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The Womb And The Sword

Sarah Joseph

"Extremist believes in his religion blindly and thinks that all other religions are fundamentally wrong. In his language believers of all other religions are nonbelievers. His hate towards 'nonbelievers' increases proportionate to his religious conviction. Thus he is called religious fanatic. The ideology of communalist also is just the same. But his attitude towards the believers of other religion is not that extreme like that of the 'religious fanatic'. Or he behaves like a religious fanatic only in certain explosive situations."
Anand - The Guest and the Prey

Like the above quotation, the reason why religious extremist and communalist are invariably called 'he' is not just a question of male chauvanist linguistic practice, it becomes a concrete reality when we consider the invisibility of 'she' in extremist activities and religious riots. It is very rare that women function as religious extremist and fundamentalist. It is not women who call for communal riots or engage in arson and robbery with the intolerance of the religious extremist, armed with deadly weapons. Most women are of a spiritual nature with deep faith. It is not faith or spirituality that create religious extremism. That is why we don't yet have to find a feminine gender for 'religious fanatic'.

But it seems the times are changing. We now get to see active participation of women in extremist activities, the world over. We recently had two examples. One in the Marad Beach riot in Kerala, and the other in the Ayodhya movement of the Hindu fundamentalists. In Marad Beach riot, women were seen helping their men engaged in arson. Soon we will have to use the feminine gender for religious fanatic too!

Religious fanaticism is nothing but the thirst for power. Its for power in family, religion and nation state that religious fanatic engage in riots. But women are without a space in any power structure and at the same time the preys of power. For women, religion and spirituality are not a path towards power but a place where they can find consolation to their material and spiritual sorrows.

But often it's women and children who are the preys of communal riots. They are physically and mentally abused. Like we saw in Gujarat recently, they are brutally raped and killed. In a split second they lose all the security that their family, religion and society offer. None of these institutions are capable of saving women from these riots. The femininity that these institutions themselves created for their own interests throws them into the abyss of helplessness with their children.

From all places of communal riots men run away leaving their women and children helpless. And also there is the psychological blow of finding their men either a victim or aggressor, the pain of having to run away from home and living in refugee camps, psychological shock suffered by children, the tension of prevailing hatred and animosity, and the all pervading presence of police in the neighborhood. All these and the fear, sorrow and the long wait for peace shatters women and this is the greatest psychological shock of communal riots. But nobody counts.

All the female victims of communal riots are unanimous in their opinion that they don't approve of riots, they don't hate other religions and all that they want is a right to live peacefully. But religions do not give women the right of free expression. So women are literally the prey to an act about which they do not have any control and which they do not desire.

It is by exercising unlimited power over the followers that religious fundamentalism exists. Thus it destroys the loving and peaceful aspect of religion and holds the followers in the restrictive laws of religion. It tries to negate the scientific, political and historical knowledge acquired by its followers outside its fold. They define freedom as "the freedom given by religion". Interestingly, it is the interpretation of religious books by the fundamentalists that they put forward as religious laws. Their aim is to control the followers in every aspect of human endeavour, from education, personal laws, man woman relationship, birth, death and wedding, even in the way people talk, walk and dress. Whoever sways from this path are branded as enemy of the religion, they are ostracized from the community and publicly humiliated.

It is on women that religious fundamentalists first force their authority. They know that by being the section of society who have been first silenced by the family system it is easier to force these religious laws upon them, by raising the issues of morality, family ,religious belief and devotion.

When the religious fundamentalists are the rulers of the state as well it grows to dangerous proportion, that is the lesson of Afganistan. Taliban could drive away the whole female section from public life. They went so far to interpret religious laws as an authority even to discipline the woman at gun point who does not wear burqa. They could hijack civil rights of woman in total and confine them to the family. They were denying the woman of Afganistan even the limited freedom women won by their fight the world over through the history. By wearing the most modern dress the very next day Taliban fell, Afgan women demonstrated that the religious dress code they adopted during the Taliban regime was not their choice.

But if religious fundamentalism is able to root itself in women, women themselves would become the instrument to bring up the future generations with a male chauvinist religious ideology. And thus women, who are marginalised in religious and social life, would become the instrument and prey of religious extremism.

It has to be said with sadness that our families, religions and political parties are outwitting each other in trying to enforce the fascist agenda of the 'purity of blood'. It is not the freedom of women for her to carry the sperm of which religion, caste, race or color in her womb, but it is the decision of the male dominated family system. But woman can recieve in her womb the sperm of any man. Woman can deny separatism with her body itself. And man's sperm can grow in any uterous. It is by denying this natural law of reproduction that the fascist slogan of 'purity of blood' is raised for male dominance, religious dominance, money and political power. Biologically mankind can cometogether without religions, color, caste or racial difference and develop into its potential of a biologically unique state and thus bear fruit to the dream of 'One World, One People'.

We do not deny the preservation of the racial and religious uniqueness, but when there is blood shed in the name of race and religion, it is the wombs itself who should take the final decision. Until women get the freedom to decide whose sperm she should receive in her womb this dream will not be fulfilled. To that dream human race have to travel a lot. It is sad that when the boundaries of the world are fast disappearing, male chauvinist world view is deepening its hold even more.

In Kerala, it was the uprising by the 'Channar' women demanding the right to cover their breasts that developed into a movement against caste domination and later into reform movements. These reform movements during the first part of the last century developed also as movement for the emancipation of women. Among the bold steps these reform movements made, interreligious/intercaste marriage had equal importance as widow marriage. Activities of communist party in Kerala in that period, by putting forward the ideas of rational thinking and interreligious/intercaste marriage, was able to challenge the evil of casteism. But sadly even the communist party soon dropped such political activities from their agenda. We came to a stage where Namboothiris marrying Namboothiris, Nairs marrying Nairs, Christians marrying Christians, Muslims marrying Muslims. If we had not engaged in the same caste/religious marriage, Kerala would not have fallen into the type of communal riots we witnessed recently.

If the communist party had kept up the spirit of the reform movements of Kerala, we could have had a different Kerala and a different India. Its interesting to remember the words of P. K. Balakrishnan in this context " With the mentality of ChaturVarna we merely get together in the carnival of progress". There is not much who come forward to marry a Dalit. Even the Dalits when they get educated try to marry from a caste above them. It is sad to see the casteistic menatlity of Dalit castes standing in the way of their progress.
If it is by the fundamentalist reading of Religious Holy Books and the interpretation of rituals that fundamentalists dominate and marginalize women, women should be able to counter the fundamentalists by the feminist reading of the same religious texts. To quote the late Bishop Paulose Mar Paulose " The Bible is not infallibe. There is nothing to wonder if we find many unscientific statements in the Bible. The Bible is not written to teach science. A literal reading and interpretation of the Holy Books, without trying to understand what is really tried to convey in these books is fundamentally wrong."

Religious texts of any religion does not go beyond this observation. Every religious book is rooted in the time, place and the people for whom it is written. All these books have to be reinterpreted in the present context, without losing their values of love for humanity, goodness and peace. Of these a feminist reading is the most important one. As a protest to the male chauvinist reading which is the root cause of religious fundamentalism, the feminist reading develops into the emancipation of the silenced section of the society. This should come from within the religion itself.

Before Christ the reading of Holy Book was denied to women. If the faithful belive that women too are the creation of God, women have the right to search for her God. She has the right to reinterpret parts of the religious texts which have become anti-women by the male cahuvinist language, ideology, values and thought. She also has the right to reject the male dominated power system within the religion. This should happen in the case of rituals too. If religious fundamentalists try to bring back evils like Sati, it is the duty of all who believe in the goodness of humanity to resist it.

Studies reveal that domestic violence is most prominent in Kerala, where literacy is near total. Here children learn the first lessons of violence by seeing the father beating the mother. Children learn the possibility of 'power' by seeing the male dominance, muscle power and financial control exercised over the mother. Children have the first taste of the judicial system with the understanding that there is no justice possible from any court, for the violence committed on the mother. What religions teach is that the the ideal woman is the one who does not question men for these injustices. The child grows up by seeing sister being beaten up by the brother-in-law for dowry and even the sister committing sucide. The home itself is the place where violence roots itself. It is here the knowledge that power of masculinity has the right to commit psychological and physical violence against the weaker section of the society. Religion, education, and political parties teach the child this family where such injustices are going on, is the sacred and these values should be nurtured and preserved. The function of moral values is to maintain this 'family' and its values.

From the violence in the family to religious violence is but a few short steps. In the recent communal riots in Kerala, it was children who were at the for front. Most of these kids were from poor families with very little education. They were the preys of communalists.

The political parties of India are directly and indirectly responsible for the growth and spread of communalism, religious fundamentalism and extremism. All these parties have catered to the interests of religious/casteistic groups for power politics. We have to think why these political parties could not resist the communal politics of injecting 'religious fever' into the children and using them as instruments and preys. We don't have to think much to find an answer,it is simply because of the almost total dominance of men in politics. It is this masculinity that is dominating Indian politics.
The invicibility and absence of women in Indian politics is because of this masculinity holding total sway over these parties.

Let's take the case of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who stand for 33% reservation for women in the Parliament of India. In the state committee of Kerala, there are only five women. There is no woman in the party politbureau and in the central committee, there are only six women. The percentage to men in both cases are very very low. There is not much difference to the hierarchy of religions and political parties in the case of female representation.

It is not the lack of ability or the lack of willingness of women members that they do not go beyond local committes but the male dominance of these parties. And if the women do not have the ability to lead the party the way the party want, it is not the fault of the women but that of the party itself. Why the party did not develop women comrades like the way they developed men? By accepting the male dominance in the family, they side step the women comrade in the family itself.

Its indescribable the hardships that the women working in the political parties have to face to keep their family and political life going. Unlike men, women have to face public ridicule and often strong objection from family members. She also have to work four times harder. To top all is the anxiety and psychological pressure created by false ideas of duty and her concern for the children. It is sad that political leadership fails to see the sinscerity and sacrifice of women activists. To redefine and democrize the family is the only way if we are to control the 'machismo' of political parties. The left parties must take this initiative, there is no point in demanding this from the other parties with no democratic tradition.

It is not just in representation, but in freedom of expression, participation in decision making etc too women are avoided.

One thing is certain, it is from the sweetness of the glands that secrete breast milk, that constructive movements against religious fundamentalism, extremism and communalism must begin in one's own family, religion, and political party and not from the all conquering machismo. It is not just women who possess this sweetness of heart, men also have it. There are lots of men in this world who think that machismo is not just the capacity to kill, rape, set fire and hang on to positions of power. At a time when a law like POTA is about to split India communally, it is the combined vigilance of such men and women that is needed.

It is time that India must have a new renaissance. A renaissance which respects diversity and acknowledges the right of different religions to co-exist and at the same time resist the fascist call for the 'purity of blood'.

(The author is an eminent feminist and writer)