A national political party puts up “I am a Hindu nationalist” posters across the city of Mumbai. I see complacency in the privileged Hindu men and women. The men are not ruffled as they benefit from patriarchy and the women conditioned to exist within the construct.
I ponder over what this emphasis on religion as the primary identity marker by political parties, yes parties as almost all of them make cynical use of religious issues, means for Indian women. Will it hinder the movement towards women being regarded as individual citizens by the state? Secular women and men want civil laws for marriage, inheritance, guardianship.
While the culturally Hindu women accept obscure rituals like “kanyadaan” in traditional marriage ceremonies as part of their religion, they should take a moment to reflect that despite opposition from orthodoxy, religious personal laws like women not having the right to choose who to marry had been abolished. In fact, until Section 6 regarding guardianship was repealed in 1978 by the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act, the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, persons entitled to consent included amongst others even the girl/woman’s ‘brother by full blood; the brother by half blood; etc.’. Laws are amended by progressive thought, but the insidious nature of culture is such that notions of family honour are linked to masculine identities and women still bear the burden of maintaining this. It’s not just the family and extended family that tries to control women, but the caste group to which they belong to from the Hindu community as well. In northern parts of India, there are the barbaric diktats of the Khap panchayats and ‘honour killings’ and in southern Tamil Nadu, there are educated Hindu men lobbying against inter-caste marriages and this in the only Indian State that legally recognizes “self-respect” marriages.
Hindu nationalism is just patriarchy in disguise duping women to take pride in a culture that harms their interests. We see it in its extreme form in militant hindutva organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) that launched the Ayodhya temple agitation, and trains young persons in and for protecting Hindu culture. Its youth wing for women, the Durga Vahini (DV) (Durga – legend of a warrior goddess) founded by Sadhvi Rithambara, enrolls young girls from ages 15 to 35. The DV says it instills Hindu sanskaars in young women:
A peek into one of DV’s training sessions gives a glimpse of how teenagers are being taught that women are the weaker sex, education and a career are not important and they should be married by age 18. They’re being coached to fit into the Hindu patriarchal construct of a heterosexual family. The DV inculcates and promotes a regressive society wherein a young woman’s growth is stymied, she will be denied the opportunity and the right to think or choose her lifestyle, and be dependant on the men in her life.
As if that was not bad enough, it goes on to give them a false sense of empowerment of being battle-ready to take on irrelevant issues:
I watch with shock and anguish as a young trainee from the DV camp says she is willing to kill anyone for her religion. She’s being brainwashed to hate, enrolled by her father, too young to realize that she’s being used as a foot soldier for religious fundamentalism. She is a victim.
The dichotomy between Hindu women being expected to be docile and obedient within their families and the aggression of the right-wing women leaders and activists is exemplified in the political party Shiv Sena (SS). The Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi, the women’s front was the cultural wing of the SS. During the 1992-93 riots these women had actively encouraged men from their families to take part in the violence by castigating them for not being ‘man enough’, implying and reinforcing the stereotype that women are weak and cowardly. The personal gains that might accrue made the SS women insensitive to the ‘other’ women brutalized in riots. (References: Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum by Atreyee Sen, and Empowering Women? Feminist Responses to Hindutva by Elen Turner.)
Not only do the SS women not acknowledge the rights and choices of other women who want to be liberated, they go on to actively oppose and harass whom they see as ‘westernized women’. Women corporators of the Shiv Sena (SS) have been known to physically assault women political rivals in the civic house, BMC.
Why did these women become collaborators and perpetrators of misogyny? They had to learn to behave just like the SS men do, to fit in. They can go ‘thus far, and no further’. These women have been co-opted into the very masculine Hindu nationalist fold that seeks to preserve the gender hierarchies and caste hierarchies inherent in Hindu patriarchy. Violence against women from other religious communities and castes is brushed off as collateral damage. When women of less dominant communities become targets just by belonging to the “other” and the state does very little to protect them, what choice do they have except to retreat within their own communities and bear the gender inequalities very much existent there too.