August 8, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/ Subhasini Ali

'Patriarchal societies have always felt the need to control women'
Subhasini Ali
Subhasini Ali is not the stereotypical Indian woman. In fact, she is as unusual as her name.

Daughter of Colonel Lakshmi Sahgal -- who headed the all-woman Jhansi Ki Rani regiment and was one of Subhas Chandra Bose's confidantes in the Indian National Army -- she was married to director-fashion designer Muzaffar Ali (of Umrao Jaan fame).

After separating from her husband, this Wellham school graduate, ex-MP and soon-to-be movie star -- she will be seen as Shah Rukh Khan's mother in the star's second home production, the Santosh Sivan-directed Asoka The Great -- has carved a niche for herself as a women's activist.

In Bombay recently at the invitation of the Ladies' Wing of the Indian Merchants' Chambers, she spoke about why she thought religious fundamentalism has raised its ugly head in India. She insists it should be nipped it in the bud, else the worst sufferers will be the already persecuted women of rural India.

Subhasini Ali took time off her schedule to discuss her views with Vivek Fernandes:

Why do you think religious fundamentalism exists in India? How is it different from other fundamentalist movements the world over?

Religious fundamentalism is not a term people use when they refer to what is happening in India. One is always conscious of what is happening elsewhere -- the Taleban, Pakistan and other Islamic countries. We don't often examine our own society or our own community.

There are religions that have very rigid rules and there are others that don't. Religion is something that I, as a person, am not interested in.

I have always been an atheist. My parents were atheists. It doesn't bother me if somebody is religious. My problem is when religion is used to institutionalise other things.

How do you mean?

For example, a government claims to work according to the principles of a religion. As a political party, you use religion to broaden your own base. That's using religion for non-religious purposes. That's when the problem arises.

Religion has a patriarchal and hierarchical aspect anyway. It enforces social hierarchies as well as patriarchal world-views. What's more, it's made palatable to you by saying it is your fate, God's will or the result of something bad you did in your past life. This happens especially in the case of women because patriarchal societies have always felt the need to control and curb women.

In any society where private property is considered important, the question of legitimate heirs becomes all-important and all-absorbing. Therefore, with paternity as the topmost priority, women's freedom is further curtailed.

In the late 1800s, there was a strong sense of social reform as well as a revivalist streak. But even revered people like Lokmanya Tilak felt strongly that abominable practices like child marriage were important, intrinsic even, to religious traditions. Any interference with tradition sanctified by religion was intolerable. It was as if they had lost everything else and this was all they could hang on to. It was a colonised society's response. Theoretically, you wanted to protect your culture. Unfortunately, in the process, women suffered.

I want to draw attention to the attitude towards women and women's rights in this system and how it is being propagated.

How are women's rights being propagated?

When we discuss changes in textbooks, we only look at those aspects, which concern minorities, or the way in which history is portrayed.

I agree that is important, but we forget other insidious things. When Kalyan Singh became chief minister in 1991, they introduced a sentence in social science textbooks, which said that ever since women have been given legal rights, domestic disputes have increased.

The new textbooks, which had originally been used in the RSS-run school, Saraswati Sishumandir, only project the Sati-Savitri ideal for women.

History textbooks in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh claim that certain inhuman Hindu practices like sati began after the Muslim invasions. They started lusting after the Hindu women, which left the latter with no option but to commit sati.

On the one hand, they shift blame to evade criticism. On the other, in a separate set of textbooks, the same people say sati is a glorious tradition of the Rajputs.

The basic message is that sati is a glorious tradition. But if any one criticises it, they have a ready answer, which also suits another part of their agenda.

So you are saying that history textbooks are propagating this message?

It's not just history textbooks. At a railway station bookshop, I found a book called Hindu Karamkand Ka Vaigyanik Adhar (Scientific Reasons for Hindu Practices). People who believe in religion will read this book because they want to tell everyone that their practices are scientific. It's the current bestseller, but its contents are completely shocking. The only paragraph in the whole book on the status of women in the Hindu society begins with a quotation from the Manusmriti.

This, again, is very interesting. Whenever you criticise the Manusmriti -- it repeatedly says a woman is equivalent to a pig or a dog or a donkey or a dalit -- Hindutva defenders say, "Nobody believes in that any more. It's irrelevant." But a quotation from the Manusmriti describing the condition of women is accepted.

Subhasini Ali The book also says a Hindu woman doesn't need a guru because her god is her husband. She should only worship her husband and do him service.

Another thing the book says is that babies are born blind because their mothers use kaajal [kohl] during pregnancy. That's atrocious. It puts the blame squarely on the mother.

Blind children are not an act of god, they are the product of malnutrition or lack of attention paid to the mother during her pregnancy. We lack proper maternity services and ration shops. And the government, which ought to own up to this responsibility, gets off scot-free if one were to believe that kaajal was the real cause.

No sant or guruji says this is incorrect. The book is propaganda. It is being published and it is being lapped up.

That's still in the realm of books...

The RSS has been conducting a door-to-door campaign all over India, starting with the Rashtrapati Bhavan. They take with them a set of six books, which they distribute to these households.

One of these, the Adarsh Hindu Ghar, says, "Aadarsh Hindu parivaar jaanne ke liye aap Shankar Bhagvan ke parivaar ko dekhiye -- Shankar, Parvati aur unke do bete [To understand an ideal Hindu family, look at Lord Shankar's family -- Shankar, Parvati and their two sons]."

This indicates there is no place in the ideal Hindu family for the girl child.

They say women are their own worst enemies. But doesn't every system use its victims to propagate its ideologies? If there weren't victims, the entire system would collapse.

This is very dangerous. And if this happens at the level of textbooks, it would mean more trouble for future generations of women because the worst kind of stereotypes will be strengthened.

Why the aversion to beauty contests?

In India, the hype surrounding these contests is crazy. You'd think our girls have won the Nobel Prize. And you lose sight of what's really happening -- 40,000 women died during childbirth only in Uttar Pradesh last year. Is that something anybody knows or cares about? Those lives could have been saved.

One has to realise why beauty contests are held. Cosmetic product manufacturers use them to serve their vested interests. They want to capture markets. That's why you have people from different markets winning.

When the big market was Latin America, you had a Ms Venezuela winning. When India became the hotspot, an Indian won. In the West, it is no longer the hot thing so, naturally, we are the ones most eager to lap it all up. It is a planned marketing strategy.

Second, it imposes a standard of beauty worldwide. That is very, very objectionable. Your own sense of aesthetics and beauty is altered by the tremendous marketing blitz these contests generate. They also have a punishing influence on young girls.

There is nothing modern about beauty contests. All they do is emphasis the oldest notion in the world -- "What is your fortune, my pretty maid? My face is my fortune, sir." A woman is what is she looks. Nothing else is important. That is the ideal these beauty contests reinforce.

Beauty contests are given so much media attention that many women suffer a serious decline in self-esteem. The abuse that these contests lead to is horrendous, it's sick. But there's so much money in the glamour business that all parents want their children to be part of this world, make it big like Shirley Temple.

You said that the situation in Uttar Pradesh has degenerated in the last couple of years.

Terribly. Uttar Pradesh has been the centre of both the communalisation and caste polarisation in Indian politics.

When elections are fought on the basis of either communalism or caste mobilisation, and not on the basis of any welfare programmes, hospitals, schools and roads are not a priority.

Second, UP has been hit hard by globalisation. There is no employment. And, with our kind of governments, there is no law and order, no justice. It's all about money.

Recently, I was at former prime minister V P Singh's constituency, Fatehpur. A thakur there killed five members of a dalit family -- 50-year-old Tejania, her 27-year-old daughter-in-law and her three granddaughters, who were eight, three and one-and-a-half years old respectively.

He beat them to death with his lathi. All because Tejania's granddaughter got into a squabble with his son at the village school.

Initially, the thakur's wife went to Tejania's home, beat the young girl and her sister and hurled abuses at them. Tejania lodged a police complaint against the thakur's wife. When he came to know of this, the thakur grabbed her [Tejania] by the hair and hit her with his lathi.

A gutsy woman, she went to the thana [police station]. They didn't accept her complaint. She went to the SP [superintendent of police], who gave her a patient hearing and registered her case. It went in for investigation.

The police informed the thakur that he and his wife had to come to court and surrender or be arrested. He offered her money to withdraw the case. But she wanted justice. So this is how he repaid her.

The newspapers glorified him.

One headline read, 'What more will he do to save his honour?' Another one said, 'Tejania's stubbornness is responsible for her fate'.

I spent time with Tejania's family. We held a big demonstration. But there is just no justice.

Malihabad, in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's constituency, Lucknow, is another case in point. Sonapati, a 10-year-old girl scheduled caste girl, was raped here by two young thakurs.

Her elder sister's marriage had been fixed. Her father had booked a band and a horse for the baraat. One of the thakur boys told the father he wouldn't allow a lower-caste man to enter his village riding a horse.

The father said there was no way he could change the arrangements. So the thakur taught the family a lesson. He and a friend raped this girl in a mango orchard and left her there unconscious.

In the same village, a scheduled caste girl, Satana, was sold by her husband to two influential thakurs for Rs 500, two weeks after her marriage. They raped her. When she resisted, she was beaten black and blue. One of them told her she was just like the thousand or so women he had raped.

No case has been registered against the thakurs. In fact, the people trying to help her now have three cases registered against them.

You will be confronted with the most ghastly reality in Uttar Pradesh.

Page design: Dominic Xavier. Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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