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Gender Justice

By Ram Puniyani

The Hindu
11 June, 2003

Two cases of dowry harassment came to light recently, though in contrasting backdrops. Nisha Sharma, a Hindu girl, refused to marry because of last-minute demands for additional dowry. Farzana, a Muslim girl, refused to accompany her husband because he demanded dowry at the time of leaving the bridal home. The RSS' publications Organiser and Panchajanya compare these two incidents and bring in their usual anti-Muslim projection to the events. While the Organiser commends Nisha who has "become a role model" and received other marriage offers, according to Panchjanya, Farzana has still to find a way out of the stifling tentacles of Islamic practices perpetuated by the medieval-minded clergy. And it revives the demand for a uniform civil code as the panacea for this ailment of "Islamic society".

Are these comparable situations? Is it that so far all was quiet on the dowry front and these two cases have come as a reminder of this abominable practice? An anti-dowry campaign has not been on the agenda of the RSS, which has more "serious" issues such as temple-building at Ayodhya and "Hindu pride" to address. Is the RSS family serious about the issues of gender justice as such or is it a convenient stick to beat the minority community with?

Most of the civil codes are gender unjust and so merely parroting uniformity has no meaning. The proper campaign has to be for gender-just civil codes, and this has to be implemented through social reform. Also, though needs to go into what the social conditions are under which communities can accept reforms for gender justice.

The demand for a uniform civil code emerged from women's liberation movements, and it was soon realised that gender justice rather than uniformity was the nucleus around which the laws should be formulated. As far as suppression of women's rights was concerned, the clergy in all the religions were more are less equally guilty. Where do matters differ in different religious communities? One need not go into the fate of the Hindu Code drafted by B.R. Ambedkar but it has to be conceded that in the first three decades after India became a republic, a good deal of progress was made by the Hindu community in its struggle for gender justice. It is no one's case that all is well amongst Hindus as far as the treatment of the girl child and equality of women are concerned. But the last two decades have, in general, seen an intimidation of rights movements due to the rise of fundamentalism of different hues.

The rise of Hindu fundamentalism has also been accompanied by the ghettoisation of the minorities. The pitch and intensity of communal riots have gone up in the last two decades and in the process, the Muslim community has suffered the most. Estimates show that 80 per cent of the Gujarat riot victims belonged to the Muslim community, which formed 11.6 per cent of the State's population. The minority psyche is greatly shaped by this insecurity and it affects the social norms of even those who are not directly affected by the violence. Added to this is the international phenomenon where American imperialism is out to demonise Islam and Muslims by all means possible so that it can gobble up the world's oil resources.

Muslim women have been struggling for reforms in their civil code for many decades. Every cycle of violence is a big setback to their movement. Communal violence has been blatantly intimidating the minorities and the communalised state apparatus has been aiding the Sangh Parivar in conducting pogroms. Can such an intimidated community go in for reforms? There are contradictory tendencies in every community and society. The same Muslim community, which is associated with burqa-clad women, has girls riding two-wheelers, trying to make their living as teachers or journalists.

How does communal violence affect the social psychology? By now, the likes of Bal Thackeray and Narendra Modi have perfected the art of portraying the victim community as the one that started the riots and the soldiers of Hindutva, the Hindu hriday samrats, as merely rushing to the "defence" of the majority community and thus conveniently becoming the victors in the elections which follow.

It is a difficult time for the Islamic community world over. At the global level, Samuel Huntington's thesis has come in handy for the imperialistic ambitions of the United States, and at home the RSS has been developing expertise in Muslim demonisation for decades. It is interesting that the RSS progeny are subservient to the U.S. imperialists.

While it is unfair to compare Farzana and Nisha, the incidents do have many lessons. While Nisha boldly stands to defy patriarchy and its manifestation in the form of dowry, Farzana is no less when she refuses to join her husband on the same ground. These acts of individual valour reflect the stirrings amongst the young to break the shackles of male domination. But the comparison ends here. Both the girls have to live in different milieus. While Nisha's milieu is not adorable in the least, Farzana is a double victim, that of patriarchy and of minority-bashing and the resultant ghettoisation.

While condemning the force of mullahs, one must also recognise the challenges faced by the liberals among Muslims. On one hand, there is tremendous pressure on them to withstand the onslaught of a crippling anti-Muslim propaganda, which has become part of "normal" social discourse, and, on the other, they are stretching all their strength to battle the obscurantism promoted by the mullahs and their ilk.

The practices of the Muslim community have been shaped by a world dominated by the colonialists of the past and imperialists of the present. They have suppressed the democratic aspirations of Islamic societies. Beginning from the formation of Israel, the overthrow of the Mossadeq regime in Iran and the training of jehadi youth through the conduit of Pakistan, the world's big powers have created a situation wherein popular dissent gets expressed though the worst form of Islamic obscurantism.

Where does the Muslim community go from here? Can it bear the dual burden of Hindutva attack from outside and the grip of mullahs from within? Farzana has to be nurtured and supported in her decision to boycott the marriage cemented by dowry. It is difficult to think of reforms in a ghetto and it is difficult to bring in reforms in a community, the religion of which is demonised not only nationally but internationally as well. Come what may, against all odds, Farzana has to be nurtured.

The goal of bogus defenders of women's rights has to be understood in its proper perspective. As an ideology, which is deeply seeped in patriarchy, Hindutva has no place for women's rights. Time and again, its ideologues have defended the violation of the "being" of the women of the "other" community. It has no interest in protecting the rights of minority women, but we have to do it, irrespective of who raises the issue. One of the major needs in the direction is to ensure that ghettoisation is checked.

The Muslim community has to rise to the occasion and against all external and internal odds, choose the direction of progress and justice. It has to join the progressive elements of other communities and close ranks with them to ensure that the Hindutva onslaught from outside and the mullahs from inside are not able to intimidate its dynamics of progress and reform.