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UP anti-conversion law pushes women back under parental and community control

The attempt to rob women of their agency is an attempt to produce a docile female population that does as it is told, and does not rebel against societal and familial directives.

Written by Insiyah Vahanvaty | Updated: December 17, 2020 8:43:05 am
This communal propaganda does nothing to safeguard women’s rights, rather it further curtails their mobility, social interactions and freedom of choice.

“Love jihad”, a concept steeped in religious conspiracy theories, argues that Muslim men in India are waging a war against the Hindu population by enticing and marrying young innocent Hindu girls. This alleged war reaches its culmination when girls are forcibly converted to Islam, thus increasing numbers of Muslims and diminishing those of Hindus. Given that the Islamic community represents only 14 per cent of India’s population, this idea of a hostile takeover would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous in its intent of targeting a minority community already persecuted by vigilantes and zealots. Making a bad situation worse is the state machinery of Uttar Pradesh that has put its weight behind this ordinance.

As a Muslim woman who married a Hindu man, I have many objections to this idea. First is the allegation which implies that Muslim men are executing a conspiracy, rather than simply exercising their fundamental right to choose their partners. It was this very right that my husband and I exercised when we decided to get married, despite being from different faiths and backgrounds.

We know that interfaith marriages can exist between people of any religions. However, “love jihad” is only considered as such when it is between a Muslim man and a Hindu woman, which makes the assumption behind the law deeply communal. There is no question over unions between Sikh/Jain/Christian persons and Hindu individuals, which are commonplace, and also involve conversions sometimes. It is also interesting that no state authority has so far had any quarrel with Hindu men marrying Muslim women. Is it to be assumed, then, that unions like mine are fictional? The obvious question here is: Why this demonisation of Muslim men?

Disturbingly, the Uttar Pradesh anti-conversion ordinance allows any relative of the Hindu woman to challenge the legitimacy of her marriage. In this case, the reverse burden of proof would apply, wherein the person who facilitated the conversion would need to prove that it was not forced, while disregarding the woman’s testimony of having consented to the conversion and marriage. This is a direct violation of the right to be deemed innocent until proven guilty; an aspect that is particularly worrying for Hindu women exercising their right to choose their life partners.

This anxiety has deep-seated patriarchal roots, wherein a woman is perceived as little more than cattle, handed over from her parents to her husband, with little say in the matter. As we saw in the infamous Hadiya case, the woman’s assertions of having converted and married her husband by choice was of little value. She was initially “returned to the custody of” her parents, and only reunited with her husband after a long battle to convince the courts of her autonomy. This reverse burden of proof completely disregards a woman’s consent and agency.

The Hindu nationalist narrative talks of a systematic Islamic conspiracy to “outbreed” Hindus. However, the fact remains that Indian Muslims never were, nor are, concerned with becoming a majority community. If this were the objective, they would not have opted to remain in a Hindu-majority India after Partition, where it was clear that they would be a minority. The Hindutva brigade knows this too; they are not in truth worried about Muslim numbers overtaking that of Hindus; what they simply cannot stomach is the idea that women might break free of the shackles of patriarchy and reclaim control over their own sexualities. After all, just last year saw thousands of women leading the charge against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act — a sight that was deeply disquieting for those who seek to subjugate and control.

While Muslims are understandably upset with the glaringly communal ordinance, the real victims here are Hindu women. This ordinance should elicit deep indignation amongst young, liberal Hindu women, as it contravenes their constitutional right to choose a partner for themselves. The ordinance recants the free will of Hindu women, undermines their autonomy and civil liberties. Adult women are infantilised, placed under parental and community control, and denied the right to take life decisions, should those decisions not be agreeable to their guardians.

Historically, marriage has been a tool to control women’s sexualities, promulgate caste lineage and stop women from exercising their autonomy. This communal propaganda does nothing to safeguard women’s rights, rather it further curtails their mobility, social interactions and freedom of choice.

Young Indian women of all faiths are increasingly seeking freedom — to work, study, marry who they choose and live life on their own terms. These basic rights must not be questioned or curtailed. A woman’s agency is her own, and no parent, relative or state apparatus should be given the authority to coerce her. The attempt to rob women of their agency is an attempt to produce a docile female population that does as it is told, and does not rebel against societal and familial directives.

As one half of an interfaith couple, I see this ordinance as deeply problematic. When I was married under the Special Marriage Act in 2009, ideas like “love jihad” were not even a conversation worth having. In our interfaith home, I choose to attend poojas as willingly as my husband dons a cap for Muharram prayers. We eat paya and nihari for breakfast, and vegetarian meals for dinner. We celebrate Eid with biryani and Holi with a riot of colours. We have twice the fun and twice as many celebrations. What’s not to love about that? Our lives are a testimony to the India I grew up in — one that was born of bloodshed but rose above it to mark itself with unity, togetherness and diversity.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 17, 2020 under the title ‘The plot against Hindu women’. Insiyah Vahanvaty is a writer and editor and the founder of GoondaRaj, a social justice initiative and podcast

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