Who’s afraid of love?

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on November 13, 2020

Picture this: Jewellery brand Tanishq recently withdrew an ad featuring an interfaith couple after a backlash on social media r   -  REUTERS/ FRANCIS MASCARENHAS

In a discourse dominated by men, the woman’s choice to love, desire or convert is dispensable

These last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about love — not necessarily only the heterosexual kind, but love in general. The thinking began with the revival, for the umpteenth time, of that old canard of love jihad, also called Romeo jihad, carefully watched over by vigilantes who call themselves Romeo squads.

I have many thoughts crowding my mind as I try to make sense of this — especially after the jewellery brand Tanishq withdrew an ad that showed an interfaith baby shower. Where did the phrase Romeo squads or Romeo jihad come from? In Shakespeare’s telling, the love that Romeo and Juliet had for each other was all-consuming; it flew in the face of family feuds, and Juliet was as much and as madly involved in it as Romeo.

From a lover, a passionate, obsessed lover (Romeo) to a policing vigilante (the Romeo squaddie) on a motorbike in Haryana or Noida is a long stretch. How did it happen? It’s difficult to say but, sometimes, terminology shows up ignorance like nothing else does.

Then I thought of love jihad again because I was reminded of a Partition story I once came across: A Sikh woman abducted by a Pathan, the abduction followed by marriage, and five children. All this can still come under the given current description of ‘love jihad’ — after all, the Pathan abducted her, converted her and married her.

But here’s where the story gets more complicated. Ten or 15 years into the marriage (by which time, perhaps, the one-time Sikh could well have been in love with her husband) the couple find out that her parents are still alive in India. At the suggestion of her Muslim abductor-husband, they go to meet them.

It is the parents (whose role, too, is common in incidents of so-called ‘love-jihad’) who then force her to stay back in India and send her husband off to Pakistan. She is, after all, according to them, a victim. They arrange her marriage, this time to a Sikh man. Now things are in balance, like is married to like, there is no question of conversion, perhaps no question of love either.

Fifty years pass, the husband dies, she moves to the US with her foster son — the husband’s son from a previous marriage. And then begins to seek out her children in Pakistan, who had been raised by a stepmother. She finds them, they are now in their 50s and 60s, their father dead. She moves to Pakistan, converts once again and resolves never to leave. “This is my family, I love them, and I will stay here with them,” she says. Clearly there are many kinds of love.

Just as there are many kinds of conversions. Shehnaz, the woman in my story above, converted (or was made to convert) at the time of the Partition, she returned to her religion (or was made to do so) when she went back to India, and she converted yet again (this time unambiguously voluntarily) for love of her children. Is this then jihad?

Or take another story — this one we’ve heard often. Of Hadiya, the young medical student from Kerala who converted to Islam, of her own accord, and much later, at age 24, married a Muslim man. But neither her family, nor the courts, nor anyone else was willing to believe that she had done this because she wanted to, and not because she had been talked into it. The court even took the extreme, and illegal, step of annulling her marriage.

I have to admit I am flummoxed by these claims of love jihad. There’s so much talk about it. You turn on the television news and there are ministers and politicians who probably have never loved anything other than power in their lives, who’ve not likely even looked at their wives with a hint of love in their eyes, talking about passing a law against love jihad.

And, predictably, no one thinks it necessary to talk to the women who are presumably being lured by the charms of Muslim men and then converted. Why is it that we hear only men talking about this? If there are such large numbers of women who have indeed been lured away, why not try to talk to them and find out if what you believe about them is true?

Maybe it’s fear — that the truth that will emerge if you talk to women — will be too terrible for patriarchy to bear. I recall that of several women I spoke to while researching on the Partition many years ago, one had said: “Marriage is like an abduction anyway, so how does it matter which man we are with?”

The truth is, where women are concerned, our society does not allow them to love at all. A loving, desiring woman is dangerous. Much simpler then to slot her as the helpless victim of forces she is not capable of understanding.


Urvashi Butalia is an editor, writer and director of Zubaan;


Published on November 13, 2020

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor