Urvashi Sarkar is a freelance journalist and currently works in the development sector.

It does not matter whether they are Muslim or Hindu, conservative forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India seem to have found a common enemy: Women.

One of the first things the Taliban did when they seized power in Afghanistan in 1996 was to impose restrictions on women. They were ordered to leave the public arena: going to work was not allowed, "inappropriate" clothing was banned, driving was taboo. One woman was actually beaten to death because she had accidentally exposed her arm while driving.

It is not as bad in Pakistan. Yet, it is hard to dismiss the Hudood Ordinance or the fact that a young woman marrying a man of her choice can be tortured, imprisoned and subjected to violence by her own family. Further east in India, one of the first things the Sangh Parivar did when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power was to target women. Groups of women were trotted out to declare their faith in matri shakti, the strength of motherhood. Those who did not conform to this exposition of Hindu womanhood were singled out and accused of being "Western" and anti-national. Earlier in Surat, after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Muslim women were raped by Hindu men who claimed that they were avenging the rape of their sisters by Muslim men at Partition.

More recently, Christian nuns (perhaps because they renounce marriage to a mortal man and are wedded to Christ) were targetted and raped. Deepa Mehta, the director of Fire, a film about a sexual relationship between two women, had to face threats and intimidation—how could she spread such slander about women? How could she claim that women could actually have the gall to express their sexuality?

Are these just isolated happenings or do they signal something wider, something that goes beyond mere intolerance? A film is stopped, women are raped, an actor's home becomes the target for a demonstration by virtually naked men, a painter's work is destroyed because it hurts the sentiments of a particular community, a high-ranking naval officer is dismissed because of his supposed defiance and is accused by a colleague of having anti-national sympathies because his wife is half-Muslim and does not fit the stereotype of the docile spouse, a cricket pitch is dug up… These are only some of the incidents of what we mistakenly call intolerance. And through many of these incidents runs a common thread: attacks on women.

At one time such violence could be passed off as "fundamentalist" or "communal". No more. The answers are not that simple. We've known for a long time now that in times of communal or sectarian conflict, women are specifically targetted. They are the ones who become markers of the community, it is they who come to represent 'culture' and their desecration is a way of getting back at the men of the 'other' community. We don't need to look any further than the Partition for evidence of this.

The division of one country and the creation of another on the basis of religion was marked by widespread and systematic violence. While the killing and loot and arson went on, another kind of violence was taking place: hundreds of women were stripped naked and paraded in the streets, several had their breasts cut off, others were tattooed with the symbols of the 'other' religion, and many were raped. In each of these cases, the target was the woman's body. But it was more than the body: this was another way of getting at the woman's mind.

Fair game

That was then. Today we're living in what we might call 'normal' times. Yet, women continue to face the same kind of violence and threats.

Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, offers an explanation. Speaking of the Muslim world and its increasing conservativeness towards women the world over (and she could well be speaking of other religions and communities), she says that such conservativeness does not, as is often argued, take people 'back' to medieval times. Instead, it's root is in the here and now. The far-reaching and profound changes that we are seeing in sex roles and in the relationships of power and love between men and women (many as a result of the women's movement the world over) have given rise to deep-seated fears in the minds of both men and women. The violence is a defence mechanism against the changes in sex roles and the difficult question of sexual identity. And it finds support among some women because the kind of change this implies in the 'givens' of relationships is as frightening for women as it is for men.

We're talking then about the modern world and very modern fears. Over the years more and more women have been coming into the public sphere. The competition for jobs has grown, the already small slice of the pie has had to be divided further. Increasingly, women are proving themselves to be as good as, and often better, than men in the workplace. The globalisation of the world's economy, particularly in our countries, has opened up some job opportunities (albeit for a short term), and increasingly, women are preferred in these jobs.

As more women move into the public sphere, the fear grows. Mernissi says that fundamentalists in the Muslim world are also obsessed with the question of women's education primarily because that trend tends to destroy the traditional boundaries and sex roles: it brings them out into schools, it sets them up against men. One might go so far as to say, as Indian historian Uma Chakravarti does, that potentially, and often actually, every man is a sort of 'fundamentalist'. This is because they see themselves as being the norm, or definers of the norm—and every fundamentalist posture is built on a perceived deviation from a perceived norm. This 'imagined community' or brotherhood has, as one of its bases, a desire to keep women in line. Thus a man, any man, will think nothing of stopping a woman, any woman, walking down a street, any street, and telling her to "cover her head" by assuming some god-given (or male-assumed) right to do so.

In a way it is almost as if a sort of internal violence lurks within men all the time. Inside the home this takes the form of psychological and physical violence against the woman members. They can be subjected to this for something as trivial as wanting to wear a particular piece of clothing, or something as important as wanting to marry a man of their choice, or even something as basic as refusing to perform their sexual 'duties'. And when these same 'violations' enter the public space, it is 'natural' to pick on women because they must be kept within the boundaries that have been set for them.

Any woman who occupies public space then, automatically becomes fair game. There is 'traditional' sanction here too, one that relates to women of the 'other' class, the lesser ones. For among our caste societies, the only women who did, and continue to occupy public space, were and are from the 'lower' castes, those who work the fields. And despite their 'untouchability' they have, for years, been fair game. It is, once again, that time-worn difference between those who have power and those who do not, or those who see themselves as the norm, and those who (like women) are different, and do not conform.

In today's world though, women of all classes are in the public space, and it is not so easy to send them back into the home and family. So rules are set for this space too—limits that dictate how far women can go, and where the boundaries are drawn. The most threatening, because it is the least understood aspect of a woman's identity, her sexuality, is the one that needs clamping down on.

Sanctioned rape

Perhaps the more practical reason that people (men) go for women in times of conflict or otherwise, could be that, in many ways, women provide much easier targets—one could almost say they are 'soft' targets. They are easier to attack, they don't hit back in the way that men can and often do, and most of the time, in order to attack them, men need only to take out that time-tested and old weapon, rape, which serves a double purpose: violate the woman, and 'humiliate' the men of her family and community by occupying her body.

There is increasing sanction for such violence against women these days. Television and films have to take a considerable portion of the blame for making it seem not only routine, but also desirable, not only acceptable, but something that is a necessary part of any self-construct of the male.

Closer to home, there are other reasons: after many years of flexing their muscles, the BJP have finally come into power at the Centre. And yet, it is a poor sort of power: hanging by a thread on a tenuous coalition that could break any moment. The BJP's fringe extremists, therefore, have to use other means to assert and exhibit this power. And what better method than to go for the women, not only of one's own community, but of the other communities as well? By aiming at one, they confirm their manhood, and by aiming at the other, they prove the emasculation of the males of the other community. Two purposes at one stroke.

It is time to understand the roots of this kind of violence. In this increasingly uncertain world, keeping women inside the confines of the home, or within the bounds of patriarchy, is about the only thing men can hold on to. It is the only thing that can give them a feeling of power, as they come face to face with their own increasing loss of inherited power. And women will have to fight that much harder to hold on to whatever space they have managed to gain in the public arena before they begin to fight for more, and more.

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