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Women’s voices from Atali #Vaw



Dr. Sandhya Mhatre and Neha Dabhade


(Secular Perspective, September 16-30, 2015)


A fact finding team consisting of Adv. Irfan Engineer and these writers, visited the riot torn village of Atali and dwelled into the causes, contentions and nuanced positions of different stakeholders, after two bouts of violence on 25th May and 1st July 2015 in the village. The 150 odd Muslim families in Atali have fled for their lives after two attacks on them. Only handful destitute families have remained back, citing lack of resources to being even able to go to a safer abode. The conflict, like explained in the previous article is over construction of a RCC mosque in place of an existing makeshift structure. The opposition to this construction has crystallized into a conflict which has so far uprooted the livelihood, houses, social relations and stability of many families. Amidst atmosphere vitiated by hatred, intolerance and violence, as reported before, there were liberal peace loving voices and also other voices which if viewed in light of their social and economic background makes a very intriguing if not baffling reading in the discourse of communalism and conflicts in India.


Women as perpetrators of violence in Atali


Equally nuanced, stark and confounding were the voices of women in Atali. ‘Women’ as is common across all social settings and communities are always at the social margins and excluded from decision making within family, community and village. In conflicts it’s often found that women are excluded from formal peace building processes and negotiations too. No holistic sustainable peace can be arrived at with exclusion of any section, much less women. Women’s contribution to peace building can’t be trivialized or ignored as is the experience in different conflicts. However, literature on violence and women also explore the fact that women too can be mobilized in violence. They can be both – victims and perpetrators of violence. This weighed heavily on our minds when we visited Atali and our assumptions were going to be challenged.  It roused our interest and disturbed us equally when on our first visit after 25th May violence we were told by Muslim women that the mob that attacked them and pelted stones at their houses included women. We wanted to make sense of this phenomenon against the backdrop of all contradictions that struck us odd. On the one hand we saw a woman riding a bullock cart in the village with her face covered and on the other hand women were mobilized to participate in the violence. We saw women pulling their ghunghat (face veil) as soon as men turned towards them and pulling it off when the men were not facing them. This quick pulling on and off of the ghunghats was a spectacle.


On the first visit, we met Muslim women whose houses were severely vandalized and burnt. A couple of them belonged to newly prospering families which also happen to be the most active in terms of following up legal cases related to this conflict and negotiating “peace”. These Muslim women while showing us the extent of damage done to their houses and belongings narrated the horrid tale of the violence against them. They recounted how women they greeted so often during their social interactions and at market places in their day to day life chores were part of the group which came to pelt bricks on their houses when they least expected it. For many years, the women in the village across communities and religions went to each others’ houses and met each other at festivals. Muslim women could not trust Jat women anymore after the violence. The Jat women, as reported to us by the Muslim women, went in trucks to the surrounding villages and offered bangles to the men hesitating to participate in the ongoing violence in order to shame them for their non-participation. The women from laboring class Muslim families living in housing colony constructed for them lamented that they would work on the farms of Hindu Jats and there was interdependence between them. However, these relations were adversely affected when the Hindu Jats enforced a social boycott on the Muslim families.


Social structure and Family background of the perpetrators 

After interacting with the victims, we wanted to speak to the women from Jat families to understand the reasons why and how they were mobilized. During our interactions with the Jat men in their homes, the women, though keenly interested in our conversation, were always found hiding behind the doors or curtains. They couldn’t participate in the discussions as per the traditions. Some women we talked to voiced their concerns for building peace and wanted Muslims to return to the village and were not objecting to the construction of the Mosque. By and large these women belonged to the Jat families where men too were in favour of such a solution.


We then decided to interact with a group of women without the presence of men. On our request, a group of women gathered from affluent Jat families of the village. We talked with the group in the premises of a temple. The women were in the age group of 30 to 60 years. It took us a lot of efforts to ask the men to leave and the women remove their ghunghat. Some of the younger women wouldn’t even sit on the mat because their father in law stood at a distance! We asked them to tell us about the happenings of 25th May (when 1st riot took place). They feigned ignorance and gave illusive answers.


Justifying violence against the ‘other’

But as the discussion ventured into the terrain of condition of women in general in the village and their inferior status as regards levels of education, low mobility, low visibility in public spaces and exclusion from the process of decision making, they become more articulate and opened up to us. They informed us that the Muslim women worked on their farms and had very close relations. They vehemently opined that the Muslims should neither return to the village nor be allowed to build the Mosque! While the most stridently anti-Muslim Jat men still would welcome Muslims if they withdrew cases and agreed not to construct Mosque or leave the decision of construction of Mosque to the judiciary, these women would have agreed to none of it. They strongly stated without mincing words or caring to appear political correct in front of strangers like us, that Muslim community which was a fakir community and grew on the largesse and land given to them by the Jats and their panchayat will not be allowed to build the Mosque in Atali. While some stated that they can build it outside the village limit, an “offer” proposed by some Jats, others said that no mosque anywhere should be allowed to be built.


We tried to get deeper insights into the reasons of such extreme unyielding positions coming from the suppressed strata of the society. Upon probing, a middle aged women expressed concerns that if the mosque is built, Muslims from other villages too will come to offer prayers and flood the centre of the village. Others stated that Muslims elope with girls from the Jat community and this affects the tradition and honour of the family and the community. However, they couldn’t come up with any instance of a Muslim boy eloping with a Jat girl. Not only were inter religious marriages a shameful taboo but so were inter caste marriages. They wanted the youth to follow the time honored tradition of the society and marry the matches decided by the parents irrespective of the level of education or exposure to other cultures. Any youth going against this tradition would bring shame upon the family. To the family, he would be considered dead and never allowed to return home. We are emphasizing on this point to highlight the forms of control which does not tolerate nor forgive any ‘deviant’ behaviour. Iron clad is the norms and rules of the community which is deeply steeped in hierarchy. Attempts to overcome these firmly entrenched power structures are dealt with severely. One woman lamented that the loudspeakers on the Mosque during Azaan is a nuisance to students during exams. (Shabbir Ali showed the fact finding team an undertaking by the Muslims not use loudspeakers.)


Politics of Hatred in a patriarchal society

We tried to explore what lures women into this politics of hatred in such a patriarchal society.

The answer came from Krishna, a 60 years firebrand orator and singer of feisty bhajans. She explained that women in the village meet for bhajans and go for pilgrimages to Varanasi. This is the only time they are allowed to go unaccompanied by males. She leads the group and she takes immense pride in it. She also took some others when Sadhavi Prachi came to Atali and gave a message to the women that come what may they shouldn’t allow the Muslims who are essentially betrayers to build the Mosque. The women seemed miffed with the administration for not allowing Sadhavi Prachi to visit again to guide them. They also let slip that they knew that the youth, their own sons, were planning violence on 25th May and thus accompanied the youth and children to “protect” them. When the youth were arrested it was their duty as mothers to take revenge and support the children. That’s the reasons they have dug in their heels.


Why do women participate in violence?

It’s not uncommon or unheard of women participating in communal violence. It’s become rather a norm than an exception as substantiated by reports of riots that took place in Gujarat, Mumbai and Kandhamal. But every time this happens it perturbs me not because I essentialize the quality of peace or love in women as a biological construct but because of other reasons. Women are shown the illusion of empowerment by giving legitimacy to their movement, visibility in the public arena and participation in violence against ‘other’ community if done for the cause of religion, community and nation. As pointed out by scholars like Tanika Sarkar, partially the aggression by women can be explained if viewed as a catharsis for the violence suffered by themselves at home and their low status in families and society. While this low position is not in any way challenged by these women, they are made pawns for power and protection. The notions of ‘Hindu womanhood’ are not contested when the community gives sanction to these women to contribute towards a larger goal of protecting their religion. It’s revolting if not shocking to hear some leaders from extreme nationalist organizations or right political parties to justify and defend the privileges of men that they brutally exercise over women in the form of domestic violence, dowry deaths and even Sati.


Deciding women’s identity and role in violence

Women are embodiments of identity and honor of the community and their energies must be directed towards upholding an exclusionary idea of citizenship for the marginalized minority, which also strikes fear in the heart of your own community ensuring conformity. The message given out to the Jat youth via the treatment meted out to the Muslims is to be subservient to the elder and not to engage with them as equals. Women will help in inculcating these values. By opposing inter religious marriage as cited by the women as one of the major reasons to oppose construction of the mosque, women’s control of their own bodies is appropriated. When the time of rioting is over where the women were edged to the forth of the mob with inflammatory slogans and bricks , the same women are no longer sanctioned to appear in public spaces and have an opinion or say in any peace building efforts or other matters. They are still not included in the Panchayats. Women go back into their homes and cover their faces. Despite this illusion of “empowerment” which allows selective and restricted mobility, women are easily mobilized to spread hatred and violence. Their own discrimination and exploitation stands uncontested. This is a huge concern for women’s movement which is systematically undermined by communalism. It is a challenge for secular minded organizations and civil society as a whole to understand and arrest the trend of women participating in violence and instead raise issues central to their rights- human rights and citizenship rights. By mobilizing women to participate in perpetuating violence against another marginalized group, the patriarchal communal forces are trying to take off the attention from the oppression and the need for policies and measures to attain political and economic equality of women. Possibly, in this equality, lies one of the ways to counter politics of hatred and communalism.


In Conclusion

It takes little imagination given our understanding of the patriarchal framework of our society and gender norms to comprehend that woman in such crisis face further repression and deprivation. In a male dominated society where covering their faces and not lingering around in presence of male members is considered tradition, they were marginalized within the community which was being marginalized, in the aftermath of violence.

Centre for Study of Society and Secularism


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