How Has Women’s Participation in the Hindutva Movement Expanded Its Reach?

Women and girls participate in the Hindutva movement, espousing its exclusionary and violent practices, while simultaneously negotiating its patriarchal norms that govern their own lives. 

On 24 February 2020, a group of women initiated an indefinite sit-in demonstration in Delhi’s Maujpur Chowk demanding that anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protestors be evicted from Jaffarabad, a nearby protest site. Their posters asserted their support of several legal and political decisions spearheaded by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This includes  CAA 2019, the implementation of National Register of Citizens of India, the dilution of Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution, and the criminalisation of the practice of "Triple Talaq.”

In the context of the CAA, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and lawmakers have openly encouraged militancy, calling their supporters to shoot those who disagree with the government’s decisions. These are far from idle threats, given that the groundwork for ideological indoctrination and physical training has taken place around the country in training camps led by affiliate organisations of the BJP, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Durga Vahini and Bajrang Dal. These camps are restricted to male participation. The Durga Vahini conducts training camps for women across India, including in rural and urban areas. More recently, in July 2019, it conducted “self-defence” and “personality development” training in Jammu and Kashmir that saw the participation of girls from 17 border towns. It was started during the height of the Ram Mandir movement in 1991 with the goal of making a Hindu state through “a renaissance in the Hindu society with Service, Security and Sanskars.” Pragya Thakur, accused in the 2006 Malegaon bombings that targeted Muslims and killed 40 people, is a prominent member of the Durga Vahini.

Thus, women’s public and overt support for Hindutva is not without precedent and far from accidental. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has long aimed to include several groups that it sees and treats as subordinate “others”—Dalits, Adivasis, and women—in order to ensure widespread internalisation and propagation of Hindutva ideology.

This reading list examines the role that the Hindutva movement has envisioned for women, the history of women’s participation in it, and how they negotiate patriarchy, chauvinism, and conceptions of modernity and tradition.

Strength for Protection and Exclusion

In 1991, prior to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and leading up to the resurgence of the efforts to construct a Ram Mandir by the RSS, Tanika Sarkar identifies that the Hindutva movement had started to carefully mobilise women, Dalits, and Adivasis.

In the self explanations and self definitions produced by the samiti, there is primary emphasis on physical courage and strength, on a trained, hardened, invincible female body. The sangh, too, defines this—cultivation of Hindu woman's physical strength—as the first principle and then goes on to list "intellectual grasp of the values of Hindu culture and devotional attachment to the ideals of Hindu womanhood." A samiti publication puts it in stronger terms: "Swasangrakshanksham nari ki samaj me adhik pratishtha hoti hai" (a woman who is able to defend herself gets a larger status in society) … [T]he explicit purpose for which the empowered Hindu female body is trained is patriotic war against the Muslim combatant. The large place that the myth of Muslim lust occupies within the general mythology of Hindu communalism would also explain the need for self strengthening.

However, Sarkar also argues that given one of the myths behind the origin of the organisation is founder Laxmibai Kelkar witnessing “Hindu goondas raping a girl in the presence of a Hindu husband” on a train, inciting her to create an organisation that trains women to protect themselves, gain confidence, and garner respect. On an everyday basis, these goals were prioritised, rather than only prioritising “Hindutva jagran” (Hindutva awakening).

When we consider the context from within which the samiti mobilises and trains its women, the force of the immediate compulsion becomes clearer. Sevikas come from upwardly mobile, urban, solvent, trading or middle-ranking service sectors—a fertile breeding ground for dowry murders and the violence on wives that precedes them … Thrust into public and mixed spaces for the first time, women daily encounter yet new forms of overt or covert sexual discrimination and violence. It is no wonder that the physical training programmes of the shakhas prove extremely attractive to such women, with the promise of a powerful body and the attendant self-confidence. That body and that mental attitude that it generates would be a vital shield against gender oppression.

One of the reasons why training women and girls became important, Manisha Sethi notices, is the projection of Hindu men as weak, cowardly and “effeminate.” Hindutva women’s organisations draw from this projection to emphasise the need for militancy. However, Sethi notes that this transition toward militancy was possible only because it concurrently also drew from and foregrounded their role as mothers and wives.

By their courageous and brave deeds, they were to strike terror in the hearts of the Muslims and evoke awe and inspire action among the Hindu. As wives, their bravery was to shame and shake their men out of their slothful cowardliness by putting into question their masculinity and ability to protect their women and religion. It was as if the woman was the agent, she endowing agency to her man and claiming the Muslim as her ‘victim’.

Ideal (Hindu) Women

Swati Dyahadroy studies the women’s wing of Dnyana Prabodhini (DP) which was started as an educational initiative in Pune in the 1960s. Based on interviews with participants and an examination of the DP’s monthly magazine and other literature it published, she argues that the initiative uses the idea of seva to encourage women to establish an identity that is different from both a perceived “new ‘consumer’ woman or the housewife, and the ‘modern’ woman.” DP, she found, envisioned “ideal” women as those who would not participate in the feminist movement and instead be rooted in service of the family and for the “collective cultural regeneration of the Hindu Rashtra.”

This requires a combination of upasana and cerebral and physical activity and such a woman citizen of the Hindu nation combats the cultural invasion of globalisation through collectivisation, modernisation and “universalisation” of brahminical rites and rituals … [I]t provides convincing alternatives to the models of the “consumer grihalaxmi” who inhabits the new middle class homes equipped with the latest gadgets. Further by placing the mantle of cultural leadership on the shoulders of this  middle class, “upper caste” woman the cultural and moral superiority of these castes and classes is naturalised.

Public Representation and Recognition

Tarini Bedi conducted interviews with members of Shiv Sena’s Mahila Aghadi (women’s front) wing in 2005–2006 and found they comprised largely of middle and lower middle-class women who largely live on the peripheries of Mumbai’s slums. Like other right-wing populist movements, the Aghadi also relies on a form of internal or external other.

The performative and mediated articulation of religious, linguistic, and “moral” difference between the Maharashtrian, female Shiv Sainik and the “other” – migrants from south India, Muslims, migrants from north India, the westernised women, patriarchal bureaucracies such as the police and the municipality, has played a key part in their conceptions of political and moral power. It has also critically affected the ways in which power gets practised in the urban contexts in which Shiv Sena women  live, work, and consume.

The Aghadi boasts positions that are ostensibly parallel in rank to the male-dominant party. However, women remain subordinated within the party and are excluded in the “visual cultures” used by the party (such as hoardings, posters, and billboards).

This absence is not lost on Sena women. I have heard many express their dissatisfaction at their exclusion – “we do all the work and they get all the recognition.”  However, given the embedded gender hierarchies within the party, most women admit that they would never be able to demand their inclusion in these visual displays. Instead, what Sena women do is engage in a politics of “visibility” where they insert themselves bodily into urban public spaces in order to make themselves known to their constituents, to show their support for their party and to further their own political and public ambitions.

Bedi argues that the exclusion pushes women to negotiate and seek recognition in alternative ways, particularly in spaces and contexts that are exclusive to male party workers.

Tension between Tradition and Modernity

Brenda Cossman and Ratna Kapur identify that the right wing’s attempt to attain conceptions of modernity while striving to retain traditions might appear contradictory and “self-defeating.” For example, the BJP’s Mahila Morcha endorses policies that would improve women’s financial capacity and potentially increase their independence. Moreover, the RSS’s physical and intellectual training, in addition to their efforts to enable women to work outside the household, can enable women to challenge the right’s conception of women as being “inferior” to men. However, Cossman and Kapur explain why the discourses “may not be as contradictory as they may initially appear.” 

The constitution of the new Hindu woman—a woman who may be educated and who may work outside of the home, a woman who is strong and powerful, inside her family, and her community—is still a woman constituted through traditional discourses of matri shakti, as mother and wife; and of Sita as chaste; pure and loyal. The new Hindu woman is strong—but she is strong in restoring the glories of an ancient past—a past which, as reconstructed through communal discourses, accords a particular role for women in the family and in society: dutiful wives, and self-sacrificing mothers. Any additional roles that women may perform are ancillary to these roles. Indeed, women's work and education are seen as a means of strengthening women's roles in the family.

The authors also argue that there is a marked difference in how Hindutva conceptualises Muslim women and Hindu women. Muslim women, under this paradigm, are constructed as an oppressed and subservient other. 

But, unlike the Hindu woman, she is neither respected as mother, nor the subject of rights. Saving Muslim women from their oppression bccomes the justification for not respecting the practices and beliefs of the Muslim community, and indeed, the basis for subordinating this community to Hindu rule … Rather than considering the oppression of women within their own community, this fundamentalist discourse attempts to refocus attention on the harm done to women within the Muslim custom of iddat and mehr.

Hindu Goddesses as Role Models?

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan analyses the implications of worshipping female Hindu goddesses in both progressive and traditional movements. Citing Kancha Ilaiah Shepard, Rajan identifies that Hindu goddesses were given greater importance by upper-caste women during their “aggressive opposition” to the Mandal reforms of 1990. Yet, an argument could be made that when a community worships a female idol, women in that community would benefit from an elevated status. Indeed, conceptions of femininity in goddesses can also push back against constructions of “female meekness, subordination and obedience.”

If we locate the indices of the status of women ... in female sex-ratios, life expectancy, literacy, income, subjection to violence, equality of opportunity, legal equality, then the evidence shows that societies that have, goddesses—and women leaders—score poorly on these counts.

Rajan argues that religious spaces must not be left for the right’s political mobilisation and domination. Instead, radical and left secular movements must use these spaces for progressive purposes given the ability of contemporary Hindutva to be malleable and co-opt struggles for gender, caste and class equity.

But the contemporary politics of Hindutva is, as seems increasingly clear, expansionist and adaptable, and shows itself to be (selectively) incorporative of various 'progressive' elements in the political interests of enlarging its appeal to women, lower castes and, even, other minority communities … And to privilege religion as the sole available idiom of the social would be to surrender the hard-won gains of democratic and secular struggles in post-independence India.

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