Kashmir and the Saved Muslim Woman

‘Saving Muslim women’ is a fig leaf for domination, and the BJP has used this narrative to pass the triple talaq law and justify its actions in Kashmir.

It’s a deluge. The end of the world as we knew it. And Muslim women are being saved at such speed in India that it takes our breath away. Those who found no place in Noah’s first ark are queuing up in hope of a second coming.

And liberation is a cometh as surely as a kick in the pants. First, we had the spectre of merry bands of Muslim women, skipping through the streets of India, distributing laddoos in celebration of the triple talaq law, and now, Kashmiri women too face imminent liberation. Thanks to the information blackout, they just don’t know it yet. But here’s what their deliverance could look like:

…We’ve seen the pictures of joy when we liberated city after city in Afghanistan. And none of us will ever forget the laughter and the music and the cheering and the clapping at a stadium that was once used for public execution.

Children now fly kites and they play games. Women now come out of their homes from house arrest, able to walk the streets without chaperons. “It feels like we’ve all been released from prison,” said one young person in Kabul, “that the whole of Afghanistan has been released from prison.”

George W. Bush, US President, December 12, 2001
(Months after the US invasion of Afghanistan in what was called Operation Enduring Freedom)

‘Saving women’ has long been a fig leaf for domination. Virtuous duty, masking imperialist intent. That was colonialism. The white man’s civilising burden included saving brown women (from brown men), and from their barbaric customs. It wrought havoc around the globe. European colonisers appropriated other people’s lands and resources under a banner held aloft saying, “Enlightenment.” They called violence the spread of civilisation and progress. It was justified because it was sold as a moral project.

Also Read: As the Hindu Rashtra Project Rolls on, It’s Time to Consider What the End Goal Is

The modern iteration of this is ‘Saving Muslim Women’. When for the first time in US history, a first lady, Laura Bush, took over the president’s weekly radio address (the Mann Ki Baat equivalent) on November 17, 2001, the purpose was to bring into sharp focus a core narrative of that war – carry freedom to Afghan Muslim women. She said:

We respect our mothers, our sisters and daughters… Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it’s the acceptance of our common humanity, a commitment shared by people of good will on every continent. Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.

Former US president George Bush and former first lady Laura Bush. Photo: Reuters

A CIA memo, available on Wikileaks, which describes it as a “recipe for the targeted manipulation of public opinion in two NATO ally countries,” tells us how important the ‘oppressed Afghan women’ were to sell the war to Europe. The memo says, “… Media events that feature testimonials by Afghan women would be most effective…” And, “Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF [NATO-led International Security Assistance Force] role in combating the Taliban … and could help to overcome pervasive scepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.”

The triple talaq law

The narrative is global. It has justified military interventions in many countries, and secured political gains. This spin is what the BJP has used to its advantage. Project: Save Muslim Women is what sold that dangerous and absurd piece of legislation called the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019 (i.e. the Triple Talaq Act) to this country.

After the Supreme Court in 2017 had already made the pronouncement of talaq-e-biddat (saying talaq three times in a single setting) void in law, it was an absurdity to make a person uttering it criminally liable, facing three years of imprisonment. Since 2017, the man could say TTT all he liked, but it did not amount to a legal divorce. To penalize a legally meaningless utterance is ridiculous. To add a criminal element, and jail time is beyond ridiculous, it is completely insane. Plus, the Act is unjust to Muslim women – because how on earth is a man going to provide maintenance to her or his children while incarcerated. Yet somehow, the narrative has sustained itself, somehow Muslim women were saved.

A week after the Bill became an Act through gazette notification (July 31st, 2019), Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad proclaimed, “Equality at Last” in a signed piece for a mainstream daily.

He wrote:

“The kind of jubilation it has caused across the country, barring conservative elements, indicates how it is a proud moment for India. Our country is transforming and the women of India feel empowered…. It took more than 70 years in India to not only delegitimise this curse, but also provide for penal consequences. Regrettably, this shows the hold the communal and conservative elements continue to exercise over the country’s polity.”

It was posited as saving Muslim women from ‘communal and conservative’ Muslim men. But sir, what about all the others who opposed this dangerous law? The very evening the Rajya Sabha passed the Bill, a host of prominent civil society citizens, including many Muslim women, issued a public statement outright condemning the Bill as a dangerous, unnecessary and harmful charade.

Among other things, it said:

“You cannot pretend to save Muslim women, while seeking to bring the Muslim community to it knees… Personal laws of all communities are civil matters, not criminal matters. This is the first time in the history of India, that we are witnessing criminal provisions in matters of marriage and divorce. In its intent and target, it is clear that this is not a pro-woman but an anti-minority bill.”

The honourable law minister would be hard pressed to find one ‘conservative element’ among those who signed it. And yet, the narrative persists: Muslim women were saved.

Women participate at a protest against triple talaq. Credit: PTI

The media, for its part, is either stupid or complicit. On August 11, 2019, the Times of India‘s Delhi edition carried a headline story on page 2: ‘First triple talaq arrest in capital: Man Divorced Wife, Threw Her Out of House.’ It tells of a man arrested for divorcing his wife through instant triple talaq, and then forcing her out of their home.

Also Read: For the BJP, ‘Women’s Rights’ Are Really All About the Men

The story is wrong on fact – because the man did not divorce the woman. He could not. Repeat: Saying “talaq, talaq, talaq” is the equivalent of saying “ABC”. This is not a form of legal divorce as per the Supreme Court judgement of 2017. So she is not divorced, but yes, she has been kicked out of the house.

Abandonment and destitution is a grave problem for all women. Far greater for Hindu women.  According to the last census, there are 2.3 million separated and abandoned women in India, of which close to 2 million are Hindus. Yet the narrative persists: Muslim women need saving.

And then there is Kashmir

Now comes Kashmir. With it, Kashmiri women, another bunch of Muslim women who are packaged as ‘Need to Save’, while trampling upon their world and their communities. Add to this mission the erotic charge of Muslim women’s bodies as the battleground on which you establish (Hindu) India’s supremacy over ‘paradise.’ The Kashmir coup is a colonial dream redux.

Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.
(If there is a paradise on earth,
It is this, it is this, it is this)

-Amir Khusro, 13th century poet on Kashmir

One has to wonder how this place retained its moniker of being jannat or firdaus (paradise) despite decades of violence, death and brutality? Because that is how fantasy works. It sits pristine, a place of imagined plenitude and apple orchards, in a frozen part of the Indian psyche, untouched and unsullied by the tactile, brutal, dead and disappeared, and pellet-gun-scarred people.

Now (Hindu) Man has literally broken open the locks to the proverbial paradise. The spoils of land and women beckon, as does India’s civilising mission for Muslim women. It is Hindutva’s wet dream come true. The narrative of ‘Hindu’ victimhood and denial never cut so deep, as when it meant denial to the keys of paradise itself. For it was a paradise controlled by too many Muslims. And a number of BJP worthies have been unable to contain their rapacious excitement.

Hours after the Centre scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, Vikram Singh Saini, MLA from Khatauli in Muzaffarnagar, apparently said:

Karyakarta bahut utsuk hai… aur jo kunwaare hain unki shadi wahi karva denge. (The party workers are very excited… and we’ll get the single males married there).”

Days later, BJP ‘s chief minister of Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar, publicly contemplated bringing “brides from Kashmir” to improve Haryana’s sex ratio.

Also Read: In a Ravaged Kashmir, One Woman’s Fight to Give Birth

The title of the Shammi Kapoor/Sharmila Tagore 1964 blockbuster was Kashmir ki Kali, not Kashmir ka Phool. Kali – a bud, virginal, untouched. This is the erotic charge of the colonial project of domination, the buzz of Kashmir and Kashmiri Muslim women for the Hindutva thugs. Who are now booting up to go charging and hooting like triumphant invaders into virgin territory.

Sharmila Tagore in Kashir ki kali. Photo: Screengrab

Removal of Article 35A has been a versatile discursive key – all things to all people. It has apparently meant that Haryanvi lads can buy property in paradise, and marry a Kashmiri kali, because Kashmiri women are finally free (and of course, their first act of agency will be to marry a Haryanvi). Let us examine the basis of this understanding.

Article 35A of the Indian Constitution empowered the Jammu and Kashmir legislature to define “permanent residents” of the state and provide them special rights – including the right to purchase land and property. Apart from the fact that non-Kashmiris could not purchase land, much was made of the fact that resident women marrying non-residents were denied rights to ancestral properties. Now, it seems, Kashmiri women have been liberated from this discrimination.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during his August 8 address to the nation after Articles 370 and 35A were read down:

Desh ke anya rajyon mein betiyon ko jo saare haq milte hain, woh saare haq Jammu and Kashmir ki betiyon ko nahin milte thay.
(In all the other States of India, the rights that our daughters have, were being denied to the daughters of Jammu and Kashmir.)

As of 2002, the BJP’s claim that Article 35A denying Kashmiri women their rights is factually wrong. In 2002, a full bench of the Jammu and Kashmir high court ruled that permanent resident women who marry non-permanent residents will not lose their rights in ancestral properties. And still the lie persists: we have liberated Kashmiri women.

The fact that non-residents cannot buy property in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand or large parts of the Northeast has not galvanised anyone into such a massive rescue operation. Because the narrative of domination over Muslims, while rescuing Muslim women, is missing in these places. There is neither political nor ideological gain.

As for the alleged purpose of this mammoth rescue effort? Enlightenment, modernity, the grand benefits of development and of course, the full measure of women’s rights. On offer, apparently, is the liberal Indian nation of women’s freedom, agency and consent. Seriously? Between khap panchayats deciding who will marry whom and killing the deviants, the ever-increasing demand for babies from (choice-less) Hindu women, and gotra-sensitive Zomato customers, does the new Hindutva nation have any takers for this part of the rescue story? But, hell, let’s just ‘Save Muslim Women’! The spin works. Never mind the trail of destruction it could leave in its wake.

Farah Naqvi is an activist and writer who lives and works in Delhi.