The Bharatiya Janata Party has gone to town over the last few weeks, touting itself as a progressive party that is at the forefront of women’s rights in the country. It first seized the opportunity by arguing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s championing of the fight against the Sunni Muslim practice of instant triple talaq was partly responsible for the Supreme Court striking it down. This week, it is touting the decision to appoint Nirmala Sitharaman to the Defence Ministry, making her the second woman to occupy the post and giving India two women on the Cabinet Committee for Security, the core of government, for the first time. (Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj already occupies a place on the panel.)
The successes on these two fronts are undeniable. While the bulk of the fight in the triple talaq case was conducted by ordinary Muslim women, Modi’s vocal support for their cause and the equivocation from other major parties, meant that the BJP can appropriately claim to have been on the right side of history. Similarly, while some may argue that the Prime Minister’s Office has largely run India’s foreign policy and will likely do the same for defence, the presence of two women in traditionally male strongholds offers a potent symbol that cannot be denied.
Yet the BJP and Modi must do much more if they want to really be known as champions of women’s rights. With a massive majority in Parliament and their control of a bulk of the Indian heartland, the BJP could be well placed to make systemic changes that could truly alter gender dynamics in a country that is still deeply patriarchal and misogynistic.
Here are five ways the BJP could take further steps forward:
1. Support criminalisation of marital rape
In a case currently being heard by the Delhi High Court, the Centre has confirmed its position against the recognition of marital rape. Arguing that husbands will be harassed and that it could threaten the very institution of marriage, the BJP-run government said it could not support the criminalisation of marital rape. “This country has its own unique problems due to various factors like literacy, lack of financial empowerment of the majority of females, mindset of the society, vast diversity, poverty, etc,” the written submission to the court said. Leaving aside the irony of speaking of women’s empowerment while defending a deeply regressive stance, the Centre was also going against the recommendations of a government-appointed panel. As has been pointed out, statistically, nearly all of the sexual violence that women complain about comes from their husbands. How can any government refusing to even recognise this violence claim to be the champion of women’s rights?
2. Support fight against patriarchal practices in all religions
The triple talaq judgment might have struck a blow for Muslim women, but personal laws and customs in India continue to be tremendously patriarchal. Rather than encouraging a Uniform Civil Code, a BJP pet project that is often seen as a tool by which to browbeat minorities, the government-appointed Pam Rajput committee on the status of women recommended ways of ensuring that women are provided equality under all secular and personal laws. For example, it calls on Muslim laws on maintenance to be altered, faults the Hindu Code for allowing men to refuse paying maintenance if the woman has been “unchaste,” and questions the two-year separation time mandated for Christian divorces. Although the Centre has taken some of the panel’s recommendations on board in its draft policy, the government could go much further in recognising gender discrimination with in religion. Just as it did with the triple talaq case, where it was ultimately the Supreme Court that took the decision, the BJP could easily throw its weight behind other battles like allowing women into the Sabarimala temple or altering other personal laws.
3. Show no tolerance for misogynistic leaders
From Modi to ordinary party workers, the BJP is a party that is filled with men who have been known to make sexist statements. In this regard it is like every other political party and so it might be difficult to expect that it is able to change the mindset of Indian society. But the party does have control over who it chooses for its top leadership, and here the BJP leaves much to be desired. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, the BJP holds the highest number of Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies that have been indicted for crimes against women, including rape. Over the last five years, it fielded as many as 48 candidates who came into this category. If it cannot set an example on this front, what is the use of its championing women’s rights?
4. Support a woman’s right to choose
The BJP, and the broader Sangh Parivar, have been responsible for the Love Jihad bogey that continues to spread across the country, most recently in the Hadiya case. This is the belief that Muslim men are somehow making sure Hindu women fall in love with them, after which the women are forced to convert to Islam. There is no actual allegation of criminality here, just a majoritarian paranoia that Muslim men are somehow converting masses of Hindu women, just by sheer force of will. Even if the latter were true – and there is no evidence that “love jihad” is even real – would it not still be up to a woman to decide who she wises to fall in love with, and what follows?
5. Pass the Women’s Reservation Bill
Both External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and newly appointed Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman can attest to the difficulties women have in moving up the political and social ladders. After all, they were the first two women to be national spokespersons for the BJP, and are among a small clutch of women leaders in Parliament. Current statistics suggest only 11% of Members of Parliament are women, across parties. India ranks 148 out of 192 countries in a United Nations list based on the number of women parliamentarians. With a brute majority in the Lok Sabha, the BJP has an opportunity to change that by passing the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill, which would guarantee 33% female representation in Parliament. Affirmative action has proven to be a boon for oppressed communities, why can’t the BJP extend this logic to gender empowerment as well?
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