Padmini Parthasarathy is Bitch Media’s 2020 Writing Fellow in Sexual Politics
I’ve often looked at a photograph of my great-grandmother. She’s sitting with her husband, as well as my grandfather— a pouting toddler in white linen shorts—and three other children. Her brow is heavy. She glares at the camera, almost as if she wants to tear through it. I have no sense of the circumstances, or of her mental state. I don’t even have many recollections of her, just a wispy memory of being a small child and sitting with her as she chopped wet-smelling vegetables. I found the photo image at her son’s house—my father’s father—in Chennai. I was 22 and compelled by something primordial and urgent to take the image, copy it, save it for myself. Save the pained contour of my great-grandmother’s face.
I learned in my teens that my grandmother had been widowed young, probably not 10 years after that image was taken. From my grandfather’s lean information, and my mother filling in a few blanks, I learned that she had been forced to shave her head and stop wearing a blouse under her sari. She was a young woman, sexualized and desexualized all at once. She had no income, so she lived off the charity of her brothers, scraping enough together to feed her children. Shame and humiliation appeared to be the goals, but this was custom, socially enforced. In parts of India, it still is. Eventually, my grandmother grew her hair back and re-adopted blouses; I’m not sure how she did it.
I’ve been pinned to Twitter, watching events in India unfold. A few images linger: A photo of about five women holding a banner that reads “Women Will Destroy Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu supremacy). Shortly after, a video: A group of Muslim women students, attacked at their university dorm by police, defending a fellow classmate by huddling around him as blows rain down on them. And at Shaheen Bagh, a neighborhood in Delhi, photos of hundreds of women, mostly of the Muslim community there, blanketed in colorful quilts and hunkered down to occupy a major road.
These are responses to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed National Registry of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Muslim and other religious minority groups, Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, and feminists of all stripe are participating in this resistance. The CAA effectively revokes citizenship, and then divides the population into two categories: “non-Muslim” Hindus, and varied religious minorities and Muslims. Those in the second category have to submit as-yet undetermined paperwork to prove that their families are citizens of India. The National Registry of Citizens has already been implemented in the eastern Indian state of Assam as a litmus test for the national rollout. Every Indian who claims citizenship would have to re-register, applying to the government to approve citizenship for those born in the country rather than having it automatically granted to them. Assam is home to the first detention camp for “illegal immigrants,” which was established in 2010.
Kashmir, the majority-Muslim state between India and Pakistan, is in its fifth month of internet blackout, levied to suppress protests. The federal government blocked the internet after repealing laws that gave the state relative autonomy over its administration. Taken together, this legislation represents a slide downhill from the nominally secular India that was established during its mid-20th century independence movement to a Hindu-supremacist one. Modi has stoked sectarian violence before, in his home state of Gujarat. During the 2002 state campaign, he took a dog-whistle approach, campaigning on “Hindutva,” or Hindu nationalism. His party won the parliamentary election by miles, a victory that was widely attributed to his aggressively Hindu campaign. The neoliberal policy established in India in the 1990s, after the end of the Nehru-Gandhi regime, has led to familiar crises of capitalism—debt, erosion of the environment, rising unemployment, falling wages, and an increasingly untenable cost of living.
As life became more volatile, a largely Muslim population from neighboring Bangladesh fled war and climate catastrophe to settle in the eastern parts of India. Hindutva is a chauvinist ideology. It writes a new nationalism that connects British colonialism to pre-colonial Muslim rule, and appeals to a hazy, idyllic Hindu past—a time when no beef was eaten, and when everyone performed their social obligation, or dharma, according to their caste. Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan: That’s the hegemony of the Hindi language, subordinating other vastly different languages that are spoken by millions, a Hindu majority, the land of the Hindus. But indigeneity is a shifty concept—by many accounts, those who identify as Brahmin cling to an “Aryan” identity as well, a graft onto populations that had existed on the subcontinent well before them. (This self-conception featured in the landmark 1923 case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, in which Thind, a self-described high-caste Hindu,” argued that he should be considered “Caucasian” and thus eligible for U.S. citizenship; the Supreme Court disagreed.)
The fear that Indian women are becoming “Westernized”—take those cell phones away!—has long been used to oppress them, and to distance notions of feminism from an Indian identity. Before phones, western clothing, lipstick instead of Indian kohl, and eating Chinese food were considered threats, markers of Westernization that were ridiculed and condemned as dangerous to good, proper Indian womanhood. The language of domination is subsumed under the language of fascism. Domination has always been inherently patriarchal, based on the total subjugation of bodies to a nationalistic cause and assumed inequality due to various biological or cultural factors. In Nazi Germany, women were discouraged from participating in the public sphere, shunted off to childrearing and domestic life. The popular Reich slogan “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” was appropriated from the 18th century and deployed to delineate women’s role in society.
In Mussolini’s Italy, the party line was that working distracted women and encouraged “habits incompatible with childbearing;” women were also blamed for the rate of unemployment among men in Italy. Patriarchy predates fascism, but fascism cannot operate without patriarchy. In India, those nationalistic causes are ready and tailor-made. India is a land “conquered” by the British, but most notably breached by the scapegoated Muslim, and, under Modi’s directives, must travel back to its good Hindu “roots.” If a constructed Hindu past is projected onto the future, along with it come caste supremacy and patriarchy; it’s worth noting that many Muslim people in India converted to Islam because the Hindu caste system violently oppressed them.
Fascism squares neatly with Hindu ideology, which is suffused with ideas of purity and natural hierarchies of people. The role of women in Hindu society, historically, has been submissive. Women take care of men—not just husbands, but also fathers and brothers. A woman’s worth is made explicit before marriage in dowry, a now-illegal but still practiced custom wherein a husband’s family demands payment for feeding the woman who by marriage will be bound to them, caring for and serving and nursing them for the rest of their lives. Indian women are duty-bound to manage men’s feelings, desires, and needs; they are expected to subvert their own, and punished when they step over lines drawn and redrawn to circumscribe their lives and opportunities. All spaces in India—public or private, the workplace and the street, and especially the home—can be fearful places for women and girls.
And so when I see women meet in the streets, holding banners at the front of the march, when I see so many brave Muslim women occupy the Shaheen Bagh neighborhood of Delhi in the brutal cold, I can’t look away. The least I can do is witness. My mother is a fashionable lady. As a young woman in Mumbai, she’d wear thick gold hoop earrings, orange pedal pushers, lipstick, white pumps. She told me that she would run in those, and often hoisted herself onto the BEST bus as it was pulling away. She once told me that she’d stopped wearing black and yellow in public. When I asked her why, she said it was because of the men on the street. They would ask her how much for a ride, like she was a taxicab. If Hindutva seeks to write one history, here’s another: As entrenched as India’s patriarchy is its radical history of resistance, one full of pain and sacrifice and hard-fought victories.
Savitribai Phule, a Dalit woman, was a revolutionary. Both Brahmin and patriarchal structures prevented her from attending school; she was self-taught and in the mid–19th century, was the first Indian person to open a school for Dalit girls. She also opened homes to pregnant, unmarried women of high caste, and led a barber strike to protest the tonsure of widows. In her poems, she wrote, “Awake, Arise, and Educate, Smash Traditions—Liberate.” In the 1970s, a woman named Tarvinder Kaur Khalsa was burned alive by her mother and sisters in-law who were unsatisfied with the amount of dowry she’d brought with her—a TV, furniture, stainless-steel kitchen utensils, “poor-quality” clothes. Initially, a group of 50 or so women gathered outside the family’s house, and then more in the neighborhood joined. Though dowry was already illegal, years of agitation led to stricter guidelines and punishment for so-called dowry harassment and a special commission to hear these cases.
As entrenched as India’s patriarchy is its radical history of resistance, one full of pain and sacrifice and hard-fought victories.
In 2009, a group of young women were attacked in a pub in Mangalore by a right-wing orthodox group who saw their behavior as anti-Hindu and against traditional values. Shortly after the women were attacked, Pramod Muthalik, leader of the group, doubled down, publicly threatening to send goons out to marry off couples who deigned to have a night out for Valentine’s day. In response, the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose, and Forward Women™ organized the Pink Chaddi campaign. Hundreds of women sent pairs of pink underwear to Muthalik. Laws against dowry harassment and “fast track” rape courts have been established as a result of the feminist movement in India—many of which cede more power to “fast-track courts” to hasten prosecutions. Recently, a woman was gang-raped in Hyderabad. The four suspects were taken to the scene of the crime and shot dead after allegedly attempting to snatch a gun from the police.
The case is complicated, but in the police department’s zeal for justice—where women mostly face belittlement and harassment—I cannot help but be reminded of the Central Park Five. The result is a mixed bag, in many cases allowing the government to look like it’s doing something, and “defending women,” while suffering persists. But I take heart from these open, uncontrolled moments, when women take space. They take the spaces where they have been groped and pinched and humiliated, band together and make them safe. For a moment, they’re our streets, and our bodies, and we’re liberated. Here, 8,000 miles away, Brahminical patriarchy followed my family.
It lodged itself in our household, choked feeling and sense out of the men, hung shame around their necks, which exploded like shrapnel here, there, and everywhere. Out of them and into us. When I went back to India for an extended stay in my early 20s, I couldn’t recognize all the shame that had made its way inside me, the toll of a society my family had been steeped in for centuries. I had a vague sense that I was naïve then, but now all I want to do is protect that girl, who couldn’t even show her knees and was very angry about that. As Bitch Media’s 2020 Writing Fellow in Sexual Politics, my goal is to explore the contours of space: those private spaces into which women are still corralled, the public spaces that are considered “dirty” when women commodify sex, and the deep-rooted shame that keeps the gears of patriarchy grinding.
I seek to understand the ideologies that make us unsafe, and the bold steps we might take to reassert our safety. But what’s also worth examining are the people who make up the structures, who resist change and cling to toxic ideologies because they cannot or will not acknowledge their culpability, or acknowledge the unraveling that happens within when we fully sit with the harm we’ve wrought. But before I say those things, I must say this: All my love and rage to the women and gender smashers of India, the ones double-and-triple oppressed, who face uncertain futures for their veil, their name, their caste. The ones who will destroy Hindu Rashtra.