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Hindutva and Women: Living on the fault lines

In 2020 when protests against CAA and NRC were in full swing and Delhi was still reeling from the aftermath of the communal riots, my friend was travelling to the Delhi airport at 2am in an Uber. As they drove past the protest sites the cab driver went on a tirade against Muslims, following the old rhetoric, calling them terrorists and illegal citizens. The amount of hatred he spewed made her blood curdle as she sat in silence because of the fear of what he might do to her if he looked at her name on his phone. My friend is a Muslim, but her name or appearance didn’t make that obvious. She reached the airport unscathed but shaken.

My friend and I had formed a much loved but erratic habit of meeting after long breaks and fitting as many stories as possible in the space of a few hours, covering the distances of my life in Maharashtra and hers in Delhi since we both left college. Of all the stories, this remains the one that I recollect with the most painful clarity.

As she recounted her experience to me, I was silent. It was the first time I saw the threat that was bound to her name and identity. This friend, whose life has been so closely entwined with me and her dreams as familiar as mine, suddenly seemed different. She, a Muslim woman and I, a Hindu. Though both our grasp on the idea of freedom is tenuous, we occupy different social positions with respect to our religion. I have often wondered what she made of my silence. Even I wonder, at times, what to make of that silence. Perhaps, the truth was that my silence hid my complicity and my part in the torment that she was forced to undergo.

My friend’s horrific ordeal and my silence that followed was a catalyst for me to begin the process of reflection and begin to understand the origins and extent of how and why we have trampled upon our conscience. The issue at hand is not only Hindutva against religious minorities, or specifically, Hindutva against Muslims. The narrative my friend described to me, shook me to the reality that not all oppression women experience is of the same nature.

A significant proportion of society, within and out of India, is fully aware of the advancing threat of Hindutva towards other religious minorities, especially that of Muslims. We read about mob-lynchings in the newspapers, we debate and in our various circles, denounce the unconstitutional laws, and the criminalisation and vilification of Muslims. The world’s biggest democracy and the wider international community remain silent spectators in the face of human rights’ erosion that becomes bolder and increasingly insidious day by day.

Violence against women in today’s India and the masculinist conceptualisation of the Hindu nation are not independent facets, rather, gender and religion work in tandem as a basis for fascist regimes to restrict, marginalise and oppress. Debates, media coverage and awareness of gender-based violence has in recent times, to some degree, gained some platforms where we are able to dissect the issues of women’s bodies remaining as sites of conflict to either protect, punish or avenge the honour of communities. However, the nuances of the doubly subjugated position that Muslim women occupy, by the virtue of their gender and religion, is not at the forefront of discussions or policies pertaining to gender-based violence.

The theoretical concepts behind gender-based violence and religious, specifically Muslim, persecution are understood and intellectually connected by some spheres of society, primarily, those working in the social sector and academic spaces. However, these concepts interplay on a societal platform, which directly translates into oppression, which has not only taken root by the vocal torchbearers of the Hindu nation but has also been perpetuated through silence by the standing of the religious majority.

The sole purpose of this article is not to provide a passive description of a Hindutva tirade against Muslims, but to highlight the paradox of the juxtaposition of women who stand on either side of the “Hindu line” in a nation where violence against women continues to rise. This is important on two levels; primarily to examine and remain accountable to our notions and practices of exclusionary feminism and secondly, to understand the gravity of the jeopardy we place our civic freedom in.

After presenting the historical background that led to the birth of the concept of a masculinist Hindu Nation, I shall draw on various examples that highlight and connect these deeply flawed philosophical values in not only how Muslim women are deemed but oppressed.

Background: The making of a Hindu nation

In his ideologies of dharma and karma, M.S Golwalkar, one of the stalwarts of the RSS wrote that individuals should have a “protective duty towards the country as the mother figure”. This began and encouraged the continued assertion of a protectionist, virulent hetero-normative masculinity that soon became the societal norm. Violence, aggression, virility and physical strength became the articulating features of this masculinity that was evoked to protect the Hindu Rashtra. Such a conceptualisation was further institutionalised through the RSS Shakhas where boys were taught, and continue to this day, engage in ritualized practices of manhood through strict discipline, martial prowess, and loyalty towards ‘mother’ India.

The persecution of Muslims is an important aspect of this ideal. The Muslim as the outsider was part of a reactionary political project taken up by Hindu-fundamentalists post-independence. When loss of livelihood and control over life opportunities affected Hindu men, the Muslims as illegal citizens became an illusion used to dominate over groups. As this author pointed out, “The project of a battle against the outsiders continues in the version of history with the Muslims as the others: it continues the sense of crisis, while at the same time appealing to the nascent masculinity of Hindu men to respond to this crisis”. By falsely representing Muslims as threats to manhood the institutional failures of the government were obscured.

It would, therefore, be impossible to argue that India has ever been secular as Indian secularism has been deeply rooted in the values and public symbolism of Hinduism. There is a notion of a ‘good Muslim’ who is expected to know their place in a society marked by Hindu contextualism. They are not expected to exercise an agency that asserts equality with members of the majority community. Within this socio-political situation, it is Muslim women who have come to be a minority within the minorities.

‘Saving’ Muslim women

On July 4, photos and Twitter handles of nearly 83 Muslim women were found on a GitHub app calledSulli deals in India. These pictures and profiles collected from their social media accounts were being mock-auctioned under the handle ‘Sulli deal of the day’, with “Sulli” being a derogatory term used by right-wing Hindu trolls for Muslim women. It was no coincidence that this auctioneering only targeted Muslim women who were making their voices heard and advocating for their rights. This disturbing instance represents the normalisation of an Islamophobic gaze. This serves a dual purpose of objectifying and dehumanising while also punishing them for their advocacy work.

Historically, the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim women as voiceless victims who are defined by their powerlessness is the narrative most appealing to the ‘nationalists’. This stereotyped discourse has resulted in their exclusion from dialogue and development. As brought out by this author “While the limits are defined by the Muslim patriarchal systems, they are reinforced by marginalisation, and the lack of social mobility facilitated by majoritarian governments which use social and legal instruments of control over our sexual autonomy”.

A Muslim woman’s agency and ability to think for themselves has been mocked and devalued. Instances like the Sulli deal are not simple and isolated examples of the Islamophobic gaze, rather, insidious and persisting drives that begin with shaming Muslim women and using societally entrenched values of honour to humiliate and threaten them with sexual assault and death, whilst bidding for them. The silence and lack of immediate action by the State sanctions and validates this Islamophobia. This principle is also at work in the denigrating campaigns against women who sat in protest at Shaheen Bagh or attacks against activists like Safoora Zargar or journalist Rana Ayyub.

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Subverting the idea of ‘respectable’ womanhood

The Hindu nationalist discourse coined a ‘respectable femininity’ that complements Hindutva’s virulent masculinity from which subversion becomes punishable. This notion intensifies misogynistic approaches of ownership of Hindu women by directly setting them in contrast to the “inferior” outsider Muslim women. Whilst the frameworks of right-wing Hindu oppression largely remain the same for women, the approach is differentiated based on religion.

On 9th October 2020, Tanishq, a jewellery brand released an advertisement that showed a Muslim family surprising their pregnant Hindu daughter in law with a traditional Hindu bridal shower. While the advertisement sought to show the beautiful confluence of religions, rituals and faith, it had to be taken down when #BoycottTanishq became trending and stores of the brand were attacked by the saffron army. This incident was a symbol of a larger malaise that viewed women as properties of the community and resurrected the debates on Love Jihad.

Through the creation of Love Jihad as a moral panic, not only do communal Hindus declare Muslims as unfit and dangerous citizens but they also idealize a patriarchal Hindu family where women’s autonomy is restricted and her body becomes a site for community and family honour. Patriarchal notions are deeply entrenched in the idea of Love Jihad and further presents the image of a passive infantilized Hindu woman incapable of exercising her agency. Our right to decide who to love and who to marry is being ignored in our portrayal as hapless victims that allow men to discipline and control us.

As brought out poignantly in this article, while such Islamophobic agendas criminalize Muslim men and infantilize Hindu women, Muslim women are pushed further away to deeper socio-political and economic disadvantages. Their body becomes the site of power for seeking opportunistic vengeance by the men of the majority for revenge to uphold their community honour.

The anti-conversion laws (whose underlying objective is to restrict inter-religious marriages) brought in by states like Uttar Pradesh further encourage the policing of our lives and desires. They tie the notion of honour to our bodies and establish men as able and aggressive protectors. The state’s complicity with Islamophobia is starkly clear in allowing such sectarian and communal laws to exist.

The project of the Hindu nation that we seem to be crawling towards defines women’s legitimacy by their existence within the frameworks of conjugality and caste. The Brahminical Patriarchy would be the mainstay as casteism and sexism are the defining features of the Hindu Rashtra. Within the Hindu nationalist discourse, women are passive and occupy only domestic and reproductive roles. Hindutva’s ideal commands that women’s bodies, their honour, purity, and virtue become the symbolic arena where cultural conflicts play out. This respectable femininity becomes the ideal notion of womanhood and when they are subverted, such women become a potential threat to the Hindu regime. A similar principle is also at work in numerous cases of gender violence on Dalit Bahujan women “Any Hindu female body that dares to digress from the agenda of a purely Hindu nation is punished through acts of aggression or moral policing”.

The juxtaposition of oppression and privilege

The above highlights the harm caused by right-wing Hindutva to women as well as the nuanced approaches on the basis of faith. However, it is not sufficient to examine the harm perpetuated only by right-wing Hindu men towards Muslims in general and Muslim women in particular. Here, we turn to the nuances of privilege that Hindu women hold and their contributions to the oppression of Muslim women in India.

A proportion of privileged Hindu women who identify as the new liberal woman of modern India ignore the struggles of Muslim women as well as propagating the rhetoric that intentionally or unintentionally condones and perpetuates violence against them. As this author brought out, “What we as Hindu women often forget is the juxtaposition of oppression and privilege that exists within us. The Hindutva movement recognizes exactly this and creates a facade of liberation from which no one truly benefits – definitely not Muslim women but neither the upper caste Hindu woman nor the lower caste Hindu woman; all of whom becomes collateral damage in the fight for a Hindu nation.”

It is this juxtaposition of oppression and privilege that many people like me live with. We talk about the right to choose our clothing while condoning women who wear headscarves in the same breath. We discuss equal rights but continue to view Muslim women through the orientalist gaze. Our privilege shelters us while also masquerading as another’s oppression. Feminism that fails to acknowledge and call out this privilege, is hollow and meaningless at the best.

When state terrorism and fascism rises, it impacts women across different caste, communities, and religions disproportionately while affecting the freedom and power of all. Liberation for some is liberation for none. Women have stood up time and again to guard their rights and reclaim their space and this spirit can be found everywhere. From dinner table conversations, college classrooms to protests sites. This resistance that offers solace and hope is alive in the voices of the journalists, students and activists who continue to raise questions through their writing and social work. This is exactly why the state authority fears them. This liberation can never be successful unless we recognize and give up the privilege that exists in many of us. It is often a simple acknowledgement of our part in this cycle of violence that sparks a flame to vanquish many injustices.

Sivakami Prasanna (she/her) is part of تحریر // Tehreer, a 6-month writing group housed within The Rights Collective which supports writers who identify as South Asian to develop their own voices in writing about social justice.

Article co-edited by Huma Riaz Khan (she/her) - تحریر // Tehreer Project Coordinator at The Rights Collective.

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