January 21, 2008

Modi, Taslima and the Dangers of Identity Politics

WHEN NARENDRA MODI invited Taslima to live safely in Gujarat last month, it raised many eyebrows. It does seem hilarious that a staunch Hindutva leader like Modi could talk about the safety of a Muslim Woman. After all the engineering of mass killings and rapes and daily terrorising of Muslim women in Gujarat, here was Modi inviting Taslima to live there! Suddenly her criticism of Islamic fundamentalism and the Sangh’s outright hatred for Muslims converged in a ludicrous moment. But are these not very different stances that emerge from two very disparate notions of identity?

While Taslima’s writings ( sometimes poignantly and sometimes rather shoddily) highlight the authoritarianism and anti-women leanings among Islamic fundamentalists, she is not disowning Islam or Bangladesh. Rather, she is questioning the way the religion has been interpreted in Bangladeshi society and polity. Somehow, a lot of the discussion has been about Taslima, the writer, and the writer’s freedom of expression. Yet what is at stake is not merely a writer’s freedom, but also an individual’s right to question her “religious” community and a citizen’s right to critique the state.

From the Taslima incident (and Imrana’s and Shah Bano’s) it seems that for hardliners, membership or acceptance in the community is dependent on absolute surrender to community norms as articulated by its leaders. Is dissent then a sin and total allegiance a virtue? Surely, this is untenable for any community as it could spell doom, stagnation and an unhealthy obsession with its supremacy or righteousness.

While Islamic hardliners’ intolerance towards dissent from within the community is currently making news, let’s not forget how Hindu fundamentalists have treated similar dissent. Even more important is the systematic co-option of Hindu women into a patriarchal notion of Hindu Rashtra, which is even more lethal. Not only are large numbers of women active as members of Shiv Sena, Sevika Samiti, other Sangh bodies and scores of affiliated smaller organisations, their orientation towards women’s rights and democracy have been so contorted that they protest against efforts that seek to highlight women’s oppression. The women who were on the streets in Benares opposing Deepa Mehta’s film on widows Water seemed oblivious that the film depicted how thousands of women are violated and marginalised in the name of culture. What power there is in such co-option that women defend their own destruction!

Hindutva ideologues take great pride in the fact that women have been out on the streets building a new Hindu Rashtra, championing Hindu women’s duties and honour, establishing a Hindu community identity through an aggressive religiosity, sometimes defying the “state”. They boast that women of all castes have participated in the shilanyas movement to collect bricks for the Ram temple at Ayodhya and have been active as kar sevaks. In Gujarat they took part as arsonists and even incited men to rape and murder Muslim women and children!

It is important to remember that Hindutva like any other nationalism is a patriarchal project. Firstly, gender roles are differentiated in terms of duty vis-a-vis nation — males protect territories, women belong to the community and reproduce — people, culture, and purity. Patriarchy is maintained through nation building, gender differences are justified and hierarchies among communities and “nations” get naturalised. Secondly, without references to Muslim “barbarism” and sworn enmity, the Hindu nationalist project would lose much of its moorings as it also presents a gendered community identity — with Bharatmata as divine mother, Hindu Community as feminine, tolerant and victimised and Muslim community as aggressive, rapacious and masculine! Hindu women have been conditioned into thinking that threats to their dignity and honour come from “outside” , i.e Muslim men, thus externalising the enemy and dismissing any problems that Hindu women face from Hindu Men. There is a focus on “invasions” as processes that reduced women’s status or humiliated/emasculated the Hindu male and justified restrictions on women — cleverly legitimising patriarchal tendencies as necessary in the face of “external” threat. Not only does such conditioning prevent women from acknowledging domestic or intra-community issues, it projects Hindu women as a homogenous and “united” category and dismisses the realities of class or caste exploitation.

To make matters worse, Hindu iconography is ridden with tension and multiple meaning. Durga, Sita, Ashtabhuja and Rani of Jhansi have all been used to tell Hindu women that they can integrate piety with the role of the warrior, be both submissive wife and devoted mother at home and fierce warrior outside by transforming political tasks into religious missions, and taking on violent roles alongside men — without threat to their femininity!

When Modi made his invitation to Taslima, he was trying to portray Hindutva forces as her friends, while Islamic fundamentalists had turned against her. Yet Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists are very similar. Both are intolerant towards any criticism even from insiders. Neither would hesitate to eliminate critical outsiders. Both treat women as the property of a community. Both have co-opted women in the name of culture and identity and both are threats to democracy.

Healthy debates about gender issues, economic equality, cultural diversity and democracy within both communities are much needed. This would strengthen moderate and secular voices and address oppression and dogma. Instead, what we have is the worst form of identity politics where there is little intelligent critique or tolerance of dissent. Voicing discontent about oppression or speaking about human rights issues becomes difficult and giving in to the “community” seems to be the only way out. It’s time to recognise that the problem in such identity politics is not just a conflict between fanatics and secularists or between patriarchal forces and feminists, but also a fight between two ideas of a nation — authoritarian and democratic.

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1 comment to Modi, Taslima and the Dangers of Identity Politics

  • I need to come back to this at length, but great piece!
    Identity politics is a complicated terrain to tread when you have too many status quos to dismantle, nationhood, partiarchy, imperialism…
    For a Muslim woman in India this is not easy.But what you have said definitely applies to Muslim women as well.
    I really appreciate your insight!

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