as central to the construction of an empowering sense of self. She is distressed that there is a reluctance to recognize disabled girls and women (in particular) as sexual beings, something that is also true in the Global North as Erevelles and Mutua (2005) point out. Moreover, in India, since marriage is not seen as an option for disabled girls or women, looking for sex outside of marriage is a dangerous endeavor that could lead to dire consequences if discovered. Additionally, Ghai notes that disabled girls and women (especially those with cognitive impairments) are presumed to be unable to give consent. The only time that women’s groups in India actually allied themselves with disability rights activists was when 15 girls with cognitive impairment at the Sassoon General Hospital in Pune, India, were compelled to undergo hysterectomies in order to enable the institution to better deal with menstrual hygiene. In another example, issues of consent once again became a focal point when a girl with a cognitive impairment was permitted to give birth to a child after having been raped by guards at an institution. Such triggering examples, require, as Ghai suggests, urgent and necessary conversations at the intersections of disability studies and feminist studies, and, I would add, girlhood studies.

Throughout the book, Ghai asks us to reflect on an alternative mode of interpretation—the social model in which “disability is an identity, not just a medical problem, and a field appropriate for wide ranging intellectual inquiry” (xxii). Epistemologically, according to Ghai, this would require that we ask of disabled people questions that do not focus on their impairments but on the social conditions that shape their lives. Citing a disability activist, Mahesh, Ghai writes,

[Q]uestions … such as ‘When did you become disabled? How did you become disabled?’ should make way [for]… questions such as “Are you getting the freedom and choice to live the way you want to at home and in society? … . Are you able to make full use of public transport? …Are you being restricted from setting up your own family? (xxiii).

It is this epistemological shift to reconceptualize disability outside of the dominant paradigms within which it is habitually viewed that provides Ghai with desperate hope in the final chapter of the book.


  • Erevelles, Nirmala, and Kagendo Mutua. 2005. “‘I am a Woman Now!’: Rewriting the Cartographies of Girlhood from the Standpoint of Disability Studies. Pp.253270 in Geographies of Girlhood: Identity In-Between, ed. P. Bettis and N. Adams. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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  • Kittay, Eva F. 2011. Forever Small: The Strange Case of Ashley X. Hypatia, 26: 610631.

  • McRuer, Robert. 2006. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press.

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • Erevelles, Nirmala, and Kagendo Mutua. 2005. “‘I am a Woman Now!’: Rewriting the Cartographies of Girlhood from the Standpoint of Disability Studies. Pp.253270 in Geographies of Girlhood: Identity In-Between, ed. P. Bettis and N. Adams. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kittay, Eva F. 2011. Forever Small: The Strange Case of Ashley X. Hypatia, 26: 610631.

  • McRuer, Robert. 2006. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press.


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