Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Modernity, Patriarchy and Love Jehad

First published on NewsYaps

In 2005, a rather unusual book made it to the New York Times bestseller list. Written by investigative reporter Neil Strauss, the non-fiction book called TheGame: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists purported to, as the name suggests, describe the world of the “pick-up artist”. “Pick-up artists” are a self-defined community of men who train in the skills of finding, attracting, and seducing women. As described by Strauss, pick-up artists abide by a certain system, replete with its own methodology and even terminology with which they aim to seduce women. Pick-up artists feel that seducing a woman is as mechanical an activity as, say, learning how play the cover-drive which anyone, with hard-work, dedication and, of course, some skill can learn and be on their way to sleeping with hundreds of women. Pick-up artists keep score of the number of women they have slept with and often compete against each other on that number (a concept that Ranbir Kapoor and Axe seem to have adopted here).

As is obvious, this whole business is extremely demeaning to women. As the Guardian review of the book says, “a low opinion of the opposite sex is a prerequisite for sarging (the pick-up artist term for “seduction”).”

This belief in the stupidity of women, so that they can be manipulated like cattle by a puerile sequence of moves and techniques into loving and/or sleeping with you is basically what lies at the heart of the world of the pick-up artist. You might say that it's a stupid and sad way of thinking but like a lot of other things which are sad or stupid, it is unexpectedly popular.

Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), half a world away a very different type of people also have similar views when it comes to the ability of women to choose their partners: right-wing Hindu zealots.

There are many ways to look at the Love Jehad bogey that has been raised (one of the outcomes of which was the Muzzafarnagar riots) but at the core of the matter lies the fact that this campaign is run by people who reject the right and indeed even the capability of their own female relatives to make decisions about their own lives. This is a description of Love Jehad that  Chandra Mohan Sharma, joint general-secretary of the Meerut division of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) gives to TheHindu:

“First, good-looking Muslim men are identified. They are given neutral names like Sonu and Raju.” These boys, Mr. Sharma says, are then given jeans, t-shirts, mobiles, and bikes and taught to behave. “They stand in front of schools and colleges and woo young Hindu girls. The first few times, our girls snub them. But then, they fall for it. This jehad is about pyaar se phasaana (entrapment through love).”

If Sharma is to be believed, Muslim pick-up artists operate in Western UP looking to “sarge” Hindu women. Neil Strauss would be so proud.

You could dismiss Sharma as a crack-pot but you’d be making a mistake. As popular as The Game was (it was even made into a VH1 TV show), Sharma and his views are far more popular and indeed powerful: some of the most influential people in the land subscribe to it and even the State deferentially bows down to it.

Just like the world of the pick-up artist though, even in Sharma’s world, women are largely passive players, very much puppets in the hands of men. Much as they would like to resist, however, the lure of powerful attractions such as “jeans, t-shirts, mobiles, and bikes” that these “good-looking Muslim men” possess is just too much for the female spirit. Entrapment is a foregone conclusion.

This term, “love jehad” first arose in Kerala and was even investigated by the state high court before being dismissed for lack of evidence. It was then taken up with ridiculous sincerity in neighbouring BJP-ruled Karnataka with the Karnataka Government even announcing that it was a “serious issue” (this after problems such as poverty, malnutrition and sanitation had been solved and become “not-so-serious issues”). Predictably, much of the political pressure was applied by the Shri Ram Sena (the same organisation that was involved in the notorious attackon women in Mangalore pub) with the BJP government in the state playing loyal second fiddle. Of course, no real evidence was found with respect to this massive, organised “love jehad” but by then the term had entered into the vocabulary of the Hindu right-wing and would  be used to fan fires at Muzaffarnagar. Mr. Sharma, whose description of “Love Jehad” we just read, was at the “mahapanchayat” which acted as a direct catalyst to the Muzaffarnagar violence. What’s more, the VHP’s sister concern, the BJP, in 2007, had even released a CD which shows Hindus and Muslims eloping as one of the pressing problems this country faces.

Very often societies that are facing pressures to modernise and change, do so grudgingly. But as Partha Chatterjee shows in his fantastic essay, The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question very often this modernisation leads to only a superficial change in the patriarchal structures that define the community. On the contrary, very often, the changes are utilised to repackage patriarchy, the end result being that as far as the status of women goes, very little changes. Chatterjee uses the example of Bengali nationalism in the 19th century to prove his point. As modernity knocked on Bengal's doors, large-scale scale social changes took place: the bhadralok took to Western education, dress and even food. With this modernisation, the earlier practise of the social exclusion of women—purdaah— became   untenable. However, also untenable was their wholesale Westernisation (even as the bhadralok did his best to become more Catholic than the Pope in his attempt to Westernise). A middle ground was struck which ensured that women receive education and drop purdaah.  However, the education that men and women received was to be different. The Westernised curricula so sought after by the bhadralok was thought to be unneeded by the bhadramahila. Instead, a separate female curriculum was defined. This education sought to inculcate in women the virtues of "docililty, domesticity and "spirituality" and burden them with the sati-savitri complex of being an “Indian woman” even as their menfolk tried their best to become perfect brown baboos. This ensured that even as the new upper-class Bengali woman was freed from purdaah and indeed educated, the traditional patriarchal set-up of society remained undisturbed.

A striking current-day day example of this can be seen in modern Islamic TV evangelism as represented by Zakir Naik. Naik takes great care to dress in a suit and speak in English thus placing himself firmly within a “modern framework”—after all he is no uneducated Urdu-medium mullah from UP but a member of the English-speaking gentry from Bombay. This is important because his target audience is the educated, urban Muslim for whom modernity is important and a marker of respectability and power. Yet, his position on matters such as the wearing of the Burqa is anything but modern—he encourages it wholeheartedly. Indeed, just looking around, the number of educated Muslims who wear the Burqa has actually grown in urban India and across the subcontinent. This even as the number of educated women has risen, leading to greater economic freedom. Much like the Bengali bhadralok of the 19th century, the Muslim middle-class in India is also manoeuvring and position itself to ensure that when faced with new circumstances, old patriarchal systems remain undisturbed.

Of course, just like women’s education in 19th century Bengal and the Burqaisation of the Indian Muslim middle-class, “Love Jehad” and the recent outbreak of Hindu-Muslims romance fears is nothing but another instance of society reworking patriarchal control in order to adjust to modernity. In fast developing Western UP, as Hindu women, in larger numbers than ever, taste economic freedom, something as basic as their ability to choose a partner is questioned as the male members of the community reassert their power and privilege which seems threatened by too much independence. Thus, even as the woman earns economic independence or the right to move around freely, the patriarchal leash is still tightly wound around her, this time with the bogey of the well-trained “Love Jehadi”, well equipped with “jeans, t-shirts, mobiles, and bikes” ready to boggle her “simple mind” and sweep her off her feet, unless, of course, her menfolk are there to protect her with their bahu, beti bachao andolans and what not. How convenient.

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