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Disability, exclusions, and the maintenance of corporeal norms

By Bindhulakshmi Pattadath

Foregrounding feminist disability theory, my attempt here is to articulate how ‘abject’ bodies, as proposed by Julia Kristeva (1982), are created through the maintenance of corporeal norms. According to Kristeva, ‘an abject is considered as a threat to life, to identity and order (Hughes 2009) and must be excluded’ from the normative universe. Abject denotes the collapse of a normative materiality of the body. The construction and maintenance of corporeal norms are processes that are situated within socio-political-historical contexts. The advancement of medical sciences and scientific rationality has concretised corporeal norms, particularly through the emergence of various sub-disciplines within the medical sciences. At the same time, outside the realm of medical sciences, normativity is created through various symbolic orders. My attempt here is not to keep the symbolic and the material/medical norms as two separate and distinct entities. Drawing on a public debate that emerged in Kerala in the context of the rape and murder of a young woman in 2011, I try to explain how these corporeal norms are created through the expulsion of the abject body. When I say corporeal norms, I mean bodily norms which are instituted within legal and moral-social orders.

Production of the disabled monster

The rape and murder of a young working woman, Sowmya, in 2011 in Kerala sent shock waves across the state. Sowmya was on her way back home from her workplace in Cochin where she worked as a shop assistant. She was travelling in a deserted ladies compartment in a passenger train when the accused attacked her.  Almost all media reported this as one of the most brutal murders in the history of Kerala. Govindachamy, the accused, a disabled person with previous criminal records and also a Tamil migrant was sentenced to capital punishment by a fast track trial court. This incident generated multiple responses from mainstream Kerala society.

My interest here primarily is to look at this construction of brutality and the production of the figure of the disabled monster by analysing popular discussions/debates that emerged in the context of this incident. I try to analyze how an ‘abject body’ is constructed through the figure of a ‘disabled monster’ which needs to be removed (by death sentence) from a sanitized able-bodied universe. This also compels us to ask difficult and complex questions on the production of ‘brutality’ in the context of sexual violence particularly when it intersects with multiple marginalities.

 Govindachamy has been described as a ‘monster’ in most of the popular narratives (the trial court verdict characterizes him as a monster and wild beast as well). Kerala also witnessed welcome from many quarters for the death sentence of the accused, a demand that we can assume aims to eliminate the “monster”.   Interestingly, the capital punishment awarded to Govindachamy did not evoke much discussion among any of the rights based organizations. Many women’s rights groups chose not to condemn this award of capital punishment. Many of them openly spoke about the brutality of this incident, and why they would not speak against the punishment.

Quoting the judge, one of the newspapers reported: “Govindachamy is a habitual offender, who had already been convicted in eight cases [in Tamil Nadu]. This indicates that he is incapable of rehabilitation” (The Hindu, 19 February, 2012).

In his work ‘Wounded/ Monstrous/Abject: a critique of the disabled body in the sociological imaginary’ Bill Hughes (2009) makes this distinction between wounded and ‘abject’. The dominant discourse on disability lies along these binaries of rehabilitation and expulsion. There are certain bodies which require rehabilitation, bodies that can be reformed, made to change, or can be fitted into various welfare schemes. Then there are bodies outside the discourse of these welfare schemes, bodies that are not vulnerable, but abject, and which need to be removed. The bodies that require rehabilitation are the wounded, vulnerable bodies (Hughes 2009). The abject lies outside this.

Quoting a women’s rights activist, Open Magazine reports, “Generally speaking, I don’t agree with the death penalty, but in a case like that of Soumya, I don’t really mind the accused getting capital punishment. We have to see the cold blooded cruelty in this crime. She was brutally raped while half dead.” (Open Magazine 17 December 2011).

It is worthy of mention here that many women’s rights groups shared similar sentiments towards capital punishment in this particular case. My attempt here is not to downplay the sexual violence but foreground the need to bring in an intersectional paradigm to understand sexual violence, where disability is an important intersecting identity.

Soon after this incident there was a series of discussions and reports in many newspaper reports and popular blogs which focused on the safety of women passengers in trains that stressed  the need of increased ‘sanitization’ of railway compartments by keeping away ‘hawkers and beggars’.   “Eradicate beggars from compartments” a few news paper headlines stated. Govindachamy figured as a ‘disabled beggar’ in these discussions. What we need to recognize here is the close connection between beggary and disabled identity particularly in the context of India.

In her work, The Ugly Laws: Disability in public, Susan Marie Schweik (2009) talks about how disability is iconographic in controlling the poor.  Taking examples of legislations that prohibit individuals with disabilities from begging or remaining in the street, she problematizes the law that denies dignity and socioeconomic mobility to individuals.

The need to sanitize railway compartments, of hawkers and beggars, as a response to this sexual violence, reduces the locus of danger into the apparent stranger who embodies a ‘freakish’ body in a public space. This articulation of public spaces as potentially dangerous, especially when their inhabitants occupy non-normative bodies has been used as one of the justifications for the ‘cleansing’ of those spaces.  Public display of disability finds prominent articulations in the Indian context in discussions of ‘beggary’. The construction of the dangerous other, which embodies a non-normative identity, and one who occupies the margins of the public spaces as a potential rapist is extremely problematic for an inclusive feminist politics.  In this context we may need to recall the ongoing struggle by feminists for the inclusion of ‘marital’ rape in the existing rape laws in India.

The monolithic analysis of sexual violence has been consistently criticized by feminists who urged for a deeper analysis of intersections of racism and sexism. For example Black feminist Angela Davis critiques the highly influential work of Susan Brownmiller, Against Our will: Men, Women, and Rape for its apparent racism, ‘her arguments are unfortunately pervaded with racist ideas’ (Davis 1983: 178). Davis critiques another feminist, Jean MacKellar for racist propaganda that becomes apparent in her book Rape: The Bait and Trap where she makes an unsubstantiated claim that 90% percentage of all reported rapes in the United States are committed by Black men. The complexity of the social contexts in which rape occurs today tells us that any attempt to treat rape as an isolated phenomenon is problematic. Shouldn’t the struggle against racism continuously inform the anti-rape movement as well?

What makes the rape and murder of Sowmya, “one of the most brutal killings” in the history of Kerala? Isn’t it important to place Govindachamy’s disabled body in the context to understand the production of monstrosity? Narratives that frame non-normative bodily articulations as potentially dangerous have been created through the dominant discourse of public anger. It leaves very little possibility for individuals with non-normative bodily articulations to claim public spaces as legitimate occupants of those spaces.  In a powerful documentary titled Examined Life by Astra Taylor (2009), disability activist Sunaura Taylor in a conversation with feminist theorist Judith Butler reveals how it becomes difficult to move about in public spaces because of the normalizing standards that are set by the same social spheres.  Such public spaces limit the possibilities of seeing the blurred boundaries of desire, pleasure, violence, vulnerabilities and consent in a complex field where the disability discourse is also intertwined. My purpose is not to delimit discussions on sexual violence but to problematize the ideas of desire, pleasure, stigma, whenever we see bodies that get excluded or ‘abjected’, through these problematic unilateral articulations of sexual violence.  It calls for a feminist politics that has the potential to interlock with multiple marginalities.


Davis, Angela. “Women, Race and Class. ” New York: Vintage,1983.
Hughes, Bill. “Wounded/monstrous/abject: a critique of the disabled body in the sociological imaginary.” Disability & Society 24, no. 4 (2009): 399-410.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of horror. University Presses of California, Columbia and Princeton, 1982.
MacKellar, Jean Scott, and Menachem Amir. Rape: The Bait and the Trap: a Balanced, Humane, Up-to-date Analysis of Its Causes and Control. Crown Publishers, 1975.
Schweik, Susan M. The ugly laws: Disability in public. NYU Press, 2009.
Susan, Brownmiller. “Against our will: Men, women and rape.” New-York, Simon & Chuster,1975.
Taylor, Astra. Examined life. Edited by Robert Kennedy. Zeitgeist Films, 2009.

Bindhulakshmi Pattadath
is currently an Associate Professor at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai. She holds a PhD in Sociology from IIT Bombay and has worked as a post-doctoral researcher at Amsterdam institute for social Science Research, University of Amsterdam. In her doctoral work Bindhulakshmi focused on the experiences of women who have been diagnosed as ‘mentally ill’ by bio-medical psychiatry. She is currently engaged in completing a book manuscript based on the lives of women domestic workers who have migrated from Kerala to United Arab Emirates.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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