Fascism, Fundamentalism and Patriarchy – Anuradha Gandhy

(This article was written by Anuradha Gandhy in 2001 on the verge of Narendra Modi becoming the chief minister of Gujrat and is now made available on internet for the first time. Do read and share widely.)

Exactly one year after the carnage in Gujarat began; the country is still reeling from the horror of the events. Narendra Modi’s expected victory in the assembly elections has further strengthened the position of the Hindutva fascist forces not only in Gujarat but also in the country as a whole. Reviewing the strategy of Hindutva forces and the lessons from Gujarat become even more relevant now. Here we are concerned with the impact of  the Hindutva fascist forces on women and on the women’s movement.


The agenda of the Hindu fascist forces is political. Their strategy is the maximum political mobilisation of the Hindu masses and their aim is the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra. It will be noticed that the present phase of Hindu fascist growth can trace its growth with the neo-liberal economic policies of the early 1980s. And the aggressive policies of economic reforms and globalisation of the 1990s is accompanied with the aggressive policies of Hindutva. The reasons for this is not far to seek: the policies of economic reform have led to the extreme impoverisation of, not only a large section  of the masses, but even of sizable sections of the middle classes; so there was urgent need to divert peoples’ attention from their mass destitution through the whipping up a frenzy against Muslims and other minorities. Besides, mass anger against the blatant capitulation to the imperialists, particularly the US, is sought to be diverted through fake nationalism, like slogans of cultural nationalism and Hindu Rashtra.


The extreme and continued polarisation of Hindu society in Gujarat along religious lines, the sense of brazen confidence with which the attacking, looting and killing was carried out and the active participation of a section of the women from the upper castes,  shows that the Hindu fascist forces have been successful in Gujarat in taking their agenda forward. They have penetrated and succeeded in converting a section of the Hindu masses to their ideology and imbue them with the goal of Hindu Rashtra. What horror this portends for the oppressed sections — the lower castes, women, especially women of minority communities and the poor —does not need mention.


Growing Fundamentalism Worldwide — What it means for Women


The rise of Hindu fascist forces is part of the world-wide rise of fundamentalism and fascism.. Imperialism faced with its worst ever crisis since the inter-war years is encouraging and promoting fundamentalist forces and fascist organisations and propaganda. “Imperialism strives for reaction everywhere” Lenin. As Hawley has argued, “fundamentalist perspectives on gender cast a uniquely revealing light on the nature of fundamentalism as a whole.” As it is, all religions have been patriarchal in the moral code they sanction and the social arrangements they uphold. And one of the central points of fundamentalist propaganda is a conservative ideology of gender — all fundamentalist forces, be they of the Christian denominations in the US, or Hindu, or the New Religions in Japan or Islamic forces — they proclaim the specific agenda of restoring the centrality of the family and home in the life of women and patriarchal control over her sexuality.  Hence ideologues of the New Right even in the US are claiming that there is a moral crisis in American society and this is because of the fact that women are working outside the home. Though they have mobilised actively around opposition to abortion rights for women,  they begin by arguing that welfare state expenditures have raised taxes and added to inflation, pulling the married woman into the labour force and thereby destroying the fabric of the patriarchal family and hence the moral order of society. According to Jerry Falwell of the Moral majority, “children (in the US) should have the right to the love of the mother and a father who understand their different roles  and fulfil their different responsibilities…to live in an economic system that makes it possible for husbands to support their wives as full time mothers in the home and enable the families to survive on one income instead of two.”


Giving specious moral arguments these fascists in the US are aggre-ssively presenting the so-called pro-life campaign.  This campaign started with reactions to court judgements but it has gone beyond that and  has included attacks on abortion clinics, killing of activists and doctors who help women get abortions done. At the same time these very so-called pro-life forces are among the active campaigners for the continuation of the death penalty and larger military spending and aggressive international policy by the US Government. Hence they are among the most conservative and reactionary sections of US society. They  have white supremacist views, indulge in openly racist activity and are fascist in their nature of organising and propaganda.


The same is to be found in the conservative New Religions that have sprung up in Japan, especially in the post war period. A study in the early nineties says that “ In the post-war period many New Religions have adopted an agenda of social issues on which re-establishing a patriarchal ideology of the family heads the list. The pre-war family system that they seek to reinstate institutionalises male dominance and the authority of elders and keeps women’s status low by restricting their sphere of choice in matters of marriage, reproduction and divorce. The older family form is imbued with religious significance in such a way that to be a good wife and mother is not only proper, it is essential to women’s salvation.” Both in the US and Japan these movements have arisen in the context of a rapid change in women’s role and transformation in the family structures. Women have been going out in large numbers working outside the home and earning an independent income.


Islamic fundamentalism is a more complex phenomenon. Initially, in the post second world war period,  it was propped up and sustained by US imperialism in the face of democratic and socialist movements of people, like in the Arab countries. But with the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and especially China, and the betrayal of the democratic national liberation movements by their compromising leadership, anti-imperialism has been expressed in traditional and often religious ways. Islam has also become an ideological force adopted by movements against the US imperialists like in Iran, or become the expression of resistance as in Palestine today (due to the betrayal of the older more secular and ‘left’ leadership). In the countries of the former Soviet Union too Islamic fundamentalism has become the means through which nationalist opposition to Russian domination and exploitation is being expressed. In countries like Afghanistan where there was no anti-feudal democratic mass movement, modernisation and, where increase in freedom to women was initiated from above during Soviet occupation, it could gain no support from the rural masses, and thus Islamic fundamentalism maint-ained its social base. Hence the warlords who came to power in Afghanistan after the Soviet withd-rawal in 1992 were as reactionary as the Taliban that swept to power several years later, and RAWA, the women’s organisation that opposed the restrictions on women’s rights, was as critical of the warlords as of the Taliban. Today the same warlords are back in power under US protection. But whether they are reactionary regimes like the Saudi monarchy or the more mass movement based organisations, they have been making control over women’s dress, her movements and manner of her participation in public life an important part of their campaign and this is what has gained the maximum publicity in the bourgeois and imperialist media given the campaign being launched by American imperialism against Islam.


Given the complex role of fundamentalism in the world today, the political role it plays will determine the manner in which we struggle against it. Religious fundamentalism of all types promotes patriarchy and other backward values, and must therefore be generally countered by all democratic and revolutionary forces. Yet today, fundamentalism has a dual role. First, fundamentalism of the Christians in the US, the Hindutva brigade of India, etc. is part of the growing fascist policies of the State and  ruling classes, and has to be seen and attacked in that context. On the other hand, Muslim fundamentalism today, is growing in reaction to the US’s aggressive war-mongering and in reaction to the Hindu fascist offensive in the country, and so plays a different political role vis-a-vis the State. So, with respect to the former it is necessary to attack it thoroughly on all fronts; while regarding the latter, there is need to see its anti-US/anti-Hindutva role, while at the same time exposing its retrograde patriarchal and feudal thinking.


The Indian Context


In the Indian context it is clear that at present the foremost enemy of women are the Hindutva forces. Hindutva breeds on the festering stagnant pool of feudal values that continue to thrive in this backward semi-feudal, semi-colonial system. The casteist, patriarchal and other feudal values already prevalent in this system, acts as dry hay for the Hindu fascist fire; and the upper caste elite form natural allies for these venomous political vampires. Besides, due to the general backward thinking and a weak democratic movement, other castes and classes also tend to fall prey to the aggressive and wide scale propaganda of the Hindutva forces.


During Roop Kunwar’s sati/ immolation in 1987, which some commentators consider as a dress rehearsal for the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Hindutva forces publicly revealed their patriarchal biases and attitudes. The event took place in a well-off village, Deorala, about 50 kms from Jaipur in Rajasthan, but it snowballed into an all-India issue with the various organisations of the Hindutva forces coming out stridently in support of the practice of sati. While the progressive women’s organisations organised a morcha in opposition to the sati and demanding the arrest of the culprits, supporters, mostly Rajputs, led by the Hindutva brigade took out a militant morcha of almost 30,000 in the State capital. The BJP leader Vijayaraje Scindia openly came out in support of sati as “our cultural heritage”, and argued that it is the fundamental right of a Hindu widow if she so desires. In their argument, if a widow voluntarily decides to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre then there is no reason to oppose it. The woman is seen only in relation to her husband, her independent existence does not count. By attaining sat (inner truth) a woman decides to immolate herself with her husband and she thus acquires a power that will protect her husband in his journey beyond. Thus the sati, the one who acquires this power, is the model of devotion to her husband, the true pativrata, whose bond with her husband cannot be broken even with death and she carries on to protect him after death.   The conservative trading families from Rajasthan have funded  and built innumerable sati temples in Rajasthan and elsewhere promoting this backward patriarchal ideology. Though their support for sati now is no longer so crude they still uphold and glorify religious customs which uphold the same ideology and role for women.


The Hindutva forces have picked up the demand for a Uniform Civil Code  and thereby communalised yet another issue of women’s rights. These very forces had opposed the reforms in the Hindu customary law pertaining to women’s rights in property and marriage in the 1950s. But, in the 1990s they have demanded the introduction of the Uniform Civil Code so that Muslims can no longer be governed by their personal law. Their demand has nothing to do with the rights of women, whether Hindu or Muslim, it is only one more stick to beat the Muslim community.


Their anti-human, patriarchal attitude came forth in Gujarat, in its crudest and most violent forms, with the gang-rapes and molestation of women in various districts and the vulgar propaganda on rape distributed widely in various places. All fact finding teams have recorded testimonies of women who were either victims of rapes or witnesses to the rape of friends and relatives. And this must be understood in the context of the full significance of how this fascist mentality looks at women. When backward ideology sanctions and advocates the total subordination of women to men , then women become the symbols and carriers of social honour of the community, often even of the embodiments of the sovereignty of the State. Women for them are the representatives of the community and the transmitters and repositories of the culture of the community and its values, they are the means through which the community is reproduced and continued.


They are using women to pursue their political ends, both when they are mobilising them and when they are sexually attacking minority women. It is important to remember that these Hindutva forces, whether they be of the Sangh Parivar — the RSS, the Bajrang Dal, the BJP  — or whether they are within other political formations like the Congress they share the same reactionary attitude to women.


Even in most individual cases, rape is an affirmation that the woman is an object of pleasure and an assertion of the power of man over her. But when rapes take place in the political context as in Gujarat, as part of collective attacks the act is organised aggression, it becomes a spectacular ritual, a ritual of victory — the defilement of the autonomous symbol of honour of the enemy community. This has been stated earlier but needs to be emphasised. Especially when we see that the vulgar propaganda leaflets issued by the Sangh Parivar were explicitly sexual. There is nothing sexual about gang rapes, or rapes of individual women in riots and such attacks, whether by communal forces or by police and other forces. These rapes are political acts, meant to humiliate the “enemy” — dishonouring the woman is dishonour of the community, a challenge and insult to the men of the community who could do nothing to “protect the honour of the women, i.e. the community”.  In this whole play of power the woman, her rights as a human being, do not count at all. Gujarat has once again proved that the Hindu fascist forces will stop at nothing to achieve their total domination over the religious minorities, especially over the Muslims.


Justification for these rapes are to be found in the writings of the ideologues of Hindutva, in fact in the most sophisticated among them, in Savarkar’s writings themselves. Savarkar in his interpretation of history portrayed the Muslim as  lustful sensuous, while the Hindu is impotent comparatively. The Muslim driven by religious duty abducted, raped and forcibly converted millions of Hindu women while Hindu men had a “perverted sense of chivalry” that prevented them from doing anything to the enemy’s womenfolk. He called it a law of nature (obeyed even by the animal world) that in a war the men of the conquered tribe are killed while the women are distributed by the victors amongst themselves. Savarkar wrote this in 1963 in his Marathi treatise, “Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History” translated into English in 1971. But later after the 1965 war with Pakistan he repeated this idea even more strongly when he criticised Shivaji and Chinnaji Appa for not doing to Muslim women what they had done to Hindu women — only a tit for tat policy would teach them he asserted. From 1938 itself in fact Savarkar repeatedly addresses the theme of the violation of hindu women at the hands of Muslims and the need to give up non-violence. So we should be very clear that the fascist outlook is even historically and morally justifying rapes and the killing of foetuses and new born babes — a moral justification to conduct ethnic cleansing !


As the Hindu fascists promote the worst forms of brahminical orthodoxy, their patriarchal approach, though it has taken the most degrading form against the minorities (particularly the Muslims and Christians), it is also manifest against womenfolk in general, in the promotion of dowry, sati, etc and the confining of the woman to the house, as a chattel for housework and production of children. Beside, the aggressive Hindutva offensive against Muslims have retarded the movement amongst Muslim women for reforms in their personal law as the entire community is being pushed back into the arms of their Mullahs where defence of their right to their faith has become the main issue before them. The increase in the use of the burkha is an example of such retrogression.


The State’s Patriarchal Communal Outlook


If the fascist forces in India have revealed their patriarchal outlook in crude and violent forms the Indian State too shares the same communal and patriarchal approach . All its pretensions of being Secular and democratic stand exposed when we examine the way in which it works. For, as a Times of India editorial was forced to point out in the context of the forcible deportation of Bangladeshis going on at present, if they are Hindus they are considered refugees, and if they are Muslims they are considered infiltrators. But this is not all. The Indian State revealed its communal patriarchal bias during the formation of India itself — in 1947, in the manner in which the issue of women, abducted during the turmoil and riots during Partition, was handled. In eight years from 1947 onwards, 30,000 women were ‘recovered’ from both countries. The total number of Muslim women ‘recovered’ from India was 20,728. The rescue of the abducted women was seen as a question of national honour and a moral obligation. The women were victims, they were the symbols of the community honour. Muslim women were to be restored to the Muslim nation and Hindu women to the ‘Hindu nation’. After forced abduction there was forced return. Hence even the ordinance that was enacted in India was concerned only with Muslim women residing in other houses and not with all women. And the Govt even passed another law that women brought back from Pakistan should leave their children behind ( considering they were fathered by a Muslim), those who were pregnant were made to undergo abortions. In fact the entire process the wishes of the women were never considered and they were denied all legal rights to decide whether they wanted to leave the family they were living with and whether they wanted to return or not. In fact the policy of the State was clear — the women were to be returned whether they wished to or not. The Indian State had revealed its Hindu bias from the time of partition itself. And women were the victims of this policy.


The judiciary too has in the decades of the 1980s been very much influenced by the Hindutva ideology. Since senior judges come from the same classes that are supporters of the Hindu fascist forces it is not surprising that their bias is showing. The judgement by Justice Y.V. Chandrachud  of the Supreme Court in the Shahbano case is an example of this. The judgement waxed eloquently about Muslims and Muslim personal law and the privilege enjoyed by Muslim men. The judgement talked about the divided loyalties of Muslims and the need to immediately introduce a Uniform Civil Code. The judgement had very little to say on the rights of women. In such a case it was essentially an anti-Muslim judgement which inflamed the anger of Muslims leading to the mobilisation by conservative Muslim leaders against the rights of Muslim women to maintenance after divorce.


Women’s Organisations of the Hindutva forces


The RSS started the Rastrasevika Samiti in 1936 itself as an adjunct of the RSS which admitted only male members. It was patterned like the RSS, with small locality based shakhas and a pramukh sanchalika, which is a non-elective post. Office-bearers are selected by senior members. These shakhaswere centres for intense ideological training for the women without having to leave their locality and their caste/class environment. They were taught the RSS version of Indian history, about culture and tradition and were given physical training. But the Rashtra -sevika Samiti was restricted in its caste and class base. It is only after the progressive women’s movement emerged in the late 1970s that the pro-Hindu parties set up women’s organisations. The BJP set up its Mahila Morcha in 1980, the Shiv Sena set up the Mahila Agadhi in 1985 while the VHP set up the Durga Vahini later. All of them were geared towards mobilising the mass of women for the cause of Hindutva.

Women’s wing of RSS: where wife beating is justified while she cant get divorce


The shakhas of the Rashtrasevikas are concentrated in the states where the RSS has been traditionally strong — Maharashtra, Karnataka, and AP. It has been restricted to the same caste/class circles that the RSS has had its base — the Brahmin and trading communities. The women are encouraged to build up contacts in their neighbourhood, become counsellors, encourage the celebration of Hindu festivals promoted by the Samiti, and informally spread the ideas received in the shakhas. This is their main aim — spreading their ideas after building up friendship and trust. In this way theSamiti has spread its tentacles among the conservative middle classes. It has also been associated with children’s education — Shishu Vihars, Saraswati Vidyalayas. The ideology of the Rashtrasevika Samiti emphasises the pivotal role of the woman in the family, her role in transmitting the ‘samskaras’ to the other family members, especially children. They emphasise the virtue of deference to elders and family, and disapprove of acting in opposition to family wishes. A large number of women BJP MPs were members of the samiti. They believe in the strong Hindu woman and hence the focus on physical training. They propagate that women bear children to serve the motherland. The attitude is that women are being trained for combat in the war against the Muslim enemy. They have successfully combined her traditional role in the family with her ‘patriotic’ duty, blended Desh bhakti with Ram bhakti. Service to the nation and liberation of the Ramjanmabhoomi are one and the same for the women indoctrinated by them.


The Rath Yatra in 1990 can be considered as a turning point as far as public mobilisation of women by the Hindutva forces. Women came to be mobilised on a wide scale for the Ramjnmabhoomi campaign. Since then women’s active participation in riots — in looting and in attacks on the minority community — has become noticeable. They were active in the riots in Mumbai and Surat immediately after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The BJP, Shiv Sena, VHP have attracted a much wider mass base than the Samiti. They have spread their base in specific areas and localities by organising the celebration of traditional Hindu customs and festivals, like haldi kumkum, villuku pooja, ganapati, by helping them take up locality based issues, encouraging schemes for income generation for women and above all by encouraging women to come out actively for political causes that their organisation supports. This could be the arrest of a leader, Maha-arthi or the temple campaign. Through this participation women have gained a sense of importance and a feeling of participation in public life hitherto denied to them. Though these organisations have taken up issues like dowry death, rape and resolved some family dispute or the other, this is done basically on the strength of the party. They do not advocate gender justice and are opposed to any moves that disturb the patriarchal structure of the family and the political party. Ideological indoctrination, whether through TV serials like Ramayana or through shibbirs – training camps – uphold patriarchal, authoritarian values, especially with reference to the family. They have been indoctrinated to believe that the progressive women’s movement in India is an implant from the West which has no relevance in India. “Women in India ever had a pride of place within the household and the society. This only has to be re-established and re-affirmed.” Yet the various leaders of the Hindutva parties do not speak with one voice. While some like Vijayaraje Scindia  have taken an openly conservative position, and VHP leaders like Bamdev, and sants like Swami Muktanand Saraswati have demanded that the right to polygamy  be restored to Hindu men (why should only Muslim men have this privilege !!); other leaders take a more moderate stance, for example, they uphold women’s right to employment (only then can they be strong) . The position they take also depends upon the political situation and the needs of the hour. Basically, they  portray women asMatrishakti, motherhood being pivotal in their characterisation of women and her power. Women are mothers and wives and they must be honoured and protected.  For them the Hindu woman today is not a victim but a power that has to be channelised for the service of the community. Essentially they are indoctrinating women to hate Muslims as enemies, uphold patriarchal values — they believe that there are natural and essential differences between women and men — and ignore gender injustices that exist in Hindu laws and customs, but view the injustice that Muslim women are subject to in an exaggerated manner (note their excessive concern about restrictions like burkha on Muslim women) and justify the rapes and molestations of women from Muslim and other minority communities. As a whole they are being indoctrinated to accept a fascist agenda which will be extremely harmful to the rights of women. Women’s autonomy and independence will be crushed and they will have to serve the State and the community as was done during Nazi rule in Germany. Women’s struggle for equality has been glossed over by them and the struggle will be crushed ruthlessly if the Hindutva forces succeed in their fascist aims.


Women Arise, Fight Hindu Fascism


For revolutionary and democratic forces, for the progressive women’s movement, the tasks are clearly laid out:  To fight the rise of the Hindutva fascist forces in India it is not sufficient to fight it only in the political realm, but to fight it on all fronts.. The impact of these forces on women and their strategy for women has also to be countered. It is necessary to expose the notion that their mobilisation of women, means the real “empowerment” of women. We have to bring to light that in spite of their rhetoric of the strong woman and Shakti, in spite of their projection of aggressive women leaders like Uma Bharati and Sadhavis like Rhitambara their basic conception of women’s  role is patriarchal. We have to expose that their very activation of women is based on distorted and totally false history and a systematic whipping up of hatred for a besieged minority community. The para-military training being given to women by the Durga Vahinis and Sevika Samitis  is not for self-protection or for the liberation of the masses from oppression and exploitation but to attack the Muslim and other communities. We need also to expose the fact that they have the support of the rightist forces in the US and elsewhere, since they share not only common economic interests, but also a common vision of society and women’s place in society. And we need to expose that these forces have gained support because Indian society has not been through a democratic revolution which would have swept away the feudal relations and culture, not only as far as the economic aspects are concerned but also in social life. Hence this struggle encompasses the economic, political and social spheres, it must include propaganda, education among the mass of women and cannot be restricted only to middle class women. Hence, in the present context today, an important aspect in the struggle against patriarchy, is mobilising the vast masses of women, not merely against fundamentalism in general, but more particularly against the Hindu fascist forces.


Fundamentalism and Gender by John Stratton Hawley


Women and the Hindu Right by Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Bhutalia


Religion at the service of nationalism and other essays by Madhu Kishwar


EPW: Recovery, Rupture, Resistence — Indian State and Abduction of women during Partition by Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin

Source: Towards a New Dawn