Subjugation and arbitrariness masquerading as cultural practices, religious edicts and gender perception continue to be the existential issues facing women. Discrimination triumphs over equality, the much-touted sustaining element of our social fabric. Frequent use of the language of discrimination for perpetuating gender inequity produces a trail of exclusions stretching to multiple spheres of life. Gender-based brutality transcends the boundaries of severe material deprivation and social isolation.
The concept of womanhood abetted by overt patriarchal customs gives enforced denial and abnegation a divine appearance. A skewed discourse wrapped in trustworthy vocabulary effaces the possibilities of empowerment of women belonging to marginalised communities. Marginalisation results in confinement, seclusion and displacement and other crippling disadvantages, and brings forth various layers of social closure. Social closure is the process of subordination, in which one group usurps all opportunities by bringing another group to its knees. To quote Raymond Murphy: “Social closure is a process of subordination whereby one group monopolises advantages by closing off opportunities to another group of outsiders beneath it which it defines as inferior and ineligible.” Max Weber used the term social closure to discuss how power is derived from the process of exclusion to restrict access of marginalised women to resources and opportunities.
Among the suppressed and exploited female groups, which include slum dwellers, tribal communities, the differently-abled, and women belonging to nomadic communities such as the Gadia Lohar of Rajasthan and the Namasudra caste of the north-eastern region, the most marginalised are the Muslim women, who are subaltern within subaltern groups. They endure physical punishments and experience heightened suspicion and apathy. The prevalent economic and social indicators cannot ascertain their invisibility. Their deep-rooted privation on several counts in apparent and complex contexts manifests an ever-widening rupture in the social bond.
Victims of gender-based violence irrespective of religious identity, marginalised women are forced to fend for themselves, and their redemption through equal rights and active participation in the democratic process sounds quixotic. What constitutes the social universe of marginalised women? Why does their social and economic struggle against institutional control go unheeded? Why is virginity used as a pretext for veiling female eroticism? Why does their life-long segregation raise no eyebrows? These questions are central to comprehend the multi-layered social exclusion discourse which emerges as a new paradigm to analyse the dynamics of economic and social oppression. These pertinent points call for a judicious, palpable and nuanced elucidation. The brilliantly edited anthology, Women of Marginalised Communities: Concerns about Exclusion, seeks to respond to these queries adroitly.
The book, edited by Azra Musavi and Juhi Gupta, makes a sincere attempt to identify the predicament and plight of women who find themselves in a quagmire of ordeal set up by the majoritarian and patriarchal world view.
New means of exploitation
Academics belonging to various disciplines such as social medicine, sociology, political science, education, humanities, English, media studies, geography, and gender studies, through their perceptive research studies have tried to locate the suppressed women beyond the quotidian narrative of victimhood and persecution. The articles explain how new means of exploitation in the guise of exigencies of governance prevent vulnerable women from joining the mainstream.
Eminent historian Professor Shirin Moosvi in her insightful but laconic foreword points out that women believe and nurture stereotypes propagated by the patriarchy. The narrative of inferiority keeps flowing, no matter how the socio-economic structure has changed. She writes: “Class-based societies have always found it advantageous to have men of oppressed classes believe that though inferior to the higher strata they were still superior to their womenfolk. The conditions thus appear especially complex in case of women belonging to the so-called ‘depressed’ communities. It is often seen, as with processes like ‘Sanskritisation’ ( a la M.D. Srinivas) and ‘ashrafisation’ (the corresponding process among Muslims), that as backward classes go up in the social scale, women of those communities become subject to new repressive practices, e.g., prohibition of widow remarriage, increased seclusion (among Muslims, ‘purdah’) and denial of the ability to work outside the home and earn income on their own.” Her observations subvert the popular notion that improved social status does have a positive bearing on the lives of women. Repressive methods continue unabated, and women continue to be subjected to cruelty.
With even-handed attention, the editors have divided the anthology into four sections to acquaint the readers with a well-thought-out debate on education, empowerment, mental health and the constitutional, judicial, and political status of women of marginalised groups. Much is said about the inhuman attitude towards women but no attempt is made to evaluate it dispassionately and place it in proper perspective.
Caste holds sway
One tends to side with Azra Musavi, director at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and Juhi Gupta, assistant professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, AMU, when they correlate the complex process of marginalisation with the discrepant nature of women. The collective consciousness of women looks unpredictable owing to the density of centuries-old pain and anguish of denial. Feminist theorists deliberate upon ways to combat inter-sectional discrimination that looms large, no matter whether a woman opts for matrilocal or patrilocal way of living. Caste still holds sway over the fate of Indian women and the editors justly remark, “the domination of women under the patriarchal caste structure has resulted in women situated in various pockets of social exclusion created by the intersection of caste, class ethnicity and gender, experiencing discrimination of varying degrees across numerous aspects such as access to resources, social goods and services, political rights and power.” Caste also serves as a potent mechanism to perpetuate subordination and exclusion, which according to the sociologist Anthony Giddens, “is not about graduations of inequality, but about mechanisms that act to detach groups of people from the social mainstream”.
The assortment of articles begins with a prelusive article by Krishna Menon, dean, School of Human Studies, Dr B.R. Ambedkar University Delhi, in which she thoroughly interrogates the category of women. Womanhood is a social construct which takes a different shape in the cross-cultural milieu. Krishna Menon finds this concept both convincing and intimidating as she asserts: “Would this mean that feminist would need to abandon the politics of Solidarity? The lack of common content, however, need not necessarily exclude the possibility of drawing connections.” She shuts out the emancipatory narrative of universal feminism and posits culture and space-centric feminism. She writes: “South Asian feminism emerges as a distinct possibility—not an inter-nations of South Asian feminism, neither unitary feminism of South Asia—rather feminism that while being mindful of the larger context of South Asia would also be alive to the complex histories of the specific places where women struggle and resist.”
The first section titled “Education and Marginalised Women” carries five articles on education and health care, education and empowerment. They are “The Case of Gadia Lohar Women”; “A Relook, Towards Gender and Disability”; “Educational Status of Muslim Women in Murshidabad”; “Understanding the Marginalised Slum Women; and “Marginalised Namasudra Communities”. The vulnerabilities of women can be dismantled only when restrictions to education are removed. In their articles in this section, Deepti Kavethekar, Monica Maini, Afaq Ahmad Mir, Mustafijur Rahman and Aarbinda Roy and Dr Sanjeev Kumar talk about the life-long and intergenerational impact of the lack of education from different perspectives. It is distressing to note that the government does not employ a holistic and far-reaching strategy to resolve the issue.
In the second section, M. Ishaq Bhat, Zareen Fatima, Moazzam Ahmad Khan, Ishfaq Majeed, Sana Qadim, S.N. Fatimi and Ruchika Varma employ the case study method, a reliable tool of qualitative and quantitative research, to ascertain the impact of globalisation on Kashmiri women; the challenges faced by the women of the north-eastern region in combating inequalities; health and sanitation issue of slum women of Aligarh; and reconfiguration of patriarchy with regard to the mental health of women in Uttar Pradesh.
Here one looks for an incisive study of different but equally powerful socio-cultural traditions in the backdrop of the attitude towards women. But, the text hardly lives up to it.
The third section devotes attention to the constitutional, judicial and political status of women of the marginalised groups. This section has articles by Ziya Hasan, Sadia Khan, Sarah Kidwai, P. Nandini, P.S. Sridevi, Sonia Sahni, Twinkle Siwach and Shewata Srivastava. At a time when inter-caste marriage is seen as proof of guilt that is met with severe punishment, Shweta Srivastava has produced a well-documented article titled “Intercaste Marriages as an Instrument of Social Change” in which she has made the runaway women of the marginalised caste the object of academic deliberation. Armed with empirical data and the Supreme Court verdict on the issue, she concludes that inter-caste marriages create a democratic and secular society. The development of the country is linked with inter-caste marriage because social opposition decreases the power and capacity of both males and females.
The fourth section titled, “Theorisation and Critiques on Various Aspects of Women’s Marginalisation”, goes into the theoretical perspectives and focusses on various aspects of marginalisation. Waseem Akber Baba, Mayauri Chaturvedi, Joyti Diwakar, Seema Kazmi, Aastha Mehishra and Megha Negi proffer an informed debate in their essays.
Muslim women in Hindi cinema
In her well-rounded article, “Framing of Muslim Women in Hindi Mainstream Cinema”, in this section, Nishat Haider identifies frames through which Muslim women are silenced, marginalised and rendered invisible in mainstream Hindi cinema. It is hoped that prospective film-makers find her suggestion plausible. She writes: “The film-maker should not give voice to the Muslim woman in the sense that s/he does not speak for her; rather, s/he unblocks/frees space to allow her to speak; and her voice, in turn, revises the film-maker’s own voice that will offer new perspectives for the re-imagination of the complex web of Muslim gendered identities.”
The collection of 23 articles bearing the fruits of research and academic rigour are invested with the possibilities of bringing in new perspectives and starting a pulsating debate on the elemental predicaments of various marginalised groups.