“Mataon aur behno ki asmat looti ja rahi hai.”
Mothers and sisters are being robbed of their chastity. This was the point Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh made at a rally in Kairana in November, 2016.
Campaigns for the 2017 state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh have already (and unsurprisingly) driven a communal wedge between Hindu and Muslim communities in the area. And a lot of it depends on the bargaining-chip that many (mostly) male politicians use – “respect for women.”
One of the main slogans raised at Kairana was “Maa beheno ki aan mein, BJP maidan mein (For the pride of mothers and sisters, BJP is in the electoral battlefield)”.
And it isn’t without precedent. In February, communally-torn Muzaffarnagar echoed with calls of “Bahu-beti ke sammaan mein Kapil Dev maidan mein (For the respect of daughters and daughters-in-law, Kapil Dev is in the electoral battlefield)”.
I got in touch with Khabar Lahariya, the rural women’s media network that covers elections, current affairs and more in Uttar Pradesh, and spoke to two of their reporters about this rhetoric of a woman’s honor that state politicians have been using for years.
“Saalon se kya? Bharat ki azaadi ke samay se ab tak yeh bolna aam baat ho gayi hai (It’s not a matter of few years, it has become a standard practice since Independence)”, fires Sunita, who reports from Mahoba in Bundelkhand. For her and for many other women, this strategy is a meaningless one.
Sunita’s colleague Meera, who reports from Banda in the Chitrakoot division, also sets no stock by it. “Yeh sab inki rajniti hai aur ranniti hai, (It’s nothing but politics and strategy)” she tells me over the phone. “‘Mahilaein’ ya ‘samaj,’ ko banaya jata hai chunavi mudda, taaki mahilaein akarshit ho, aur samaj akarshit ho (‘Women’ and ‘society’ are made into election issues so that women are attracted to it, as well as society)”.
And for the most part they are. The tactic has tremendous appeal because it taps into an already existing anxiety that many communities have about the “purity” of “their women”. And this same anxiety found expression in an National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report on Muzaffarnagar, that held Muslim youth responsible for incidents of harassment. While the NHRC was criticized for falling back on communal stereotypes, these statements are just business as usual for others. In riot-stricken Muzaffarnagar itself, senior BJP leader Umesh Malik had said that his party candidate’s “victory will ensure that our daughters will be able to roam freely on the city roads,” because, apparently, men from the “other” community were preventing them from doing so.
This anxiety is potent and adaptable: Vote for us, we will protect your women from those Love Jihadi miscreants. Elect us, we will protect your women from those dangerous migrant labourers. Bring us to power, we will protect your women from those nasty Africans.
But the adage goes, you can’t fool all the people all of the time, and Meera tells me no one in her immediate community buys these arguments. “Log kehte bahut hai! Karne aur kehne mein bahut antar hota hai! Girgit ka jo rang badalta hai, aise hi hota hai (People say a lot of things, but there is a big difference between saying and doing. The way a chameleon changes its color, they too are like that)”.
Sunita cites an instance of a politician’s son harassing women in a temple in Bundelkhand, saying: “Zyadatar yahi nikal aaya hai ki jo rajniti mein hain, wohi mahilaon ki asmat chhedte hain, izzat pe vaar kartein hain (It’s seen that mostly politicians or people who have political influence are ones involved in crimes against women)”.
Asmat. Izzat. Honour. These are extremely loaded words. And it’s a problem that politicians are using them at all. They reek of patriarchal protectionism, which always has victim-blaming in tow. And the message is clear – if you refuse to live by our rules, if you refuse to dress ‘modestly,’ stay quiet and come home before dark, then you will be harassed, molested, abused and raped. The latest example of this was only a few days ago when BJP party president in Kolkata threatened to have Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee dragged by her hair for making negative comments about the Prime Minister. Wherefore art thou, respect?
Speaking about how “respect” is not something that a woman is allowed to naturally claim, Sunita says: “Agar koi mujhe rape kar raha ho, toh wo wahan aa kar ke meri izzat bachaenge? Kya hamari izzat aise bani hai jo aapke kehne pe mile? (If someone rapes me, then these people will come and save my ‘honour’? Is our honour something these people provide?)”.
According to her, the whole argument is futile. “Izzat ki jageh kayi aur chiz boli ja sakti hain – aap apni beti ko shikshit kariye, aap khud shikshit ho jaiye, taaki aap apne haq maang sake (There can be many things other than ‘honor’ that can be spoken about – educate your daughters, educate yourself so you can claim your rights)”.
The sexism that filters into politics is reflective of something that has always been around. After Demonetisation was announced, Meera says her WhatsApp chats are flooded with jokes about women. “Unke jo bachat balance hai usse ‘kaala dhan’ kehna, make up ko lekar ke kehte hain ‘Ab beauty parlour bandh ho rahein hain.’ Pata nahi kya kya comment kar rahein hain auraton ke bare mein! (They’re saying women’s savings are black money, joking about makeup, that beauty parlors are shutting down. I don’t know what else these people are saying!)”.
She also has an opinion on who these people are. “Aur yeh koi dusre nahin hain. Yeh sab Modi ke samarthak log hain (And these people are not anybody else. They are all Modi supporters)”.
Now we know politicians aren’t going to take “izzat” off the menu any time soon. But if anyone can truly claim to have worked for women’s respect and security, it is women themselves.
“Agar main kisi ke saath apni soch share karti hoon, aur usko sahi lagta hai, wo phir mera samarthan karta hai (By observing each-other women are now able to gather their courage. If I share my views with someone and that person finds it right, then they will support me)”.
Uttar Pradesh has had a complicated relationship with its women. Even though women formed 60.29% of the electoral college in 2012, their issues are not adequately addressed. While the country’s first and only woman Prime Minister Indira Gandhi hailed from Allahabad, the most cursory glance at political faces from the state are overwhelmingly male. The only two women to ever hold the post of Chief Minister, Sucheta Kriplani and Mayawati, are separated by three full decades.
We don’t need politicians to ask for votes in the name of women’s honor. What we need is women occupy more positions of power. And to not fight, shame, or terrorize women who actively claim their space and their power.
In this current election season it’s interesting to see women leading the election campaigns of three prominent parties, the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party. This alone is far more significant than token statements about “mataon ki asmat (the honour of mothers)“.
Politicians may still be using empty rhetoric, but Meera reminds me of the important challenges women have taken upon themselves. She says, “Chahe wo kisi bhi path par ho, mahilaein bahut bahut aage badh kar kaam kar rahein hain, aage karengi, aur karte aayin hain (Whatever path they are on, women are progressing, and are doing many great things. They have done it in the past and they will keep doing it)”.
And more power to these amazing women.