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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 14 Jun 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Fig Leaf Morality Exposes More Than It Covers


By Firdous Azmat Siddiqui

14 June 2014

How many more Kamdunis and Badauns will it take to stop India’s feudal rapists?

As the sun was setting on March 11, 2002, in Chargaon village of Chitrakoot, 20-year-old Ragini (name changed), a Dalit woman, set off to the field to answer the call of nature. On the way, Raju Upadhayay of the same village raped her in the fields. Ragini reported the matter to her in-laws with whom she lived. As they were leaving to file an FIR, some influential men from the village waylaid them and asked them to settle the issue in a panchayat. Except for two, all the members of the panchayat were Brahmins …” (Excerpt from From Mathura to Manorama: Resisting violence against women in India)

Nothing has changed since then. Violence against women has increased exponentially and taken on more brutal forms. Two years back in Hisar, a Dalit girl was gang-raped and an MMS clip of the heinous act circulated prompting her father’s suicide. Rapes have continued to happen at an alarming regularity in Haryana — or for that matter anywhere in the country.

The fig leaf morality of our politicians and their blasé attitude towards crimes against women exposes them more than it seeks to cover if the Kamduni rapes in West Bengal or the Badaun gang-rapes and killings of two sisters in UP are any warning. The common thread running through all these crimes bears out the age-old cliché of how the victims are often from the fringes of landless society and the perpetrators from the upper landowning caste with the upper hand.

The sexual domination of women by men forms the core of this argument. Rape or the threat of it keeps most women subjugated in fear of and under the control of men. Caste-based gender violence is often an intentional use of physical force or power against a particular group or community.

Gender-based physical and sexual violence emerges as a common manifestation of the gender inequality. It reflects the power structures in society which relegate the status of women to second class citizens. Women not only face violence at home, but outside as well. These can take the forms of sexual harassment at the workplace or in a public domain or worse, honour killing. Women are also the most vulnerable during communal riots and ethnic cleansing, conflict situation or any kind of unrest in society.

Caste combined with gender, religion and other variables make it a defining factor in many social and economic processes. There is a crucial relationship between caste and gender in the perpetuation of the caste system. Gender and caste are contiguous and influence each other.

Dalits (15% of the population), minorities (14%) and Scheduled Tribes (7%) are at the receiving end of society. Historically discriminated since centuries, studies show the poverty rates among these groups are still markedly higher than those among other groups. However, the position of women within Dalit groups is worth noting. Dalit communities have only marginally lower Gross Enrolment Ratio for girls than the national population.

A very significant area that feminist Padma Velaskar explores is the cultural construct of sexuality. The structural cultural order of purity and pollution is extended to domains of sexuality and marriage and crucial to the specific sexual subjugation of low caste women. To the idealised upper caste wife/mother, the low caste woman’s sexuality is construed as immoral. Moreover, as a public labourer, she is recognised as relatively free from all control. Thus, the tight leash on the upper caste woman’s sexuality and the uncontrollable upper caste male libido, which is sanctioned by patriarchy, necessitates the polar opposite of the upper caste “devi” and “women with loose morals” who can be sexually exploited. Inexorably, it is the low caste woman who fills this void. She is also sexually abused so as to defy the masculinity and honour of the low caste man and his community.

Second, sanitation got attention when our prospective Prime Minister campaigned by promising he would like to give toilets priority over temples. It sparked national outrage as he was expected to preserve the Brahmanical ethos of India. More Indians have cell phones than a commode at home. Almost 60 per cent women have to step outside the safe confines of home to attend to the call of nature. The privacy attached to it often forces women to wait till dusk so as to go unseen putting them at greater risk.

An estimate shows almost 50 million people still need toilets at home. If our newly elected Government starts work in right earnest, perhaps more such Badauns could be prevented. Till then, the UP Government could get its blinkers off and look beyond caste and identity politics. Rather than blame media, maybe the real culprits could be tried in a fast-track court.

May be Akhilesh’s regime could take a leaf out of Sunder Lal Bahuguna’s movement against alcoholism. A true Gandhian, he tried to emancipate women shackled to their alcoholic husbands through the Sarvodaya Movement in the undivided UP. While he may not have been able to rid the State of the scourge, it did whip up widespread disapproval of alcohol consumption and its sale.

Firdous Azmat Siddiqui is Assistant Professor, Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women’s Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi