Sunday, September 27, 2009

Listen to the assertive new Indian woman

Listen to the assertive new Indian woman
By M J Akbar

Sir Harcourt Butler was a great civil servant of the British empire, an icon who understood India, befriended Indians like the Raja of Mahmudabad and advocated causes like the Aligarh Muslim University. As a former governor of United Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh), he offered a word of advice for the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, in a letter sent from Rangoon on January 16, 1916. The most powerful influences in India, said Sir Harcourt, were priests and women. As long as any political organization was unable to mobilize both, the government had little to fear.
Mahatma Gandhi, who had no shortage of priests alongside, jolted the British during the non-cooperation movement in 1920 and 1921 precisely because he brought women out of their ancient closet, promising Hindu women the end of Ravanraj (British rule) in six months if they wore homespun and spurned luxury just as Sita had rejected Ravana’s temptations. There was a similar contemporary upsurge among Muslims. Maulana Muhammad Ali’s redoubtable mother Bi Amman was the first Muslim woman to address the Muslim League without a veil, and the wives of Hakim Ajmal Khan and M A Ansari set up the Women’s Khilafat Committee in 1921.
Nine decades later, priests and women remain the most powerful engines of political mobility, with one huge twist in a long tale. The influence of women now far outweighs that of priests. Social development is not even. There are sharp differences both between communities and within communities. But the dominant voice of the next decade will be an assertive new woman with a modern spine.

The Muslim vote remains powered by the exhortations of the ulema, but the queues of women in ballot order, even if in hijab or burqa, are evidence of a new dynamic. They have understood the power of the secret vote and exult in exercising it. The Congress, a principal beneficiary in the last general elections, may want to check why it lost a safe, minority-dominant seat in a Delhi by-election. Did veiled women register a protest against rising costs in the kitchen, or rediscover questions about the Batla House deaths last year?

One reason why the BJP’s Ram temple campaign succeeded in the late 1980s and the early 1990s was because it energized women, and made them stakeholders in the proposed temple by asking them to contribute a brick each. But that model has dated, or is in the process of becoming passe. A girl born in 1989 would have voted in 2009.

The BJP’s stagnation, or slide, can be partly explained by its disconnect with the changing profile of Hindu women. This is not limited to metropolitan India. The very presence of imitation brands in small towns is proof of the spread of aspiration. This is not a passing fad or fashion; it is rooted in a new mindset. The most powerful weapon in the armoury of the modern woman is choice. Choice is liberating at both the individual and collective level. Imposition, disguised as obedience, stability and security, is yesterday’s story. Today’s woman wants the final say, whether in dress, marriage, lifestyle or the vote; she does not want to be told that she cannot wear jeans or enjoy Valentine’s Day, or go to a pub of an evening if she so chooses. Indian women can see the suffocation of fundamentalism in the neighbourhood. That is the last thing they want in India.

Much is being made, in Delhi, of the fact that the Kashmir valley celebrated one of the most peaceful, happiest Eids in memory. Don’t overdo the celebrations. This may have less to do with India than with Pakistan. Even a cursory look at Pakistan tells the Kashmiri young — and particularly young women — that whatever its faults, India just might be the better option. How many young men would want to live within gunshot distance of the Taliban? How many young women would seek a future in a land where the clergy insists on twisted gender laws? As they might put it, India is ‘‘less worse’’.

Pakistan’s favourite Kashmiri leader, Jamaat-e-Islami’s Syed Ali Shah Geelani, pleaded with every Kashmiri Muslim to sulk along with him on Eid; he was ignored. Geelani was a teenager in 1947. The teenager of 2009 does not recognize the teenager of 1947. There are no jobs in conflict, unless of course you want early retirement from the burdens of existence. The young want life; old warmongers offer death.

The happiness of life, the joy of individual liberty, will define the politics of India in the foreseeable future. Those politicians who do not recognize this are condemned to irrelevance. Who understands life better than a woman? Women give life. Men take it.

Women have listened to priests in every age of recorded history. It is time for priests to listen to women.

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