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Svati Shah

Associate Professor

Svati Shah

W413 South College

Professor Shah is an Associate Professor, as well as being affiliated with the Departments of Anthropology and Afro-American Studies. She received her B.A. in Anthropology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her M.P.H. in International Health & Health Education from Emory University, and her Ph.D. in Sociomedical Sciences, a joint program in Anthropology and Public Health, from Columbia University. Dr. Shah is an anthropologist whose work is primarily ethnographic. Her research interests include sexuality, urbanization, labor migration, materialism and nationalism in South Asia. Her published work has critiqued juridicism and political economy as they relate to migration, informal sector labor, sexuality, and gender identity. Theoretically, her work engages with Marxist geography, via Lefebvrian critiques of the production of space, queer and transgender cultural studies, postcolonialism, anthropological critiques of ‘worlding,’ affect, and sexuality assemblages as they pertain to temporality and post-nationalism.   

Her book Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work, and Migration in the City of Mumbai (Duke University Press, 2014) challenges widespread notions of sex work in India, by examining solicitation in three spaces within the city of Mumbai that are seldom placed within the same analytic frame — brothels, streets, and public day-wage labor markets (nakas) — where sexual commerce may be solicited discretely alongside other income-generating activities. Focusing on women who migrated to Mumbai from rural, economically underdeveloped areas within India, Dr. Shah argues that selling sexual services is one of a number of ways women working as laborers may earn a living, demonstrating that sex work, like day labor, is a part of India's vast informal economy. Here, various means of earning — legitimized or stigmatized, legal or illegal — overlap or exist in close proximity to one another, shaping a narrow field of livelihood options that women navigate daily. In the course of this rich ethnography, Dr. Shah discusses policing practices, domestic migrants' access to housing and water, the production of public space, critiques of states and citizenship, and the discursive location of violence within debates on sexual commerce. Throughout, the book analyzes the epistemology of prostitution, and the silences and secrets that constitute the discourse of sexual commerce on Mumbai's streets.

Svati Shah’s interests in legality and criminality, the tensions between rural and urban lifeworlds, and the production of the ethnographic object are manifest in her current book project. Tentatively entitled Rendering Sexuality in India, the book uses the near-history of Indian lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) social movements as a critical provocation for understanding India’s nationalist turn, caste politics, the left, and India’s autonomous movements in relation to juridical activism that is intended to expand individual freedoms on the axis of sexual orientation. Paying particular attention to the historical importance of the Indian ‘Emergency’ - the imposition of martial law for two years in the mid-1970s - Dr. Shah argues that the discourse of sexuality in India is a node for producing a new language of the nation, and new instantiations of biopolitical governance. At the same time, Dr. Shah discusses the epistemological problematics that attend to the ethnographic form, and asks how and why the ethnographic object functions analytically, particularly with respect to the production of queerness and non-cisgender identity in India, where ‘queerness’ and ‘modernity’ are strangely affiliated. The status of the idea of a shared world, and the singular ontology that this ‘world’ presupposes, is of particular concern in this project, as the history of sexuality is itself product of this idea of a shared, unitary ‘world.’ To put it in the terms of Yasmeen Arif’s writing on ‘World Anthropologies,’ the book asks how a geographically located discourse of sexuality encompasses the planet and, at the same time, what is the imagination of a geographical ‘world’ for a located discourse of sexuality? A preview of the project can be seen in a recent special issue of SAMAJ: South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal on “Sedition, Sexuality and Gender Identity in South Asia,” for which Shah was a special guest editor. 

Svati Shah’s work has also appeared in Antipode, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Cultural Dynamics, The Scholar and Feminist Online, and Feminist Studies. She regularly offers seminars on feminist theory, global and transnational perspectives on LGBTQ movements, gender and sexuality in South Asia, and sexuality and postcolonial theory. 




Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work and Migration in the City of Mumbai, Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Peer-Reviewed Articles:

“Queering the Indian City: Urbanism in the Era of Transnational LGBT Rights,” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, August 2014, 1-17.

“Brothels and Big Screen Rescues: Producing the Idea of ‘Prostitution in India’ Through Documentary Film,” in Legg, S. and Roy, S. (Eds.), Modern Indian Sexual Geographies Emergent Sexual Formations In India: Politics, Economics And Sexuality In Contemporary India, a special issue of Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 15(4) (2013): 549-566.

"Sex Work and Queer Politics in Three Acts,” in The Scholar and Feminist Online, Issue 10.1-10.2 (Fall 2011/Spring 2012), Available from republished in translation (Danish), “Sexarbejde og queerpolitik i tre akter,” Modkraft, 16:17 (2012), Available from

“Knowing “The Unknowns: The Artwork of Chitra Ganesh (Art Essay),” Feminist Studies, 37(1) (2011):111-126.

“Sexuality and ‘The Left’: Thoughts on Intersections and Visceral Others,” The Scholar and Feminist Online, Issue 7:3 (Summer 2009) Available from



Courses Recently Taught

  • Feminist Theory (Graduate Seminar)
  • Race, Class and Capital
  • Queer Theories of Power and Temporality
  • Decolonial and Postcolonial Theories of Gender and Sexuality
  • LGBTQ Social Movements, Law and Policy: Global Perspectives
  • Gender, Sexuality and Culture
  • Introduction to Sexuality Studies
  • Anthropological Perspectives in LGBTQ Studies
  • Gender and Sexuality in South Asia: Nationalism
  • Politics of Gender, Sexuality and Development in South Asia
  • Sexuality and Postcolonial Theory (Graduate Seminar)
  • Transnational Approaches to Queer and Sexuality Studies