We do not have to press the epics and traditional texts to our cause to argue why we need to constantly agitate for greater freedom for women. India’s liberal founders comprised highly educated and adventurous women, unafraid to follow their hearts and embrace great causes outside the home. Our courageous foremothers, Aruna Asaf Ali, Lakshmi Sahgal, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Sarojini Naidu, Bhikaji Cama, Kalpana Dutt and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay were involved in a range of activities, from political participation to combat in war to revolutionary struggles to leadingworkers’ protests.
Pritilata Waddedar joined “Master da” or Surya Sen’s band of revolutionaries, and was perhaps the only woman revolutionary who on being injured during a raid swallowed cyanide rather than face capture by the British police. There’s even a statue of Waddedar in Chittagong, in Bangladesh. These are the stout- hearted women we are descended from.
Importantly, India can boast of an indigenous liberal feminism that is not simply a copy of Western ideas but one created by generations of women who have campaigned for greater opportunities in public life and for income generation and the right to livelihood for women.
The women’s movement in India, its leaders castigated as “the bindi brigade’ by the Hindutva Right wing, has always been an ally of “movements from below”, women’s movements rooted in India’s soil.
Indian feminists of the 1970s may have been liberal and Westernised themselves but nevertheless allied with grassroots movements. For example, the anti-alcohol agitations by women in Shahada, Maharashtra, their feminist struggle rooted in the daily realities of women.
Liberal and Left feminists have marched against the Mathura rape case of 1972, supported the campaigns of the mothers of the dowry death victims of 1982, supported the women who stood up for their rights during the Chipko movement, campaigned against the terrible sati incident in 1987 and rallied for justice for Bhanwari Devi in 199249 and Shah Bano in 1985.
These are not women who can be described as “alien”, “Westernised”, “femi-nazis”. They were and are Indian women, rooted in their own milieu, asking for justice by following in the footsteps of countless women who fought for India’s freedom in the 1940s and, before that, women who through the centuries campaigned for social reform. The struggle for women’s freedom is centuries old in India. The public-spirited woman who is active outside the home is as much a tradition as the home-bound soul who chooses to nurture the family.
When Hindutva traditionalists demand that Indian women uphold “Indian culture”, what and whose culture are they talking about?
The culture of Jhansi ki Rani? Gargi Vacaknavi of the Upanishads? Of Ahilyabai Holkar? Of Sarojini Naidu and Lakshmi Sahgal and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay? Of the marching, campaigning women of the post-Independence era? The so-called timid, shy woman caged in patriarchal protection, wrapped in a sari and bejewelled from head to toe, as if the gold bangles are her handcuffs and the necklaces her prison chains, exists only in the imaginations of the militant social conservatives.
Even in the nineteenth century, fiery Indian women cried out for freedom from stereotypes. To quote the Marathi writer Tarabai Shinde:
“Men, [you say] you’re stronger than her when it comes to brains...women are whirled about many whims...women are the very abode of debauchery...women are a very city of thoughtlessness...women are ignorant, just like female buffaloes in a pen...women are the storehouse of all guilt... [on Sita]...it was that whore who really ruined Ravana. See what these wretched women get up to, destroying homes and kingdoms...it’s all women’s fault. Sita even took the fire ordeal, but people still went on blaming her. Did that make Ramchandra all the greater or something?”
Tarabai’s fearless critique of Ram, the “Purushottam” or perfect man, shows that the spirit of freedom has long germinated in the hearts of Indian women. Liberal women have often chosen to risk opprobrium, stand up for what they believed to be right and exercised their right to express themselves in their chosen way, in the face of social norms, cultural preferences and political correctness. It is the imagined, cock-eyed love affair with some Vedic fantasia or a comic book version of tradition which is leading twenty-first-century Indians to shun their deeply liberal traditions.
The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee writes how the traditionalists’ perverted hatred of a woman’s body places modern women on a collision course with religious conservatives of all hues, because “to be modern is to set the woman free”. Toynbee writes: “Clashing against the modern world, religions founder on their sexual fetishes...sex always means women... religions define their identity through fixation on women’s bodies—ritual baths, shaving heads, purdah, keeping unclean women from the altar.”
The free modern woman is the prime enemy of religious orthodoxies, whether Hindu or Muslim.
Eve, as Toynbee writes, is always the temptress, perpetually guilty for Adam’s downfall because of her dangerous sexuality. Thus, she must be forever caged and, euphemistically speaking, “protected”, in order that men are kept safe from her evil ways.
The sarsanghchalak (head) of the RSS, (the RSS being the ideological parent of the current BJP-led government) Mohan Bhagwat has said that Hindu women should perform their household duties without getting “distracted by anybody”. The BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh Kailash Vijayvargiya once declared that women should dress according to Indian culture and not wear clothes that provoke others.
How different are these Hindutva voices from Islamic clerics issuing fatwas on Sania Mirza’s tennis skirts or insisting women stay in purdah? In fact, purdah among Hindu women continues to be practised in some parts of north India where women are seen with their pallus pulled down to the chin. A century ago, purdah or veils pulled down below the face, was the expected norm across much of India.
For the militantly traditional, a woman is either virgin or whore, devi or dayan, bikini-clad vamp or sari-swaddled Sati-Savitri. It is a perverse sex-suffused binary vision that prevents a woman from ever attaining the status of either an individual or a citizen with equal rights, or even a human being.
The ongoing romance with traditional fantasies legitimises the backlash against “Westernised elitist feminists.” This means it’s open season on any woman perceived to be liberated. The attacks on women journalists on social media, diatribes against women activists, howls against Arundhati Roy or Priyanka Chopra and the showering of blows on BHU girls are all part of a traditional society recoiling in fury against assertive modern women who insist on their rights as individuals.
Pummelled by globalisation and its popular culture, social conservatives yearn for the golden age of Bharat, an imagined pre-British, pre-Mughal “authentic” and “pure” Vedic homeland. This is actually a globalisation-inspired love affair with ancientness which legitimises the curtailment of a woman’s democratic rights. There are two dimensions here: on the one hand, the hypocritical desire for a Sati-Savitri who will demur and quietly submit to everything a man may hurl at her. On the other hand, there is an incessant demand for sexual gratification in every form imaginable as seen in the rising demand for porn and commodifying women in entertainment media.
The space to question traditions from the perspective of gender justice is shrinking.
Male-centric festivals such as karva chauth, Shivratri or bhai dooj cannot be reinterpreted or reimagined, just as those campaigning for a clean Diwali or waterless Holi are cast as “anti-Hindu”. The woman who seeks to interrogate traditions in the light of modernity is seen as going against tradition itself and also demonised as “anti-Hindu”.
In September 2017, in a judgement that was met with some outrage, the Punjab and Haryana High Court granted bail to three rape accused stating it was the rape victim who was apparently “promiscuous” and “voyeuristic”. The judgement can be criticised as smacking of the traditionalist’s dread of the sexually active woman. It’s a mentality that implies that if a woman lacks unimpeachable Sati-Savitri-style virtue she’s immediately asking to be raped.
In the Mahmood Farooqui case, the judgement dwelt on the woman’s “feeble no” and “act of passion actuated by libido”. These words seem to suggest that unless a woman is a “pavitra nari” in the purest sense, unless she’s a demure Sita shyly crouching inside her Lakshman rekha, there can be no violation or assault.
Excerpted with permission from Why I Am A Liberal: A Manifesto For Indians Who Believe In Individual Freedom, Sagarika Ghose, Penguin Viking.
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