The title Why I Am Not A Hindu Woman seizes your attention and reminds you of Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s book, Why I am Not a Hindu, which this writer refers to, and of the more recent Why I Am A Hindu by Shashi Tharoor—which incidentally does not even mention Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. On reading this book, and seeing how misogyny and the resultant violence against women are an inherent part of Hinduism, women readers may ask themselves—I am a woman, how can I be a Hindu?
Why I am not a Hindu woman?
Author: Wandana Sonalkar
Publisher: Women Unlimited, January 1, 2020
The book is written with hope for a modern, egalitarian, creative and progressive India that will ensure dignity to all. Sonalkar criticises religious polarisation which fractures this hope. She categorically states that she rejects ‘Hinduism as it continues to be practiced in modern life’. “The patriarchy and caste hierarchy that are inherent to Hindu religion, make Hindutva possible,” she argues. She then explores the linkages between religion, nationalism, masculinity and gender, to show us how these are used to whip up the frenzy of war, “to give people a reason to die for.” For this, she gives examples from Hindu religious texts, from mythology—The Mahabharata sanctions a ‘righteous’ war and the Bhagvad Gita begins with a ‘call to war’.
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Sonalkar shows how the RSS whips up ‘masculine’ aggression among women, and makes them aides of war and of violence against ‘Other’ women. She attempts to answer an important question. ‘Why do women buy into the overtly masculinist and misogynistic project of Hindutva?’
Sonalkar states that violence against women is ‘normalised’ by Hindutva. She argues that the Ramayana, through its story of Surpanakha sanctions acid attacks, nose-cutting and other ‘disfigurements’. While focusing on gender violence on upper caste women she also focuses on caste-based exclusion. She mentions the stories of Shambuka, a Shudra ascetic who is killed by Rama for practicing ascetism and Eklavya for showing courage to access knowledge of archery, which is meant only for Kshatriyas, he has to cut off his thumb, without which he cannot wield the bow. This discussion is vital in so many ways as this is the very mythological story which is bombarded through TV serials and pop culture into the Indian imagination during the well-planned rise of Hindutva.
Sonalkar acknowledges her privileged caste location. She shifts effortlessly between her own experiences of having lived in Singapore, Aurangabad and Cambridge, to the histories of those places to show the ubiquitous presence of caste. Sonalkar appreciates and discusses anti-caste efforts, both in movements and in writing. She discusses various movements like Namantar Andolan (1978-1994) the movement to change the name of Marathwada University to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar University. Despite the fact that this did not bring any material benefit to Dalit students, she says that it is relevant as it gave a boost to anti-caste politics.
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She also writes about her experience of participation in movements. As a Marxist, her struggle with a perspective that refused to place caste at the core of Indian society and its transformation. Being born as an upper caste, she is indebted to the non-Brahman activists from different regions of Maharashtra for acquainting her with the realities of caste in the daily life of the non-urban and urban non-elite. These young activists were followers of Sharad Patil’s movement and his own brand of Marx-Phule-Ambedkar-ism.
Sonalkar discusses writings of Uma Chakravarti and Sharmila Rege. She finds Chakravarty’s Gendering Caste with a Feminist Lens relevant because it analyses how ‘caste is constituted by gender’. Sonalkar acknowledges Sharmila Rege’s ‘A Dalit Feminist Standpoint‘ for opening up the possibility for non-Dalit feminists to develop a standpoint.
Why I am Not A Hindu Woman presents two propositions which need to be discussed and thought about. First, the recent upsurge of violence against women, Dalits and Muslims as well as against other minorities and marginalised sections of society, is a surfacing of the potential for violence that has always been present in a society ruled by Brahmanical Hinduism. And, secondly our tolerance of violence against Muslims is based on two different forms of othering that Hindutva ideology effectively propagates: the othering of internal inferiors, and of the external enemy. There are succinct arguments for both. Sonalkar draws from Juliet Mitchell’s Feminism and Psychoanalysis and for the influence of Myth, from Sudhir Kakar.
Sonalkar also speaks about the life of her beloved parents. She speaks about a mistake on part of her father and the effect this had on her mother. This is done for the purpose of presenting her theoretical and political arguments to bust the myth of ‘idealisation of the Hindu home, a description of how idyllic it can be, if everyone plays their part.’ The author does this at great cost; a personal risk to close relationships, because of revelations of incidents from the lives of others and a vulnerability that comes from writing an account of the effect that those incidents had on the author’s much younger self. The incident is not ours to discuss casually in a review. The exposure of this still tender spot has to be earned by us, as readers, by the act of reading the book. The telling of this story has to be in a private moment between the reader and the author.
nadi, (Dr. Manasee Palshikar) is an MBBS doctor, with an MA in Gender, Culture and Development from Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, wrote Sutak. nadi has also studied and taught Screenplay writing at FTII, Pune.