The case of a woman converting to Islam and marrying a Muslim man of her own volition has become about everyone else, ignoring the woman herself and what she wants.
“Is this what my life is to be?” asks Hadiya, the 24-year-old homeopathy student from Kerala who converted to Islam, and whose marriage of choice to a Muslim man was annulled by the Kerala high court. Outside her home, the police – and a little distance away, Hindu right-wing activists – keep close watch. Over the past three months, this young woman has been practically under house-arrest in her father’s home, with no one allowed to meet her. The video of her released a few days back was made by Rahul Easwar, whose right-wing proclivities are well-known in Kerala; he was apparently able to reach her and it is not clear who granted permission.
The hideous reality seems to be that not only is Hadiya denied the dignity of full citizenship and freedom from familial control, she has no clear idea who controls her life. Her life seems to be in the control of too many fatherly figures – her father, the police, the RSS, the shrill right-wing press, the Supreme Court, the Hindutva goons who threaten even accredited journalists who seek to meet her – and subject to their benevolent and malevolent patriarchies. On the other side is the Muslim man she chose to marry.
No choice or agency
No doubt, he too may well turn out to be a patriarch who lays down the rules for her. But then, in this country, a 24-year-old woman is legally granted the capability to make a choice and she chose him. Here is an educated young woman whose life seems minutely controlled by patriarchs, judicial guardian angels and the less angelic right-wing moral police inspired by Indo-Gangetic barbarism. Of course, questions about the potential-patriarch she married are not invalid. But they can be asked only after we raise the question why a mature young woman is not allowed to choose. It is hard to believe that for a woman seeking a place in our domestic arrangements, there are many non-patriarchal choices. The least she should be granted is the right to choose between available patriarchal choices.
Her question is heart-rending. I fear that this will soon be the question that all women in India, young and old, will ask. It is evident that the consequences of this case will fall upon us all, not just those who seek to convert into Islam or marry Muslims. Most worrying is the fact that while ordering the NIA to probe the circumstances of Hadiya’s marriage to ensure that it was not forced or driven by jihadism, the Supreme Court referred to the Blue Whale challenge to prove that people may be misled even to commit suicide. The Supreme Court openly infantilises Hadiya by implicitly comparing her decision to convert and marry a Muslim to Blue Whale victims who are usually teenagers pushed to suicide.
The Supreme Court has at one stroke given the highly-exaggerated and Islamophobic discourse of ‘love jihad’ a new lease of life (the incidents used to stoke this fire, of a group of alleged Salafi converts who left for Syria and joined the ISIS in 2015, is more complex, as it involved both men and women converting, but such fine details have to be necessarily ignored if the discourse of ‘love jihad’ is to gain its polarising potency). And that is not all. By insisting that Hadiya’s marriage, the most important event in her life, could not happen without her parents’ presence; that she should be sent back to her parents, assuming that parental custody of a mature woman was legitimate and safe; that her right to public speech and interaction with outsiders could be suspended in this stay, making it confinement in effect; by refusing to speak with her until the NIA report was submitted; and by referring to ‘Indian tradition’ requiring that all unmarried daughters be subject to their parents until their marriage, without mentioning their age, the Supreme Court just eroded the rights of all women in India in a grievous way. Hadiya’s unannounced marriage apparently angered the court; they did not seem bothered by the fact that her father was apparently in possession of certificates (of a 24-year-old student, mind you) without which she could not have continued her education. In a strong way, the court’s deep distrust of Hadiya’s account of her conversion may well have pushed her into the decision to marry. Eloping with a lover to escape troublesome parents is not unknown in ‘Indian tradition’ and the world in general; instead of recognising this, the court behaved like a disgruntled parent.
There are of course many who take relief in the belief that this is an aberration, an isolated case. These people are blind to the fact that the Supreme Court’s decision comes in a context in which the Indian state seems determined to restore Brahminical dandaneeti in India, to show Muslims, Dalits and also women their place in it. And needless to say, the courts have been heartily participating in this effort – and therefore a ten-year-old rape victim is denied an abortion and women are presumed to be liars and impulsive, irrational complainers who need the supervision of Family Welfare Committees when they complain of violence in the home. Soon, all women will ask, “Is this what our lives are to be?”
By now, in Kerala at least, superficially similar but substantially different events are being lumped together to produce a consistent discourse around the despicable coinage ‘love jihad’. In 2011, when the ‘love jihad’ campaign was beginning, there was a similar instance of ‘guardian angelic moral policing’ by the Kerala high court when a young Hindu-born woman was sent to her parents’ custody, with their home functioned as a detention centre where the woman was held captive. The couple had applied to marry under the Special Marriages Act.
Recently, a young woman from north Kerala has returned to her parents accusing her partner of forcing her to convert and migrate to Syria for terrorist activities. One does not know if the allegation is true since both sides accuse the other of kidnapping the woman. In another case in which a group of converts left for Syria to join the ISIS, there were both male and female converts. Each of these cases is distinct. However, just because they involve inter-faith couples, the right-wing cries foul.
Listening to everyone, but not to her
In some of these, arrayed on either side are the RSS and other Hindutva organisations and the Islamist Popular Front of India and their political outfit, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). In public discourse too, the woman is reduced to a mere pawn between the two blatantly patriarchal, but unevenly matched, forces – there is little interest in listening to her. The CPI(M) has been cautious in its response and CPI(M)’s fellow-travellers have been suspicious of Hadiya and her supporters, even though not outright hostile.
If anyone thinks that the judiciary’s order to send Hadiya to her parents is an effort to give her the space to think uninterrupted by anyone else, they are mistaken, for she is being handed over to parents who explicitly support the policing of community boundaries. In her case, even many progressives have been suspicious of the SDPI’s involvement; they accuse the SDPI of interfering in the court’s effort to ensure that Hadiya completed her education (the high court had indeed directed her to stay in a women’s hostel and complete her studies first) and subtly nudging her towards marriage. Irrespective of the fact that this seems laudable, the court’s arrogation of Hadiya’s agency is unacceptable. The court was only trying to protect her from making mistakes in her life, some say. I can only say that a life which is excessively smoothened out, in which one makes no mistakes, in which one learns nothing from one’s own choices and actions, in which one is always guided and tended, can only produce an insensitive fool.
If one is not allowed to live a self-reflexive life in which conscious choices are made, mistakes are suffered, and learning is harvested from both pain and joy, then one is reduced to an automaton. However pure the intentions of the judiciary were, their controlling of Hadiya’s life ends up as the instrument of India’s rulers who now seek a return to Brahminical dandaneeti in which women are automatons subject to their families and caste communities, mere counters to be exchanged by the latter.
There is even less interest in thinking about the choices that these young women have made or placing it in the context of the massive social change that Kerala has experienced after the 1990s. In this period, the Muslim community in Kerala entered the Malayali middle class in a significant way, not just from Gulf remittances but also by putting their young people through modern and professional education, especially young men. There is, now, far greater possibility of young people mingling across faiths in educational and other institutions. In the same period, the debates around faith in Islam have also gained spread – and they cannot be reduced to a linear process of greater and greater radicalisation – and non-Muslims have greater access to these.
Among the Hindu caste-communities, young women increasingly encounter structural worthlessness, given entrenched patriliny in all communities and very high dowry demands. Many young women find themselves valued primarily as trophies that their parents may exchange for social prestige through conspicuous consumption around ostentatious weddings and hypergamous alliances, and this is widely promoted in Kerala’s popular market culture, such as in the jewellery ads. These young women are under enormous pressure because they are also highly individuated, since women of Hindu communities have entered higher education in large numbers and they now resist the pressures of their families in ways available to them.
It is another matter whether all forms of this resistance have expanded women’s freedoms. Insisting that resistance to structural worthlessness should not be permitted unless it broadens women’s freedoms sounds like yet another patriarchal injunction. The parallel is definitely with protectionism, that locks women up so they will be safe and denies them the right and the ability to take risks. This is not to say that Hadiya’s decision should not be critiqued – surely a feminist critique of both marriage and the now-fashionable Islamist reduction and rejection of feminist agency are well-possible. But critiquing Hadiya’s choices certainly does not entail stopping her from making them.
Lastly, hearing people lament the ‘loss’ of women from Hindu communities, one cannot help remembering how in the precolonial order of caste in Kerala, boundary-policing involved the rejection of women who transgressed norms, not the hurry to re-absorb them. There was a time in which the traditional caste elite could get rid of their women whenever they chose to easily – simply by accusing them of overstepping physical boundaries and then calling upon caste authorities to formally expel them. Among the Malayali Brahmins, this was an elaborately-staged set of rituals called the smarthavichaaram. Among the Shudras (the Nairs and others), there are accounts of the feared Pulappedi or Mannapedi, the time of the year in which a man of the Pulaya or Mannan caste could ‘call out’ a Shudra woman who was found outside her home and thereby make her an outcaste. The woman was expected to leave her home if thus exposed and either subject herself to her ‘defiler’ or convert. It is widely believed that this was a way of ridding the family of assertive women; in Nair joint family homes where descent was in the female line, the presence of such women was perhaps not rare.
In the traditional order, ‘upper’ caste power was beyond numbers and not projected on women’s bodies; surely these concerns emerged in and through the transformation engendered by colonialism. To that extent, the RSS and the SDPI are still caught in the old game and equally so. The courts are merely participating in this game, for all their pure intentions. All the more reason why one ought to fight for Hadiya’s right to speak and act freely unencumbered of family and community, engage in a serious and continued conversation with her, and be her friend as she treads in her own way the path of life in or out of Islam, with all its pleasures and dangers.
J. Devika is a teacher and researcher at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.