As someone who studies gender in politics and international relations, I have been following the recent events in South Asia with great interest and disdain. The reports on communal violence in Orissa, violent politics of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in Mumbai, the war in Sri Lanka: all of these remind me of prominent feminist scholar, Cynthia’s Enloe’s pertinent question, ‘where are the women?’ Each of these events and the debates around them are gendered, and yet there is no analysis that throws light on the fact that violence in Mumbai, Orissa or even in Sri Lanka is part of the militarised and macho politics of a male centric worldview. All of these events tell us how deeply entrenched the gendered hierarchies and norms are in our socio-political environment. The masculinity of our ‘God loving’ political and religious extremists and terrorists does not make them ‘God fearing’ as they wreak havoc and rape nuns (and when questioned audaciously tell the world ‘she’ consented to the sexual orgy!), in their service to their religion and God. The rage that I have felt, I am sure has been experienced by other women and men too. Which God gave you the permission to rape and kill? Which or whose ‘religion’ were you representing or ‘protecting’? What happened to the social and political contract we (women included) had with the state, that in return for the sovereignty and powers we bestowed on it, we would be protected and our human rights guaranteed?
It bothers me that while we so easily classify wars and terrorism as religious, political and economic, we never think of gender as a category. Women are at the receiving end of the violent masculinist politics of extremist groups. I do not think it necessary to remind the informed readers of this column how rape is often the big weapon in these macho wars of supremacy. Women’s bodies become the territories on which the warring sides play out their ideologies. In South Asia we have see how rape has been a war strategy in communal riots like in Gujarat and Orissa recently, as also in inter-state wars like in 1947 between India and Pakistan and in 1971 between East and West Pakistan. Further, militarised masculine states in the region have made women’s cultural identities the battle turf. The Taliban needed the women to be veiled and excluded from public spaces, while in Colombo the Tamil women must not wear the ‘pottu’ (the red decoration on the forehead) to avoid harassment and humiliation by the agents of the Sinhala chauvinistic state.
The ‘hudood ordinance’ of 1979, in Pakistan, targeted specifically at women, was part of then military ruler Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation programme. Based on Shariah laws, the ‘hudood ordinance’ ensured that hundreds of women were subjected to rape or even gang rape and were eventually accused of adultery and incarcerated. This, along with honour killings, has been defended as punishment ordained by God. The rape of Bangladeshi women was part of the 1971 war strategy of West Pakistan and was deployed together with ‘effeminising’ the Bengali males. The Bangladeshis were not ‘Muslim’ or ‘man’ enough and their masculinity had to be restored through the rape of their women. The Indian state has been no better than its neighbours in the ‘gendered’ wars it has waged in Kashmir and in the North East, not to forget the rape of Sri Lankan women by the IPKF. The agents of the state enforce the state’s diktat through harassing and raping women. Gujarat and Orissa are recent additions in the states’ ‘gendered’ wars because the perpetrators were aided by the states’ inactivity and apathy. In Orissa, when innocent citizens were being subjected to hooliganism and violence and women being humiliated, the state and the central governments were busy levelling charges at one another and debating the necessity of ‘President’s rule’, to score political points (not withstanding that the President is a woman herself!).
It will also not be appropriate to claim that women have nothing to do with these ‘gendered’ wars and are mere ‘victims’. Women have participated in male orientated violent projects, voluntarily and sometimes through various forms of coercion. From the LTTE’s women cadres to the female Afghan suicide bombers, from the women who have supported the militancy in Kashmir to the women activists of the Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS); these women have been perpetrators, planners and patrons of violence and compel us to look at the gendered composition of violent conflicts, an otherwise neglected terrain. Even as I write this, news is pouring in about the 38 year old ‘sadhvi’, Pragya Singh Thakur who along with two radical Hindu activists has been arrested by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), for her suspected role in the blasts in Malegaon and Modasa. The Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi (women’s wing) and the RSS (Durga Vahini) women have consistently dispelled notions of women’s passivity or their agency appropriated by masculine ideologies and have shown how women challenge and displace gender hierarchies in violent nationalisms.
My recent research on the conflict in Kashmir also reveals that Muslim women, like their aggressive Hindu counterparts also contribute to violent militant projects. Women in the Kashmir Valley have led protest marches, aided militants, engaged in gun running, organised funds and carried out ideological propaganda on behalf of the militant groups. They have also invoked traditional feminine reproductive roles in their political pursuits as they shouted slogans (during the peak militancy period of the early 90s) like Pakistan jayenge, do roti khayenge, pet mein mujahid leke aayenge, (we shall go to Pakistan, we shall eat two chapatis, we shall get mujahids or warriors in our wombs!). In Sri Lanka, Muslim, Hindu, Christian and even Buddhist women have realised their agentive moments and fulfilled their political and personal aspirations through violence and terrorism.
The gender blindness of our everyday lives is reflected in our political discourses. Gender is never thought of as a category of analyses, and women, their politics and their concerns are pushed into the backstage. It is disheartening to see how the conscience of the society and polity remains unaffected when men in the name of religion or politics rape and kill women, or when women participate and collude in violent and exclusivist ideologies. The modern day ‘terrorists’ have religious and national identities we are often reminded, but there is no mention of their ‘gendered’ constructions (as men and women with specific roles fulfilling social norms and expectations which are then reflected in different and dangerous world views). Because I like to end with quotes, here is one from Ellen Goodman – “I am woman, hear me roar. It’s not always a pretty tune.” When will we begin to hear these pretty and not so pretty tunes?
( South Asia Analysis Group)