The question of the liberation of Muslim women has occupied a key position in the politics of the BJP. For a political party so heavily invested in propaganda machinery explicitly focused on othering Muslims, their unusual concern towards the liberation of Muslim women does raise some crucial questions.
If indeed it is the liberation of Muslim women that they desire, what exactly defines the conditions of bondage for Muslim women? Since it is not all Indian women, but only Indian Muslim women who require this special assistance, then it implies that the condition of their bondage is directly connected to their religious faith.
The Government of India recently declared the 1st of August to be observed as “Muslim women’s rights day”. It corresponds to the day Parliament passed The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill and it became an Act, also known as the triple talaq law. Over 650 women’s rights activists and others denounced this decision including those Muslim women organizations who were the initiators of an institutional battle against Triple Talaq. Although in 2002 triple talaq was invalidated by the courts, in July 2019 however, the central government went one step further and passed a law that also criminalized Triple Talaq. Muslim feminist organizations that had initially fought against triple Talaq argued that this additional law made Muslim men vulnerable to arrest and subjected Muslim women to financial insecurity.
Recently, an app was launched allegedly by a group of Hindu men on GitHub called “Sulli deals“, Sulli being a derogatory term for Muslim women. It offered a platform that took publicly available pictures of outspoken Muslim women on social media, and created profiles, describing the women as “deals of the day”. The app offered to virtually auction the woman in the picture. To understand the peculiar obsession of the Indian Hindu man to either save or degrade or conquest Muslim women, it is necessary to understand the multiple subject positions Muslim women occupy, within the psyche of the Hindu man, that has been constructed over a timeline and goes back to the colonial era.
The veiled woman- a history
Discourses surrounding Islam, fundamentalism, and Muslim women have been interwoven since the onset of European colonial enterprises. In 1978, Edward Said coined the term ‘Orientalism’ to portray the way that Western scholarship reflected a distorted image of the East. In particular, the ‘Orientalist framework’ stemmed from ‘an imaginative and yet drastically polarized geography dividing the world into two unequal parts, the larger, ‘different’ one called the Orient, while the other, called the Occident or the West’ (Said, 1981: 4).
The study of the orient became an integral part of the colonial mission and the veil worn by the Muslim woman became an important field of inquiry in the study of the orient. An eroticized desire to remove the veil was evident in the growing European print culture of the 18th century. Mabro’s (1991) study of Western traveller’s perceptions of Middle Eastern women found that they were seen as ‘exotic’ and the veil was placed at the centre of this exoticism. Seen in this light, the veil represented the ‘ancient, the mysterious, and romance itself’ (Nussbaum, 1995:123) The Irish writer Thomas Moore wrote: “The East is filled with women with wide Black Eyes full of love and desire trapped by evil men.”
The dominant/mainstream understanding of Muslim women as docile, voiceless victims draws on the Orientalist scholarship. The British Orientalist scholarship did not just lay the framework for the caricature of the identity of the Muslim woman but also of the “Native Hindu man” who was constructed in antagonism to the “Invader Muslim man” that has survived in our imagination to this day. Thomas Blam Hansen in his book “The Saffron wave” has argued Notions of Hinduism as a unified religion, and “Hindu” as a well-bounded cultural category are largely products of scholarly and administrative interventions by orientalist scholars. William Watts, a soldier, and a writer, who had participated in the 1757 War of Plassey wrote, “The two great nations…differ widely…in their complexion, languages, manners, and religion. The Moguls are a robust, stately, and, in respect to the original natives, a fair people…they are naturally vain addicted to luxury, fierce, oppressive, and, for the most part, very rapacious. The Hindus, or native Indians, are industrious than the Moors…[Gentoows (Hindus) are a mild, subtle, frugal race of men, exceedingly superstitious, submissive…but naturally jealous, suspicious…which is principally owing to that abject slavery they are kept in by the Moors (Muslims)”
This particular imagination of identities based on fixed religious essences has facilitated in racializing Muslims as a foreign barbaric community and in legitimizing their subordination. The politics of saving the Muslim woman cannot be understood separately from this process of racialization.
As Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley have written, anti-Semitism always involved a process in which “cultural attributes were racialized, seen as encompassing everything for which the Jews stood.” Similarly, today, “the constant reduction and amplification of people, regardless of religiosity, nationality, context, attachments, politics, and experience, to a homogenized transnational population, to the idea of the Muslim, performs the work of race.”
In the popular imagination, the Muslim woman, stripped of all her agency is reduced to the caricature of one of the three characters, the exotic and sexualized woman behind the veil or the oppressed and voiceless captive or the evil and fanatic terrorism sympathizer. The news and entertainment media both generate these stereotypes and fix these images in the minds of the audience.
The report of the fact-finding committee set up by the Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC) to look into the Northeast Delhi riots of 2020 revealed some of the slogans that were chanted by the Hindu mobs, one of the peculiar ones being “Several Sakeenas will be caught today,” Sakeena refers to the character of a Pakistani woman from a 2001 Bollywood drama “Gadar”. Sakeena, who is moving with her family to Pakistan, after the India Pakistan partition, is accidentally left behind in the Indian region where she is attacked by a blood-thirsty mob of Hindu men. She is saved by one of the rioters, Tara Singh who she later falls in love with and marries. As the drama unfolds, Sakeena is later trapped by her fanatic Muslim family in Pakistan who do not accept her marriage with a Jatt man. She is yet again rescued in the climax by her husband Tara Singh. The drama makes a clear sketch of the gaze of the Hindu man towards the Muslim woman – A constant victim. In a number of Bollywood movies like “Gadar,” a bias is generated and normalized through a clear demarcation of self and the “other”, where the other represents the
Muslim. Indian Popular culture overflows with such crude caricaturing of Muslim women that have occupied a permanent place in the minds of the Indian audience.
The effect of this politics is seen not just in the media but also in the very body of law and legislation. Islamophobia as a phenomenon is rooted in everyday social processes, is connected to and often generated by government policies, and is inseparable from the wider questions of political ideology and systems of power.
When the abrogation of article 370 in Kashmir was carried out, media outlets celebrated it as a “victory for Kashmiri women” who could finally now pass property to their children if they wished to marry men of non-Kashmiri origin. Social media was overflowing with the content of Hindu men fantasizing about marrying Kashmiri women. Kashmiris however expressed their anxiety towards BJP wanting to change the demographic character of the Muslim-majority region by allowing non-Kashmiris to buy land there.
The Muslim woman who actively denies the saviorship offered by the Hindu Nationalists is thrown into the third category of the Militant Muslim woman and is often met with harassment of sexual nature. Politically outspoken Muslim women in online spaces are regularly targeted and trolled. Earlier Rana Ayyub, an author, and a journalist became the victim of deep fake porn. The women of Shaheen Bagh who led the anti CAA protests of 2019 became victims of many conspiracy theories linking them to foreign Islamist organizations. Another kind of slander that they faced was accusations of running a prostitution operation. A clip was circulated to discredit the protesting women, which was later proven to be a 2-year-old clip from Karachi.
Other violent manifestations of this politics include sexual crimes unleashed on Muslim women during anti-Muslim pogroms. 2002 Gujarat riots and Muzaffarnagar riots were accompanied by mass rapes of Muslim women. Crimes committed on the bodies of Muslim women don’t just go unreported several times, but the accused also receive impunity and support from Hindu organizations. The right-wing Hindu Ekta Manch, along with the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party’s state secretary, carried out a protest march in Jammu’s Kathua district in 2018 to demand the release of a special police officer (SPO) accused of raping and murdering an eight-year-old Muslim girl. The everyday degradation and violence that Muslim women receive is connected to a much wider political ideology that legitimizes such acts of hatred. The underlying condition for the liberation of Muslim women is presumed to be a weakening of her religious faith. Naturally, her clothing and other symbols she adorns are taken as the markers of the value system she submits to. The politics of saving Muslim women is, therefore, nothing less than a battle for her psychological ownership. In a deeply patriarchal and polarized society, the woman is perceived as a belonging. Muslim women thus become the key to the expansion of the ideology of a political party that depends on the vilification of the Muslim men for its legitimization. Her body becomes another site of conquest, of violation and of humiliation, and her submission to an alternate culture of patriarchy is taken as a reinforcement of control over the Muslim population.
Sara Ather is from Uttar Pradesh, India based in Germany with qualifications in Art and Architecture, and an active interest in identity, religion, and left political developments, especially in India.