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Religious fundamentalisms in India: the impact of Hindu fundamentalisms on sexual and reproductive health and rights.


Defining religious fundamentalisms

"Religious fundamentalisms" is a term used to describe "politically motivated ideologies" fuelling a "range of movements and tendencies in all regions of the world which aim to impose what they define as tradition ... on societies they consider to be in danger of straying from the fundamental tenets that hold them together." (1) Looking at fundamentalisms in South Asia, Jayawardena and de Alwis state unequivocally, "fundamentalism uses women's bodies as a battlefield in its struggle to appropriate institutional power, and is therefore a political phenomenon." (2) Using the Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF) definition, Feldman and Clark define fundamentalism as a "type of modern political movement which uses religion as a base from which to try to gain power and extend social control." The WAF founding statement says, "At the heart of the fundamentalists' agenda is the control of women's minds and bodies (by) the patriarchal family." (3)

Freedman attempts to list out some characteristics of the fundamentalist political project, such as the construction of a worldview "premised on difference and confrontation"; an absolutist approach to law and religious authenticity; the deeply cynical use of religious language and imagery; the identification of a threat to the community that will be the source of social chaos and disorder; the adoption of militant and violent methods; and selective use of the implements of modernity. (4) Feldman and Clark add to this list the appeals to tradition invoking a mythical past as a common method of social control. (3) Jayawardena and De Alwis argue further that religious nationalists try to homogenise society, despite apparent social and economic differences, by creating a strong image of a potential disruptor or threat, an 'internal enemy' who may be of a different religion or race, or even immoral "westernised" women. (2)

However, there are hesitations around the use of the term "religious fundamentalisms" as the 'fundamentals' of every religion are also considered sacred by women around the world. But Freedman warns that tradition and customs are not static entities: the so-called 'fundamental' beliefs and practices are not retrieved from ancient authentic texts or customs but are actually invented and constructed by fundamentalists themselves. (4)

Religions fundamentalisms and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)

Religious fundamentalisms, according to Freedman, are fuelled by a sense of social dislocation and disorder, particularly by the "breakdown of patriarchal structures that keep women in carefully circumscribed roles, particularly within the family." (4) Both Freedman and Feldman and Clark reason that political and economic crises of the modern world are fuelling religious fundamentalist movements; however, the South Asian experience indicates that religious fundamentalisms were also part of anti-colonial movements. (2)

What Freedman sees as important for the SRHR movements is that the "confrontation and boundary building" that goes with religious fundamentalisms uses "women to map its territory and construct its borders." Women's sexuality and reproductive capacity are viewed as points of vulnerability and opportunity within the heightened concern about 'authenticity' and 'purity' of race or religion; therefore, these must be policed. Women's wombs need to be controlled to produce the 'pure' heirs of their race or religion. (4)

One of the most successful ways to control and discipline women's sexuality is by confining them within the home and interpellating them into predominantly subordinate and familial subject positions such as daughter, sister, wife and mother. These interpellations are facilitated through what Althusser calls the "ideological state apparatuses" such as the family, school, media, religious institutions and so on. (5) Religious fundamentalists use a "powerful and essentialist image of women's role based on natural and God-given differences" as being that of dutiful wives and self-sacrificing mothers. (3)

Bagchi notes that "women themselves often get drawn to fundamentalist configurations because of (their) so-called cultural authenticity and because they are made to feel empowered." (6) Women are elevated through the apparently empowering role of being "mothers of the nation and transmitters of the cultural inheritance" which actually serves to confine them to the gendered role of social reproduction: motherhood, household chores and childcare. (3) During the revival and nationalist movements in South Asia, women's biological role as reproducers of the nation, as cultural carriers of tradition, was highlighted. This instrumentalised women's reproductive functions and their bodies in the interests of the state. (2)

Women's duty to procreate and to limit themselves only to socially sanctioned sex within marriage is posited against the anarchic notion of women's autonomy and rights to choice. (3) Women who seek their human rights are labelled as selfish individualists who are betraying their family and community identity. The 'uncontrolled woman' and her 'uncontrolled sexuality' are seen as symbolic of the disorder all around. In this regard, feminist movements that seek to affirm women's rights are seen as a threat. (4) They are labelled in South Asia as the 'urban Westernised Feminists' and caricatured or stereotyped in various ways.

As Freedman and others have pointed out, fundamentalists focus strongly on a bi-polar construction of the 'Us' versus the 'Other,' an enemy or threat leading to chaos and breakdown of the social order, from which society or the purity of their own community has to be protected. In this vilification of the 'Other' and glorification of their own community, religious fundamentalisms also attempt to provide unifying symbols to establish a forced hegemonic identity, such as images of the 'ideal woman.' (2)

For the Hindu revivalists of South Asia in the early 20th century, the 'Other' was the invading outsider who had destroyed the 'golden past' and who had stayed on: the Muslim community. They also represented the threat of rape and possible pollution of daughters: thus, women become sex objects in the custody of a male national collectivity. (2) As such, communal violence frequently resorts to the sexual violation of the womenfolk of the Other community; for a woman's modesty signifies the masculinity of her community, and her shaming becomes symbolic of the subjection of her community. As Michel Foucault puts it, sexuality is a "dense transfer point for relations of power" (7) and patriarchal discourses about women's modesty are really about controlling her sexuality. (2)

Hindu fundamentalisms: Origins

Modern Hindu fundamentalisms have their root in the nationalist project of Hindu revival and reform that started in the 19th century. Some key ideologues included social reformers like Dayanand Saraswati and Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who were followed by Hindu revivalists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and, in Bengal, Rajnarain Basu and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, whose writings glorified the golden past of the Indian subcontinent and who demanded militant action to return to that past. As mentioned above, the Muslim community was constructed as the polluting 'Other'; Hindu supremacy and exclusivity was the slogan.

Bagchi describes how a purely symbolic 'empowerment' of Hindu women was validated by these writers through mythological references to the self-denying Sita and Savitri or the avenging, all-powerful Durga or Kali. (8) They chose to overlook more concrete reform measures of women's education, raising age at marriage and improving the status of widows.6 Women's sacrificial protection of their own chastity was lauded as courageous, as in the case of medieval Indian women who committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Muslim invaders, or of women who burnt alive as Sati at the funereal pyre of their dead husbands.

Chakravarti narrates how consummation of non-consensual marriages of girls at ages below ten was seen as a Hindu sacrament not to be questioned, despite the incident of a ten-year old bride bleeding to death due to marital rape by her 35-year-old husband. The violent controversy over the Age of Consent Bill in 1890-91 was a defence of Hindu culture as symbolised by Hindu womanhood, and led to consolidation of a nationalism that was conflated with deeply conservative Hinduism. (9) In this unification, of course, the internal divisions of class and caste within the group were made invisible, and 'Hindus' were seen as a homogeneous category.

In the 1920s, a book about Hindutva (Hindu-ness) was written by V. D. Savarkar, and K. B. Hegdevar founded the RSS or Rastriya Swayam-Sevak Sangh (National Volunteers' Organisation) whose goal was to unify the Hindus and build their character in order to resurrect the Hindu nation. (10) Defining itself as a 'cultural' and not a political organisation, the RSS set up political parties such as the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), and a host of other 'family organisations' called collectively as the Sangh Pariwar. The first of these organisations was the women's wing called the Rashtra Sevika Samiti (Nation Servers' Association, where the female gender is implied) set up in 1936. The RSS has over three million core members, while the women's wing has at least a million. Many organisations that are the face of Hindu fundamentalisms today are part of the Sangh Pariwar, within India and in other countries, and the RSS functions as the think-tank for the ideology of affiliated politicians, as well as raises political issues in the public discursive space. (10)

Hindu fundamentalisms: 'Today

Paola Bacchetta's study of discourses of the Sangh and its women's wing, the Samiti, provide many insights into the current ideological framework of Hindu fundamentalists today. (10) The Sangh's literature has a binary mode, in which the mutually exclusive halves are polarised against each other: the homogenised concept of Hindu people constructed in direct opposition to the non-Hindu 'Other.' According to the Sangh, Hindu culture is a unitary, uniform heritage representing the essence of the Hindu religion. Hindus are portrayed as a 'homogenous people': there is no regional difference and no sense of caste or class conflict here. The pre-Muslim 'Hindu period' of history is constructed as politically and culturally excellent, followed by periods of Hindu struggles against the Muslims then against the British. This reformulation of history has been a recurrent key strategy of the Sangh Pariwar. The nation is represented as 'Motherland,' a chaste but motherly figure, asexual but vulnerable to assault by invaders. (10)

The ideal Hindu is a patriotic, strong male, preferably celibate, as contrasted to the Muslim Other who is an anti-national, sexually overactive male, lusting after and raping Hindu women and symbolically desecrating the feminine Motherland by raising mosques. The memory of the Partition (11) is evoked continually to conjure up demonised images of Muslims as rapists and looters, and their presence in India is constructed as a threat of future violence, so as to justify continual 'retaliation' against Muslims. Both are characterised in masculine terms, since males are the essential community agents. (10)

On the other hand, Hindu women are assigned an ideal of domesticated, motherly and sisterly femininity, whereas Muslim women are seen as weak victims of a religion degrading to women. Mythological references, such as to the goddess Durga, are intended to build a sense of women's empowerment. Bacchetta concludes that the Sangh regime accepts Samiti women's slightly differential modes of perception insofar as their discourses remain the means to ensure women's complicity in the overall Hindu fundamentalist political project. (10)

Although India is a vast country with enormous cultural diversity, the Sangh functions with military precision in most regions and Hindu fundamentalist actions are similar across the country. In areas where there is a syncretic form of Sufi religious belief combining elements of both Hinduism and Islam, religious tolerance and co-existence is being insidiously undermined. In some cases, the hegemonic form of Hinduism that is being constituted by the Sangh-related organisations is at odds with local culture and customs, as in tribal-dominated regions, yet has managed to make strong inroads. This is often done through militant actions that occur in collusion with the state machinery.

The media in India today has a key role to play in extending the Hindu fundamentalist ideology. Through subtle ways such as television serials and advertisements, and not so subtle coverage of positions taken on issues by fundamentalists, the media provides a broad public platform to disseminate this ideology. The homogenising project of Hindu fundamentalists is taken forward by the portrayal of Hindu women in television soaps who are inevitably upper middle class and follow rites and rituals that are projected as 'universal.' Hindu festivals, especially those that have a female component in the rituals, are an occasion for aggressive media advertising of products targeting women as devoted consumers. A more direct approach is taken by television channels devoted to religious and spiritual discourses and activities. These include both majority and minority religions.

The minority community has not remained unaffected by the 'othering' rhetoric of fundamentalists and their communal violence. Muslims in India have reacted through progressive ghetto-isation of their residences, living and working in communally safe spaces as far as possible. There have been regressive measures aimed at protecting 'minority culture,' including demands for banning of writers and books considered offensive. The restrictions and controls on women have tightened, with overt assertions of patriarchy. The community is also suspicious of the intentions of the majority community, especially where there is some coercion involved, such as the mandatory sterilisation programme of the government.

The impact of Hindu fundamentalisms on SRHR in India

As described above, Hindu fundamentalists have a particular ideological construction of history, society, culture, gender and religious difference. This has a multi-faceted impact on sexual and reproductive rights and health in India today, which is manifested in myriad ways, as the examples below indicate. Some of the basic premises on which the fundamentalists base their arguments are:

* The woman's body is the site of 'community and family honour'--women of one's own community have to be strictly guarded and women of the 'other' community can be sexually violated to punish the 'other' community.

* Women's sexuality or non-reproductive sexuality must be restricted; women's self-esteem must be curtailed.

* If a national health programme fails, there is a 'communal reason' for this: the 'other' minority community is planning to destroy the majority community.

These premises play out in the aggressive stance of Hindu fundamentalists regarding various aspects of reproductive and sexual health and rights, in which women's bodies and autonomy become the ground for political action. They violently oppose exercise of the right to choice of partners, adolescent sex education, and any depiction of sexuality that implicates Hindu women or goddesses. They have urged the Indian government to 'recover' Hindu women who had been 'abducted' by Muslims during the Partition of the sub-continent, while using continued sexual violence against women as a means of retaliating against Muslims. Rumours are spread that Muslims are attempting to become a majority community through refusing family planning measures. Hegemonic Hinduism, in tune with Catholic Christianity, also disapproves of abortion, calling it 'foeticide,' and attributes the foetus with personhood.

Hegemonic Hinduism considers daughters inferior to sons, promoting son-preference through cremation rituals that may only be performed by sons. There are also traditional beliefs that consider menstruation as polluting, and menstruating women may be even be prevented from access to the kitchen. Current religious practice is replete with fasts for women almost every other day of the week. While women's reproductive capacity is a social resource, it has to function within a strictly controlled framework; unbridled female sexuality is taboo. Widows are considered 'bad omens' and even if young, are advised a life of seclusion, abstinence and prayer, which may mean leaving them in the convent-like ashrams of the Hindu holy cities.

Some selected aspects of the above impacts of Hindu fundamentalisms on SRHR are discussed below in some detail, including sexual violence against women during communal conflict, opposition to adults exercising their rights to choose sexual partners, 'saffron demography,' and opposition to young people's access to sexual and reproductive health information.

Sexual violence and communalism

Menon and Bhasin12 term the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent as an event that still "reverberates in the national consciousness" 45 years later: "That terrible stunning violence and then the silencing pall that descended like a shroud around it have always just hovered just at the edges of history; the story of 1947, while one of the attainment of independence, is also a gendered narrative of displacement and dispossession, of large scale and widespread communal violence, and of the realignment of family, community and national identities...." Menon and Bhasin argue that the location of women at the intersection of these forces casts an entirely new light on the apparent fixity of the defining features of identity like religion and nationality. (12)

The migrations across the newly created borders, on foot, by train or by air, consisted of about eight million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. This was accompanied by violence visited by the three communities upon each other, "unmatched in scale, brutality and intensity," leading to a half million lives lost, according to official estimates, although the actual figures are suspected to be much higher. Convoys were ambushed, entire trainloads of refugees butchered, families separated, children orphaned. In this extreme disruption of life at all levels, women were raped, abducted, humiliated, murdered, taken away from their families, then reclaimed, then again rejected or separated from their children by the multiple patriarchies of the State, the police, the community and the family. The material, symbolic and political significance of the abduction of women, often accompanied by forcible conversion and marriage, was simultaneously an assertion of identity and a humiliation of a rival community. It compelled many families to kill their women, and pushed many hundreds of women to taking their own lives, either as a preventive measure, or 'after being polluted.' (12)

The forcible recovery of Hindu women from the 'polluting' embrace of Muslim men extended to the 'products' of these women's bodies, with women either compelled to abort or leave their small children behind while being restored to their own community. (2) Menon and Bhasin interrogate the so-called 'amicable exchange' of abducted women between India and Pakistan, especially the 'recovery operations' carried out by the Indian state and question its definition of itself as 'secular and democratic.' They argue that the Indian state, in its articulation of public policy, underlined the primacy of community identity and departed from its neutrality in assigning values to the 'legitimate' family and community 'honour' through the regulation of women's sexuality and reproductive capacity. (12) There was no space for women's own rights, choices or agency in preferring to continue with their lives in Pakistan; their reclaimed bodies and products provided the crucial statistics through which the diminished nation's masculinity could be gauged: their recovery was thus not a project of salvation but a battle for virility. (2)

The spectre of horrific communal violence came back to haunt the nation repeatedly: the attacks on Sikhs in 1984, the attacks on Muslims after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1994, and most recently, the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. This was apparently 'a retaliatory measure' following the inflammatory headlines of the newspaper Sandesh on 28 February 2002 that Hindu women had been dragged out of a railway carriage, raped and their breasts cut off. The sexual and communal tone was used to deliberately start a frenzy of communally ignited sexual violence against Muslim women. The women later testified that the local police colluded with the rampaging mobs and later continued to target women with obscene gestures, beatings and sexual abuse. (13)

Agnes gives us the narrative of Hameeda, a 14-year-old survivor of the Naroda Patiya massacre (where 150 people were killed within a few hours on 28 February 2002): her 11-year-old sister was gang-raped and burnt while Hameeda ran and hid behind a wall, watching as her sister screamed until she was dead. It was in Naroda Patiya where Kausar Bano fell into the clutches of the chasing mob that slit open her belly, scooped out her foetus and roasted it before her eyes, before they killed her too. Agnes writes of how her volunteer workers broke down when they had to deal with "bodies of women, disfigured beyond recognition, brutally dismembered," one of which had a sword inserted into the vagina: (13)
 In a society which holds such scant respect for its women,
 gendered violence is a foregone conclusion. But these riots
 have scaled new heights and have reached a peak in sadism
 and barbarity.... It is this horror, this extreme sexual
 perversion, unleashed upon women in times of conflict in
 order to defile the community, that needs to be recorded.

Agnes acknowledged that the stories of rape and abduction during the Partition were brought out only after the women's movement brought sexual violence out of its 'closeted existence.' She adds, "Within the patriarchal scheme of social structures, sexual violence remains hidden through a conscious design.... Unlike murder, theft, arson, this crime has ... no visibility." (13) Yet in keeping with the pattern during the Partition, here too, women have been denied the space or legitimacy to seek justice, as the state has colluded with the judiciary in denying them legal redress. Six years after the Gujarat massacre, partial justice has been obtained in only one case of gang-rape and murder, after the courageous survivor Bilkis Bano had battled endlessly with the help of civil society support. (14)

The night to choice

The right to choose one's sexual partner is a basic sexual right and is also the premise behind safe and consensual sexual relations. However, Hindu fundamentalists vociferously oppose the exercise of women's choice in sexual partners. Chakravarti argues that the reproduction of the caste system is contingent upon 'endogamy' or carefully controlled marriages within bounded groups. Violation of the marriage code is considered an attack upon izzat or honour, a masculine concept, and retaliation may include extreme violence upon those who defiled the izzat. Women, as a kind of sexual property, are considered the repositories of the family and community honour in the patriarchies of almost all cultures on the South Asian sub-continent, and this is used to enforce on them the code of appropriate conduct. The marriage code is threatened by 'love marriages,' since acceding to choice or 'love' means that choice may extend beyond the acceptable circle of males belonging to the same caste group. (15)

Right-wing Hindu mobilisation in recent years has led to ideological and organisational moves to counter such relationships. Moral policing by Hindu right-wing groups has been rampant in several areas where couples are publicly humiliated in parks and coffee shops. These actions usually intensify on Valentine's Day, with Hindu right-wing gangs routinely vandalising shops selling greeting cards or offering special products for the occasion. They also prowl around restaurants and cafes to intimidate couples out for a meal together. The police usually turn a blind eye to this. In Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the police have even taken on this role and invited the media to observe how they preserve 'social decency' by attacking couples in parks and threatening to 'expose' them to their parents.

By emphasising women as repositories of the 'honour' of the Hindu nation, Hindutva (Hinduness) ideology has also expanded the legitimacy for violence against couples marrying across caste or religious boundaries. Violence before and after runaway marriages is the norm; several cases of imprisonment at home, forcible retrieval, coerced remarriage, and even killing of Hindu women have been documented over the last few years in Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India (see Chakravarti). In June 2003, media reports mentioned a Hindu woman being forcibly separated from her Christian husband in Gujarat and compelled to abort her 4-month pregnancy by militant right-wing groups. (15) The violence intensifies if their male partners happen to be Muslim or from a lower caste: they would in all likelihood be killed, or women family members raped or abused.

As a throwback to the debates around the age of sexual consent in the 19th century, the Hindu customary law itself permits the use of force in marriage. Legally, women are minors before the age of 18, and therefore cannot give their own consent to a contract, and as such, a marriage of choice would be rendered void. In fact, if the girl is under 16, the sexual act (within such a marriage) would be considered rape, as 16 years is the age of consent for sex. However, under Hindu and Muslim customary law, parents may arrange for the marriage of their daughter before 18 years and this marriage would not be considered legally void; neither would sexual relations with a minor in such a case be considered criminal, even if she was 15 years old. (15)

The police and lower levels of the judiciary act as extensions of the father's authority over the woman by using penal clauses of kidnapping, abduction and rape on the male, and, if possible, on his family members as well. The statements of the girl may not be accepted in court since she has 'been under the influence of the male accused,' while the parents would be permitted to have full access to (i.e, put pressure on) their daughter as they are her 'natural guardians.' On matters of custom, the administration prefers to side with the (majority) community rather than protect the rights of the two individuals concerned, and the excuse to capture the woman and return her to the community or family is always the prevention of a 'law and order' problem. Women are assumed to have no capacity for rational judgement or consent: it is assumed that their family knows what is best for them. (15)

Thus, the possibility of consensual sexual relations among adults is pre-empted, and sexual choices severely curtailed for women. The default assumption is that a woman's guardians are best placed to decide at what age and with whom she should have sexual intercourse within marriage, as a way of cementing existing caste and religious divisions.

This 'parental' approach towards choice extends to relations between same-sex couples, even if they are consenting adults. The Hindi film Fire, which depicts a sexual relationship between two women, faced violent opposition from the Hindu Right groups to the extent that it was actually banned. The law against 'unnatural sex' that was in all erstwhile British colonies as Section 377 of the Penal Code, and which is used to harass and penalise hijras and gay men, continues to be in effect in India today (even though this has long been removed in the United Kingdom). Following a police clampdown on members of an online gay club, leading to arrests of four men, the Senior Superintendent of Police in Lucknow district of Uttar Pradesh is quoted by the media as having said, "Gay culture is against Indian culture and we are doing things under the law." His junior officer (who actually got the arrests done) is quoted by the media as saying, "homosexuality is legally and socially not recognised in our culture." (16) The invocations of '(our) Indian culture' to justify attacks against the human rights and right to privacy of consenting adults is a significant indication of the 'moral policing stance' favoured by the bureaucracy.

Population control: "Saffron demographics"

According to Jeffery and Jeffery, "saffron demography" comprises a set of pernicious myths repeated often by right-wing Hindu politicians who claim essential differences between Hindu and Muslim population dynamics in India, reflecting an obsessive concern with Muslim fertility and arguing that Hindus face a minority status at some point in future. The scare-mongering purpose is evident from statements such as, "Muslim population in India is exploding while Hindu population is declining." (17)

Since the early 1970s, Hindu Right propaganda has vigorously insisted that Indian Muslims are anti-national because of their supposed refusal to accept 'modern' contraception (read, the terminal/sterilisation methods promoted by the State). Some Hindu Right leaders, with support from communal political parties have advocated population growth for Hindus to avert the threat of being out-numbered by the Muslims. For saffron demographers, Muslims pose a threat to the Hindu nation by contributing to excessive population growth as well as, when their numbers will permit, providing Pakistan with the opportunity to invade India. (17)

The focus is on homogenising Hindus and Muslims as mutually opposed groups, ignoring the conflicting intra-group interests on the basis of region, caste, class or gender. The essentialised Muslim woman is supposedly victimised by Muslim men, who are caricatured as sexually voracious and polygamous. The common wisdom is that Muslims have more children because their women are more backward and constrained by religion, while Muslim men have more children because they can take more than one wife and can divorce more easily. Around one-third of Muslims live in northern India, specifically Bihar and UP, which are also the higher fertility states. Jeffery and Jeffery argue that ironically while Muslims in general are blamed for their backwardness and fertility, the communalised nature of the already very limited health and education services often leave out Muslim women in Northern India. (17)

On the other hand, the Hindu woman is seen as being too submissive to the 'small-family norm.' (17) There have been exhortations to Hindu women to produce more children, to combat the perceived threat of Muslim over-population. Hindu women are thus being discouraged from abortion by religious leaders, and the foetus is being ascribed with personhood. In fact, this has led the Indian state and some activists to suggest monitoring of the outcomes of every pregnancy in order to prevent sex-selective abortion (commonly termed as 'female feoticide'), overlooking the fact that this will drive abortions underground and make them further unsafe.

In this way, women of both communities are instrumentalised as agents of social reproduction, and their preferences or their rights to be informed, to choose and make their own reproductive decisions are by-passed.

Young people's right to information about sexual and reproductive health

In 2007, the government introduced an Adolescent Education Program (AEP) in schools with funding and support from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO). The AEP had been developed around five key components of integrating HIV prevention in education, and consisted of a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) booklet for students, a Facilitators' Handbook for Peer Educators' training and a Teachers' Workbook. These were tried out on a pilot basis in a few states, and NACO and UNICEF put out a publication reviewing these ongoing trials in 2007. (18) While this is not a discussion of the merits or demerits of the curriculum, it is significant that the reaction across many states of India was to emphatically oppose the material. It was banned entirely by the governments of around ten states and opposed by politicians of several parties, teacher and headmaster associations, youth organisations and some sections of the media.

From July 2007, the AEP curriculum faced considerable criticism for its 'explicitness' and defacing of Indian tradition and morality, which was highlighted in the media. The Madhya Pradesh government states that the program "devaluated Indian culture and its values.... Instead, the younger generation should be taught about yoga, Indian culture and its values." (19) Murli Manohar Joshi of the BJP Party said, "The sex education curriculum was a conspiracy by multi-national corporations to boost condom sales in the country by creating a fear of AIDS. It was based on western values and would strike a blow against Indian culture and the institution of the family." He termed this a struggle to save not just education but the nation and its cultural heritage. (20) One headmaster declared that the curriculum would encourage children to buy condoms and promote sexual experimentation, and said he refused to turn his schools into 'temples of sex.' (21) A media feature writer expressed her fears that this curriculum would promote "unnatural sexual behaviour such as homosexuality which would strike a blow against Indian values and traditions." (22)

The fears of enemies conspiring to gain profits through condom sales are at odds with India's own preoccupation with condom-promotion programmes for HIV prevention. Given that large numbers of Indian youth are nudged into early sexual activity (usually both uninformed and unprotected) through the widespread practice of early marriage, the concerns about sexual experimentation during the teenage years is possibly a middleclass anxiety. This also reflects a deliberate naivete about the impact of sexually explicit actions in current popular Hindi cinema. What comes through overall is a nation-wide moral panic that uses arguments of cultural essentialism to prevent the youth from engaging in an informed discussion on sexual matters.

Conclusion and ways forward

In conclusion, it is evident that Hindu fundamentalisms have been active for over a century and their hold over popular imagination has strengthened in the last 20 years. In this regard, the role of media remains to be investigated. With the collusion of a supposedly secular Indian state, there is careful separation of what is 'unacceptable' (such as sex education or a film showing a lesbian relationship) and what can be done with impunity (such as extreme sexual violence against minority women). The Hindu Right have worked on their project of demarcating and controlling women's sexuality, reproduction and rights in myriad ways. This has impacted on the identities of both Hindu and Muslim women, who are interpellated into submissive sexual beings as their bodies, especially their reproductive capacity, become the "battlefield in the struggle to appropriate institutional power." (2)

Civil society in India has responded by constantly challenging this through academic analyses, strategic use of media, legal action and varied forms of protest. There have been sustained civil society efforts at bridge-building between the people of India and Pakistan, in contrast to the aggressive posturing that characterises official interactions. Campaigns for peace have continued despite the uneven nature of the inter-governmental relationship. Almost every violent expression of the Hindu fundamentalists has seen responsive civil society protests, accompanied by legal action for the restitution of constitutional guarantees. These efforts by human rights defenders have included public interest litigation, following through individual cases in their battle for justice, or use of instruments such as the Right to Information Act. Writers, researchers and film makers have chosen to record and analyse the incidents of violent communalism and attempted to create a true picture of the cynical use of religion for political ends. Hegemonic masculinity has been brought under question by gender activists, including the construction of masculinity by the Hindu Right. Feminists and queer activists have constantly questioned the arbitrary regulation of sexualities and sexual choices by the fundamentalist forces.

It is these social responses that provide glimmers of hope in an otherwise darkening landscape in India today, where the major political formations are implicated in the history of using religion as a base from which to try to gain power and extend social control.


(1) Berer, M.; Ravindran, T.K.S. 1996. "Fundamentalism, women's empowerment and reproductive rights." Reproductive Health Matters. No.8, pp.7-10.

(2) Jayawardena, K.; De Alwis, M. 1996. "Introduction." In Jayawardena, K. & De Alwis, M. (Eds.). Embodied Violence: Communalizing Women's Sexuality in South Asia. New Delhi, India: Kali for Women.

(3) Feldman, R.; Clark, K. 1996. "Women, religious fundamentalism and reproductive rights." Reproductive Health Matters. No.8, pp.12-20.

(4) Freedman, L.P 1996. "The challenge of fundamentalisms." Reproductive Health Matters. No.8, pp.55-69.

(5) Althusser, Louis. 1971. "Ideology and the ideological state apparatus." In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York and London: Monthly Review Press. pp.127-197. Cited in Jayawardena, K. and De Alwis, M. "Introduction." In Jayawardena, K. & De Alwis, M. (Eds.). Embodied Violence: Communalizing Women's Sexuality in South Asia. New Delhi, India: Kali for Women.

(6) Bagchi, Jasodhara. 1996. "Ethnicity and the empowerment of women: The colonial legacy." In Embodied Violence: Communalizing Women's Sexuality in South Asia. New Delhi, India: Kali for Women. pp.113-125.

(7) Foucault, Michel. 1981. History of Sexuality, Vol. I. Penguin Books. p.103. Cited in Jayawardena and De Alwis, 1996 [See 2 above].

(8) These are mythological and religious female figures within Hindu beliefs in India. While the first two are stereotypes of chaste and loyal wives, the second two are revered as fierce forms of female energy that can protect or destroy.

(9) Chakravarti, Uma. "The myth of 'patriots' and 'traitors': Pandita Ramabai, Brahmanical patriarchy and militant Hindu nationalism." In Embodied Violence: Communalizing Women's Sexuality in South Asia. New Delhi, India: Kali for Women.

(10) Bachhetta, Paola. 1996. "Hindu nationalist women as ideologues: the Sangh, the Samiti and differential concepts of the Hindu nation." In Embodied Violence: Communalizing Women's Sexuality in South Asia. New Delhi, India: Kali for Women. pp.126-167.

(11) The Partition of India led to the creation on 14 August 1947 and 15 August 1947, respectively, of two sovereign states, upon the granting of independence to British India by the United Kingdom: the Dominion of Pakistan (later Islamic Republic of Pakistan); and the Union of India (later Republic of India).

(12) Menon, R.; Bhasin, K. 1996. "Abducted women, the state and questions of honour: Three perspectives on the recovery operation in post-Partition India." In Embodied Violence: Communalizing Women's Sexuality in South Asia. New Delhi, India: Kali for Women.

(13) Agnes, Flavia. 2002. (Ed.). Of Lofty Claims and Muffled Voices. Mumbai, India: Majlis.

(14) Dhar, Arti. 2002, January 22. "I stand vindicated: Bilkis Bano." The Hindu. Available at

(15) Chakravarti, Uma. 2005. "From fathers to husbands: Of love, death and marriage in North India." In Welchman, L. & Hossain, S. (Eds.). 'Honour' in Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women. London, UK: Spinifex Press and Zed Books.

(16) Manjul, T.; Singh, S. 2006, January 15. "All gays have united against us, laughs UP cop." EXPRESS News Service. p.IE. Lucknow.

(17) Jeffery, P; Jeffery, R. 2006. Confronting Saffron Demography: Religion, Fertility and Women's Status in India. India: Three Essays Collective.

(18) NACO; UNICEF. 2007. "Safe space for young people: A review of the school AIDS education program." Adolescent Education Program Toolkit Materials. New Delhi, India: NACO & UNICEF.

(19) India Daily. 2007, March 20. "MP bans AEP in schools: AEP officials blame teachers and politicians for the ban." Available at

(20) Saurabh, Pradeep. 2007, July 22. "We will need a campaign to stop the CBSEMM Joshi." Hindustan (Hindi daily, Lucknow edition).

(21) Seth, Maulshree. 2007, July 26. "Sex education: Review begins, experts find syllabus faulty." The Indian Express (Lucknow edition). p.6.

(22) Bisht, Renuka. 2007, July 30. "Sex education: The good, bad and ugly." Hindustan Times (HT Research: Lucknow edition). p.8.

Jashodhara Dasgupta is the Coordinator of SAHAYOG, a voluntary organisation based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, which is working on women's health and gender equality using human rights frameworks. She has been working on issues affecting women in rural Uttar Pradesh since 1989, has worked with civil society networks that monitor women's rights, and has engaged in research and advocacy on policy and practice regarding women's reproductive health and rights in India.
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Author:Dasgupta, Jashodhara
Publication:Surfacing: Selected Papers on Religious Fundamentalisms and Their Impact on Women's Sexual and Repro
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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