Irregular Rights: abortion, domestic violence, and the uses of illegality

Hosted by Department of Sociology and LSE Human Rights

Hong Kong Theatre, Clement House


Professor Poulami Roychowdhury

Professor Poulami Roychowdhury

Associate Professor of Sociology at McGill University


Professor Monika Krause

Professor Monika Krause

Professor in Sociology, Co-Director of LSE Human Rights

What do survivors of domestic violence in West Bengal, India have in common with women seeking abortion services in Texas, USA?

On paper, women in West Bengal are entitled to criminal and civil protections against domestic violence, but in practice rights are very difficult to access and survivors must threaten and bribe officials to move their claims forward. Meanwhile, on paper, women in Texas are not legally entitled to terminate their pregnancies, but they may access abortion services if they illicitly purchase abortion pills or travel to nearby states.

In other words, both groups routinely use illegal tactics to navigate an unequal rights landscape. In this lecture, Professor Roychowdhury develops the concept of “irregular rights”: rights that are available in certain jurisdictions and not others (geographically uneven), defy expected standards of behavior (unconventional), or are difficult to access through established legal procedures (unattainable).

She discusses how irregular rights generate specific types of illegal behavior and she makes a case for theorizing illegality as a central feature of how human rights expand, gaining cultural credibility and institutional recognition. 

Professor Poulami Roychowdhury is Associate Professor of Sociology at McGill University and Senior Research Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Her research analyzes how political movements influence the evolution, implementation, and enforcement of human rights.

Professor Roychowdhury’s award winning book, Capable Women, Incapable States: Negotiating Violence and Rights in India, was published with Oxford University Press in 2021. Through ethnographic and interview-based accounts of survivors, civil society groups, and law enforcement personnel, this book develops a theoretical framework for understanding how collective action influences law enforcement decision making and women’s access to justice.

Professor Roychowdhury has published in American Journal of Sociology, Feminist Studies, Gender & Society, Law & Social Inquiry, Signs, and Social Problems. Her writing has won awards from the American Sociological Association, the Eastern Sociological Society, the Law and Society Association, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

She is an Associate Editor at Social Politics and an editorial board member of Gender & Society, Law & Social Inquiry, and Sociological Theory.

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