Extracting identity from (Muslim) woman: Secular anxiety and spectre of communal

Photo: Around 20,000 Muslim women participated in a protest rally in January 2020 against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Sabah Maharaj

In contemporary history, a lot has been ruminated upon the Muslim woman. In the wake of a global effort to unveil her agency, from the USA’s Afghan invasion to BJP’s rhetoric around saving Muslim women, she has been a subject of immense scrutiny. Yet, despite the great number of academic work produced about her, somehow, the imagery of the ‘elusive’ Muslim women seems to escape translatability. Who is this seemingly ‘gendered’ Muslim, whose act of covering her body seems to have been understood as an act of veiling her self?

The anti – CAA movement saw wide participation of Muslims, the largest protest participated by Muslims to become a movement, in post-partition history – yet, much of the literature produced categorizes it as a women’s movement. The movement is hailed as the first instance of Muslim women coming out in protest, underlying that they have finally spoken against the proposed Muslim patriarchy by coming out, and therefore, is defined as a particularly feminist moment. The proposed idea of Muslim patriarchy is often presented as the sole hurdle that keeps Muslim women away from education and social mobility – but this analysis which examines the community solely through the axis of gender reflects a methodological oversight that requires further examination.

Reflecting on the methodology of studying resistance, prominent scholar, Lula Abu-Lughod argues that anthropologists often in their hope for discovering confirmation of resistance against system(s) of oppression become preoccupied with finding resistors that fit in prescribed ideological frameworks and thereby, tend to overlook complex relations and networks of power that produce the resistance. Therefore, she argues, taking cue from Foucault, that one must treat resistance as a ‘diagnostic of power’ as a tool to understand diverse and complex forms of resistance taking places across the world as this offers a respite from what she terms ‘abstract methodologies of resistance’ which tend to assign a set of generalizations derived from societies which are vastly different from each other. Therefore, if we are to treat resistance as a tool to explore underlying relations of power, we must examine the existing literature on the anti-CAA movement as well as examine the aftermath of the movement to ‘diagnose’ the complex networks of power in operation.

An examination of the Muslim woman in India needs to be made by locating her at the juncture of the complex socio-political trajectory her community is situated in. Muslims in India are reportedly the least socially mobile group in India and clearly remain the most underrepresented community as well, which is a consequence of decades of systemic exclusion and deprivation. Muslims have been browbeaten to a corner in the political scenario since before the advent of the BJP. For instance, in 1964 Muslims were not permitted to form a joint action committee for damage done by riots in Jabalpur (Noorani, 2004) and are generally applauded for being ‘calm’ and ‘peaceful’ by not bringing attention to their socio-political backwardness. Any reference by political leaders to their systematic disenfranchisement is met with claims of ‘minority appeasement’, despite the availability of numerous reports attesting to the marginality of the group. Therefore, the fact that the recent anti-CAA movement took place whose participation was overwhelmingly Muslim is unprecedented and reflects a historical shift – yet, the inscription of a universal language on the protests reflects an apprehension to acknowledge it as a movement by Muslims for justice.

Shaheen Bagh protest. Photo: Shakeeb KPA/Maktoob

 One needs to revisit and compare the constructions that imperialist and colonial states have had of Muslim women over the centuries to see that similar approaches have been taken for colonised communities over time with the objective being to delegitimise movements, knowledge systems and cultures that resist against established orders. For instance, in the 19th century, European photographers produced eroticised images of Muslim women removing their veils and revealing their bodies which were circulated widely in France and hailed as a cultural victory over the colonised. Additionally, during the war for independence in Algeria, wives of French military officials held unveiling ceremonies for Algerian women to portray that these native women favoured the colonial government over the indigenous rule. Reports later emerged revealing that the women who participated in these ceremonies had either never worn the veil in their lives or were pressured by the army to participate. Moving closer to contexts temporally closer to us, the USA’s war on terror in Afghanistan was encouraged by Westerns feminists as a legitimate tool to ‘save’ Muslim women from the pre-supposed patriarchy of Afghan men. Thus, the instrumentalisation of Muslim women’s narratives by silencing their voices to perpetuate cultural imperialism remained an overarching theme in Western ambitions to ‘civilise the Orient’ for discipline and control.

Similarly, caricatures of Muslims have pervaded urban, and rural, right-wing myths since before partition in India and the bogey of the ‘radical’ Muslim man is used to discipline and control that any and all political articulation from the community must subscribe to the political vocabulary prescribed by those who deem themselves as ‘progressive’ above others. Thus, the Muslim man perennially represented as the hyper-masculine, and hyper-sexual Muslim man who is no less than a savage, hunting for Hindu women to lure with his seductive virility (Gupta, 2002) is a trope that has been invoked overtly in several political campaigns, most notorious of which was the recent idea of ‘Love Jihad’. On the other hand, the Muslim woman is represented as one who needs to be ‘recovered’ to Hinduism (or liberal values) is someone naturally subservient to the alleged diktats of her religion and ‘men’.  Interestingly, these tropes presenting Muslim women as hyper-visible but silent entities are salient in several narratives, from right-wing to more progressive opinions.

Returning to the anti-CAA movement, Muslim women have been hailed for overcoming patriarchal bounds and appearing in ‘public’ for protest in defiance of the men in their family. But behind this simplistic assumption lurks a conceptualisation of Muslim society which ends up reinforcing the binary of the secular public and the ‘communal other’ to fit a Muslim body.  This neo-Oriental construction of the Muslim community declares them backward due to their perceived religiosity and indicts their collective failure to integrate into mainstream society and attain upward mobility due to their proximity to symbols of religiosity like the burqa, the beard or the madrasa instead of being a result of structural discrimination. This approach demands Muslims to let go of their community identity and align with a nationalist cultural ideal. Abu-Lughodfurther cautions against simplified explanations of cultures when one examines them without a look at the larger networks of power they are located in, arguing that an analysis that does not historically and politically locate the subject and object of inquiry ends up being deeply myopic.

Another aspect is that these analyses which centre gender to examine Muslim societies also naturalise vulnerability to be the repository of women and pre-suppose that the Muslim woman who has not ‘revolted’ till date is because her intellectual capacities could not conceive of resistance. Consequently, the Muslim man, on the other hand, is presumed to be secure from violence by the state and society, and a homogenous conception of masculinity is applied to him which overlooks the axes of caste and religious dynamics that he is situated in. This idea reduces the Muslim man’s subjectivity to eithera mutilated or criminalised body, or as an oppressive and ‘orthodox’ enforcer, ignoring his vulnerability to structural violence in India. Similarly, the Muslim women are also consumed as a ‘naïve’ entity, who requires the benevolent role of the upper caste or white liberator, to help her a find a ‘voice’ or ‘agency’ which must meet the prerequisites of an accepted notion of a ‘model minority’ to be categorised as a legitimate voice of the constituency. So to consistently depict Muslim as infantile and in need of a civilizational project by culturally hegemonic sections of society, is a perspective that is rooted in producing the Muslim community as a victim, and by reducing them as subjects of violence who do not know better– the subaltern continue to speak, but who is ready to listen? 

Going further, the argument that the movement revolves around the internal patriarchy the women have overcome or are resisting is a deliberate omission as it obscures the protestors’ demand for dignity, justice that has long been denied them. This leads us to question, what is the purpose of using gender as the only analytic tool to understand the protest – what is the purpose behind deriving a secular identity of a woman to define a protest centred on Muslim rights? Historical lessons learned from autonomous movements by black and other colonised populations suggest that such theorisation emerges from anxiety about a marginalised group developing its own discourse and politically organising its community –all of which are subtly denied to Muslims by liberal as well as right-wing sections of society who are quick to designate any assertion or demand from the Muslim community a radical and thereby, ‘communal’ assertion.

Secondly, turning to the feminist anxiety that has been quick to declare the struggles of Muslim women in its ambit, and running the danger of universalising the particular concerns of Muslims as those shared by a proposed ‘all-women’ community does little to help and uphold the demands, struggles, and voices of Muslim women. Black, Dalit, and Muslim women have consistently questioned the category of an all-woman sisterhood, arguing that it does not reflect their lived realities, as the default always becomes the white/Brahminical interests in these sisterhoods. Similarly, in India, hegemonic narratives go on to super-impose existing frameworks on a people for whom these academic realities have little to reflect their subjectivities. For instance, scholars and activists who have been participants of the movement argue that the discourse of ‘saving the constitution’ is a superimposition for it does not summarise or reflect the demands or sentiments of the community that has been subject to systemic Islamophobia over decades.

Thus, the politics of visibility and non-visibility here play an integral role in constructing discourses, and as discourses are constructed by those in power, it is interesting to examine how the iconography of Muslim women became a hyper-visible tactic in the popular imagination, even serving the purpose of being instrumentalised against its own community. For instance, when  JNU scholar Sharjeel Imam was hunted by the state and put on trial by the media and was labeled ‘communal’, there were several statements made to disassociate him from the ‘Women of ShaheenBagh’, who supposedly oppose communalism, and stand for secularism – with the underlying assumption being that Imam was a communal, thereby, a dangerous, body and the women of ShaheenBagh aligned to a universal secular ideal, an ideal according to which members of the community should be assessed.

Elderly women in Khureji protest raising slogans against CAA Photo: Shakeeb KPA

Firstly, one must interrogate what led to the universalization of the identity of Muslim women beyond the ‘communal’ identity of Muslims? The binary between secular and communal is a rhetoric that has been effectively used to stigmatise demands for affirmative action from marginalised communities. Thus far, the Muslim body has to always secularise itself, present itself as divorced from it communal orientations and affiliations to appeal to the secular – which is defined according to the norms determined by the rule establishment of a system created by the ruling castes of Indian society.

Secondly, what caused Sharjeel Imam to be declared ‘communal’ at that instant – what was so distinctively particular about the image of this young scholar, who has been vociferously hunted by the state, that could not be universalised? Is it because it was difficult to appropriate the struggle of a Muslim, with his name, his identity and his aspirations for his community intact as opposed to the projection of an amorphous, nameless group whose identity, history and vulnerabilities could thus be shrouded by a universal vocabulary- a phenomenonanthropologist Veena Das describes as the forceful inscription of authoritative and professionalised discourses over the ‘voice’ of the marginalised by the culturally hegemonic in society. 

However, one must question why conflict of interest should allegedly emerge between the women of the protests and a young scholar of their own community who was being brutally hunted by the state? Indian Muslims face discrimination by the criminal justice system in India and are targeted and subjected to punitive measures solely for their identity by the police force. The same police force has also been observed to consider Muslims as inherently inclined towards crime. So, does such a perspective omit the probability that the women of these protests across India may have stories of their own, or of their daughters, sons, nephews, and grandchildren to identify with the case of the unjustly incarcerated Sharjeel Imam? Would it be separate from their vision of justice and dignity to stand against the unjust criminalisation of vocal, young Muslim leaders?  Thus, it appears the Indian Muslim and their demands cannot be universalised for all of society, and cannot fit in a prescribed discourse – the rules of which are set by ruling castes because it demands Muslims overlook their particular conditions as a disenfranchised minority and assume neutrality over their concerns. It is also this categorisation of Muslim bodies between the secular and the communal that plays directly into the state’s agenda of who gets to be a ‘good’ Muslim.

It is interesting to note that in India, the universal continuously comes to be defined at the behest of the ruling Brahmanical establishment, that has since a time, designated any demand for affirmative action for a marginalised community as ‘communal’,  in opposition to ‘universal demands’ which are inevitably set according to the demands of the historically privileged upper caste sections. This is reminiscent of what B. R. Ambedkar also observed decades ago, ‘Unfortunately for the minorities in India, Indian nationalism has developed a doctrine which may be called the divine right of the majority to rule the minorities according to the wished of the majority. Any claim for sharing power by the minority is called communalism while the monopolizing of the whole power by the majority is called nationalism.’

I do not for a second doubt the ground-breaking and pivotal role that Muslim women have played, having witnessed members of my family – my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers, and my friends have been at roaring heart of the movement. For yes, this is the first movement which has seen large scale participation of Muslim women in modern India – but it is also one unique for having witnessed participation of the Indian Muslim community en masse, across castes and sects in post-partition history. But what is troubling is the fact that Muslim women’s agency is being upheld as rhetoric without actually focussing on the content, literature, or active speech of Muslim women at all. For instance, the ‘Daadi’s of Shaheen Bagh have been continuously nameless in the various discussions they were called to speak at, where perhaps the names of upper-caste women, already occupants of social capital and political spaces, were present but the aged and extremely vocal Muslim women were represented as a nameless, identity-less group, devoid of their knowledge and political acumen not beyond what a Savarna gaze could understand as ‘Shaheen Bagh Daadi’s’.   

Further, to diagnose the conditions of the aftermath of protests, the wrath of the state was unleashed on Muslims for the sheer audacity of entering the public as vocal, political, and enraged citizens, Muslims across the country continue to be penalised and subjected to state violence. This is not to deny the particular vulnerabilities Muslims on the lower edges of the caste ladder face – an examination of which exists beyond the ambit of this essay, or of the presence of patriarchal systems within Muslim societies. But the refusal to consider the state of Muslims as a subject of historical persecution by suggesting that they need to overcome their community identity for perceived national interests is rooted in the denial of space and affirmative action to the marginalised peoples in India. The language of social justice must continue to expand and engender possibilities for the vocabulary of the oppressed to find space.


 Abu-Lughod, L. (1991) ‘Writing Against Culture’, in Richard Gabriel Fox (ed.) Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present. Santa Fe: School of American Research, pp. 137-54, 161-2.

Abu-Lughod, L. (Feb, 1990) ‘The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women’, American Ethnologist, Vol. 17 (No. 1), pp. 41-55.

Abu-Lughod, L. (2013) ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Other, American Anthropologist, Vol. 104 (No. 3), pp. 783-790.

Ambedkar, B. and Moon, V. (1989) Writings and Speeches: Volume I. Bombay: Education Department Government of Maharashtra, p.427.

Das, V. (1996) Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective On Contemporary India. Oxford University Press.

Gupta, C. (2002) ‘Abduction Campaigns and the Lustful Muslim Male’, in Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims and the Hindu Public in Colonial India. New York: Pelgrave Publications, pp. 243-259. 

Noorani, A. G. (2004) The Muslims Of India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Sabah Maharaj is pursuing her post-graduate studies at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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