The Troubled Contexts of Human Dignity: Women’s Engagements with Patriarchy, Community and Conflict in South Asia (#throwback)

February 15, 2016 shutterstock_258772016 copy

By Kalpana Kannabiran

Originally published in Surfacing: Selected Papers on Religious Fundamentalisms and their Impact on Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Fundamentalisms present a very inhospitable terrain for feminist mobilisation. And yet, across the world, women have built movements for peace. They have rebuilt communities blown apart by weapons of war and torn apart by identity politics and fundamentalist mobilisations, and nurtured those that have been scarred by the violence of conflict in unimaginable ways, returning them to ‘normalcy’ under the most difficult conditions.

What are the concerns that arise in the course of this ‘return’ to peace? How may we articulate women’s right to health in situations that are fractured by right wing politics? What are the limits of ‘health’ in the contexts of fundamentalism and war? What are the preconditions to human dignity as indispensable to the realisation of the right to health on a day-to-day basis and in the longue durée? In this presentation, I will attempt to reflect on some of these larger questions as a way of deepening our understanding of the specific health impacts of fundamentalisms.

Questions of women and peace must be located at the outset within the larger arena of culture as ideology and practice that shape the ways in which communities act on women prior to, during and after conflict. Questions of culture in turn must be viewed in the context of the larger politico-economic forces of globalisation and neo-liberalisation that condition and select specific articulations of ‘tradition,’ tying wars of imperialism to wars of faith, so that it is no longer possible to distinguish between the two.

Within this larger context, culture makes women’s lives intelligible within patriarchal moorings, seeking to entrench them further in times of disturbance. The more one looks at women’s engagement with fundamentalisms, therefore, the more necessary it becomes to look at ideas/ideologies of culture and belonging that undergird these responses. One part of the question of culture – an important part of it – is that of religion as belief and community of belonging. The impossibility of silence on the troubled relationship between women, fundamentalisms and war is brought home, for instance, by the question that has become the cornerstone of patriarchal legends in different regions in the world, and most certainly in South Asia: “Haven’t the greatest battles been fought over women?” The power of hegemonic-patriarchal versions of mythology in a religio-political context that witnesses frequent violent polarisation between different religious groups can scarcely be understated.

Mythology and legend run into the history of the present – reinventing the agency and/or the victimisation of women in occupied territories; replaying themes of abduction, sexual assault, forced pregnancy, chastity/wifely virtue, selfless motherhood, and the denial of the right to abortion; the war cry dismembering women’s bodies, extending the battlefield into homes and communities.

Martha Minow1 draws an interesting parallel between intimate violence and inter-group violence, pointing to the similarities, continuities and disjunctions in experience and law with respect to these two kinds of violence. This is particularly relevant in situations where inter-group violence on women, especially in times of conflict, often involves ‘intimate’ violence – sexual assault, forced marriage, forced pregnancy/sterilisation and others.

The use of the word ‘intimate’ in this context is without doubt deeply problematic. Yet, it is in the context of this very problematic usage that one needs to look at intimate violence [within the family] in conflict and post-conflict situations. Take the case from India, for instance. Gudiya’s experience in the past couple of years – the return of her ‘disappeared’ soldier-husband from a Pakistani prison, the public debate (conducted by the globalised electronic media) on whether she should return to him or continue to live with the man she married out of choice subsequently and whose child she was carrying; the decision of the community to return her to her first husband and return her child, when born, to her second husband who must now divorce her; the birth of that child; her unsuccessful attempts to bear a child for her ‘original’ husband; and her illness and death in an army hospital – encapsulate women’s predicament within families and communities in times of conflict and in times of fundamentalisms. And this draws for us in very poignant ways the connections between intimate and inter-group violence against women.

But Gudiya’s tragic experience also draws our attention to the insidious role played by the media in the new global era in manufacturing consent and denying the right of people to choice in their private lives by preying voyeuristically on vulnerability. Economic forces do not stay out of community spaces – in fact they shape them in images of increasing conservatism that are spawned and entrenched through the global media.

The history of the Partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan in 1947, especially women’s experiences of abduction, recovery and rejection,2 echo the eerie timelessness of women’s experiences of glorious battles and their sacrifice at the altar of family honour in times of war. Abduction is not a story of one side of a border alone; it is often countered by deceit, appropriation and assault on women from the other side. The experiences of women across borders are starkly similar – women tell stories of loss even in times of victory. (Although stories of loss and violation in times of defeat, occupation or subjugation are also numbing in their raw, endless pain and victimisation, the experiences of women in Gujarat in 2002 being yet another signpost in a long history of violation.)

While the recovery of women in the aftermath of the Partition and their rejection by their families has been written about, Minow’s observation that situations of conflict also lead to an escalation of domestic violence bears reiteration.1 The assertion of dominance of those engaged in fundamentalist mobilisations is often offset by increasing conflict and violence in the home, virtually the only space where the men in these groups are certain of their authority and control. This could of course be extended to argue that fundamentalisms, militarisation and militancy interlock in situations of conflict and rely on the use of weapons of war, which are essentially also symbols of masculinity and domination.

For women in fundamentalist movements – and women’s agency is a critical question that we need to contend with – the test is inevitably about how well they are able to master masculinist discourses and strategies, and how well they are able to reconcile their ‘femininity’ with aggression. For those who nurture men in combat, part of that nurturance is complete acquiescence, and submergence under the larger goals of combat, personal liberty in the home being but a small casualty – the chaste, compliant wife and the selfless, devoted mother being the ideal supports of men out at wars of ‘faith.’

Efforts by women to rebuild their lives in this situation, therefore, attains a new significance. These efforts are in a sense pitted against heightened patriarchal cultural sensibilities and try in very poignant ways to subvert the power of entrenched patriarchy – a far more painful project in the context of polarised conflict and its aftermath than in the context of ‘normal times.’

The critical element in feminist politics is the need for women to build alliances across borders, boundaries and identities, even while acknowledging the fact of diversity. Mothers’ fronts across the sub-continent have consistently questioned the gains of war and juxtaposed them to the loss of kin, of homes, of land and livelihoods.

This brings us to the relationship between identity, belongingness and citizenship in times of conflict. Women engage with the realities of conflict from specific locations – Bengali, Buddhist, Chakma, Hindu, Mohajir, Muslim, Naga, Sinhala, Tamil, or one of several others on the subcontinent. In articulating their position with respect to specific episodes/contexts of violence, therefore, they rely on the notion of ‘belonging,’ which refers primarily to patterns of trust and confidence, constantly grappling with the shifting relation between forces of community and society. The longing for a stable national, indigenous and cultural territory is situated within the material context of strife, displacement and instability, with the state playing a critical role in the shaping of this context.

Finally, the problem of exclusion. Despite the fact that women have mobilised against heavy odds to retrieve stability and rebuild communal life, official peace initiatives in periods of suspended conflict rarely invite women to negotiate peace. On the other side, fundamentalist movements appropriate women’s bodies and sexuality in violent ways. On the third side, ‘secular spaces’ of government, resistance, human rights, and peace processes, scarcely move beyond rudimentary paternalism in their understanding of the women’s question, drawing on the same logic and frameworks that support fundamentalism.

The challenge is in confronting and dismantling what I call “sexual fundamentalism.” Because after all is said and done, the post- fundamentalist formation will certainly reflect sexual fundamentalism, unless that is addressed centrally. The crux of resistance therefore has to focus on the concerted resistance to compulsory heterosexuality and its patriarchal ideological apparatus. This assertion must place at the centre the right to sexual choice, identity and freedoms, and recognition of all persons across the widest scale of diversity as the necessary precondition for the sustenance of human dignity.


1  Minow, Martha. 2000. “Between intimates and between nations: Can law stop the violence?” Case Western Law Review. Vol. 50, Issue 4, p.851.
2  Menon, R.; Bhasin, K. 1998. Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. New Delhi, India: Kali for Women. 274p.

Kalpana Kannabiran is a professor of Sociology at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India, and a founding member of Asmita, a women’s collective that has worked for 15 years on issues of free speech, human rights and feminist mobilisation in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. A lawyer and a sociologist, she is widely published on a range of human rights issues.

Read more at Surfacing: Selected Papers on Religious Fundamentalisms and their Impact on Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights