1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009)

Gender, Religion and Democratic Politics in India (Draft)



This is the Final Research Report on India in the Religion, Politics and Gender Equality Project.

The paper explores the interplay of gender, religion and democratic politics in India, a context of an avowedly democratic society characterized by high levels of cultural and religious pluralism in which politicized religion has become an important element in politics, legal debates and everyday life. It particularly explores the roles played by women in Hindutva politics and campaigns, and the impact of this on the rights and empowerment of women. It furthermore takes up the issue of the effects of identity politics on minority women’s rights.

The paper argues that the Hindu right has used women instrumentally to gain legitimacy and to broaden political support for the Hindutva project. But when the BJP came to power (1998-2004) it did very little to secure women’s rights. The party managed to mobilize women but empowering them was not a central feature of this project. The principal goal remained the construction of a women’s constituency to enlarge the social base of the party on the way to acquiring formal political power.

The resistance of minority communities to legal reform in the name of preserving their cultural identity in a highly plural society with a strong regime of minority rights stands in the way of gender equality. However, against those who argue that in the current communal conjuncture, reform within Muslim personal laws or Islamic feminism is the best strategy for enhancing the scope of Muslim women’s rights, the paper argues that such an approach tends to freeze identities within religious boundaries. The special privileging of identity politics with regard to Muslim women has been constrained by the fact that little attention has been given to the multiple cross-cutting identities of Muslim women based on class, language and region among others that characterize India’s extraordinary diversity. It has been further constrained by the marginalization of India’s Muslims and by their under-representation in decision-making institutions and parliaments.

The paper highlights the willingness of the state to accommodate religious sentiment and to countenance an enlargement in the religious communities’ influence as one of the main problems in the context of religion, politic s and gender equality. It argues that this has contributed to fostering community identity politics and communal conflict which has strengthened the forces opposing women’s rights.

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