Recently considerable outrage has been excited in democratic circles in India by an ultimatum issued by a little-known militant group in Kashmir, the Lashkar-e-Jabbar. The group announced that all Muslim women in the valley of Kashmir would have to wear the burqa (hijab) and those who did not would be "punished". There followed attacks with acid on the faces of unveiled women, and threats to shoot after the deadline passed. Apart from one major women's organization, Dukhtaraan-e-Millat, which has supported the call, all the other militant groups denounced this ultimatum, and have raised doubts as to the existence of this group, suggesting it may be part of the Indian state's strategy to discredit militancy in Kashmir. However, the threat is real, and many women have taken to the burqa who didn't wear one till now.
For those struggling to protect democratic rights in India, this is yet another attempt in several over the past few years, to control women's dress and behaviour in the name of cultural purity. Organizations of the Hindu Right such as the Bajrang Dal and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (both with close links to the Bharatiya Janta Party, leading the alliance currently in government), have been trying to enforce dress codes for women in universities, claiming that sexual harrassment would decrease if women dressed "respectably" and according to "Indian tradition." Interestingly, the Lashkar-e-Jabbar in Kashmir also "appealed" to "Hindu and Sikh sisters" to wear a bindi (a dot on the forehead) in order to be spared from attack. Clearly, when it comes to cultural marking of women, the right wing is united across ideological lines.
It is by now a phenomenon well recorded by feminist scholarship and politics, that communities vest their honour in "their" women, and that cultural policing begins with marking and then drawing women "inside" the community. Particularly when a minority community feels its identity or existence is under threat, then its proud assertion of identity will always be marked on the bodies of "its" women first. And we have seen how the complex dynamics of minority identity in a multicultural society with a substantial majority community, makes it difficult to come up with a straightforward "feminist" response in such cases, for fear of simply feeding into racist/Hindu stereotyping of minorities as reactionary and backward.
But this is something feminists have written and talked about for a long time now. What I am interested in here, is another aspect of cultural policing. Let me take up a statement made by a young Muslim woman in Kashmir who took to the veil after the threats. She had never worn a burqa before, and said to her interviewer that she was terribly unhappy, and felt restricted and bound. "I used to go the beauty parlour regularly," she said plaintively, "but now I don't have to bother about my face." This statement is also put in a bold blurb across the article, so that it is what first strikes you, the poignancy of a young girl declaring sadly that she no longer has to bother about her face, because she has been imprisoned inside a burqa. However, at another point in the interview, she conceded that she felt safer in public, because men were more respectful "It can be liberatory", she said, "you can go wherever you want to go."
So there you have it. The burqa offering a refuge from sexual harrassment and some of the restrictions faced by young girls, and the beauty parlour the realm of self-expression, emancipation from enforced veiling. A painful seesaw for a feminist to be trapped on! Is cultural policing any less effective when not backed by a gun but by societal consensus? When Brazilian women die on plastic surgeon's tables, when American teenagers risk death and eat less and less in order to stay beautifully thin, is that cultural policing too, or an expression of "free will"? If that young Kashmiri girl could continue to go to beauty parlours, would she have been much freer to express "herself"?
There is a peculiarity to this moment in history, particularly when one is located in a post-colonial democracy like India. (I use "post-colonialism" not simply as "after" colonialism, but in another sense, as the discourse of oppositionality which colonialism brings into being - post-coloniality thus begins from the very first moment of colonial contact). In the face of a renewed and relentless moral rhetoric through the 90s from the Right, targeting women as the repositories of cultural purity, one kind of critical response has been from the globalized elite, celebrating "choice", "individual freedom" and "women's right to their bodies". Thus, when the Right has attacked beauty contests and celebrations of Valentine's Day as being "western" and "morally corrupting", the Indian elites have reasserted pride in our "modernity", and "our women's" confidence on the international stage (several Indian women have been Miss Universe and Miss World in the last few years).
In this debate, the Left seems to have fallen into the trap of equating "anti-globalist/anti-imperialist" with "nationalist", in the process, taking positions similar to those of the Right. The two state governments that banned beauty contests recently were the BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh and the Communist Party-ruled West Bengal. Banning of beauty contests is no solution if one's critique is about commodification of women's bodies, and about the necessity to problematize the notion of "choice" in a capitalist and sexist society.
The challenge for feminist politics in this context is the working out of a third space for a radical politics of culture. One that is differentiated both from generally right-wing and also Left articulations of cultural nationalism, as well as from the libertarian and celebratory responses to globalization from the consuming elites. The need is to recover an older feminist and marxist critique of commodification that will address both kinds of cultural policing - the coercion of the right-wing, as well as the hegemony of the "free Western world."