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The Woman Question in the Subcontinent

In contemporary Indian and Pakistani societies, the question of the role of the woman in the nationalist scenario remains a vexed one. Ann McClintock observes about the role of the woman in the developing world, “Excluded from direct action as national citizens, women are subsumed symbolically into the national body politic as its boundary and metaphoric limit.”

For instance, the ruling political party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a women’s wing that claims that the image of woman as powerful mother underlines economic independence for women and reinforces her strength and courage of conviction to sacrifice for the family. The BJP vociferously campaigns for women in parliament and the judiciary. The women members of this political party argue that they could never identify the modern Indian women with the liberated woman of the Western world. On the contrary, they campaign for reverting to a mythic past where women were purportedly equals in society. In doing so, the women’s wing of the BJP makes an ardent attempt to reconstruct history in order to inspire the kind of politics that present-day nationalism requires. The argument that is made is that such quotas will not benefit the backward castes, so only women belonging to those groups should avail themselves of this quota. These subdivisions caused by categorizing women along caste and religious lines perpetuate divisive politics.

In effect, the native woman is constructed as a trough within which male aspirations are nurtured, and the most barbaric acts are justified as means to restore the lost dignity of women. The story of the partition of India into India and Pakistan is replete with instances of father slaughtering their daughters in order to prevent them from being violated; women resorting to mass suicide to preserve the “honor” of the community; and women who were “dishonored” being ruthlessly shunned by their families.

Reinforcing this logic in Hindu nationalist rhetoric, the equation of the sanctity of the native female to the motherland has in recent days become more forceful. Why is gender violence such a consistent feature of the communal riots that spasmodically grip India? If a woman’s body belongs not to herself but to her community, then the violation of that body purportedly signifies an attack upon the honor (izzat) of the whole community.

Such irrational acts do occur and bear testimony to the intersecting notions of family, nation, and community. The horrific stories of women that are in most instances attributed to folklore underscore the complicity of official and nationalist historiography in perpetuating these notions. I might add that the feminization of the “homeland” as the “motherland” for which nationalist are willing to lay down their lives serves, in effect, to preserve native women in pristine retardation.

The postcolonial scholar Partha Chatterjee makes an interesting observation regarding this construct: the role of woman as goddess or mother binds her to a form of subordination that is the exercise of dominance without hegemony. In the present sociopolitical set up, the image of the Indian woman, the image of the Indian woman as the impregnable barrier against the perversion of Indian values is an ideal which incarcerates her. The iconization of woman as goddess-mother circumscribes her movement within society.

Despite the encouragement of women’s education in post-Partition India and Pakistan, the womanly virtues of devotion, submission, chastity, and patience are still viewed as the social forms that tradition inculcated in women. Nationalist discourse creates a framework that confers upon women the pre-lapsarian mythological status of a selfless, asexual, benevolent, and maternal entity. Because the edifice of national culture was propped up by the ideals of purity, selfless love, and sacrifice, the decapacitation of women was the result.

Nationalist discourse creates the dichotomy of the inner/ outer in order to make the sanctity of the inviolable inner domain look traditional. Nationalist writers assert that as long as the inner or spiritual distinctiveness of the culture is retained, a postcolonial nation can make the required adjustments to cope with a modern material world without losing its essential identity. The result, however, is not the orderly process of modernization but rather the continued immiseration of women.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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