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Hindu nationalism & women

Hindu nationalism & women

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Gail Omvedt

Dalits have reason to be worried, with the RSS in control of the Ministry of Human Resources Development. Not only is it in a position to impose its cultural agenda on the nation, but it also seems to be moving to cut off the development of a Dalit intelligentsia which has been one of the powerful forces challenging it. Recent correspondence calling for an end to reservation for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students at the M.Phil and Ph.D. level is an indication of this. So are statements in the Rajya Sabha by Ms. Vasundhra Raje, Minister of State for Personnel, that the Government is considering applying an ”income criterion” for reservation.

But if Dalits should be concerned, so should women. The kind of nationalism that is being peddled by the RSS is one that has been functioning for the last century and a half to maintain the highly subordinate position of women in India. The nature of women’s encounter with nationalism is a complex one and has been endlessly dissected in recent scholarship.

On the one hand, the role of women in national liberation movements has legitimised their coming out of the home into the public sphere, and has helped them confront their own subordination within a domestic patriarchy along with the national oppressor. It has left a heritage of struggle and pride, as indicated in the title ”We Also Made History” given to an account of women’s role in the Telengana movement.

On the other hand, the elite’s concern to defend their ”national culture” against western invasion has led them to defend the subordination of women to the community, and with it some of the most retrograde of traditional customs. The well-known paradigm is the veil: women in many Muslim countries threw aside the veil as they emerged to take part in the struggle, or at times used it as a form of disguise, a means of hiding from imperialist forces. But after the struggle, in too many cases the veil was re- imposed. Not only the veil; African nationalists like Jomo Kenyatta were ready to defend even the cruel custom of female circumcision as a symbol of tradition and self which had to be maintained.

The long-term meaning of nationalism for women, then, has varied with the collective strength they have gained in the course of struggle. Too often it seems that the male nationalist elite has been able to deprive them of this strength. The case of India is becoming increasingly well documented with recent scholarship. Among some of the most important works are historian Uma Chakravarty’s study of Pandita Ramabai and her times, titled ”Rewriting History”, and an impressive collection of articles edited by Chakravarty and Kumkum Sangari, ”From Myths to Markets”. Pandita Ramabai was the daughter of an outcast Brahman – outcast partly for educating his daughters – and famously defended by Mahatma Phule for her contributions to women’s education. Phule had argued that education was the key to women’s liberation as to that of the ”Shudras and Ati-Shudras”, saying that once the daughters and daughters-in-law of Brahmans learnt to read the sacred scriptures they would scornfully hurl them all away.

But this did not happen; although Ramabai herself was an early feminist, founder of perhaps the first autonomous women’s organisation, she was neatly sidelined by the elite after she converted to Christianity, having discovered that in her words, ”there were two things on which all these books the Dharmashastras, the sacred epics, the Puranas and modern poets, the popular preachers of the present day and orthodox high caste men were agreed, that women… as a class were all bad, very bad, worse than demons, as unholy as untruth, and that they could not get moksa like men”.

This was too much for even the moderate Brahmans, who continued to idealise many aspects of ancient Vedic society.

But in telling this story, it needs to be asked, whose history is Chakravarty rewriting? Apparently that of the nationalists themselves, including such contemporary intellectuals as Partha Chatterjee of the well- known Subaltern studies school. In an early article Chatterjee had argued that the ”nationalist resolution of the women’s question” was achieved when the nationalists used the division between ”inner” and ”outer”, the ”home” and the ”outside” world to maintain the inner, spiritual world as the realm of their inviolate cultural essence, barred to western aggression in contrast to the humiliation they had to face in the public world of the colonisers. Women became both the symbol of the inner world and its guardians; they were not to be subordinated in the traditional religious way but they were to be discouraged from taking part in the public sphere except as an extension of the home, and they were to be educated to be conveyers of the national culture. It may be said that just as the RSS is out to control education today, nationalist men were anxious to control it from the nineteenth century onwards.

For Indian women, however, the inner world has had characteristics of a prison; the family has been the collective agent of her subordination. Escaping from the ”four walls” of the home has always been a major theme of women’s struggles for liberation, whether they were organising as part of the broader workers’ or farmers’ movement or on their own issues. It is no wonder then that feminists have begun to critique Chatterjee for being too satisfied with his ”nationalist resolution”, indeed, the communitarians who have posed the national community as an alternative to the heartless individualism of the world of western commercialism have generally been silent about what these communities have meant for women. Thus in a recent article in The Economic and Political Weekly, Himani Banerjee notes that Chatterjee’s writings on the women’s question signalled a departure from the earlier agenda of Subaltern studies of critiquing nationalism and recovering the history of the oppressed.

Feminists have also extended the interpretation of this ”nationalist resolution”. One of the strongest chapters in Chakravarty’s book is a depiction not of the orthodox elite but of the liberal reformer M. G. Ranade. Ranade, as is well known, caved in to family pressures and rather than marry a child widow, agreed to marry the girl chosen by his father. He then had her educated – but to be a suitable companion and fit wife and mother for a new generation of ”modern” Indians. It was not so different from Gandhi dragging Kasturba along with his dietary quirks and his brahmachari vows.

This ”guided” education of women, organised both privately and in public schemes for women’s education, was designed to undercut the radical potential of education that had been embodied in the spectre of Pandita Ramabai. It produced women such as Anandibai Joshi and Kashibai Kanitkar, who – as is shown by Meera Kosambi’s study in the Myths to Markets volume – in spite of being a woman doctor and woman novelist respectively, continued to subordinate themselves to their family. In becoming educated, they had to confront all the tensions generated among more orthodox women left behind. ”Women became the site where the conflict between the old and the new was played out” as Kosambi puts it. In Bengal also, the first woman’s autobiography by Rashsundari Debi reveals the incredible amount of household labour even elite women put in to maintaining the traditional ”inner world” to the liking of nationalists.

Thus the nationalist project of maintaining the spiritual core of their culture, identified with the family, often simply gave a new justification for ongoing patriarchal control of women’s sexuality and labour.

BY MANY measures, India is one of the most patriarchal countries in the world. It has lower female literacy rates than many African countries; only recently have women’s lifespans begun to equal men’s – in sharp contrast to most countries where women tend to outlive men – and maternal mortality rates remain high. The most stark measure of all is perhaps Prof. Amartya Sen’s concept of ”missing women” – the low sex ratio in India means that some 37 million to 38 million women who might otherwise be alive today have died due to neglect and maltreatment.

This seems clearly related to aspects of Indian culture, rather than simply worldwide economic and political processes. Feminists have been reluctant to examine the specific casual factors behind this, in particular the role of Brahmanism and caste society, though condemning Manu is a common theme of the women’s movement. However, one of those who had asked analytical questions recently, Nirmala Banerjee, comes up with some provocative answers. Banerjee’s essay, ”Analyzing Women’s Work Under Patriarchy”, is published in the volume ”From Myths to Markets” edited by Kumkum Sangari and Uma Chakravarty, and begins with a critique of the ”common sense” understanding that greater workforce participation will give more independence to women. Banerjee argues against both neo-classical and marxist versions of this, claiming that the evidence in India is against it, showing that jobs are often defined as ”women’s work” and assigned low pay and status only after they get filled by women. Indeed, many of the other studies in the volume document the continuing joint family control over women’s work; just as with education, the potentially liberating influence of ”economic” independence has been neutralised by patriarchal controls in India.

The solution that Banerjee favours derives from a thesis by Heidi Hartmann in regard to European developments. Hartmann argues that male control over women’s participation in the workforce – and the resulting low pay and worsened conditions for women – did not come simply from the prior subordinate position of women in the family, with time occupied in domestic work and childcare. Rather, the specific collective powers gained by male workers through the trade union movement functioned against women in Europe, allowing them to use union regulations and powers to subordinate women both in the workplace and the home. In Europe what gained strength with the rise of capitalist industrialisation was the notion of a ”family wage” which assumed the existence of a working male and a house-bound wife. Strikingly, the institution that proved helpful for the betterment of male workers’ condition, unions, worked against women.

Hartmann’s thesis, as Banerjee notes, does not apply per se to India, where the union movement was never so strong. But it does point to collective agency, and it suggests – though Banerjee does not herself draw this conclusion – that the equivalent in India to the labour movement in Europe, the nationalist movement, played the same role. The ideological role played by the ”family wage” in maintaining home and children in Europe was matched by the cultural-nationalist role of the ”Hindu woman”, modelled after Sita and Savitri, which was popularised and spread in India during the colonial period. It was a time when, as Uma Chakravarti shows in ”Rewriting History”, the differentiated caste- hierarchical model of women’s subordination was replaced by a single model. Given the popularity of literature about women, probably as much energy went into building the new structures of women’s subordination as into any aspect of national culture.

Recently, some historians have argued that far from caste being a ”timeless” feature of Indian society it was, if not actually constructed during the colonial period, strengthened and helped to consolidate its hold throughout India. The ”brahmanic” model, which had been most hegemonic in the irrigated areas and river valleys, now was taken as the norm throughout. British courts helped in that they enforced ”brahmanic” as Hindu law, but elite action was just as crucial. In the same way it can be argued that the new communication and transportation networks in colonial India – and arguments for ”national unity” against the alien rulers – helped the patriarchal elite in consolidating a ”modern” form of the subordination of ”Hindu” women. Women who would otherwise have protested more strongly against oppressive customs were also drawn into assent to them as an aspect of maintaining their national identity; this can be seen in the autobiographical writings of Anandibai Joshi and even Pandita Ramabai, who was provoked by the chauvinism of church authorities to insist on many of the customs of the ”high-caste Hindu woman” whose situation she was otherwise so critical about.

There was protest against this version of ”national unity”, of course, and arguments that an equalitarian nation had first to be created – coming from Bahujan and Dalit spokesmen such as Phule, Periyar, Ambedkar and others. They also maintained a much more critical view of women’s position. Phule’s personal life, for example, stood in strong contrast with Ranade’s assent to the pressure of his joint family; when he and his wife were childless, they decided to adopt – and going against all ”Hindu” custom they adopted the son of a brahman widow. It resulted in at least temporary expulsion from the household, not to mention causing somewhat of a storm in the elite circles of Pune, for whom the treatment of brahman widows had become a sore point.

For Phule, the family was very far from being the centre in which the inner spiritual identity of the nationalist Hindu could be maintained; he even postulated that in his ideal family, the father could be a Satyasamajist, the mother a Buddhist, the son a Muslim, the daughter a Christian! This represented a radical separation of the family and cultural identity. Similarly, as V. Geetha has shown, Periyar not only linked the subordination of women to brahmanic caste hierarchy, but also questioned traditional ”Tamil cultural” notions of chastity.

But these were dissenting voices. It was the ”nationalist resolution of the women’s question” which triumphed, and which has probably helped in maintaining the continued strength of the patriarchal family and the culture that surrounds it in India today. Now that the BJP is in power, and the RSS is pushing its ”Hindu nationalist” cultural agenda in all the educational and cultural institutions of society, the situation is likely to become worse – or at least provoke sharpening conflict.

However, the question remains, if the women’s movement was too weak in the colonial period to confront elite nationalism with its own equalitarian and nationalist agenda, where is the hope that it will gather renewed strength today?

[Courtesy: Most likely, first published in The Hindusometime in the early 2000s.]