Waiting, in good faith

J Devika | Updated on February 23, 2018 Published on February 23, 2018

Louder, sharper: As restrictions on their mobility and agency have become the standard response, protests by women students have become more militant   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR


Despite the misogyny unleashed on their choice and freedoms, why are socially-privileged Indian women drawn to the idea of Hindutva?

It is no exaggeration to claim that misogyny and violence against women have not only become common in India, they also elicit less and less outrage. In such a context, the emerging situation for all women students is fraught with tension. Any woman student in higher education — whatever her choice of stream — is, by default, overstepping, or may potentially overstep the boundaries of the patriarchal familial order set up by Hindutva as culturally, socially, historically, and even biologically ideal. The standard response of authorities is to impose rules limiting girl students’ mobility, agency, and even their equal access to educational resources. No wonder then, that girl students’ protests and movements are becoming more militant across the country.

But what really intrigues me is the significant number of women students in higher education who continue to repose faith in Hindutva as a liberating force. Not surprisingly perhaps, a large share of this group hails from the most privileged social groups in India now: the Hindu upper caste, upper class or upwardly mobile, often urban communities. These are young women whose everyday lives are not yet taken over by Hindutva understandings of ideal femininity and the male-female relationship — in other words, they are not all activists or supporters of the Durga Vahini or even the ABVP. They wear jeans, shorts, make-up; they party hard; drink alcohol; have boyfriends and may not be strictly monogamous; they aim for careers in the corporate sector or fields with similar challenges and prospects for individual ambition; they want a greater say in arranged marriage and decisions regarding the timing and number of children when they set up families. Given that the misogyny unleashed by Hindutva forces has struck precisely against each of these freedoms, what prevents these women from developing a critique of Hindutva? What do they continue to see in it despite clear signs that traditional space remains as limited (the controversies over temple entry), no new spaces have been conceded (the roles women play in the Sangh Parivar have not changed; they are still largely subordinate), and indeed, whatever gains made, like in the freedom to choose one’s style of dressing, are under serious threat?

I had a chance to peek into the mind of one such young woman recently. “There is no threat to the ‘real’ Indian woman at all,” she said, “the one who thinks and behaves like an Indian woman”. I pointed out to her that she was not correct, empirically-speaking. While the worst violence was against dalits and minorities, there is no evidence to show that women who conformed to her idea of the sanskari woman had become more secure, and even less that they were actually empowered. But she dismissed my concern: according to her, the denial of power to the “real” Hindu woman would be remedied once “Hindu self-respect” was “restored”. Besides, “Since we have figures like Saraswati, it cannot last long,” she claimed.

Apparent in her answer were two factors: faith in the future, that when all non-conforming women are decimated through social selection, Hindus will get down to the task of empowering sanskari women; secondly, faith in the availability of Hindu cultural resources that would justify women’s empowerment. A third, unsaid factor, was material gain: the access to the labour of avarna women, the unseen foundation on which her performance of sanskari wifehood and motherhood would unfold successfully.

The first is a pipe dream and rests on, as we know by now, a promise that all reactionary and revolutionary movements have made but never kept.

The second arises from ignorance of the intensely hierarchical Hindu imagination of the world and beyond: the sharp separation of swarga, where gender and sexuality are fluid and multiple, and the ihaloka, where mortals toil under the yoke of caste and binary gender, such that gods can never be models for humans to emulate.

The third is where feminism in India needs to hit really hard. For the savarna elite Indian woman does harvest important advantages through it. While Indian feminism discusses the intersections of gender and caste actively, there is little creative thinking on how to do feminist political work around them. It is time then, perhaps, to rethink or, indeed, redo feminist action around domestic labour as a caste-gender relationship.

This surely takes us beyond wages, hours, and indeed labour itself: rather, the human presence of the domestic worker, which we must insist, cannot be priced and be done with, should be acknowledged, and form the grounds for a feminist rebuilding of the relationship that aims for new solidarities and joint struggles. And that will be a corner-stone, perhaps, of a feminism adequate to these trying times.

J Devika

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on February 23, 2018
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