In Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, academic and journalist Leta Hong Fincher describes how the arrest of five women by the Chinese government in March 2015 became an important turning point in the feminist movement in China. The five activists were handing out stickers against sexual harassment on subways and buses to commemorate International Women’s Day. The Chinese government arrested the group, later known as the “Feminist Five”, for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Their arrest, however, did the opposite of crushing what was then a nascent feminist movement – it inspired feminist activists to organise wider protests.
From December 2019 to March 2020, thousands of peaceful protestors, mainly led by women, occupied hundreds of public spaces across India such as Shaheen Bagh. This around-the-clock occupation was in opposition to the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which has been called fundamentally discriminatory and anti-Muslim by the UN human rights office. While the focus of the anti-CAA protest was around questions of citizenship, the monumental role women played in it makes it a milestone in the feminist movement in India.
Starting in April 2020, the Indian government started arresting the diffused female leadership of the anti-CAA movement, generally accusing them of inciting violence and even of terrorism. Some of these women include Gulfisha Fatima, a Muslim community leader; Safoora Zargar, a university student and member of the Jamia Coordination Committee who was three months pregnant at the time of arrest; Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, founders of the Pinjra Tod campaign which protests sexism on college campuses and beyond. Further, these activists were imprisoned in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting them at a serious health risk.
But “India is not China”, as many like to say – India is a democracy and China a dictatorship – so how can the above two cases be compared? For such people, and for others who do not see the patriarchy of the Modi government clearly, Fincher’s concept of “patriarchal authoritarianism” in Betraying Big Brother will be useful. Under patriarchal authoritarianism, subordination of women is a fundamental element of the authoritarian state. Although Fincher’s focus is China, the patriarchal authoritarianism of Modi government is visible in the recent arrests and elsewhere.
Patriarchal authoritarianism in China works by constructing a hypermasculine image of President Xi Jinping. Propaganda images depict Xi as a father figure who takes care of the “nation-family” as a patriarch. He is shown as a militaristic, macho man greeting thousands of soldiers. The media has created a personality cult around him, and there are pop songs that idolize his masculine leadership.
The parallels with Modi are striking. As Sujatha Subramanian describes, discussions of Modi’s physical strength have been central in presenting him as an able leader. He stays fit and barely sleeps. His “56-inch chest” is frequently invoked by the mainstream media and ministers in issues regarding hostilities with Pakistan or China. During the Uri and Pulwama strikes, the hashtag “#ModiPunishesPak” was used extensively, suggesting that Modi single-handedly “punished” Pakistan. As in China, the Indian state produces propaganda depicting Modi as a macho man – the video “Man vs Wild” with Modi is one example; there are countless images and videos of Modi in military uniform that are circulated via official channels. Simultaneously, opposition leaders are routinely depicted as not being masculine enough. Manmohan Singh was old, weak, and even worse, managed by a woman – Sonia Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi is a child – a ‘pappu’ – who refuses to grow up. Arvind Kejriwal is always coughing, wrapped in mufflers, and not an authority figure.
According to Fincher, patriarchal authoritarianism also involves the Chinese state wanting women to fulfill their traditional gender roles – being obedient wives and mothers, having “family values”, sexual purity, taking care of children and the elderly. For this, often religious (Confucius) texts are invoked as a justification. The one-child policy, which was an egregious violation of women’s reproductive rights, seems normal under this patriarchal order because women’s agency is limited to raising children, and not deciding how many children to have, or when. This subordination of women is also tied with the Chinese state wanting Han Chinese to remain the dominant majority – Han Chinese women are pushed to have more children, and ethnic minorities actively discouraged, Fincher argues.
Again, the case of India is very similar. As Farah Naqvi and others have pointed out, the Modi government views women essentially as “mataaon, behenon aur betiyon” (mothers, sisters and daughters). The tag line of the Ujjwala Yojana scheme, which promised free cooking gas, was “Mahilaon Ko Mila Samman” (Women Get Dignity). Murals made under the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao program read – “Kaise khaoge unke haath ki rotiya, jab paida hone nahi doge betiyan?’ (Who will make rotis for you if you won’t let daughters be born?) and ‘Ma chahiye; behen chahiye; patni chahiye; to beti kyon nahin chahiye?’ (You want mothers, sisters, wives, then why don’t you want daughters?). That is, women are to be valued and respected only if they perform their traditional roles. When it comes to women’s safety, the patriarchal authoritarianism of the Modi government sees women as an object of protection. This means celebrating the hanging of rapists, but disregarding women’s freedom in the process of providing “safety”.
Both the women activists in India and China’s Feminist Five were against being made such objects of protection. Pinjra Tod fought against hostel curfew rules which disallowed women from staying out late for their alleged safety, because such protection is irrelevant for women’s empowerment. The women opposing the CAA did so because they saw the law assailing the very concept of equality. Besides leading the anti-CAA protests, the idea of women protecting men (as in the image below) is quite subversive to patriarchal authoritarianism.
Similar to Chinese discrimination towards minorities, Hindu women are encouraged to have more children by right-wing politicians, while Muslims are blamed for having too many. Should a Hindu woman assume the agency of choosing a partner and marry a Muslim, it is deemed “Love Jihad”. This implies that women’s agency will be denied since the outcome – a Hindu-Muslim marriage – is not desirable to the majoritarian patriarchal authoritarian state. It is for these reasons that some senior BJP politicians encouraged the idea of Kashmiri women being available for marriage after the removal of article 370, just like it promised brides to young unmarried men in exchange for these men’s votes.
Patriarchal authoritarianism is firmly in place under the Modi government. Its followers want women to be worshipped in their traditional roles. Women who dissent deserve no dignity – Gauri Lankesh’s murder is mocked and celebrated, while female critics of the government face constant social media threats. The culture that patriarchal authoritarianism spawns does not spare women inside the Modi government either, be it Sushma Swaraj or Smriti Irani.
The anti-CAA protests and subsequent arrests make it clear that the patriarchal authoritarian state is very afraid of dissenting women who may say something like this at Shaheen Bagh: “Those who speak of ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ allow their police to barge into the university and hit our girls. How can such barbarity be allowed?” Likewise, in 2017, Pinjra Tod had responded to ABVP’s slogan “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” (victory to mother India) with “Bharat Ki Mata Nahi Banege” (we will not be mothers of India), further shouting “Mahila Mange Azadi…” (women demand freedom) from both “baap” (father) and “khap” (community leaders).
For a patriarchal authoritarian state, the demand for such freedoms crosses the line. As for the ongoing arrest of women leaders, time will tell if this moment will be similar to the case of the Feminist Five – a turning point in the feminist movement in India.