For two decades, researchers Isabelle Guérin, Santosh Kumar, and G. Venkatasubramanian observed a credit market in South Arcot, a region in east-central Tamil Nadu.
The ballooning specter of debt has been best written about by the late anarchist economist David Graeber, in his seminal book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. He argues that people in the United States are unable to afford houses, appliances, education, medical care, and to provide for their children solely through their own wages, and thus must acquire debt. Many of the debts that we acquire throughout our life, such as mortgages and student loans, linger till our death. This phenomenon can be witnessed in any country across the globe in various degrees of severity. That our global economy hinges on the constant creation of debt to compensate for our ever-decreasing capacity for consumption is the tragicomedy’s twist: that the current neoliberal order relies on the chronic abuse of our economic resources.
“Financial actors are usually thought of as educated, wealthy men in megacities like New York, London, and Shanghai,” the authors write in the Indebted Woman’s introduction. “These men at the top of the pyramid…but if we look at the bottom of the pyramid, at the masses of ordinary people who keep the financial machine running, the key players are radically different.” The first identified misconception segues into another: that financial labor is necessarily unemotional, clean-cut, masculine. As the authors note, “women’s debt has mostly remained a blindspot.” When the family faces financial struggles—specifically, when wages of the male bread-winner are not enough to support the family, women often assume the responsibility of pawning goods, managing bills, handling credit card bills, reaching out to their family and friends for financial support—and controversially, prostituting their body to lenders to settle debts. The corporality of women’s debt substantiates the persistent feeling that debt is a burden of great emotional heft.
The aspects of sexuality, desire, and kinship folded into women’s lived experiences of debt lies at the heart of The Indebted Woman. This is not to say that debt cannot be emotional for men: to pay off debt, men are often forced to relocate and leave the comfort of their hometown to engage in brutal, exhausting physical labor. However, the universal experience of female debt is unique in that women’s sexuality is inextricable from their settling of debts. Beyond the distinct emotional component of feminine debt management, the fact that debt management itself usually falls to women—similar to the feminization of the unpaid labor of housekeeping, child rearing, and elderly care—demonstrates that debt must be looked at from a gendered perspective. Similar to policies such as Universal Basic Income that recognize the economic vacuum that devours much of women’s labor, legitimating the management of debt as a form of work can change its global treatment and provide economic privileges for women.
Guérin, Kumar, and Venkatasubramanian’s fieldwork began in 2003. It focused on the experience of Tamil Dalit women. Literally translated to the “oppressed” or “broken,” the Dalit were previously known as the untouchables in the Hindu Caste system and still comprise the lowest stratum of Indian society. While the patriarchy is systematized in the vast majority of societies, Tamil Dalit women are specifically indebted to their kinship group and expected to fulfill their roles as caretakers and family reproducers all while being culturally designated as inferior to men. As the stress on education has increased, women are absconding from the workforce to focus on rearing their children. “There is as such no universal indebted woman,” the writers note—a perspicacious insight that haunts further insights made in the rest of the book.
Their fieldwork began as an examination of South Arcot’s credit markets; the breakthrough about the close relationship between gender and sexuality only came as Guérin et al. spent more time with the residents. Factors such as the taboo surrounding women’s sexuality and extramarital sex in Tamil society obfuscated the prevalence of the phenomenon from the view of researchers, but as they built deeper relationships with Dalit women, they soon came to realize the extent that it informed the credit market. Thus, the sensitiveness of both debt and women’s sexuality in Tamil society made conversation the only realistic means of acquiring their findings. In the most explicit sense, the transition from bride price to dowry practices, the rise of dowry payments, and the re-cloistering of Dalit women into the domestic sphere have indebted Dalit women permanently to their kin, as they are removed from production and to the status of a “dependent.” The popularization of microcredit in South Arcot has been a double-edged sword: although it smooths consumption and allows women to better manage their budget, it is mostly used by women for survival or domestic purposes and not to aid them in entrepreneurial ventures. As debt in South Arcot has exploded over the past two decades, female debt has been formally recognized by NGOs, public administrations, and banks, and women no longer have to rely on their social circle to find potential creditors. Thus, the researchers found that Dalit women were on average far more indebted than men in relation to their income—moreover, they were often expected to repay their husband’s debts in order to preserve their reputation.
The humiliation tied to debt management has been another factor that has led to its feminization. “Managing budgets to the penny, shopping for the lowest prices, and finding the best deals were then decisive skills for a good mother and spouse,” the writers stated. “In fully monetized societies, ‘moneywork’ is more relevant than ever and remains a female prerogative.” The ubiquity of debt management due to the looming impotence of wages in substantiating the cost of daily life has made “moneywork” a domestic task of increasing importance—as well as increasing invisibility. Part of “debt management” is not just financial calculation, but also bodily collateral, which the writers define as anything from “flirtation and smiling to sexual intercourse.” The imprecise definition of women’s “bodily collateral” mirrors the imprecision of the emotions implicated in it. Do women’s sexual relations with lenders stem from genuine desire or are they instead motivated by the aim of clearing debts or postponing repayments? The writers repeatedly stress that “a relationship of monetary debt does not preclude affection, love, and care. Intimacy and economics are in no way the imagined ‘hostile worlds’ of Western morality.”
The Indebted Woman is a compact account of the credit markets in South Arcot, and in particular their disproportionate effect on Dalit women. Similar lessons about the moral aspect of debt can be learned by more exhaustive accounts, such as Graeber’s Debt; moreover, feminist economic theory has already introduced many of the central arguments into popular political discourse, to the point that the particularly onerous weight of debt for women is more intuitive than surprising. Where the book shines is in its conscientious economic research, awakening readers to the lived experiences of Dalit women and their invisible and indispensable role in the South Indian economy.
The nervousness of impending insolvency shares the shadow of all the labor we do not recognize, a hairline crack in our economic order that is gradually spreading. It returns us to the perennial question: which will break first, us or the capitalist system itself?