Women’s Activism and Politicised Religion in South Asia

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 1 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of

Women's Union

Resisting the Sacred and the Secular:
Women’s Activism and Politicized Religion in South Asia

Edited by Patricia Jeffrey and Amrita Basu

(Kali for Women: Delhi, 2001)

Originally published as Appropriating Gender: Women’s Activism and
Politicized Religion in South Asia

(Routledge: New York, 1998)

South Asian edition (c) 1999 by SSRC

Reviewed by Nandini Chatterjee

The rationale of this book is an attempt to understand women’s active
complicity in sectarian violence against minority communities by
religio-political organizations, and for that very reason is a refreshing
step within feminist studies, which like all other forms of ‘studies from
below’ tends to glorify the subaltern subject as heroic, or at least
innocent of oppressing others. The preface by the editors states that the
study was triggered by the Babri masjid riots in India (in which a 16th
century mosque built by the Muslim emperor Babar, was claimed by Hindu
rightist organizations to have been built on the ruins of the birthplace
of the deity Ram. The campaign to destroy it and build a temple in its
place occasioned horrific riots across the country.) Women’s participation
in this communal violence against the minorities shocked the authors and
encouraged them to think about the forms of activism that have in reality
attracted women, in India and in other countries of the subcontinent,
whatever the feminist efforts have been.

Book cover
Of the three sections in the book, the first is titled ‘Gender, nation,
state’, and has five articles other than the introductory one. The
approach is quite heavily top-down, with a big preoccupation with law. The
focus on legal structures is quite understandable, for it is one of the
clearest spaces of locating the elusive entity of the state, and its
translation of socially held oppressive values into direct coercion.
Menon’s study of the Indian state’s politics of recovering ‘abducted’
women and children (often against their will) from Pakistan immediately
after independence and the partition, and Feldman and Rouse’s studies in
the Islamicization of Bangladeshi and Pakistani political and legal
structures and the implications for women’s rights convey a sense of the
crushing weight of state and social structures on the female subject. In
the other two essays, the focus is more on political negotiations. Zoya
Hasan’s essay on Muslim family law in India precisely demonstrates the
inextricable tangle of this religious community based law, several
features of which are oppressive for women. Democratic and secular
political forces are perpetually tied up in their dilemma of choosing
between liberality towards a minority community and concern for women’s
rights, a false binary imposed on the political arena by the rightist
forces’ constant critique of separate laws as ‘appeasement’ of minorities.
The liberals’ dilemma has obvious parallels with British multicultural
policy. Tanika Sarkar’s essay examines the local networks of recruitment
of women by the Hindu rightist organization in India, and the picture of
penetration drawn is chilling.

The second section, ‘The everyday and the local’, again looks at forces
that structure women’s lives, this time closer at home, whether an
inward-looking religious movement, local structures of discrimination
within the health and educational facilities provided by the state, or
general social customs. Of these, the first, by Barbara Metcalf, tries to
redeem the religious as not necessarily oppressive (though not
emancipatory either), and is different in tone from the rest of the book,
because of its romanticization of ‘authentic’ non-political religiosity.

Only in the final section, ‘Agency and activism’, do women finally become
visible and active political agents, whether seeking self-worth within the
communalist political movement in India, that uses their energies within
patriarchal circumscribed limits, or using their identity as mothers to
remonstrate ritually against the state in Sri Lanka for the state-managed
‘disappearance’ of their sons.

The argument that emerges from the structure of the book seems to focus on
the limits on women’s capability for agency, given the weight of
oppressive structures that shape their lives. Given such
overdetermination, naturally their activism is often skewed and
counter-productive. Also, the success of politicized religion in
mobilizing women seems to arise from permitting limited self-expression
and public activity that do not threaten the patriarchal system, but offer
several women satisfaction without entailing the social costs of
opprobrium or violence. But the final essay by Patricia Jeffrey goes
further. While trying to seek a future for feminism in South Asia, through
positive mobilizing agendas and identities that could be powerful enough
to compete with the overwhelming forces of politicized religion, it lapses
into a defeatist localism. While acknowledging formally the need for any
feminist movement to rise beyond the local, she spends most of her energy
apologizing for the ‘inauthenticity’ of feminism (and feminists) as a
westernized agenda in South Asia (and South Asian feminists as educated,
urban, and therefore deculturated). She even arrives at doubting the
efficacy of really radical agendas that invite state and social

It is unfortunate that this laudable feminist effort buckles under
accusations of outsiderhood and inauthenticity, forgetting that such
charges have traditionally been leveled against all egalitarian politics
(socialism comes easily to the mind), contemporarily in all societies. The
lack of comparative reflexivity by a movement potentially as international
as feminism, demonstrates the atmosphere of indigenist cultural
apologetics and Western self-guilt, that mutually arrive at the
unacceptability of the West’s imposition of modernity on Others. But
dissenting Others are at the same time denied the right to claim
democratic ideologies as their own, choice of identity (and even ideology)
being rejected as invalid. And feminist dissent loses the legitimacy of
uniting across borders imposed by male-dominated politics.



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