Valiant Mothers, Celibate Warriors, and Beauty Crusaders
Locating Women in the Hindu Nation.
Why would a significant number of women from upper and lower-middle-class families keenly back the Hindu nationalist cause, especially at a historical juncture where at least seemingly more emancipatory choices are available? The answer to this question lies in the evaluation of women’s position in Hindu society and much more nuanced understanding of agency.
From the time of the struggle for independence, women had a wide range of political models of activism to choose from; which included left working-class women militants, vibrant left-wing politics, Gandhian movement etc. Women of Hindu right, thus, had a wide array of political activism; hence the decision to choose the politics of right was necessarily not exercised in a vacuum, but was an informed choice. The sense of agency remains constant with the women as they indulge in the politics and activism of right-wing, in a militant fashion.
At the same time, it is important to look at the so-called ‘modern’ woman, who feels empowered as she breaks the shackles of tradition and participates in the neo-liberal agenda to emancipate her position in the society. Through beauty pageants, she exercises personal autonomy. She breaks the traditional norms of dressing and comes out of her house and traditional set-up to work and lead an independent life with financial security.
Events like beauty pageants, while bringing in women’s issues to the mainstream, fail to address the structural inequalities that are caused by western-style consumerist feminism. The pageants further popularise the art of engaging in prescriptive beauty treatments and norms. They are promulgated as ‘personal and individual’ choice. The acts of consumption like the use of fairness creams, Botox treatments to enhance the nose and other facial features are seen as a practice of empowerment through personal choice, which actually normalises the adherence of beauty norms of an upper-caste Hindu beauty aesthetics.
While the acts of the women on both sides whether the Hindu militancy or participants of beauty pageants, grant them certain empowerment through social capital, they do not challenge the patriarchy actively. In both cases, the patriarchy works in its most traditional form where the father is the head of the family.
While performing these tropes of emancipatory politics, they remain completely subjugated under patriarchy, which is garbed in culture and religion. In this essay, I attempt to look at the questions of empowerment and emancipation of women in the Hindu right and how they continue to support patriarchy while performing emancipatory politics. Another imperative aspect of emancipatory politics is the image of ‘new Indian woman’, which is deeply embedded in the liberal consumerist culture. It is interesting to note that these pageants also face the wrath of Hindu right-wing politics, for bringing in westernisation, but at the same time, they also adhere to the beauty norms of Hindu nation, while performing the tropes of emancipation through individual choice and freedom.
In doing so I will use the documentary – The World Before Her as my primary resource to establish my arguments.
Female Empowerment in Hindu Right
Durga Vahini and Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the women’s wings of Sangh Parivar’s Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS), actively recruit women into their organisations. A large number of young women from middle and lower-middle classes continue to volunteer for their training. Sangh Ideologues construct their discourse through a process of selectivity, recombination, rearrangement, and reinterpretation of elements from other discourses in their context.
The story of Prachi in the documentary film, The World Before Her makes us question the kind of political imagination that would lead Prachi to assimilate the idea of ‘great’ Hindu nation that India was and relegated to its present state, which according to her is both morally corrupt and vulnerable to westernisation. Saba Mahmood, the prolific feminist from Pakistan questions the assumption that something intrinsic in women should predispose them to oppose right-wing politics and religion. Prachi asserts in the film that she doesn’t like weak girls and if she will have her way, she will ‘kick’ them out of the camp. She adds, that she likes the fact that all the girls at the Samiti camp are scared of her. She actively performs the function of drawing varied consensual adherence of values including male coercion as well as militant resilience as a duty towards nation and religion.
She facilitates the purpose of commanding varied consensual values including that of male coercion on which patriarchy function to aid the organised Hindu militancy. Women elicit consent for patriarchal values on the basis of the defence of ‘nation’ and ‘religion’ and simultaneously use existing social consent for patriarchies to get consent for Hindu Rashtra.
When asked, that what does life mean for her, Prachi replies, “Life is Parishad (Vishwa Hindu Parishad)”. It is a sense of empowerment she derives from being associated with women’s wing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Samiti seeks to deepen the conformist character of its constituency by diverting their attention away from concern about victims of social oppression and their own class and class complicity with existing orders of power relations to an alleged no-concretised notion of Muslim oppression of Hindu women through ages.
The Samiti’s constant need of women volunteers for their militant agenda is fulfilled by a very potent tool - ‘Violation of our Women’, in order to empower them with a militant philosophy and training. When Prachi agrees to a possibility that her life is actually not hers to govern, but her father has the right to decide her fate, she says that after all, he has let her live, in spite of being a girl child. Her agency is therefore limited till she is fighting the ‘imagined other’. The ancient culture, which was pure and women’s position was regarded as highest before the degradation of Hindu culture due to constant Muslim invasion, is another popular right-wing discourse.
While creating this glorious past and empowering women with militant training, they are bestowed with false consciousness in the Marxist sense, where they feel emancipated through the patriarchal structures they support and actually subjugate them. Hindutva women are never forced to choose between gender and their own class/caste privileges. It keeps them tied to family interests and ideology while spicing their lives with excitement of a limited but important public identity
When Prachi (YouTube, 2018) is asked whether she would kill for Hindutva? She answers in affirmation and justifies it by saying that killing for dharma/religion is not violence, it is self-defence. Her readiness to kill another human being whom she considers a threat towards her religion and nation is disturbing and alarming at the same time. There is a sense of authority as far as she is concerned because she feels she is getting to finally make the decision of her life. Her father too states that if she sacrifices herself the larger good of the nation and religion, he will be very proud of her. Finally, he adds that these things actually depend upon the ‘will of the god”. It is significant to understand here, how women substitute themselves to carry forward the patriarchy when required.
Women in Hindutva politics take part in demonstrations, riots and political rallies, but once the movement is temporarily halted, they do not disappear from the public life of politics and activism, but they continue to actively propagate the ideas of a Hindu nation.
Their backing of violence propagates the cause of Hindu nation, which is deeply embedded in patriarchy. At the same time, the participation gives then a sense of agency in the larger political/public discourse. In this sense of empowerment through violence, an illusion of power is generated in their minds. This anti-feminists discourse, re-instates patriarchal consent, which feminism has tried to dismantle.
The address of a woman 'sanchalak' (organiser) in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, where she questions the need for higher education for women and strongly rallies for the following of Hindu scriptures in order to lead a good and fulfilled family life, leads to a contradiction of the right-wing discourse as far as women are concerned. (YouTube, 2018) The samiti does not believe in the equal rights for men and women, even though the constitution of India guarantees it while expecting women to fight and lead from the front in order to protect the nation and religion. The woman sanchalak’s disdain for any emotional attachment and single-minded perseverance to one’s duty as a woman towards her family is also an instrument of denying a woman the selfhood through the emotional capabilities. In the samiti literature, motherhood is remarkably emptied of its customary emotional and affective load and is vested upon with a notion of heroic political instrumentality.
Whether in political life or family life, women in Hindu right surrogate patriarchy while enjoying a sense of agency.
Images of New Indian Woman
In the growing middle class and upper-class scenario of the neoliberal India, where there is a growing sense of recognition for upward mobilisation. The women from smaller cities and towns participate in the beauty pageants like Miss India, in hope of economic and social independence. Beauty pageants in India and elsewhere have become a site for reactionary nationalism, but it is important to realise and understand, how it works for women, who seek economic independence and some agency over their lives. While archetypical beauty pageants claim to empower women and talk about gender sensitisation, it is noteworthy to see how much agency do they provide women in reality.
Ruhi’s story (YouTube, 2018) in the film, is striking in terms of empowerment. She is a girl from Jaipur, one of the smaller cities of India, although the capital of Rajasthan. She aspires for a better life, financially and socially. She dreams of fame and accolades, she will receive if she wins the title of Miss India. Her parents, especially her mother are equally hopeful for a better life for her, which she states is not possible in a place like Jaipur. She enters the competition and reaches Mumbai to go through rigorous training and grooming for a month. On many levels, this training period is very much like the Durga Vahini camp, which Prachi attends. Both places are sticklers for discipline, high on goal determination and control over women’s bodies and mind is evident.
She has to go through a Botox treatment to ‘improve’ the symmetry of her face, wear a bikini in a bikini round, which happens behind closed doors, after the protests from both women’s rights groups and Hindutva groups. She clearly states that she finds wearing a bikini ‘uncomfortable’, but after all, it is part of the contest so she has to go with it. She states, “Some sacrifices have to be made.” There is a constant pressure of using ‘right’ beauty products and look good and talk ‘intelligent’, as the women are being groomed to fit in the world of glamour.
Even without direct support, the contestant ends up supporting the Hindu nation, which has its one foot in ‘culture’ and the other in a neoliberal market economy. Feminine beauty standards are set, which are highly saleable for national economies, represented by these contestants. When one of the contestants were asked in the final round of the beauty pageant, that – How will she react if she finds out that her son is gay?
She replies that she would be shocked and would slap him first but later try and understand his position. This response is vital in understanding the position of liberal feminists who seek empowerment through capitalist means but remain deeply ingrained in the tradition and culture, a Hindu nation requires them to adhere to.
Images of ‘new Indian woman’ attempt to negotiate the contradictions inherent in the politics of globalisation.
The conservative right-wing view about womanhood is established through commodities like fairness creams, facial, and other body corrections through surgery and Botox treatments. Ruhi (YouTube, 2018) expresses her fears about taking Botox injections on her face and is worried about this treatment damaging her face and body. But she has no authority; she is almost aggressively coerced into it.
When Ruhi is out of the Miss India competition without making it to the first five contestants, she talks about her life after the contest, stating that how little time is left with her to ‘do’ something in her life, as she will now be married and will have children. And she will have to care for them and their ‘careers’ instead of hers. So even if the role of pageants is portrayed as empowering woman, they inscribe similar values of patriarchy and womanhood as that of the militant women in the Hindu right-wing.
The women who participate in the pageants come from the lower middle class and middle-class families, who aspire individual empowerment as a means to liberate themselves and seek certain independence. The politics of empowerment here concerns more with opportunities and distribution of benefits, as these women participate in the global phenomenon like beauty pageants thereby aiding the advertising and cultural industries. The ethnocentricity of these pageants reflects the experiences of the middle class, upper-middle-class and upper-caste women who have better access to education and thus they concentrate on individualistic empowerment. They fight gender discrimination without really seeking revolutionary changes.
It is important to decipher female empowerment in the Hindu nation, where both women participants of beauty pageants and women sanchalaks and women volunteers of samiti in Hindu right claim to have achieved empowerment and social status either through political activism or by participating in the neoliberal process of women’s liberation. To understand the position of these women, it is essential to point out what they are seeking, while pursuing the goals of liberation. While these women are empowered either through the political activism of right-wing or by economic liberalisation and opportunities it has opened for women, as they are able to make strategic life choices in a context that this ability was denied to them earlier. But the women in these systems don’t seem to come together in order to transform the system itself, which determines, distorts, and limits their possibilities.
The patriarchy gives these women bases within its framework, thereby ensuring the structural inequality but providing a sense of empowerment.
To find an alternative for women becomes a complicated task of the feminist historiography is to understand the complex ways in which women are and have been subjected to systematic subordination within a framework that simultaneously acknowledges new political possibilities for women, drawing on the tradition of dissent or resistance while infusing them with new meanings.
Rutuja Deshmukh is currently a visiting faculty of Journalism and Cinema at Flame, University, Pune and History of Indian Cinema at Savitribai Phule University, Pune.