ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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'All the Women Were Hindu and All the Muslims Were Men'

Throughout the period of colonial rule, a certain degree of tension prevailed between advocating reform for women and addressing specific disabilities of Hindu or Muslim women in personal law and representation. This tension reflected the dynamics of the women's organisations and the overweening compulsions of the dominant political elites. For the Muslim League, support for women's rights demonstrated Islam's superiority, while the Congress viewed it as part of the nationalist project of state building, which included improving the status of women. Women's organisations, for the most part, lacked the influence necessary to set the policy agenda in arenas of personal law or political representation and remained dependant on political allies among the nationalist and state elites.

The upsurge of fundamentalism and communal violence in India over the past decade has led feminist scholars to analyse the interrelationships among the state, identity politics and gender [Chhachhi 1991; Hasan 1994; Sarkar and Butalia 1995]. Amrita Chhachhi (1994: 76, 79) argues that state structures and processes ‘construct and reproduce identities’ and the community identity put forward by the nationalist elite, both before and after independence, ‘was derived from a Sanskritised upper caste version of Hinduism’. According to Chhachhi (1994: 86), these two factors ‘provided a material basis for the communal identities to be reproduced’ and ‘involved the elevation of women as symbols and repositories of community/group/national identity’. Finally, she notes that an additional dynamic involved is the politically expedient behaviour of state leaders, who play off the demands of leaders of one community against those of another. Chhachhi’s framework is complex and suggestive. The state actively contributes to identity politics through the creation and maintenance of state structures which define and then recognise people in terms of certain identities and through subsequent divide-and-rule tactics playing off one recognised identity against another. In a patriarchal society, women are the symbol of group identity for both dominant and minority communities. In a plural society the national identity is likely to be shaped or coloured by the elites of the dominant community, and so there is likely to be resistance to this identity by minority communities.

Chhachhi applies this analysis to the controversy over the separate system of Muslim personal law in the Shah Bano case. State leaders balanced their appeasement of fundamentalist Muslim leaders with capitulation to the demand by fundamentalist Hindus to open the Babri masjid in Ayodhya to Hindus. The subsequent call for a uniform civil code by the Hindu fundamentalist forces, according to Kapur and Cossman (1995: 90), attempted ‘to establish majority norms as the ostensibly neutral norms against which all others are judged’.

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