Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 28, March 2012

Empowering Women? Feminist Responses to Hindutva

Elen Turner

  1. When the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was destroyed in December 1992, fifty-five thousand women were among the two-hundred thousand strong mob that tore it down.[1] It was the first time in India's history that so many women had participated so prominently on the side of the political right wing.[2] The visible involvement of women in hindutva organisations—often described as a hyper-masculine movement[3]—sparked fears among progressive feminists that the right wing had co-opted the discourse of women's empowerment. It also forced activist and academic feminists to revisit their assumptions of the democratic and pacifist potential of women.[4] It became somewhat commonplace and fashionable to declare that the right wing had seized the women's movement from the hands of secular forces,[5] and from the mid-1990s there was an increase in literature trying to explain or make sense of this phenomenon.[6] These fears, and some of the re-evaluations of feminist practice and theory that it sparked, are my focus in what follows. It is not my intention to describe women's involvement in Hindutva, or in episodes of violence and unrest. Details of these can be gained from many sources.[7] I will demonstrate what this involvement meant for Indian feminists during the 1990s and 2000s, until today, and how fears, concerns and new modes of thought were and are articulated in feminist scholarship. While other scholars have addressed these re-evaluations and developments, none have looked specifically at the way feminist publishers contributed to the development of this discourse. As these presses produce high quality books with cutting-edge research on many issues concerning Indian women, their contribution to this particular strand of scholarship deserves more attention than it has received so far. The intersection between feminist activism and feminist scholarship is evident in much of their work, and can help us better understand the role of feminism in contemporary Indian society. Furthermore, I argue that the two works I analyse represent a shift from feminist discussions taking place only within feminist circles, to a broader sphere that reaches (sympathetic) non-feminist scholars and readers.
  2. I will focus on two books published by such presses: Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia's Women and the Hindu Right (Kali for Women, 1995)[8] and Atreyee Sen's Shiv Sena Women (Zubaan, 2007.) By looking at these publications that were written more than a decade apart we can see how feminist scholarship on the problems posed by Hindutva has developed over time. The approaches taken by these two works are not completely different, but nevertheless articulate developments in feminist thought and ways to address these in literature. These are by no means the only works about women and violent, right-wing politics, and feminist publishers are not alone in producing works on this topic. I argue that Indian feminist publishers occupy an important place in the production of knowledge and debate on this subject. I will discuss three essays from Women and the Hindu Right, by Amrita Basu, Flavia Agnes and Urvashi Butalia. These articulate the three major problems that women's involvement in right-wing politics posed for Indian feminists: Hindutva's 'appropriation' of feminist symbols and ideas; the importance of making the Indian feminist movement genuinely secular so that it can include women from all communities; and the continued presence of the communally divisive rhetoric of Partition in Indian society. In my discussion of Shiv Sena Women I will focus on the ways that the women of the Mahila Aghadi feel empowered by their involvement in the Shiv Sena. Sen argues that this should not be seen as an alternative form of feminism, as the women involved are constrained by the dominant patriarchal structures of their society. Sarkar and Butalia's book responded to the threat posed by right-wing women by creating a dialogue amongst like-minded, progressive feminists. Sen's extensive ethnographic research goes a step further by demonstrating a new feminist concern with understanding women from politically extreme movements, whilst drawing the line at feeling solidarity with them. It is the creation of the texts and the discourse and debates generated by them that are my focus, so I begin with a brief history of feminist publishing in India.

    Indian feminist publishing
  3. Feminist publishing in India began in 1984 when Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon established Kali for Women.[9] They aimed to provide intelligent, high-quality books on issues concerning Indian women, at prices affordable to local readers and activists.[10] Shortly after Kali for Women's formation, Calcutta-based publisher Mandira Sen established a small imprint under her own name. This developed into the women's- and caste-studies publisher, Stree-Samya.[11] Although no longer operating as Kali, Butalia and Menon now head two separate imprints, Zubaan and Women Unlimited. These three publishing companies constitute the majority of independent feminist publishing in India, though several other 'niche' presses, NGOs and activist groups produce feminist, women's and gender studies publications.[12] Nowadays the mainstream academic and trade publishers also publish a substantial amount of literature on feminist topics and issues of concern to feminist scholars and activists.
  4. In this article, my focus is Kali and one of its successor companies, Zubaan. These have expanded over three decades from producing activist materials and collections of short fiction, to now publishing scholarly books and novels too. They are largely, but not exclusively, concerned with India and South Asia. They are semi-autonomous, with links to academic and mainstream publishing and writing, but still distinct from it. Zubaan has co-publication and co-distribution deals with Penguin India and Cambridge University Press.[13] In early 2011, Zubaan made the shift from being a not-for-profit organisation to a for-profit one. Butalia felt that the company was growing rapidly enough to require a more formal operating structure.[14] Their independent status enables them to produce works and generate debate in ways that may not be possible for mainstream and academic publishers, who are more constrained by sales, share holders and parent corporations. Issues of autonomy, profit, and artistic and intellectual freedom are complex and ever-present for feminist publishers. Though their output cannot match the larger players such as Penguin or Oxford University Press in numbers, their work is respected by academic and informed general readers. They are trend-setters, for they often bring to light some critical issues before their import is realised by mainstream presses.[15] I argue that their importance is greater than has previously been acknowledged in academic scholarship. They are partially responsible for bringing issues and debates of importance to women in India to a wider audience, and the proliferation of books on topics initiated by feminist presses (such as those discussed in this article) reinforces this.

    The shock of Ayodhya
  5. One such example is Tanika Sarkar and Butalia's Women and the Hindu Right, a collection of essays, released three years after the December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. This is not the only book to address the participation of women in communal conflict in India, but it was one of the first from a feminist point of view. Many similar works appeared throughout the 1990s, from feminist and other perspectives. This work is representative of modes of thinking that emerged at this point in time. It was picked up by Zed Books for publication outside of India, and many more recent studies of women and communal conflict refer to it, highlighting its importance as a groundbreaking, trend-setting and respected publication.
  6. This collection expressed the realisation that scholarship on Indian society, particularly feminist scholarship, had failed to address some critical factors that explained women's involvement in Hindutva politics. As the editors' state in the introduction:

      Since the study of the Indian right has not really got off the ground so far, and the study of its women's component is practically non-existent, we could not follow clear, known paths of enquiry.… In the absence of a formed body of serious, scholarly literature, we decided to have something like a montage—reports on violence after the December 6 events, critical self evaluation of secular women's understanding of communalism, histories of women's experience in past carnages, cultural resources and historical referrents in the right's gender ideology, present patterns of activism and gender thinking among the women leaders of the right.[16]

  7. There are essays from a variety of disciplines (history, law, sociology, religious studies and politics) and on diverse topics, united in their exploration of women's identity formation and communalism in modern India. As well as those discussed further below, the collection includes essays on rape as a political weapon, Shiv Sena and RSS women, caste politics, the family, interviews with right-wing women and others.
  8. A major point that emerges from Women and the Hindu Right is that previous feminist assumptions on women's involvement in right-wing groups were often too simplistic. There was a belief that women only became involved in politically-motivated violence under pressure from their men, or through false consciousness. Some earlier literature claimed that right-wing women were alienated from their own interests and therefore acted on behalf of their men, or else they joined such groups out of a desire for community without necessarily believing in the extreme politics.[17] However, Sarkar and Butalia note:

      We need to understand what we are faced with. For we do have before us a large-scale movement among women of the right who bring with them an informed consent and agency, a militant activism. If they are imbued with false consciousness then that is something that includes their men as well and if they are complicit with a movement that will ultimately constrain themselves as women, then history is replete with examples of women's movements that foreground issues other than or even antithetical to women's interests. Feminist convictions are not given or inherent in women, after all.[18]

  9. In the 1980s, Indian feminists had been confronted with the fact that the right wing could mobilise women over women's issues, by the well known and oft-cited Shah Bano Uniform Civil Law case and the Roop Kanwar sati.[19] The events of 1992–93 demonstrated that women could also be mobilised for violent action.

    Inversions of traditional femininity
  10. Amrita Basu, in her essay, 'Feminism Inverted: The Gendered Imagery and Real Women in Hindu Nationalism' goes into some detail over how the assumptions of false consciousness can be wrong. The images of women's involvement in communal conflict have largely been of self-sacrificing, long-suffering, non-violent victims.[20] Basu discusses Vijayraje Scindia, Uma Bharati and Sadhvi Rithambara, three right-wing women who played on this imagery and inverted it in powerful ways. These women emerged as powerful orators and representatives of Hindutva during the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign.[21] None of them were particularly nurturing or motherly in the 'traditional' sense, they did not portray themselves as victims despite their personal hardships, and all of them openly encouraged violence against Muslims, thus defying the conventional imagery of women from earlier political movements.[22] Rithambara and Bharati were from modest, lower-caste, rural backgrounds; Scindia from an upper-caste princely family.[23] All three were celibate, a fact that enhanced their status as spiritual, pure, morally upright Hindu women.[24] While the elderly Scindia wore the customary widow's white and supposedly radiated piety and sobriety, Rithambara was best known for her passionate, enraged speeches that were responsible for instigating riots, and the extroverted Bharati revelled in her image as a 'sexy sanyasin'.[25] In their speeches, Rithambara and Bharati ridiculed the emasculation of Hindu men and exaggerated the sexually aggressive and rapacious masculinity of Muslim men.[26] As Indian women, their open discussion of male sexuality was unusual. It became acceptable because of the simultaneous erasure of their own sexuality, through renunciation and celibacy.[27] The stressing of the sexual vulnerability of Hindu women was necessary for their political project. As Basu notes,

      The BJP is faced with a serious contradiction between its need to foster Hindu-Muslim violence in order to gain Hindu votes and its desire to depict Hindus as victims whose violence is defensive and reactive. Given the realities of economic and political life, the BJP cannot plausibly allege that Muslims dominate Hindus today. But it can justify Hindu violence by pointing to the sexually predatory Muslim male and the vulnerable Hindu woman.[28]

    Calling upon memories of Partition (something I will discuss further below), the raped Hindu woman becomes symbolic of the victimisation of the whole Hindu community.[29]
  11. Despite these womens' own unconventional images and lifestyles, they by no means encouraged women's emancipation in ways that feminists understand. Calls for women to leave traditional roles or step outside of patriarchal society were solely for the sake of Hindutva. This represents a fundamental political problem for feminists at the level of strategy—outspoken, politically engaged and unconventional women were utilising methods and discourse akin to those used by feminists to promote anti-feminist ideology. This allowed the right wing to occupy discursive spaces that feminists believed they had control of, forcing re-evaluations of the supposedly pacifist nature of women and the role of feminism in Indian society.

    Common ground or co-option?
  12. Similarly, the right's appropriation of symbols, slogans and ideas that feminists had struggled to formulate and to bring to public consciousness was a widespread cause for consternation. This problem had materialised during the 1980s with the Shah Bano and Roop Kanwar cases, and became evident again during the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The feminist movement, particularly in Bombay, made it acceptable for women to march in the street demanding their rights, and Shiv Sena and other right-wing women followed this path of action comfortably.[30] Paola Bacchetta notes that the women's wing of the RSS, the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, 'borrowed' from feminists' issues such as dowry and health, slogans, and some projects such as income-generating ventures and work in slums. However, in RSS recruitment literature 'it selectively appropriates elements but conveniently effaces all trace of its sources, perhaps because the feminist movement is its most threatening competitor.'[31]
  13. Feminist issues can also be right-wing women's issues, though for extremely different reasons. This creates quite a dilemma for feminists. Protests against obscenity in films and the sexist portrayal of women in the media found supporters on both ends of the political spectrum.[32] The problem for progressive feminists was that not only do right-wing women often deliberately co-opt their language and symbols, but sometimes their aims are so similar as to be indistinguishable unless scrutinised further. It would be wrong to assume that the women's wings of Hindutva organizations (such as the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the BJP's Mahila Morcha, the VHP's Durga Vahini or the Shiv Sena's Mahila Aghadi) represent an alternative form of feminism. Women's increased involvement in right-wing politics raises the issue of whether these groups can be seen as part of the feminist movement itself, or whether they need to be problematized separately.[33] I argue that right-wing and progressive women's groups need to be examined as interconnected but separate movements. Certain practices, ideas and symbols utilised by Hindutva women may mirror progressive feminism, but 'it is the potential of Hindu femininity to stray into feminism' that makes the women's wings necessary.[34] Right-wing leaders felt threatened by the potentialities of feminism, thus leading them to co-opt their language and tactics as a way of minimizing the threat. This prompted feminists to rethink the language, tactics and issues that they were agitating for, and the texts discussed in this article clearly demonstrate the discussions that were taking place within feminist circles.

    Secularising 'secular' feminism
  14. Flavia Agnes' contribution to this collection, 'Redefining the Agenda of the Women's Movement within a Secular Framework', calls for a re-interrogation of feminism's dominant discourse. During the 1970s and 1980s, when feminism was taking shape in India, many feminists began using Hindu religious symbols and ideas to counter claims that feminism was western and therefore alien and inapplicable to India. As Hindus constitute the majority religious and cultural group in India, using Shakti, Kali or Durga as shorthand for women's strength and empowerment came quite naturally to those at the forefront of the feminist movement. The intention was not necessarily to promote Hindu ideology, yet according to Agnes, Christian, Muslim and other religious-minority women felt alienated. 'Secularism' as a prime objective had not been explicitly articulated by those in the feminist movement.[35] Religion had been considered a private, though suspiciously superstitious, affair.[36] Agnes, a non-believing Catholic, had tried to reclaim Christian symbols and aspects of theology for feminist ends. Her 'secular' (Hindu) friends had been wary of this act, considering it religious backwardness, and not seeing the parallels between Agnes' identification with cultural Chrisitanity and their own with cultural Hinduism.[37] Many feminists believed they were secular, merely because they were not motivated by religion. Therefore, Agnes calls for the progressive feminist movement to actually become secular, rather than unquestioningly assume that they are.
  15. Issues of religious and communal identity had been largely ignored by feminists prior to the events of 1992–93. There was an assumption that women from various religious backgrounds were primarily women—that this was the identity around which they could be mobilised for positive action. Butalia reflects:

      In feminist circles I had barely considered the possibility that there could be something other than their interests as women, that could hold women together. The complexity of their roles, the difficulties of struggle given these, were absent from much of our discussions. That women's loyalties could have shifted, that they were not undifferentiated and homogeneous, that their interests could tie in with those of their men and their class—these dimensions are … important for feminists to question and understand.[38]

    The destruction of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that ensued demonstrated that womanhood was not always a strong uniting factor, and that not all women's political mobilisation was positive.[39] The involvement of women in movements that exploited religion as a political tool prompted Indian feminists to re-explore the importance of religion in women's lives and identity formation. Since 1992, religion has become more rather than less present in Indian and global politics. India's economy opened to international investment in the early 1990s, and the widening gap between rich and poor has caused many people to seek refuge in solidified cultural, religious and national identities. Agnes' essay, appearing at this pivotal moment in the mid-nineties, articulated a problem of continuing importance to feminists.

    Origin myths, legacies of Partition
  16. The communal violence of the early 1990s were not, of course, unprecedented. The scale of the violence of the Partition of India in 1947, and women's instrumentality in this, has had lasting effects on Indian society. Butalia's essay in this collection, 'Muslims and Hindus, Men and Women: Communal Stereotypes and the Partition of India,' is a work of importance to Indian feminist studies and South Asian history more generally. The 1990s and early 2000s saw an increase in the scholarship on Partition from previously silenced or marginalised points of view. That is, unearthing the perspectives of women, dalits and other minorities. 'Muslims and Hindus' builds upon Butalia's earlier work on Partition, and contributes towards what would eventually become her ground-breaking historical study, The Other Side of Silence.[40]
  17. 'Muslims and Hindus' looks at the constitution of the identity of the 'Hindu woman', and how women's bodies were deployed as both instruments of revenge and of nation building during Partition and after Independence.[41] Butalia examines the discourses surrounding the recovery and rehabilitation of women 'abducted' during Partition, as articulated in the magazine of the RSS, the Organiser, and by the Indian state. She discovers that though variations do occur, the overall scenarios presented by the RSS and the state are disturbingly similar.[42] In the official Recovery Programme, India was established as the 'natural' home for Hindu women, and Pakistan for Muslim women. At the time, the Indian state assumed the role of protector of Hindu women from Muslim men, who were portrayed as sexually aggressive, barbaric, violent and irrational.[43] India, in contrast, was deemed to be rational, secular and modern.[44] The connections and continuities between the violence of Partition and the communal violence of the last three decades are highlighted. In rhetoric that is overtly communal and divisive, these connections are immediately obvious. For example, Butalia notes that the mass rape of Muslim women in Surat after the demolition of the Babri Masjid was articulated by Hindutva forces as revenge for the rape of Hindu women during Partition. She quotes a member of the women's wing of the VHP as saying: 'Hindus must make sure that they are feared by others. We have to prove our mettle. If they rape 10–15 of our women we must also rape a few to show them that we are no less.'[45] Fear of appearing weak and emasculated is a recurring trope in Hindutva rhetoric.
  18. 'Muslims and Hindus' also highlights something more subtle, and hence more theoretically problematic for feminists. The communal stereotypes of sexually rapacious Muslim men, decent though often weak Hindu men and pure, vulnerable Hindu women solidified into collective myth, aided and perpetuated by the fact that the remembrance and retelling of the traumas of Partition came to adhere to certain codes. 'Chivalrous' women who committed mass suicide to avoid conversion or abduction were valourised as martyrs; widows were accorded an unusual dignity and social status.[46] Abductions, however, were obliterated from collective memory.[47] The only socially sanctioned way of discussing the rapes and abductions was through emphasising the barbarity of the perpetrators, the 'other'. The problem for feminists, and others troubled by Hindutva, was that the language of Hindutva derived legitimacy from these foundational myths.[48] The rhetoric could not easily be dismissed as irrational or populist, because the myths at Hindutva's core had been accepted by not only those directly involved in hindutva politics, but in the collective imagination of the Indian nation. Butalia claims that it is increasingly difficult to speak of the Hindu right as something 'out there', distinct from 'secularists' or the 'liberal intelligentsia'. She states: 'what the last few years have brought before us most forcefuly is the need to explore the many layers of sedimented ideologies which lie within us, and to begin dismantling these in order to approach long term action.'[49] This essay, and the work that Butalia and other feminist scholars produced on Partition in the late 1990s and 2000s, are attempts to dismantle these myths.

  19. In the years following the Bombay riots and Women and the Hindu Right's publication in 1995, 'mainstream' and academic publishers produced collections and monographs on the increasing visibility of the Hindu right in the Indian public and political sphere. Not all were from a feminist perspective, but the importance of gender roles and the deployment of women was a commonly addressed issue. Articles like the ones contained in Sarkar and Butalia's book were also given space in international studies of similar issues, that went beyond the Indian case.[50] However, a notable trend in Indian feminist publishing in the late nineties and early 2000s were histories of Partition. As I demonstrated above, the telling of the history of Partition had solidified around certain codes, determining what was sayable and what was not. Much of what was considered taboo concerned women's experiences of the violence and upheaval of the time. Feminist presses—and some 'mainstream' ones, too—attempted to revisit the history of the time, express what had been suppressed, and examine exactly why this suppression had occurred and what it meant for contemporary Indian society. Clear links were drawn between the violence inflicted on women in 1947, the silencing of these experiences, and later twentieth century Hindu-Muslim relations. Publications addressing these issues took many genres, from oral histories—Butalia's The Other Side of Silence[51] and Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin's Borders and Boundaries[52]—to memoirs—Kamla Patel's Torn from the Roots[53] and Menon's edited collection No Woman's Land[54]—to creative writing—such as Jyotirmoyee Devi's translated novel The River Churning[55]—and collections that combined history writing, interviews, literary texts and documentary evidence, like Stree's two volume The Trauma and the Triumph.[56] These publications all revisit history to examine what went wrong at the time of Partition as well as during the nation-building period after 1947, and what the ramifications of these are for contemporary South Asia.

    Shiv Sena women
  20. By the 2000s, other feminist responses to Hindutva that did more than lament were appearing. Women's involvement in communal conflict stayed firmly on the feminist agenda with the 2002 pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat. Women and the Hindu Right was published seventeen years ago, but the issues it addressed are still relevant and the debate is ongoing. A more recent study from an ethnographic perspective is Atreyee Sen's 2007 Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum. Women and the Hindu Right itself contained essays by Sikata Banerjee and Teesta Setalvad that cover similar ground, in terms of material.[57] Yet Shiv Sena Women is a good example of emerging trends in Indian feminist scholarship on communalism as, unlike many earlier essays, it moves past shock and disillusionment to explore ways that feminist scholars and activists can tackle the theoretical and practical problems posed by militant, extremist women. It accepts the lessons of history, brought to light by the feminist publications on Partition, and suggests ways in which these lessons can be applied in the present and the future.
  21. Importantly, Sen's study is based on personal experience of living with right-wing women. Her observations and conclusions are driven by an attempt to understand what could make women turn to politicised violence. She spent an extended period in the slums of Bombay, talking to women involved in the Mahila Aghadi, the Shiv Sena's women's wing. The Aghadi had played a conspicuous role in keeping communal tensions alive in Bombay in the early 1990s.[58] Some have objected to progressive feminist scholars giving so much time to a group with such apparently abhorrent principles. Sen notes, 'Activists recoiled from playing an interventionist role in the lives of aggressive, Hindu fundamentalist women, with whom academics and activists experienced ideological clashes.'[59] As a result, women's involvement in the Shiv Sena was carefully overlooked for a long time. Yet Sen argues that studying and working amongst right-wing women is exactly what feminist scholars and activists must do if they are to move beyond mere self reflection. She states her intentions as follows:

      It is important to study the militant Hindutva women from this standpoint of the transformative potential in agency in order to recognise alternative motivations for women's action within a fundamentalist movement. Such studies could contribute to understanding and perhaps even countering some of the trajectories and dynamics of contemporary communalism.[60]

    Paola Bacchetta and Margaret Power express similar sentiments in reference to the study of right-wing women in various global contexts. Though it is understandable that feminist scholars have prioritised research on women whose principles they share 'because they have been silenced', Bacchetta and Power believe that an understanding of right-wing women is crucial, as in many cases 'they constitute major obstacles to feminism.'[61] As well as being of import to the development of feminism, an understanding of right-wing women's lives and motivations would also help policy makers, development specialists and secular NGOs rethink their primary objectives and provide more helpful and relevant interventions into the lives of the urban poor. This is something Sen attempts to address in Shiv Sena Women, as she believes these professionals currently take a 'non-interventionist, incomprehensible' and 'inaccessible' approach.[62] Though Women and the Hindu Right cannot be accused of being inaccessible or non-interventionist, the solutions it suggests are aimed at other feminists involved in theorising the movement, rather than NGOs or policy makers, as Sen suggests.

    Conflict as empowerment
  22. Though it has been suggested that women do not gain through active engagement in war,[63] Sen's study shows that her informants did indeed have a lot to gain through participation in the Bombay riots and other acts of organised aggression, and by being visible members of the Mahila Aghadi. Manisha Sethi names these gains 'investments' and 'compensations'.[64] These are wide ranging and can affect every aspect of women's lives, from preventing their bosses demanding sexual favours, to providing a sense of community.[65] Most of Sen's informants admitted that their transformations from passivity to aggression were preceded by feelings of isolation and alienation caused by industrialisation, urbanisation and migration.[66] The Sena provided many of the essential facilities and social services that either could not be provided by the state, or that were over-burdened—such as immunisation for children, reproductive health services, public toilets, waste disposal in residential areas, childcare centres and evening literacy classes.[67] Immediate incentives such as these are a motivating factor for Shiv Sena women to keep the hostilities with Muslims running. Sen notes that contrary to the boys and young men she spoke to who envisioned being ultimately victorious and winning the 'war', the women knew that their sense of power and freedom would only continue if the struggle remained alive.[68]
  23. In many earlier studies of right-wing women, such as Women and the Hindu Right, a sense of shock and disillusionment was expressed at the violent potential of women. Sen also discusses this, though not to demonstrate that women can be violent and that feminists have been wrong. Instead, she explores what this violence means to women, and what they can achieve from it. Sen describes incidents that might be amusing if they were not so disturbing:

      Many of the Sena women … used multiple tactics in coaxing, cajoling and chiding their men during communal flare-ups. When riots broke out in the slum areas several men who had vigorously displayed their loyalty to the Shiv Sena retreated from scenes of real violence. In Nirmal Nagar women married to 'cowards' conspired and hid their husbands' clothes. Some of the women even slipped petticoats on the men while they slept. The women 'brought out the dhotis …' only after the petticoat-clad men agreed to take part in the ongoing violence. Castigating their masculinity through language and symbols such as offering bangles and petticoats, asking men to wear bindis …, describing them as eunuchs or as impotent, while at the same time beating their foreheads and lamenting women's inability to 'take action', was a threat to expose the fragility of masculine identities in the slums.[69]

    The women involved here are active to the point where they feel they have broken barriers. Yet the behaviours that epitomise weakness are still those associated with femininity. 'Woman' is not only a passive term, it is deployed as an insult to control men. These women were aware of many of the gendered limitations upon them. 'Helping' and 'encouraging' their men in the riots finally dispelled their subdued image.[70] Yet they had to be careful not to push these gendered boundaries too far, for fear of losing the ground they had won. Sen notes that her informants had to conceal their resistance to passive identities imposed upon them, 'so [they] couched their actions in compassionately "inspirational" terms.'[71] As I noted above, these women felt it was in their interests to keep the conflict with Muslims alive. They were not prepared to sacrifice themselves to their cause, nor to entirely eliminate their enemy. Rather, it was through their display of 'the warriors' personal and political capacity for violence' that they drew what they perceived to be their power, status and privilege.[72] Though these right-wing women may be considered 'empowered' insofar as they changed overt systems of domination, developed awareness of the advanced capabilities of women and wrested power for themselves, this empowerment is not unconditional or necessarily permanent.[73] They are still dependent upon and work within the patriarchal structures that dominate. Right-wing women can leave the home and take up arms, but cannot alter the dominant patriarchal discourse that equates women with weakness. Their 'empowerment' comes from reasserting gender norms, not undermining them.[74]

    Feminist studies, women's studies
  24. Sen's book is a brave study and a necessary publication. The importance of her ethnography is highlighted when she states that the Aghadi women's open, repeated narration of the unfettered violence they witnessed and were engaged in during the 1992–93 riots was unlikely to be exposed to a journalist, 'because of the party's drive to present a moderate face to the world outside the Sena camp.'[75] Shiv Sena Women is a book that not only demonstrates the development of Indian feminist writing and scholarship, but of publishing, too. While this was originally published in the United Kingdom by Hurst and Co., it was picked up by Zubaan for publication in India. The author, while admitting to personal feminist beliefs and motivations, does not firmly situate her work within feminist studies. She believes it better fits into a 'gender studies' or 'women's studies' paradigm than a 'feminist studies' one.[76] This demonstrates a certain maturation in Indian feminist publishing—today they will publish something that is not exclusively 'feminist' because they can see the value of it for women's studies more broadly. This is something they may have been more reluctant to do in the 1980s or 1990s, when their image was as more 'hard-line' feminists. The author of Hindi fiction, Mridula Garg, and the non-fiction author and activist, Bishakha Datta, believe that Kali for Women, particularly in their earlier days, had a hard-line feminist ideology, more so than its successors do now. Whether or not this is actually true would be difficult to determine, and would rely on subjective notions of what 'hard-line feminism' actually is. The fact that these authors—working in different genres, in different locations and in different languages—have the impression that the feminist publishers used to express 'hard-line' feminism, but do not do so any longer to the same extent, suggests that this shift has been reflected in the types of texts published by Kali for Women and its successors.[77]

  25. The shifts in feminist thinking that I have explored were the result of several factors that emerged throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. The visible involvement of women in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 and in the Bombay riots were the ultimate turning point, where feminist ideas of sisterhood, women's pacifism, false consciousness and the secular nature of Indian feminism were shown to be myths. Women's involvement in later instances of communal violence—particularly the Gujarat massacres—show that the events of 1992–93 were not isolated, but part of a worrying and continuing trend. Feminist publishing was, and still is, central to the ongoing debate around right-wing women and the empowering potential of feminism, as it is an essential space within which feminist debates can occur. With Hindutva rhetoric also claiming to empower women, progressive feminists face a serious challenge as they attempt to articulate a coherent position from which to resist communalism, violence and the Hindu right. Yet the challenges posed by right-wing, nationalist politics are not insurmountable, if dynamic feminist writing continues to be produced.


    [1] Bishnupriya Ghosh, 'Queering Hindutva: unruly bodies and pleasures in Sadhavi Rithambara's performances,' in Right-Wing Women: From Conservatives to Extremists around the World, ed. Paola Bacchetta and Margaret Power, New York and London: Routledge, 2002, p. 260.

    [2] Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia, eds, Women and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiences, London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1995, p. 3.

    [3] Atreyee Sen, Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum, London: Hurst and Company, 2007, p. 76.

    [4] Manisha Sethi, 'Avenging angels and nurturing mothers: women in Hindu nationalism,' Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 37, no. 16 (2002): 1545–52, p. 1545.

    [5] Tanika Sarkar, 'The gender predicament of the Hindu right,' in The Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism, ed. K.N. Panikkar, New Delhi: Viking, 1999, pp. 131–59, p. 144.

    [6] Sethi, 'Avenging angels,' p. 1545.

    [7] The texts I discuss in this article provide comprehensive details.

    [8] This was published outside of India by Zed Books with the title Women and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiences, London and New Jersey: 1995. The collection of essays is the same, and the name difference is presumably to make the book more appealing and marketable to a non-Indian readership. The Zed Books publication is the version I had access to, so page numbers in this article refer to this edition, but I refer to the original Kali for Women title when discussing the work as a whole.

    [9] When I say 'began', I am referring to the contemporary phase. I acknowledge that some forms of women's publishing were undertaken earlier in the twentieth century and during colonial times, in various languages and genres. These are not my focus here, as I am talking about feminist publishing that emerged from 'second wave' feminism, and that still operates today.

    [10] Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, Making a Difference: Feminist Publishing in the South, Boston and Chestnut Hill, Mass: Bellagio Publishing Network, 1996 [1995], p. 28.

    [11] Butalia and Menon, Making a Difference, p. 29.

    [12] These include SPARROW and Point of View in Bombay; Jagori and TARSHI in Delhi; Samyukta and Sakhi in Thiruvananthapuram; Swayam and Sappho in Kolkata; and Anveshi and Asmita in Hyderabad. Yoda Press in Delhi produces literature on sexuality and LGBT issues. These organisations publish partly, or wholly, in English. There may be other organisations that publish in India's other languages that, due to language constraints, I am unable to access.

    [13] Of the arrangements with Penguin, Butalia stated: 'It's a very interesting deal and a very difficult deal. We thought about it for a long time because we were worried about many things. One was being swallowed up by Penguin, whose imprint is really the best known imprint anywhere!… But we were also worried about whether it would actually dilute our feminist credentials, or would lay us open to criticism. But on the other hand,… we need to do the best we can by our authors. They deserve a wider exposure than we are able to give them.' Urvashi Butalia, 29 March 2010.

    [14] Krish Raghav, 'Experiments with Books,' The Wall Street Journal:, 27 March 2011, online:, accessed 30 March 2011.

    [15] This is true not only for the issues discussed in this article, but for other lists that these publishers have built or are building, such as work on the political conflicts in the Northeast states and in Kashmir.

    [16] Sarkar and Butalia, 'Introductory remarks,' in Women and Right-Wing Movements, ed. Sarkar and Butalia, London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1995, pp. 1–9, pp. 4–5.

    [17] Paola Bacchetta, Gender in the Hindu Nation, New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004, p. 62.

    [18] Sarkar and Butalia, 'Introductory remarks,', pp. 4–5.

    [19] U. Kalpagam, 'Review: the women's movement in India today-new agendas and old problems,' Feminist Studies vol. 26, no. 3 (2000): 645–60, p. 656.

    [20] Amrita Basu, 'Feminism inverted: the gendered imagery and real women of Hindu nationalism,' in Women and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiences, ed. Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia, London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1995, pp. 158–80, p. 158.

    [21] Basu, 'Feminism inverted,' p. 159.

    [22] Basu, 'Feminism inverted,' p. 159

    [23] Basu, 'Feminism inverted,' p. 159.

    [24] Basu, 'Feminism inverted,' p. 161.

    [25] Basu, 'Feminism inverted,' pp. 159–60.

    [26] Jahnavi Phalkey, 'Right-wing mobilization of women in india: Hindtuva's willing performers,' in Women, Globalization and Fragmentation in the Developing World, ed. Haleh Afsar and Stephanie Barrientos, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Press, 1999, pp. 38–53, p. 42.

    [27] Phalkey, 'Right-wing mobilization of women,' p. 42.

    [28] Basu, 'Feminism inverted,' p. 163.

    [29] Basu, 'Feminism inverted,' p. 165.

    [30] Flavia Agnes, 'Redefining the agenda of the women's movement within a secular framework,' in Women and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiences, ed. Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia, London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1995, pp. 138–57, p. 137; Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 63.

    [31] Bacchetta, Gender in the Hindu Nation, p. 10.

    [32] Sikata Banerjee states: 'There is a resemblance here to the feminist dilemma in the United States where radical feminists find themselves in the company of the religious right as they agitate against pornography.' Sikata Banerjee, 'Hindu nationalism and the construction of woman: the Shiv Sena organises women in Bombay,' in Women and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiences, ed. Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia, London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1995, pp. 216–32, p. 226.

    [33] Tarini Bedi, 'Feminist theory and the right-wing: Shiv Sena women mobilize Mumbai,' Journal of International Women's Studies, vol. 7, no. 4 (2006): 51–68, p. 65.

    [34] Bacchetta, Gender in the Hindu Nation, p. 8.

    [35] Agnes, 'Redefining the agenda,' p. 139.

    [36] Gabriele Dietrich, 'Women and religious identities in India after Ayodhya,' in Against All Odds: Essays on Women, Religion and Development from India and Pakistan, ed. Kamla Bhasin, Ritu Menon, and Nighat Said Khan, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1994, pp. 35–49, p. 35.

    [37] Dietrich, 'Women and religious identities,' p. 39.

    [38] Urvashi Butalia, 'Community, state and gender: on women's agency during Partition,' Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 28, no. 17 (1993): 12–24, WS-13.

    [39] Agnes, 'Redefining the agenda,' p. 154.

    [40] Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

    [41] Urvashi Butalia, 'Muslims and Hindus, men and women: communal stereotypes and the Partition of India,' in Women and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiences, ed. Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia, London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1995, pp. 58–81, p. 59.

    [42] Butalia, 'Hindus and Muslims,' p. 74.

    [43] Phalkey, 'Right-wing mobilization of women,' p. 43.

    [44] Phalkey, 'Right-wing mobilization of women,' p. 43.

    [45] Butalia, 'Muslims and Hindus,' p. 77.

    [46] Butalia, 'Muslims and Hindus,' p. 62.

    [47] Butalia, 'Muslims and Hindus,' p. 62.

    [48] Phalkey, 'Right-wing mobilization of women,' p. 43.

    [49] Butalia, 'Muslims and Hindus,' p. 60.

    [50] These include, but are by no means limited to, the following sample: Madhu Kishwar, Religion at the Service of Nationalism and Other Essays, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998; Patricia Jeffery and Amrita Basu, eds, Appropriating Gender: Women's Activism and Politicized Religion in South Asia, New York and London: Routledge, 1998; K.N. Panikkar, ed., The Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism, New Delhi: Viking, 1999; Caroline O.N. Moser and Fiona C. Clark, eds, Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence, London and New York: Zed Books, 2001; Paola Bacchetta and Margaret Power, eds, Right-Wing Women: From Conservatives to Extremists around the World, New York and London: Routledge, 2002; Christophe Jaffrelot, ed., The Sangh Parivar: A Reader, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    [51] Butalia, The Other Side of Silence.

    [52] Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998.

    [53] Kamla Patel, Torn from the Roots: A Partition Memoir, trans. from Gujarati by Uma Randeria, New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2006.

    [54] Ritu Menon, ed., No Woman's Land: Women from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh Write on the Partition of India, New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004.

    [55] Jyotirmoyee Devi, The River Churning: A Partition Novel, trans. Enakshi Chatterjee, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1995.

    [56] Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta, eds, The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, Kolkata: Stree, 2003; and Jasodhara Bagchi, Subhoranjan Dasgupta and Subhasri Ghosh, eds., The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in the Eastern Region, vol. 2, Kolkata: Stree, 2009.

    [57] Banerjee, 'Hindu nationalism'; Teesta Setalvad, 'The woman Shiv Sainik and her sister Swayamsevika,' in Women and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiences, ed. Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia, London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1995, pp. 233–44.

    [58] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 2.

    [59] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 7.

    [60] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, pp. 11–12.

    [61] Bacchetta and Power, 'Introduction,' on Right-Wing Women, ed. Bacchetta and Power, p. 1.

    [62] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 3.

    [63] Cynthia Cockburn, 'The gendered dynamics of armed conflict and political violence,' in Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence, ed. Caroline O. N. Moser and Fiona C. Clark, London and New York: Zed Books, 2002, pp. 13–29, p. 21.

    [64] Sethi, 'Avenging angels,' p. 1546.

    [65] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 22.

    [66] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 25.

    [67] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 95.

    [68] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 168.

    [69] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 49.

    [70] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 47.

    [71] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 55.

    [72] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 170.

    [73] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 185.

    [74] This finding is reinforced in other studies of right wing women, such as the work done by Bacchetta on RSS women. For example, Bacchetta, Gender in the Hindu Nation.

    [75] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 72.

    [76] Sen, Shiv Sena Women, p. 183.

    [77] Mridula Garg, 25th March 2010; Bishakha Datta, 13 February 2010.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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