Can we ask the woman, first?

Updated 20 Oct 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

WHEN my brother Shannay was thrashed 11-0 in a table tennis match with a friendly female champion of the sport at JNU, he left the room muttering: “I somehow prefer cricket.”

India faces innumerable social and political challenges, but the purported solvers of problems seem to pick out the Hindu-Muslim question for their benign gaze, on most occasions being wary of addressing issues of perennially deeper strife, namely caste, a more complex proposition than any swinging delivery in cricket, or a spinning serve in table tennis.

Religion is the doctored pitch Hindutva wants everyone to play on. Even Gandhiji fell for it, preferring to frame the Hindu-Muslim binary instead of confronting the challenges of a pervasive caste conflict dogging India.

Had Jinnah linked up with Ambedkar, instead of troubling himself with Gandhi, and explored the complex debate and struggle within the Hindu society — as his mentor G.K. Gokhale would have liked — instead of allowing himself to feel threatened by the upper caste presumptuousness of the Congress, (and an equally upper-caste pursuit of the Muslim League) India’s fate might have been perhaps more agreeable for India and its women by a stretch. Had Jinnah seen the potential of an alliance with, say, a Gauri Lankesh or Periyar or felt encouraged to see a composite India as Tagore visualised it, while being watchful of the communal trap the Congress and the League had set for him, the story of India and of its women might have been more rewarding. That was sadly not to be.

Commotion has broken out over a jewellery ad in which a Muslim mother is shown treating her Hindu daughter-in-law with respect.

The plight of the commenting classes is not any less pitiable for it. The Bihar elections are looming, crucial for testing the opposition’s frayed sinews against a backdrop of surging patriarchal fascism. Next year, more crucially, is West Bengal’s turn. Taming the pandemic is, of course, extremely urgent. Fixing the economy poses insurmountable challenges too, given the government’s obsession with crony privatisation as panacea.

In the meantime, the world hunger index has shown an embarrassing mirror to South Asia’s largest economy, rather sullying for its imposing military plumage. The probe into a Dalit girl’s rape at the hands of men from a dominant caste grabbed the headlines momentarily. However, instead of a judicial probe, the case was handed to discredited federal investigators.

Read: India's Dalit women often face sexual violence because of, yes, their caste

Its agents have already messed up the case of suicide by a movie actor, targeting the actor’s grieving girlfriend with an alleged political intent. It’s the agency India’s supreme court once described as a caged parrot of the government. And while the commentators are grappling with one or all of the problems at once, reports are coming in of increasingly insecure Dalits of Uttar Pradesh.

Right in the middle of the intractable chaos, commotion has broken out over a jewellery ad in which a Muslim mother is shown treating her Hindu daughter-in-law with respect and love, something not associated with the stereotype depicted in Indian TV serials. Hindutva groups claim the ad wrongly promotes harmful Hindu-Muslim bonhomie. (Unnoticed by eager analysts, the powerful Muslim clergy too remains in cahoots with regressive Hindus; not entirely novel, since the mullahs have always disapproved of the mingling of sexes within and across religions.)

Hindutva activists, meanwhile, had already banned the participation of Muslim men in what used to be a socially inclusive Garba dance festival in which Hindu girls from Gujarat excel. The fiction of ‘love jihad’ — describing a predatory intent of Muslim men with Hindu women — was contrived to drive a wedge between the communities. The wedge may not be working so well, going by the jewellery ad. Therefore, more deviousness can be expected from patriarchal lobbies.

Nobody has the time to ask the women about this enforced social aloofness that traps them more than anyone else. It’s tempting to believe that given half a chance women would be leading the fight against their caste and religious oppressors.

Hindutva is not original in imposing its immense power to subjugate women. The literature of Punjab on both sides of the India-Pakistan border is filled with stories of Muslim khap panchayats, as it were, inflicting trauma on young lovers, not uncommonly of the same religion. The stories of Heer-Ranjha, Sassi-Punnu, Sohini-Mahiwal and Mirza-Sahiban among others are symbolic of regressive impositions, which women continue to face across communities.

Hindutva being a relatively new entrant in the game has merely copied many of the feudal characteristics of South Asia’s Muslim communities while borrowing extensively from an equally wily caste system. The women’s purdah, for example, practised by upper-caste Hindu families of 20th-century Bengal, may have been bodily lifted from Muslim practices.

The first president of the Indian republic, Babu Rajendra Prasad, described in detail in his autobiography how he hadn’t seen his wife’s face for years as per the traditions of upper-caste families of Bihar. A housemaid would accompany the husband to the wife’s darkened chambers and return from the door with the lantern, leaving the future president of India to spend the night in blindness with his spouse. As if he were committing a sin by deserting the men’s quarter, Prasad would slip out from the wife’s room and into his own bed while it was still safely dark and well before sunrise.

An upheaval, not currently on the horizon, could alone help liberate women from centuries of misogyny and their sexual oppression across religious and racial groups in South Asia. In the absence of the awaited revolt, hollow slogans have stepped in. Most traditions require the woman’s approval before she is wedded to the man. That she may not want to marry the man, any man, and if she so desires she should be able to find a partner from any race or region, any faith or caste is a choice most women are not given. The problem cannot be solved by a jewellery ad.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2020