Wluml dossier 4 August/September 1988 dossier 4

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WLUML Dossier 4 August/September 1988


August – September 1988

The State, Religious Fundamentalism and Women - Trends in South Asia

Amrita Chhachhi

One of the crucial issues affecting women in South Asia today has been the growth of state sponsored religious fundamentalism. This is occurring in the context of increasing evidence of violence against women - dowry murders, sexual harassment, rape often by the police and army, and the throwing of acid on women in the streets. (1) As a result of campaigns and agitations by women's movements, these incidents have been highlighted and the governments have passed some preventive laws, albeit with many loopholes and limitations. However what is significant is that in recent years there has been a shift away from even the liberal rhetoric of equal rights for women and laws have been passed to withdraw the legal and political rights, which women already had won. These developments are linked with the broader process of economic and political changes which have laid the basis for religious fundamentalist groups to grow, as well as for the support to these tendencies by the governments in these countries.

The emergence of fundamentalist groups is not specific to South Asia alone. Fundamentalist forces, often with state support have emerged in Sudan, Nigeria, Egypt, and Malaysia, with Iran offering the best example of what implications this phenomenon has for women. Iranian women took an active part in the anti-imperialist struggle against the Shah, making the veil into a symbol of resistance only to find themselves pushed afterwards into the restricted roles of mothers and wives. The "chador" became a legally binding requirement, the age of marriage was reduced to 13 years and divorce became nearly impossible. (Haleh Afshar, 1985)

These trends with very specific injunctions for women can be seen also in developed capitalist countries, thus belying any link of this phenomenon with backwardness and underdevelopment. In fact many of these movements use the latest and most sophisticated technology in modern communications. In the United States, the Moral Majority, with close links with the extreme right, have initiated a reign of "holy terror" with senators opposing the Equal Rights Amendment on the grounds that it undermines the family and "deprives men of their right to come home from work to a fresh martini, cooked dinner and a cheerful and compliant wife". (Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman 1984) Electronic evangelists fill the airwaves with relentless exhortations attributing all of America's problems to the communist menace and the recent movements for racial, sexual and social emancipation. In South Asia in recent years a number of developments show the increasing hold of religious fundamentalist forces in the region.

In 1986 the Indian Parliament passed a bill called the Muslim Women's Protection of the right of Divorce Bill, which withdrew a right from Muslim women to appeal for maintenance under a special provision in the Criminal Procedure Code. This bill was passed after a period of mass demonstrations, strikes and petitions presented by Muslims and Hindus all over the country, as a reaction to a Supreme Court judgment to grant a 73 year old woman, Shah Bano, the paltry sum of Rs. 179 per month as maintenance from her husband. A simple issue of women’s rights turned into an issue of minority vs. majority community interests and led to a withdrawal of legal rights for Muslim women.

In Pakistan, the Hudood Ordinance of 1979 sanctioned flogging for adultery and rape, with little to distinguish the two, a Law of Evidence reduced a woman 's evidence to half that of a man, and a proposed Shariat Bill, now seeks to deprive women of even more political and social rights, including their participation in politics.

In Bangladesh, while there have not been specific changes in the law as yet, attempts are being made to assert "Islamic" codes of dress and conduct for women. Women announcers on television were told not to cover their heads and not to wear "bindis" on their foreheads. (2) At the moment there is a bill being debated on making Islam the state religion.

These attempts to reverse the status of women and withdraw the rights which earlier generations of women had won, all in the name of preserving traditions and the fundamental tenets of a religion needs to be understood in relation to the role of the state. While this is clear in countries where a religion is the state religion, even in countries which purport to be secular, there seems to be support if not outright sponsorship of fundamentalism. Interestingly these trends go alongside government policies and programmes to integrate women into development. These are not just part of the rhetoric of the International Women’s Decade which most governments have to project as part of their "modern and progressive image". The apparent contradiction between special programmes for women's employment and skill training and the passing of restrictive laws which raise images of medievalism in the 20th Century, can be seen as two sides of the same imperative to control and direct women's labour, fertility and sexuality to suit both capitalist and patriarchal interests.

Although significant work has been done on the implications of capitalist development on women's work and the fact that the needs of capital and the needs of patriarchy can either coincide or conflict with each other, more work need to be done at a theoretical and empirical level on the relation between the state and women's subordination. This paper will look at one phenomenon - religious fundamentalism in the South Asian context. (i.e. Pakistan, India and Bangladesh) with a special focus on India, and its relation to state ideology and the women's subordination. The basis for the emergence of fundamentalism, the connection of this with the increasing attempts to reassert control over women, and the implications of such a state ideology for the women's movements in the region are discussed. It is argued that religious fundamentalism as a state ideology could provide a coincidence of patriarchal and capitalist interests in the present context in South Asia. These preliminary reflections will, I hope lay the basis for further theoretical understanding and more importantly, practical strategies to counteract such retrogressive trends.

Postcolonial states in South Asia have followed a capitalist path of development, notwithstanding the rhetoric of socialism, whether of the Indian or Islamic variety. There exist differences in the nature of the state, for instance, the specific constellation of class forces, the degree of dependence or independence from foreign capital, or the degree of repression and the right to assert democratic rights. However, development programmes in all these countries for agricultural and industrial growth, have resulted in structural changes in the ownership and control over productive assets, especially land which have furthered the process of class and sexual differentiation. One contribution the decade has made is the challenging of the notion that development policies are sex-neutral; today there is a wealth of empirical material which documents the differential effect of development policies on women and men. Technological changes, legislation, etc, interact with a pre-existing class and sexual division of labour, both within the community and within the household. This has resulted in a deepening of inequalities between women and men, in terms of their access and control over food, education, health care and productive resources. State intervention is today, explicitly restructuring not just the arena of the economic but also other arenas of civil society, those which concern the most "private" areas of religious beliefs, reproductive choices and man-woman relationships. (3)

Given this pattern of development, the continuous aggravation of inequalities of wealth, income distribution and uneven regional growth, have resulted in various forms of oppositional movements for land-rights, higher wages, regional autonomy and implementation of legal rights. These movements have usually been repressed by governments and power wielding groups, resulting in a tremendous increase in class, caste, communal and sexual violence since the mid-sixties. The inability of the governments to tackle the roots of these problems has resulted in a crippling crisis of legitimacy.

It is in this context that the ruling parties in all these countries are seeking to create an ideological unity through the sponsoring of religious fundamentalism. This is expressed openly in General Zia's Islamisation drives and in a more covert form in India and Bangladesh. In 1977, the secular principles of the Bangladesh constitution were reversed and since then, the government has been supporting the growth of Islamic institutions and linking up with Islamic state. At the moment there is a bill introduced in parliament to make Islam into a state religion. In India, the complicity of the ruling party in the attacks on Sikh families in Delhi in November 1984, the succumbing to Muslim and Hindu fundamentalist pressures and the total lack of political will to solve the increasing communal tension in the country, have shattered the illusions of the secular ideology of the Indian state. The trend is towards a communal state ideology with majority Hindu fundamentalism as a dominant component.

There are differences in the specific factors necessitating the use of religious fundamentalism to create an ideology unity. In Pakistan, the nationality question is the most important. The only way by which Punjabi domination in the economy, bureaucracy and military could be preserved by the ruling party was by stressing that there were Muslims. A homogenous "Muslim" identity had to be stressed to avoid confrontation with the very real structural inequalities between the provinces, each with their own distinctive culture and language. General Zia himself, is said to have stated that without Islam, Pakistan, would disintegrate overnight. (4) In Bangladesh whose creation, in fact, is the best expression of the fragility of religion as the basis of national identity, the upsurge in Islamic activities is linked to other factors. The dependence for foreign aid on the oil-rich-Middle East, and the cooption of right wing fundamentalist forces in the ruling party, are some of the factors pushing towards the Islamisation of Bangladesh. (Emajuddin Ahmed, 1983).

In India, the situation is more complex since it continues theoretically at least, to be a secular state. Rather than a direct projection of religious fundamentalism as a state ideology, there is a more indirect sponsorship of fundamentalist forces. The emergence of state sponsored religious fundamentalism has to be seen in the broader context of the communalisation of Indian Society (5) "Communalism" as an ideology projects the "belief that because a group of people follow a particular religion, they have as a result, common social, political and economic interests. "(Bipan Chandra, 1984) Analysis has shown that this assumption of a homogenous identity ignores the real divisions of caste and class and that in fact, a "communal identity" has no natural basis but has to be created. In spite of the production of historical and contemporary studies which provide evidence of the above-mentioned processes, many commentators continue to see the South Asian region as one torn by inherently antagonistic religious communities, with the roots of this antagonism traced to the medieval past. Recent attempts to analyse the Punjab situation, see the conflicts as the outcome of a "Sikh" history and tradition.

Such analysis not only ignores the very significant caste and class divisions amongst Sikhs, but also ignores the role of the ruling party in creating the present communal situation in that region. The demands put forward by the regional opposition party in Punjab (Akali Dal) i.e. for water, territorial redivision with neighbouring states and Chandigarh as the state capital for Punjab, which were secular demands, were continuously ignored by the ruling party till they became linked with the communal demand for a separate nation i.e. Khalistan. (Dipankar Gupta, 1985) The emergence of communalism as an ideology which leads to violence between groups who co-existed peacefully before has to be situated historically and in relation to the specific socioeconomic and political factors leading to such developments.

Communalism in the colonial period

Historians have established that communalism in the Indian subcontinent, was a product of colonial underdevelopment, located most specifically amongst the middle classes. The breakdown of existing class identities and status systems, along with economic stagnation forced middle class Indians to compete with each other for the scarce resources. The ensuing frustration, combined with a sense of deprivation and fears of the loss of identity, created a volatile situation in which a religious issue could trigger off immediate violence and extreme brutality. Given a crisis of identity, the protection of cows, or music before a mosque became crucial issues, issues of life and death, because these religious symbols came to represent symbolically, the preservation or destruction of these middle classes themselves. It is therefore, not accidental that communal struggles during the colonial period occurred mostly over government jobs, educational concessions and the political positions in the legislative councils and municipal bodies which enabled control over them. Communal struggles were therefore over secular issues. In fact, the "purely religious or theological content of communalism has tended to be meagre" (Bipan Chandra, 1984)

In addition, from the end of the 19th Century, communalism became an important instrument of colonial policy in the effort to thwart the rising national movement. Communalists, especially the Muslim League were encouraged through the ready acceptance of their demands, official patronage etc. The Indian national movement itself, though secular in its objectives, also used communal consciousness. There was a distinct Hindu tinge in the leadership's work and thought. Many nationalist identified nationalism with the revival of Hinduism. Modern literature in Bengali, Hindi and Urdu was partly communal in tone, portraying Muslims as foreigners and oppressive lecherous tyrants, while Hindus were portrayed as heroes struggling for positive values. Many leaders used Hindu symbols, idioms and myths in their political speeches and writings. India was often referred to as the Mother Goddess or compared to Durga, Kali, and other Hindu goddesses. Gandhi too, appealed to people in the language of religiosity, for e.g. his interpretation of independence as Ram Rajya. (Bipan Chandra, 1984)

The same divisions affected women in the early women's movement and national movements. In their struggle for suffrage, education and legal rights, both Hindu and Muslim women attacked the system of seclusion. However, as communal divisions intensified, Hindu feminists began to see purdah (seclusion) as a custom bought to India by Muslim invaders and a cause for the fall in women's high status in the Golden Age, and Muslim women, fearing that they would be swamped as a minority in a India ruled by a Hindu majority, began to defend passages in the Qur'an about female modesty. (Geraldine Forbes 1982)

This Hindu tinge in the national movement and the subsequent failure in fostering the development of a national consciousness in the post independence period, left the space for communalism and casteism to grow in spite of a secular Constitution. While communalism in the present period does not have the same causes as under colonialism, at level of ideology, it does find an echo in past memories of communal violence.

Contemporary communalism and the Indian State

In the decade between 1950-1960 communal incidents were few but since the 1960's there has been a tremendous increase in communal violence involving many more communities and creation new divisions as for instance, between Hindus and Sikhs. These incidents occurred mainly in urban areas, though recently, communal violence has spread to rural hinterlands as well.

Analysis of these incidents have shown that they were systematically planned with selective targets and were a disguised from of economic competition between the two communities. In many cases, the targets were Muslim artisans and small entrepreneurs who had achieved a degree of relative prosperity and were cutting out the traders who happened, to be Hindus. This competition for scarce resources - markets or jobs has even led to the old caste conflicts being converted into communal struggles today. (A.R. Desai, 1985 Asghar Ali Engineer, 1985) Another significant factor behind these incidents of violence was the evidence of the complicity of the ruling party in either engineering these riots or not acting swiftly to prevent their occurrence. Fact after fact in Punjab, Delhi, Meerut, Bhiwandi, all point out the complicity of the ruling party and the state apparatus. (6)

Behind the specific "riot" however, is the much more disturbing growth of communal ideology amongst large sections of people. Over the years there has occurred a consolidation of Hindu sentiments, a process which escalated when some dalits converted to Islam in South India. Hindu organisations held conferences, and went on all India pilgrimages carrying holy water from the Ganges. Organisations like the Hindu Manch, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Hindu Ekta Manch, along the older Rashtriya Swayemsewak Sangh, have initiated militant programmes to counter what they perceive as a threat to Hinduism. These organisations are highly authoritarian in structure, have paramilitary wings and an ideology of Hindu expansionism. For instance, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has openly declared that Hindus are the only people who accept India as their motherland and that national integration is synonymous with Hindu consolidation. This includes the recovery of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan as part of Greater India. Like fascist organisations elsewhere, these are all male dominated, if not exclusively male organisations. These organisations have been given state patronage, are allowed to function freely with members of the ruling party publicly supporting and attending their conferences and meetings.

This phase of communalism in India is significant in that it emerges in a context of rising religious fundamentalism. Communal tensions in earlier periods have not necessarily been accompanied by fundamentalist movements. The other significant factor is the role of the ruling party in supporting these religious fundamentalist forces, especially Hindu fundamentalists. In sharp contrast to its positions in the late 1960's and 70’s, the ruling Congress Party has now shifted from its earlier public condemnation of communalism and of Hindu organisations and support to the victims of minority communities (in particular the Muslims) to a more generalised condemnation of communalism and the foreign hand in public pronouncements along with a series of concessions to communal demands, a refusal to indict individuals identified as being responsible for the violence, and a stifling of secular opinion, both, within, and outside the ruling party.

This shift in the stand of the ruling party on communalism was partly due to an electoral strategy to cash in on the "Hindu vote", especially in North India. When this strategy did not result in large-scale support in the 1986 by elections, there was a shift back to and a succumbing to Muslim fundamentalist demands by pushing through the Muslim Women’s Bill. The ruling party played one communalism off another in the electoral numbers game. However, it would be a mistake to see the consolidation of communalism today only as the backlash of a short sighted electoral strategy. There are far deeper factors at work which need further research and exploitation, to enable us to understand the reasons for people's responses to communal propaganda and the increasing crisis of the ideological legitimacy of the Indian State and its need for a new hegemonizing ideology.

An area for further exploration would be to see how far the attempt to forge a national identity after the collapse of anti-colonial nationalism would take the form of a projection of a Hindu nationalism. Such an ideology has today ready recipients in the products of the peculiarly Indian pattern of industrialisation i.e. the sections of the population who live off rentier and trading profits, the bulk of whom come from the "intermediate" or backward castes which form the Hindu majority. (Achin Vanaik 1985) It is these sections, along with the newly emerging rural kulaks, who today seem to be supporting the fundamentalist movements. Whether India becomes a Hindu fundamentalist state or not is an open question but the fact is that it is today a communal state with government support and even sponsoring of religious fundamentalism.

These developments are occurring in the context of a growing authoritarian state structure. Over the years there has been increased investment in the police, paramilitary forces and the army, along with the passing of laws like the National Security Ordinance, Terrorist Affected Areas (Special Courts Act, 1984) etc. which give wide powers to the police and the state apparatus over the lives of citizens.

State sponsorship and the emergence of fundamentalist organisations among Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians along with an increasingly authoritarian state structure, has serious implications for the future of democracy in India. These trends in the South Asian region have also very specific and disturbing implications for women. Processes of class formation and the construction of nationhood are not separate from the particular forms of women's subjugation in these countries. In the present context, religious fundamentalism as a crucial component of communalism provides a lethal combination to prop up or resurrect patriarchal controls over women.

Religious Fundamentalism and Women

The terms fundamentalism, revivalism, obscurantism, are often used interchangeably and loosely. There is considerable controversy over the use of these terms. In this paper, religious fundamentalism is used rather than revivalism. Revivalism implies a "renewed attention to" or "interest in" while fundamentalism implies an adherence - often a strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles. Thus there could be movements of religious revivalism which could over time become fundamentalist i.e. focusing on only one set of principles can vary, as studies on Islamic Fundamentalism have pointed out. Commenting on the tendency to club together heterogeneous phenomena under the rubric of "fundamentalism", O. Roy makes distinctions between fundamentalism in Islam which could be "a return to strict religious practice, as we observe in many émigré milieus; return to the observance of the text (study of the Koran and the hadiths), which is the fundamentalism of the madrassah; and return to the religious law, to the practice of the Shariat, which is the fundamentalism of the "ulama"... (Oliver Roy, pg. 122, 1985

Fundamentalism is the "return to..., the re-reading, the quest for origins". This rereading, return to the origins can take many different forms and therefore is not in itself a political position. A purely textual definition would equate the proponents of liberation theology in Latin America, who base their work on the original Christian communities of Christ, with the ravings of right wing televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts in the United States. Movements inspired by religion - revivalist or fundamentalist have played a revolutionary anti-imperialist role in the national movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, and have also expressed the needs and aspirations of working people. Religious movements therefore are not necessarily conservative.

Similarly, religious fundamentalism does not always refer to the past - in fact what is being asserted as a basic tenet is often a totally modern practice. This is why it is problematic to call the recent occurrence of sati as a revival. (7) In addition, the meanings that people give to these principles can also vary. For example, Iranian women who supported Khomeini, and marched in thousands, as organised militant contingents turning the veil into a symbol of solidarity and struggle, were not simply retreating to the past, but were asserting a certain positive conception of the future. Islam offered an alternative to the "consumerism and the modern consumer woman" projected by the Shah's economic and social policies. (Azar Tabari & Nahid Yeganeh, 1982) Similarly, attempts by disadvantaged groups to rise in ritual status by strict adherence to "tradition" or the Shariat are not seen by them as a return to medievalism but in fact as symbols of achievement. (Gyan Pandey, 1983)

Fundamentalism then, can only be understood in relation to a specific historical context. It is crucial to identify when it emerges, which are the social groups initiating as well as constituting the support base of this phenomenon and what exactly is being projected as the basic principles of adherence. One feature of fundamentalism is its selectivity in choosing what is the true and original teaching. In the sense fundamentalism constructs a particular version of Islam/Hinduism/Sikhism/ Christianity as the only valid representation of that religion. This construction makes little distinction between what is textual and what may be local specific cultural practices. Most significantly it abstracts from history and projects that particular amalgam of belief, ritual and practice with a transcendental validity. In Pakistan for instance, the islamisation process selects elements from 19 schools of jurisprudence as well as customs and practises which existed in the 8th and 9th centuries in what is Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria of today. Similarly, the "Hinduism" being projected by various Hindu organisations as the only true Hinduism denies the historical existence of two separate and antagonistic religious traditions amongst people designated as Hindus. One tradition was Brahmanism which was based on Vedic texts and the Dharmashastras, restricted to the upper castes, buttressed by royal patronage and the creation of a priestly caste. The Shramanic tradition (the Bakthi movements were seen as inheritors of this tradition) was popular amongst lower castes, had a universalistic ethic and exhibited a wide diversity in ritual and belief. Historically one cannot speak of Hinduism as such but a variety of 'Hindu' religions. (Romila Thapar, 1985) The Hinduism being claimed by fundamentalist organisations draws on the first tradition but here too it incorporates elements from caste customs, particularly Kshatriya notions of honour, as well. Social scientists have labelled this very modern Hinduism -"syndicated Hinduism" (Romila Thapar, 1985)

That this contemporary construction of Hinduism (the same process could be seen in other religions) has no need of either textual or historical verification was brought out very clearly in an interview with Ramanand Sagar, the producer of a television serial on the Ramayan recently. When asked about the historical sources for the film, he mentioned how during that period women did not cover their torsos but it was impossible for him to allow that on the screen since the image of Sita as a pure, chaste and ideal wife was so strong and important that showing her without a blouse would violate the moral message of the serial! (8) Similarly when the Council of Islamic Ideology in Pakistan was discussing whether women should have the right to vote, whether blood money or compensation paid to a female victim should be half that of a male and whether women's evidence should be half that of a man's evidence in court, there was no discussion of "khula" which is the Qur'anic equivalent available to women, of men's right to the "talaq" form of divorce.

Since then the Hudood Ordinance and the Law of Evidence have been passed and there is now the proposal for a Shariat Bill which will extend the jurisdiction of the Shariat Court to all areas of life. However, even here there is the process of selectivity - while the Federal Shariat Court is seen as having only an advisory role regarding fiscal matters, in matters, of Muslim personal law, any judgment passed by the court will be binding. Almost all the issues concerning women's rights fall under personal law. It seems that the criteria for selection and implementation of true Islam is the crucial area of man-woman relations rather than more general theological issues.

A similar process of selectivity can be seen in the codification and implementation of personal laws in India. While a common criminal code exists for every Indian citizen, areas of marriage, inheritance, divorce etc. are governed by separate personal laws for Muslims, Christians, and Hindus. More studies need to be done one on the process by which these personal laws were codified involving not only a specific interpretation of each religion but also the incorporation of the assumptions of colonial administrators and native representatives. (Lata Mani, 1986, 1988) Hindu personal law for instance, was interpreted initially in 1772 when Warren Hastings appointed ten Brahmin pandits from Bengal to compile a digest of Hindu scriptural law in civil matters - marriage, divorce, inheritance, and succession. These interpretations however were only codified into one uniform law in 1941. Prior to this, there had been separate laws for different castes and communities i.e. separate customary laws existed for Nairs, Nambudris, Kulins, Jats etc.

The Draft Hindu Code was thus based on specifically Brahmanical interpretations of Hinduism. Changes were introduced into this as a result of the struggles of women and men in the early women's movement and hence contained some rights for Hindu women. It is significant, however, that the Hindu Code Bill was only passed after Independence after a great deal of opposition. A process of secular reform to abolish all personal laws for a uniform civil code prior to independence was scuttled on the grounds of political expediency and although the ideal of a uniform civil code is enshrined in the Directive Principles of the Constitution, till today, separate personal laws continue to operate.

It is not accidental that issues of religious identity are tied so closely with the regulation of relations between men and women. All personal laws, including the reformed Hindu law have certain common features which reinforce the patriarchal, patrilineal and patrilocal family. This is the main family form in India, especially in the north, central and eastern parts of the country. Even where matrilineal forms have existed, as in the taravad of Kerala, economic changes and colonial policy have invested defacto rights over property in the hands of men. Government intervention through changes for example, in laws on inheritance have tended to maintain this patriarchal authority. In situations of the breakdown and emergence of new class / caste / communal identities it is these elements of man - woman relations which become crucial markers of identity. It is significant that during the agitation in Punjab, a demand was put forward for a separate personal law for Sikhs as well. This customary law deprives women of the right to property, and to divorce and contains the provision for a widow to marry her husband's brother. all these features link patriarchal control to newly emerging class interests particularly the need to maintain and keep control over landed property by sections of the Punjab peasantry. It is also not accidental that that while the ruling party ignored the other secular demands for water, territory and Chandigarh as the capital city, this communal demand was being considered.

It is this linkage which needs to be explored to understand why religious fundamentalism has very specific implications for women. In this section we will look at two areas which illustrate this linkage - the emergence of fundamentalism as the result of a challenge to and breakdown of traditional patriarchal structures and the process of identity creation in situations of social and economic crisis.

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