Tuesday, June 21, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Challenges of women in North India


Chennai, June 21, 2011
Challenges of women in North India
V. K. Natraj

Haryana is in the news these days, often for wrong reasons — for
barbaric punishments meted out by the traditional (Khap) Panchayats in
the name of justice, and for the highly unfavourable sex ratio, for
example. But the State ranks high in agricultural production.

In pre-Independence India, however, it was backward. How has the
transformation of Haryana from a deficit to a surplus State impacted
its culture and mores, especially insofar as they relate to women? How
'communal' is the State in terms of Hindu-Muslim conflict? Is there
evidence of a perceived threat among males in relation to legislation
that seeks to benefit women? These are the principal questions Prem
Chowdhry examines in this volume.

She discusses some cases of what are commonly referred to as 'communal
riots' against a wider backdrop and shows how they are often the
result of several factors, the most significant of which are claims to
and conflicts over land.

The paper, "Contours of Communalism: Religion, Caste and Identity in
South-East Punjab", where she analyses cases of the pre-Independence
years, creates a feeling of déjà vu, given the rash of communal
disturbances occurring today. Among the best in the volume, it shows
how religion came to be used as a cloak for furthering other

Arguing that 'cow protection' continues to inflame passions, she
points out, with a sense of satisfaction and profound relief, how the
Bajrang Dal/VHP combine failed in its efforts to communalise the

The challenges that confronted the traditional structure of authority
stand out as Chowdhry's major concern. Some of the interesting
questions she raises relate to gender, property and inheritance rights
of women (particularly, widows), and the resistance of the patriarchal
society to any pro-women reform. She juxtaposes the property rights of
widows with the untiring efforts of the patriarchal system to exercise
control over their sexuality.

In a highly insightful piece, she looks at the way widows sought to
retain their hold over the deceased husband's property, defying the
common practice of levirate marriage and illustrates how some even
courted the label, 'unchaste' by living with a partner instead of
submitting to the levirate/karewa system. Also evident from her
studies is that men feel threatened whenever any law that seeks to
empower women is formulated or implemented. There is the case of the
Haryana Government trying to undo some of the progressive pro-women
features of the Hindu Succession Act through an amending legislation
in 1979. It fell through because the President withheld his assent.
Men's perceived threat is also behind much of resistance to any
attempt to reform the working of traditional institutions, such as
'caste Panchayats' that perpetuate the regressive age-old practices.
'Khap' Panchayat

All the findings and discussion on these issues are particularly
relevant now, when 'Khap Panchayats' have invited the wrath of the
Supreme Court for endorsing what are called 'honour killings'. There
is also the distinct possibility of the male perception of threat
getting reinforced by the sustained efforts being made to create more
political space for women by, for example, reserving seats for them in

The contradictions noticed in rural society — subtle and sometimes not
so subtle — also get reflected in the way women are treated. The paper
on the cultural centrality of the ghunghat brings this out very well.
Women participate fully in the labour force. Yet, while it is the done
thing for men to get urbanised and take to habits associated with that
way of life, women are enjoined to "guard" the culture. The paper with
a rather evocative title "First Our Jobs, then Our Girls" explores the
complex dynamics of Dalit-non-Dalit relations. She makes the point
that state agencies do not intervene to uphold the law when Dalits are
the targets of violence.

Rich in content and critical in analysis, this is a recommended read
for academics as well as lay students interested in understanding
Indian society. Finally, one is pleased to come across a book that is
copy-edited well, a rarity these days.


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