Notre Dame professor launches book on women’s agency and interdependence in India
Kate Kirwan | Thursday, February 16, 2023
“Many thanks to all of you for joining us to talk about my book about gender-based violence on Valentine’s Day. I can’t think of anything more romantic than spending time together interrogating the ideological underpinnings of kinship,” Julia Kowalski, assistant professor of global affairs at Notre Dame, ironically remarked.
Notre Dame celebrated the launch of Kowalski’s book “Counseling Women: Kinship Against Violence in India,” Tuesday evening in Jenkins Nanovic Halls. The event was sponsored by the Keough School of global affairs, the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian studies, the gender studies program, the Kroc Institute for international peace studies, the Kellogg Institute for international studies and the department of anthropology.
Lakshmi Iyer, associate professor of economics, moderated the event, commenting on how the collaboration of this event’s sponsors serves as a demonstration of the intersectionality of Kolwalski’s work.
“The fact that so many different units are supporting this event actually speaks to the broad relevance of Julia’s work for all these fields,” Iyer said.
Kowalski’s book centers around her ethnographic field research at counseling centers in Jaipur, India where she followed frontline workers, known as family counselors, who support women coping with violence, change and adjustment in domestic spaces.
In an interview with The Observer, Kowalski described that her interest in the dynamics of gender began from a young age. As early as elementary school, she recalls inquisitively observing how many times her teacher would call on boys versus girls in class and coming home from school to voice these insights to her mother after school.
Her interest in gender and kinship was further cultivated through her undergraduate study abroad experience in India, building the framework for her book’s focus.
Sarah Lamb, professor of humanistic social sciences and anthropology at Brandeis University, and Michele Friedner, associate professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago, offered commentary on the book.
Lamb described how Kolwaski’s work moves beyond traditional notions of Western feminism and emphasizes the importance of local, cultural social relations of family structures in Jaipur.
“Julia’s work is really important in the ways it complicates and pushes beyond prevailing models of liberal personhood and imaginaries of what constitutes social progress,” Lamb said. “People are never quite as free as scholars and policymakers often like to imagine them to be able to make choices according to their own independent desires. Rather, persons in most contexts make their lives intimately in relation with others.”
Lamb emphasized that family and kinship relations in Jaipur are vital for women’s security as they are central to their social, emotional and economic survival and well-being.
Kowalski’s research was primarily conducted immersed in counseling sessions–observing and documenting how women can maintain agency within family structures. Friedner commented on the unique nature of Kowalski’s research design.
“I was really interested in the way that you made this choice to stay in the counseling session. I’d love to know more about why you didn’t go home with folks, and could you have gone home?” Friedner asked.
Kowalski answered that the research was designed to demonstrate a different way to think about gender-based and domestic violence.
“There’s often a real desire in research on gender-based violence to look directly at victims. And part of what I was very interested in looking at in this book is how violence is getting problematized and connected to these wider institutional patterns and dynamics,” Kowalski responded.
Kowalski told The Observer that throughout the entirety of her research, her main focus was always on empathizing with and creating personal relationships with the individuals she worked with.
Kowalski said that one of the defining aspects of her research was reaching a point where she was able to spend time with the families outside of her research.
“I was able to get to know these folks as people, not just as figures and institutions. And that really started to change how I was understanding what they were doing, because I could contextualize it in their wider lives, as well,” Kowalski said.
One of the main themes of her book is interdependence, and Kowalski said she hopes readers will take away a more nuanced understanding of the contextual nature of relationships and family structures.
“If we want to have and develop and understand the kinds of interventions that are going to most holistically help support people, we can’t discard an approach that families matter in people’s lives. Oftentimes, these relationships are a central source of meaning, even though they’re also sometimes a central source of harm,” Kowalski noted.
Kowalski closed the launch by reflecting upon how her book’s insight on interdependence appears in her career at Notre Dame.
“This book, as you’ve now heard, is about how people try to repair relations of interdependence, but its very existence is a testament to what’s possible when our interdependent relationships sustain us,” Kowalski said.
Kowalski stressed her gratitude for the interdependent community she is a part of at Notre Dame.
“Our community consists of scholars who have so many different, diverse, disciplinary and methodological perspectives for tackling these difficult questions,” Kowalski said. “I’m so looking forward to continuing to think about these challenges together in dialogue.”