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How to Mark IWD in a Time of an International Assault on Women’s Rights?

This is the year of attacks on women’s lives across the world.

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Please don’t “celebrate” International Women’s Day 2024, don’t send warm fuzzy congratulatory messages to me and other feminists telling us how wonderful we are. This is the year of attacks on women’s lives across the world. This March, even as we speak, the conditions of women’s lives are being pushed back to what they were decades ago; conditions we assumed were gone forever.

Women in Gaza giving birth in Gaza today might as well be in the 19th century. They’re having Caesarean sections without anaesthetic. 80% of mothers skip meals to feed their children. Stillborn babies remain in wombs, and hepatitis is endemic in the absence of clean water and toilets, so it’s a race whether infections will kill the mothers before bombs do. Babies are being “delivered into hell”, the United Nations tells us. The largest contingent of those killed and injured in Gaza are women and children.  

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In another war of occupation, 56 per cent of the approximately 4 million internally displaced in Ukraine by the Russian invasion are women; and women and girls account for 56 per cent of those expected to need humanitarian assistance this year. Sexual violence is the “most hidden crime” committed by the invading forces against Ukrainians, a crime that continues to this day.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine found that in the Kherson region, “Russian soldiers raped and committed sexual violence against women of ages ranging from 19 to 83 years.” 

The Ukraine Inquiry Commission comprises three members – one of whom is Vrinda Grover, a valiant feminist and democratic rights lawyer in India. She fights for women whose rapists are celebrated by the party in power in India. One such is Bilkis Bano: the Gujarat government secured the release of men who gang-raped her in Gujarat in 2002. These rapists were publicly welcomed home as heroes.

Vrinda’s efforts led to the Supreme Court sending those men back to prison. She also secured the conviction of the man who raped a Muslim woman in the organised anti-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. BJP leaders openly congratulated rioters saying “The embers that you created made Narendra Modi the Prime Minister.” Her work puts her in the category the PM describes as those who “tarnish the image of the country in the name of human rights violations.”

Delhi University held a Women’s Day event – for which women students and faculty were (implicitly) mandated to download the NaMo app to register themselves. A day marking women’s resistance is being used to pressure women to publicly perform rituals of subjugation and loyalty to the government and one man who heads it!   

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Did you send messages to anyone on IWD with that line yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra Devata, yatraitaastu na pujyante sarvaastatrafalaah kriyaah (the deities delight in places where women are revered, but where women are not revered all rites are fruitless)?

Did you know it’s from the Manusmriti, a law book that also declares: “A woman is not fit for independence,” and insists that “Men must make their women dependent day and night, and keep under their own control those who are attached to sensory objects. Her father guards her in childhood, her husband guards her in youth, and her sons guard her in old age.” In the light of these and other prescriptions in the Manusmriti, it’s clear that “where women are revered” basically translates to “where women are unfree”. Add that to your Women’s Day WhatsApp greeting, and I don’t think too many women will thank you.

In the Manusmriti, “women out of control” means women free to make love to, marry, or have children with men from castes “beneath” them in the caste hierarchy; and especially, horror of horrors, if a savarna woman’s partner is an “untouchable.” If women are out of control, it’ll result in an age of chaos and corruption – Kaliyuga. If women evade their vigilant/violent “guardians”, and are free to “wander about” breaking caste barriers in love, hierarchies will be turned “upside down,” the “barriers (of caste) will be broken” and “castes will be mixed up and polluted”, no one will be able to dominate and own anyone else, and sudras will usurp the place of brahmins.  

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NCW Chief Rekha Sharma says 30% of rape charges are falsely alleged by women. The truth is, an estimated 40% of rape cases registered in our country are indeed false: but these cases are never mentioned by those who talk loudest about men victimised by women in false cases of rape. These cases are false because they’re filed, not by women, but by women’s parents, when their daughter elopes consensually with a man she loves, especially if he’s from a “lower” caste, the same “gotra”, or another faith.

When police register such cases, they usually hunt down the woman and hand her back to her parents’ custody where she may be beaten, starved, drugged and otherwise coerced to give up the relationship of her choice. This pervasive violence is rarely mentioned in official and public discourse, and is reluctantly acknowledged only when it manifests as “honour killings.” 

Such violence against women’s autonomy has always been socially sanctioned and only tacitly supported by institutions of the state. Laws formally protected women’s autonomy, and however difficult it was in practice, women and their partners could hope for some justice from the courts. We can no longer take that for granted.

The BJP and its governments are now making laws that attack women’s autonomy and individual privacy, and demand government sanction for inter-faith marriages and “live-in” relationships.

Under the fig leaf of “anti-conversion” ordinances and laws enacted by BJP Governments in several states, inter-faith marriages have to be vetted by state authorities. And now they’re doing away with fig leaves, and are flaunting their true intent: as in the instance of Uttarakhand’s “Uniform Civil Code” that demands that unmarried couples cannot cohabit without the permission of state authorities.

On International Women’s Day, it’s especially important to note that the ideology of India’s Hindu right-wing and the actions of the government are increasingly popular with anti-democratic political forces and regimes internationally.  

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Russian fascist Alexandr Dugin, foremost ideologue of a growing global anti-democratic discourse, takes the “Made in India” system of caste-hierarchy as his model for the world, a world he says is now in a stage of “degeneration, mixing and turning all values upside down, characteristic of the dark age: Kaliyuga.” the proper hierarchies of caste, race, gender have been upturned by democratic consciousness. In a 2012 interview in Delhi, he said, “We must create strategic alliances to overthrow the present order of things, of which the core could be described as human rights, anti-hierarchy, and political correctness – everything that is the face of the Beast, the anti-Christ or, in other terms, Kali-Yuga.

It’s clear that the Kaliyuga that is Dugin’s enemy, is democracy itself, which he claims is a conspiracy of western/westernised “liberal elites” to promote “more immigrants, more feminism, more open society, more gender.” Liberal elites, he says, have made Europe culturally effete “through immigration and gender politics.” In the war against the Kaliyuga where women and queer people have equal rights and dignity, he sees Putin, Trump, Meloni, Orban, Xi Jinping, Modi, farthest-right Zionist ideologues, the Taliban, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime as frontline fighters leading a battle to liberate the world from democracy and human rights.  

The Hindu right-wing describes any relationship between a Muslim man and a Hindu woman as “love jihad.” In 2023, Israel enacted a law implicitly making it possible to charge Arab men with terrorism when they’re accused of sexual violence and implicitly, even if they’re in consensual relationships with Jewish women. This law (described by its critics as a law against racial mixing) reflects the shrill demands by far-right leaders of the ruling coalition as well as opposition, for laws to “save Jewish women” from the “sexual terrorism of Arab men.”

Women’s groups have protested that “this law does not see sexual violence as wrong because it’s a violation of women’s safety, autonomy, or personhood,” but rather because of the “impurity” associated with miscegenation. Hear the echoes of “Beti Bachao” and “Love jehad” and the Manusmriti horror of miscegenation - “mixing” of castes? 

The Kaliyuga where women roam free and challenge hierarchies is a nightmare to authoritarians and anti-democratic politicians everywhere in the world. But what they fear and attack is the banner of our resistance and revolution. The defence of democracy and resistance to bigoted politics of all stripes can be successful only when it’s rooted in a defence of feminism and queer rights.

(Kavita Krishnan is a women's rights activist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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