The first week of February brought us two very messy stories of marriages gone wrong that had major political undertones.
Both involved teenagers – an 18-year-old Indian woman, Alpika Pandey, who had married a fellow Narendra Modi fan after “liking” a comment by him on social media, and a 19-year-old German woman, Leonara, who was detained by the Kurdish authorities after she quit the Islamic State she had willingly embraced four years back. Both women had exercised their choice in marriage due to a conviction in ideology and with men they believed they had shared values and aspirations.
Stories of love and companionships have often defied comprehension but in a social and political world dotted by bizarre and subversive events, they are at best an object of mild curiosity and, at worst, morality tales to caution others against a temptation that is, at least in these cases, more political than sexual in nature.
That life under the Islamic State meant surviving rather living, given the civil war that brought it into being, or life with a Modi bhakt was marked by violence from an insecure and ambitious young man, are both unsurprising and may even be perceived with a shrug by many. There is no news story here apart from a mild fascination for the incomprehensibility of these choices. But one must fight the conclusion that young, teenaged women make mistakes and, consequently, need to be guided by their guardians.
Emotions such as love or ideas of togetherness and belonging are socially and politically conditioned more than any chords pulled by biological or psychological factors. Pandey, for example, insists that she is still a desh bhakt and a Modi supporter, in that order, and her accusation against the man she married for their shared love for Modi does not diminish her political commitment. They met through the shared joys of trolling Rahul Gandhi on social media, we are told, but their marriage, according to Pandey, meant different things for the husband and the wife.
Pandey clears looked forward to living with the ideology but she believes her husband sought publicity and fleeting fame through the commodification of their political and personal life. Pandey’s grouse against using Modi’s name for cheap publicity – a man who has reportedly spent Rs 5,000 crore from the public exchequer on self-promotion – is ironic but reflects her political idealism. Her husband clearly did not live up to her standards and, worse, used psychological and physical torture that made the marriage unliveable.
Leonara, as a 15-year-old from East Germany, married an influential ISIS leader of German descent because she found it difficult to live as a Muslim in her home town. She travelled to Syria for the freedom to practice her faith, to cover her face, to get married, to have kids and ‘live Islamic’ at a time when thousands of Syrians were fleeing to Germany from two brutal regimes.
Undoubtedly being a Muslim, especially a native German, would be difficult in East Germany but curiously the Islamic State was the only alternative in her mind. Leonara clearly wanted to be encompassed by what she perceived was the Islamic way of life rather than just embrace Islam as a private belief. Today, as she hopes to return home, she admits to being naïve – that she couldn’t see that she was joining a group of terrorists. After the fall of the city of Raqqa, she and her co-wife, Sabine, realised that their “ideal life under Sharia law” was no longer a reality. Sabine, who is 34 years old, succinctly summarised that they wanted ‘life, not death’.
Defiant marriages are about rebellion, in that one seeks a life radically different from what is presented as normal and acceptable, but they are also about political and social conditioning. While both Pandey and Leonara have chosen to return home, neither are apologetic about their decisions or their ideological commitments.
Marrying for ideology is not considered the norm by Western notions of romantic love or caste patriarchy in India, but such decisions are also examples of conformity. Pandey still believes being a desh bhakt requires love for Modi and marriage with a Modi bhakt probably appeared to be the right step in this direction at that time. Leonara similarly wanted to live under Sharia law and, though she today hopes to return home, it is to preserve life.
It is difficult to comprehend and support these examples of exercise of choice when we have strong positions against the RSS ideology/Modi bhakti and the Islamic State, like I do. This question of whether one must support the exercise of a so-called regressive choice had ironically surfaced in another context on February 1 – the World Hijab Day – and split progressive groups. Our response can be very contextual – as I am constantly exposed to anti-Muslim and anti-burkha rhetoric in Europe, I cannot dismiss the need for a Muslim woman to assert her choice in the matter. Saba Mahmood had told us in The Politics of Piety that the decision to wear such symbols is also often a product of the political context.
Pandey’s desire to conform to a mainstream saturated with Modi’s larger-than-life image is similar to Leonara’s protest against a political landscape saturated with anti-Muslim rhetoric. It is a journey similar to what someone like Hadiya had undertaken when she converted from Hinduism to Islam despite Hindutva politics and Islamophobia being on an upswing. Her spiritual faith, which she has referenced multiple times in interviews, is independent though connected to her reasons to marry a Muslim man. Regressive or not, her headscarf is today a symbol of protest in a country where many think being a desh bhakt is about hating Muslims.
Women’s choices in marriage, hence, cannot be detached from the political context in which they are exercised.
Rama Srinivasan is an anthropologist based in Germany and author of the forthcoming book Courting Desire: Litigating for Love in North India.