Disclaimer: This essay is a combination of several pieces written by feminist scholars in the reader by Mary E. John, the Economic and Political weekly, as well as other web archives, along with some of my own writing and analysis. The topic of Gender and Religion was a part of my academic module and I prepared this piece for my final examinations at Delhi University. I have compiled this piece and posted it on my blog so that others get a chance to familiarize themselves with this genre of analysis and to promote their further reading of the pieces individually written by the scholars that I have addressed at the end of this article.
Despite the absence of professional footnotes as a consequence of my poor knowledge on the same as an undergraduate student with poor research capabilities that are yet to develop, I would like to make it clear that no plagiarism has been intended and this work has been published on my blog simply to celebrate the works of these brilliant scholars, as well as spirit of feminist writing in contemporary India.
*In short, this blog has purely harmless intentions and no copyright infringement is intended*
“Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”
At the stoke of the midnight hour, when India was granted its independence, there was much that the Indian leadership had to live up to. The country had risen from the shackles of the British Empire, whose sun had finally set in this part of the world, and was to seek and fulfill its own destiny. In all the glory and nostalgia that accompanied the 15th of August in 1947, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in this era popularly known as that of the Nehruvian consensus, led a range of choices that he and his counterparts made on India’s behalf, believing it to be the best and most viable at that period, or maybe, as a matter of no other choice.
Whatever the reason, what followed after that, were without doubt, India’s most volatile decades that it would expect as a newly independent country.
The elite that existed in the confines of the Nehruvian consensus, was rather embarrassed, among other things, with caste and religion, and hoped for them to disappear in the advent of industrialization and modernity. Leaders such as Ambedkar and Phule, who urged to redress the balance that was breached by the various social inequalities that haunted a post-independent India, were cast-aside as ‘not modern’ and ‘castist’. What was so striking about this period of Nehruvian consensus was that there existed a fractured modernity, as some would call it. This ‘modernity’, which consisted of claims and ambitions of the leaders of young India towards India becoming a modern, industrialized, socialist country, enjoyed these brilliant claims merely in the public sphere, that too in a limited fashion. The same voices that rallied so vociferously for India’s development in the public sphere were as oppressive and restrictive in their private spheres as we can, or cannot imagine. Development was invoked where it looked impressive and was convenient, and was withdrawn where it wasn’t.
But the ‘ugly faces’ and manifestations of caste inequality and religious disharmony could not be swept under the carpet for too long.
Before long, they re-emerged, with the infamous assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu nationalist, and an ex-member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh- Nathuram Vinayak Godse. And this event, was only to be followed, by decades and decades of instability and re definition, for the better or for the worse, India is yet to tell.
In the following decades, India witnessed the breakdown of the erstwhile Nehruvian consensus, and was torn apart in the midst of an economic crisis- a disastrous failure of Nehru’s socialist model, which lead to unequal distribution of wealth and uneven income distribution. The middle class was the worst hit. Moreover, uneven development in various regions led to secessionist movements in various parts of India. To add to this, the mid sixties were characterized by violence that accompanied class, caste and communal animosities. Having come this far, sexual violence was almost synonymous with the other manifestations of barbarity. As a result of all of this, the Indian identity suffered serious crisis. Further worse, there was no binding, legitimizing force to bind the Indian state together, for the legitimacy claimed by the Indian state was crippling, and could not be claimed on past glories. Following the impasse from 1975 to 1977 and the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, Indian politics were entering the decade of the three big M’s, and ostensibly, one of the most volatile decades that were to be in the history that defines India today.
III. The Three M’s
First, the Mandalization of Indian politics, which took place in the late 80’s after V.P. Singh implemented the recommendations of the Mandal Commission which suggested that a fixed quota of all jobs in the public sector be reserved for members of the historically disadvantaged so-called Other Backward Classes.
Second, the liberalization of the Indian economy by Narasimha Rao and opening up the Indian Market to the global economy in 1991.
Third, the Babri Masjid Ramjanmabhoomi Mandir issue that created room for Hindu fundamentalism and right wing Hindu politics in the national arena after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992.
The phenomenon that resulted from the combined affect of the three M’s in Indian politics was multifaceted to say the least. Despite the static rhetoric existing in nauseating volumes in most commentaries and reports around us to date, the analysis done through a feminist lens is yet unheard of in many places and avenues of pedagogy, media and debate.
From here on, begins the feminist analysis.
IV. A Feminist Lens
a) Dialing ‘M’ for…
The three M’s created more social cleavages than those that existed in India in the earlier decades. The cleavages created by a liberalized market further entrenched the rift between the various classes in the Indian society, putting the middle class into further crisis. Not just by simply adopting an economic model that thrives on capital accumulation and class rifts where one class gets richer and one gets poorer, but because in such a system, the middle class is the system’s favourite target as potential consumers, investments and investors and as the capital in itself as a subsidizing force.
Capitalist development in agriculture and industry leads to landlessness of many, and of bursting unorganized sectors of workers.
Let’s complicate things further by considering globalization in this scenario. A country like India has an immense amount of labour capital, which is one of its fundamental assets. In the case of globalization and footloose capital, there is an increasing rate of migration of Indian workers abroad.
These factors lead to increased dependence on women’s work and a change in power structures such that many households are women-headed due to their male counterparts who have migrated internationally, or to national urban areas in search of work.
With increased consumerism and expenses, dowry demands go up in the Indian society, which further create situations for women to ear their own dowries.
In order to take up all these responsibilities and duties that would earlier almost go unthought-of, women begin entering male spaces, be it within households or in seasonal jobs and unorganized sectors.
With this changing nature of women’s work there arises a growing awareness among them and hence, an increase in women’s movements in India.
Women’s movements that took place at this time were of two kinds- one, that exposed the most extreme manifestations of women subordination, and agitating around them, and two, connecting more extreme forms of violence to structural problems. The latter trend was more subservient as compared to the former.
With women entering the public sphere and the entrance of new kinds of symbolism into Indian culture such as the beauty queen symbolism with choice becoming the new mantra, the Indian state faced a peculiar fear of their women becoming ‘un Indian’.
Hence, a state that is crippled in its legitimacy with the break down of Nehruvian consensus is threatened in terms of its patriarchy due to the changes that capitalism and liberalization of its economy have brought forward.
b) State Sponsored Religious Fundamentalism
This anxiety and insecurity that engulfed the Indian state gave birth to what is known as state-sponsored religious fundamentalism, where the ruling party creates ideological unity by sponsoring religious fundamentalism. This process leads to the state entering a reciprocal relationship with religious fundamentalism where the former helps legitimize and re assert the latter, and the latter provides ideological justifications to re assert traditional controls and provides ideological unity, which is conducive for the state to recover its legitimacy. This relationship results in creating a pan-Indian identity, which is based entirely on communalism.
What is so distinctive about communalism? Communalism is the political use of religion in conflicts over access to economic resources and political power. It is neither inherent nor primordial. There exists no single basis for a community. It is constructed and assumes a homogenous identity, hence ignoring other divisions altogether.
Communalism picks out a particular version of religion, which best suits and justifies its agenda and presents it as the sole, legitimate version, thereby dismissing all other and alternate versions and illegitimate and false. It assumes that since a group of people share the same religion, they will, by default, have the same interests. This forced identity becomes the basis of socio-political demands. Communalism emerges as a dominant ideology hence backed by the state.
Unlike pre-independence India, the middle class in post independent India battles upon issues, which are not even remotely secular. The situation is that of a volatile middle class, a genuine crisis of identities and a state, whose legitimacy is at stake. Communalism uses this situation as a perfect chance to resurrect the lost status of patriarchy by playing through the state. This is significant in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad taking the idea of Hindutva and giving it a pan Indian resonance.
Now the interesting question really is, that how can communalism succeed in breeding violence amongst groups that have lived so peacefully in the past? In order to do so, it has to be situated historically in relation to specific socio economic and political factors.
Communal consciousness rises in situations of insecurity and fear of loss of socio-economic status and the honor of women. Sexualities of women and the dominant national discourse constitute one another. Women become symbols, repositories and barometers of communal and national identities and their identities are constructed through multiple discourses of nationalism, sexuality, gender, community and above all, in the quintessential guise of patriarchy.
The fundamental question of control comes into the picture here. Asserting manliness and controlling your women is synonymous. Why? Because the control that a man has over his woman or his women is the only sort of control that he himself can regulate. Even if he loses his socio economic status, he will always retain the power to control his own women, and this is where his dignity essentially resides. This male egoism cannot be stripped off from him to the extent that threatening his women would amount to threatening his manliness.
At a time of immense economic competition, the middle class becomes the best target of animosities, which are actually entirely external to economic cleavages. The fear of the honour of the Hindu honour vis- a- vis his Muslim counterpart takes over. The Muslim man is portrayed as ever licentious and the Muslim woman- ever fertile. This is the birthplace of the much-perceived fear of Muslim demographics taking over Hindu demographics in India. This is the core rhetoric of the saffron agenda as led by right wing Hindu fundamentalist groups over decades of Indian politics. The sheer anxiety that stirs similar Hindu consciousness is evident in the Hindu preoccupation with destroying the sexual organs of Muslim women in the Gujarat riots.
Hence, with women typifying tradition and culture, and being identity markers, it becomes imperative for men to control and protect their women from the potentially dangerous ‘other’.
Religious fundamentalism is a crucial component of communalism, it is lethal as it seeks to prop up and resurrect patriarchal controls over women such that the key essence in nationhood lies in women subordination and this has been evident in the erstwhile state complicity during events of communal violence and state sponsorship in the same at other times.
c) The Legitimizing Discourse
Communalism becomes a way of challenging multiple, diverse identities with the purpose of fitting them in accordance with itself and ways that it finds convenient. It pioneers a Hindutva-dominated understanding of the world and legitimizes socio political power on terms defined by it. With the question of legitimacy coming in, how does this understanding get legitimized in the first place? Through the legal discourse, which is official, autonomous, and has the reputation of being a universal tool, which is perfectly objective in its intent and is equally applicable to all. Communalism and religious fundamentalism seek to challenge the dominant meanings of legal discourse and re- define it for their own purposes. They seek to do this by displacing dominant meanings of legal concepts to re define these concepts in accordance with their own version. Significant attempts of this sort have been made time and again ever since the inception of the debate around the Uniform Civil Code and more so, after the Shah Bano Controversy.
Hindutva politics welcomes the version of secularism, which calls for religious difference, and tolerance of the same because it helps in favouring majoritarianism, a word that Hindutva thrives on. Any differential treatment would go against Hindutva agendas and hence, is tagged as violating secularism. Differential treatment in the form of special rights is dismissed by the Hindutva discourse, whose justifications are more absurd than naïve. They include the understanding that Hinduism is a tolerant religion, and only a country that is based on Hinduism will be truly secular. As one sense even they were blindfolded, secularism is made to collapse into its anti thesis.
Further, Hindutva discourse is of the key assertion that although men and women are equal, they are not the same, as they have natural differences- natural roles that are different and they should stick to this. In this regard, political roles go way beyond women’s natural roles. Empowerment of women is welcomed, only if done in the best interests of the family. Anything that does not fit into this understanding or assertion would not be entertained; rather, it would be seriously condemned. Hence, employment of women can only take place in those areas, which do not threaten traditional roles. It is not hard to decipher that the Hindutva discourse advocates sameness. Not egalitarianism but uniformity, thereby seriously repudiating and injuring difference and diversity. To top it all, if one does not peacefully accept all of this, they are un-secular and threatening, and should be done away with.
d) Women in Hindu Organizations
The much discussed threats perceived by right wing Hindu fundamentalism to Hinduism led to many Hindu organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Hindu Manch and Hindu Ekta Manch (but to name a few) backing social upheavals. The state had begun sponsoring these organizations, which were highly authoritarian, male dominated, and paramilitary. The state’s changing stance as a result of their altered electoral strategy and other deeper factors began to stifle secular opinion.
Hence the state, religious fundamentalism and capitalism all began to co exist in India in a relationship that was rather harmonious. One provided subsidized labour for the other and the other re asserted domestic roles on women by relegating them to the unorganized sectors. Women became increasingly confined to patriarchy despite their working and getting educated. How? Because their progressiveness was celebrated as the progressiveness of their community. As a dutiful wife, a self- sacrificing mother who was a competent worker and well educated, it was welcomed as being beneficial for the family and the community. The new right emerged in India that was liberal in its philosophy but conservative in its underpinnings. It desired a neo liberal economy due to being pulled by the market’s seductive appeal while clenching on to patriarchy. It aspired economic modernity while restricting socio-cultural modernity and attempting to keep it far, far away in its effort to protect its duly threatened patriarchy.
With the increasing number of feminist movements on the one hand and capitalism often causing restructuring of authority figures on the other, religious fundamentalism encourages its women to be ambassadors of right wing politics, for in this way, she does not challenge the pedestal that Hinduism and patriarchy stand on. Rather, she contributes to the further codification of the two. Right wing Hindu fundamentalists channelized women’s energies towards causes that did not challenge existing power structures but those, that resurrected them.
Post emergency, the RSS gained legitimacy. It opened a sister organization which was to be run on women-participation. It was called the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti. The nomenclature of this sub-organization is purely intentional and bears serious connotations. Rashtriya ‘Sevika’ Samiti and not ‘Swayam Sevika’ Samiti because ‘swayam’ means self-help and independence, and women could not be granted that on any grounds. They were maidens of the nation- karsevikas. More interestingly, the RSS worked through the family, which was a patient, long-term strategy. The Shiv Sena opened to women in similar regard and involved them to perform highly ritualized roles, in accordance with what their male counterparts required out of them.
The Durga Vahini, which was the Bajrang Dal’s sister organization had a journal named Jagriti, which was devoid any rhetoric. It had inspiring, electrifying content and unlike the pacified, RSS woman, the Durga Vahini woman was militant, aggressive and was characterized by the famous slogan “hum bharat ki naari hain, phool nahin chingari hain”. The militant propaganda that has been replicated in the hate speeches of Sadhvi Rithambra Devi (which included conscious audio and video modifications to make many parts sound almost like war cries) come with no co incidence. The exalted positions given to Vijayarajye Scindia, Rani Jhansi and Satyavati further illustrate the rhetoric of virtues that is expected out of the performance of Hindu women.
As Manisha Sethi puts it, the ‘longue duree’ role performed by women across time and space in India is done so in a peculiar fashion. They are ‘avenging angels’ during moments of crisis where they exhibit due militancy, and then ebb away, returning to becoming ‘nurturing mothers’ in times where their militancy is not demanded.
During the Ramjanmabhoomi issue, the monolithic representation of an innocent Ram lalla and later on a militant Ram was of no co incidence. Ram symbolizes deprivation and this puts him very close to the erstwhile discussed emasculated, vegetarian, passive Hindu male who faces much threat from his ultra virile Muslim counterpart. Monolithic representation ensures that everyone can relate to versatile imagery and hence be moved by the propaganda for causes that Hindu fundamentalism has planned so consciously and deliberately.
The larger point to be made is that while all alternate discourses are vociferously dismissed, Hindutva is placed on a pedestal with no flaws of its own. Hindu fundamentalists have, through time, remained dormant on issues of human rights pertaining to Hinduism but have campaigned uninhibitedly against social issues existing within other religious communities such as polygamy and triple talaaq.
Finally, the question among feminists remains. Should women’s right wing movements be celebrated or not?
Perspectives towards the relationship between gender and religion vary in India. The typically Marxist perspective consists of the view that gendering communalism is a theme of distributing and justifying unequal power in the society, and rectifying this inequality only lies in doing away with it.
The second perspective, as shared by many feminists is that religion has to be rescued by patriarchy, and this can be done by re interpreting religion through a feminist lens, hence breaking the static rhetoric that religion has clenched on to for so long.
A third perspective, which could be said to be held by many apologists is that religion has proved to be a haven for many women in a society, which is otherwise so oppressive and restrictive. For example, for those women who wish to escape the never- ending circle of domesticity and their housewife-roles, religion offers a perfectly legitimate career option that the society would readily accept- that of a sadhvi or nun. Hence, women’s participation in right wing movements might not be such a bad thing after all. It could provide to be a bonding-space outside the monotonous confines of the household.
However, these perspectives are by no means static or in water- tight compartments. They are shared in their entirety, or in mixed combinations across the length and breadth of India, through the depths of India’s social strata.
The whole question of a gendered identity is not primordial; it is invented, created, resisted and subverted at the fulcrum of multiple identities. Identities don’t exist in a compartmentalized fashion. They are worked to trump or to be subverted.
Women are united under patriarchy so much because they are seriously divided on other lines. Religious affiliation is politically inclined and it divides women under multiple patriarchies. Patriarchy is a wider social formation and hence, attacking it is not just a women-centric issue but one that is central to any agenda of social change.
A Compilation of the works that belong to:-
1) Uma Chakravarti
2) Manisha Sethi
3) Amrita Chhachhi
4) Kumkum Sangari
5) Mary E. John
6) Lata Mani
7) Brenda Cossman
8) Ratna Kapur
9) Martha Nussbaum
10) Tarini Bedi
11) Rohini Hensman
12) Nivedita Menon
13) Tanika Sarkar
* Reminders of any authors that I might have missed are welcome, and will be added.