Hyper-femininity as resistance to Hindu supremacy

In India’s deeply patriarchal society, Kali is worshipped as a feminist icon known to rage against the machine, with zero tolerance for injustice. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
10 May, 2022

According to Hindu mythology, there was once a demon named Raktabeej. True to his name, his blood was his seed. He had a boon, from Brahma, of immortality—whenever a drop of his blood touched the ground, another Raktabeej would be born, creating self-replicating evil that defeated the gods and left heaven under the management of demons. This story is particularly relevant this harvest season, as we reap what we have sown: endless, self-replicating hate.

Over a packed festival calendar—with Baisakhi, Bihu, Vishu, Easter, Eid and, of course, Ram Navami all falling within a fortnight of each other—India was beset by communal violence by organised mobs that, terrifyingly, multiplied with the speed and strength of Raktabeej. On 10 April, a religious procession ostensibly celebrating the birth of the Hindu deity Ram in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, devolved into communal clashes. From there, the violence spread like wildfire to GoaGujaratJharkhand and West Bengal. Six days later, on Hanuman Jayanti, it reached the national capital, as well as parts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand. When the dust settled, Muslim lives and livelihoods were destroyed, while their homes, mosques and businesses were bulldozed or set ablaze.

In Khargone, the violence began when a “pious” but hyper-masculine procession passed through Muslim neighbourhoods, brandishing swords. The following day, Wasim Sheikh, who lost both his arms in 2005, was accused of pelting stones. His shop was demolished, as was the home of 60-year-old Hasina Fakhroo, which had been constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.

In Delhi, six police officers were injured in the violence and more than twenty people were arrested—most of them Muslim. The North Delhi Municipal Corporation used 14 teams and nine bulldozers to destroy a neighbourhood in Jahangirpuri, live on television. Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, was campaigning in Bengaluru while his party took the opportunity to further attack the world’s most persecuted community: the Rohingya refugees fleeing a genocide in Myanmar. With little or no help coming, the destruction of Muslim property continued long after the Supreme Court’s order for it to stop.

This made-for-television violence was promptly picked up by the vast network of hate channels that cater to their audiences exclusively in authoritarian content. In a perfect metaphor for the state of the Indian media, one journalist hitched a ride in one of the bulldozers, participating in the demolition of the civil liberties of the community she was reporting on. Another joked about a rise in demand for bulldozers, even as social media was flooded with videos of survivors, many of them senior citizens, reduced to tears. The crowd was cheering too. In Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, The Guardian reported, “Muslims alleged that a saffron flag was hoisted on to the entrance of a mosque during one of the [Ram Navami] processions. Video footage showed the crowd cheering and brandishing swords and hockey sticks while the flag was raised.”

After the mobs had satisfied their bloodlust, responsibility was casually and vaguely dodged. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, once again, endorsed the mobs with his silence. The British prime minister, Boris Johnson—escaping recriminations back home for “Partygate”—plunged into another controversy when he inaugurated a JCB factory in Gujarat, endorsing bulldozers instead of human rights. The Madhya Pradesh police was soon accused of covering up the death of Ibresh Khan, a Khargone resident who had been out distributing food for iftar on 10 April. His brother alleged that the family was not told about his death until 18 April, and that Ibresh had been seen in police custody on 12 April. The police said that they had sent the body to Indore as the local hospital did not have a freezer—raising more questions instead of answering any.

In the past few weeks, Modi’s administration has made the truth stand on its head. What would be called state crimes and human-rights violations are, in fact, deliberate state policies; dissenters are in jail on a series of improbable and fantastical charges, while the government is fabricating provocations to launch even more unjust attacks.

Everything is true. Except truth and evil are begetting more evil. Constitutionally guaranteed rights of minorities are written in water, even as the same rights are ironclad in guaranteeing abuse of the Constitution. Every Hindu festival now brings with it hordes of angry men. An ugly, vengeful era has dawned on India, where hate is now on autopilot, endlessly self-replicating, armed to the teeth and out on a death ride.

While such violence is faith-based, its long-term impact is often gendered. At its core, the Hindu supremacist movement, like alt-right movements around the world, is hyper-masculine. Persecution, like all social injustices, falls disproportionately on women; Muslim and Dalit women are doubly victimised. There is now mounting evidence of a robust symbiosis between patriarchy and autocracy. The auctioning of Muslim women—journalists, activists and students who have been vocal critics of the ruling regime—was a case study in how the two evils mutually reinforce each other.

Today’s hyper-masculine mobs are enabled by a culture of toxic masculinity that has not been addressed for several decades, when the victims were solely women. This makes a closer look at the link between India’s rape culture and the assault on civil rights vital for those who wish to fight both. Rape, above all, is about politics because it is about power. Wherever this evil is tolerated, it multiplies.

As grim as things are, there is reason to hope. In an article for Foreign Affairs, the Harvard professors Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks argue that autocrats fear women. It is “strategic” for autocrats to be sexist, they write, because women are more likely to participate in non-violent mass movements than in violent ones and, “when women participate in mass movements, those movements are both more likely to succeed and more likely to lead to more egalitarian democracy.”

Because they lean towards being non-violent, women-led movements are more theatrical. In Myanmar’s pro-democracy protests in 2021, women protested by displaying hyper-femininity when they came out dressed in beauty queen regalia, complete with sashes and tiaras. In 2019, Algerian grandmothers confronted the riot police by threatening to report their bad behaviour to their mothers. In Sudan, that same year, a women’s Facebook group began doxing security officers brutalising protesters, sometimes outing their own brothers, cousins and sons. In the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement was launched by women. Shaheen Bagh is no longer just a Delhi neighbourhood but a synonym for resistance led by grandmothers.

Hyper-femininity is a potent form of resistance to a Hindu supremacist project that requires complete subjugation and control of female bodies. As Hindu men demand that coupling, sex and reproduction be dictated by the state, the role assigned to Hindu women is that of mothers. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh asks Hindu women to produce more children, who are undoubtedly the foot soldiers of their violent, dystopic fantasy. Muslim women, on the other hand, are hyper-sexualised and dehumanised—by denying them an education for wearing a hijab, or by auctioning them like chattel—as religious leaders such as Bajrang Muni Udasin publicly call for mass sexual violence.

It is no coincidence that violence against Muslims is moving in parallel with attacks on Muslim women. Misogyny and democratic backsliding, research says, are not comorbidities but mutually reinforcing evils. The Hindu supremacist project is structured to allow for three things to happen at once: the control and exploitation of the bodies of Hindu women, the violent subjugation of women from minority communities and the eventual political disenfranchisement of both, as they are pushed out of public spaces.

The Ram Navami violence stands out in a country rife with atrocities. However, if mythology is any guide—and, for this government, it is—good always triumphs over evil. The threat always looks unstoppable until a woman finds a way to stop it. When Raktabeej starts multiplying formidably, Kali is brought into play. The goddess takes her primal, hyper-feminine form—fierce, naked, tongue out, wearing a garland of severed heads, lusting for blood. She vanquishes Raktabeej by severing his head and drinking his blood before it touches the ground. Her “dance of death,” a state of all-destructive fury, is stopped when her consort Shiva, the supreme celestial being, lies prostrate in her path.

In India’s deeply patriarchal society, Kali is worshipped as a feminist icon known to rage against the machine, with zero tolerance for injustice. It is fitting that the final frontier of the battle between gods and demons was settled by the quintessential angry Indian goddess, the ultimate guardian of our rights.