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Reading the Law Within Public Discourses

Pratiksha Baxi

By Ratna Kapur
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 217, Rs. 650.00


Ratna Kapur’s objective to outline a postcolonial feminist framework takes seriously, the emergence and legal regulation of what she terms the new sexual subaltern and of the new images of sex in contemporary Indian society. Telling the stories of law then is to interrogate the implication of law in the contemporary reformulations of culture and sexuality. Traversing many domains of law, different state agencies and the claims made by groups speaking on behalf of women or sexual subalterns, Kapur weaves a powerful argument to critique those manoeuvres that use cultural essentialism to inscribe sexual normativity while presenting culture as static and immutable. Her research, however, is not limited to the local, national and transnational contexts of legal regulation in the Indian subcontinent; rather her work also engages with what may be termed “diasporic” legalities. For instance, the circuits of power that inscribe the ‘transnational migrant subject’ — the subject ‘who crosses borders and occupies a subaltern position’ inform the discussion on the blurring of trafficking and migration, global flow of migrants in countries such as Britain, and Australian responses to refugee or asylum-seekers (p.139). The book journeys through many contemporary debates in India in order to lay a claim to a postcolonial legal feminism. This claim is not made in opposition to western feminism, rather the project challenges ‘the systems of knowledge that continue to inform feminist understandings of women and the subaltern subject in the world’ (p.4). A postcolonial feminism challenges the univer-salizing strategies of those ‘feminist projects, especially liberalism, that fetishise the Third World woman’, and details how the colonial past inflects our present to challenge the pathologisation of sex and the constitution of the Third World women as abject subjects (p.4).   The author argues that to forward a more ‘progressive movement for women’s rights’, then, it is necessary to recognize ‘three major theoretical and practical shifts’ (p.128). First, women’s subjectivities are historically, culturally and socially determined. Second, feminist legal politics must foreground the peripheral subject to bring about significant shifts in normative frameworks. Third, when working with peripheral subjects there is a ‘need to understand resistance as more than simply a claim for rights’ (p.128). This entails challenges to normative heterosexist frameworks of gender, sexuality and culture.   Kapur sets out to map the spaces of those forms of sexuality that have been historically marginalized, deconstruct the opposition between sex and culture and explore the political ...

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