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Antifeminism in India
Misogyny in India’s Patriarchal Politics

Illustration: The legs of a garment-covered woman, with snadalas on her feet, are standing opposed to the legs of three men.
Illustration: © Rosa Kammermeier

India is the world’s largest democracy, leading the narrative of inclusivity, sovereignty, pluralism, and gender parity from the front. But as the country celebrates its 75th year of independence with much pomp and show, nearly 50% of its population of women and girls remain excluded from enjoying their equal rights across the country and struggle to find a rightful spot in its patriarchal political space.

By Kanika Gupta

Dear Lydiette, as is with Mexico, India is no stranger to gender-based discrimination and violence. A trend that is becoming all too visible in the country's growing intolerance for the “fairer sex”. 
I have reported extensively from Afghanistan on the loss of women’s rights in the aftermath of the U.S.’s withdrawal and its subsequent fall to the Taliban. Having seen a country turn from democracy to theocracy gave me a much deeper insight into what the former means in terms of human rights and liberties. But what struck me as alarming was that women in India, despite belonging to the world’s largest democracy, are fighting similar battles at home. Misogyny, deeply entrenched in Indian culture, forms the core of our political landscape. From sexist comments passed on to female parliamentarians to systematically keeping them outside the decision-making process, India has a long way to go before it can call itself a gender-equal society as enshrined in the constitution.

Battles of the sexes – Love Jihad 

India is the world’s largest liberal democracy. But its women seem to be losing their representation with each passing day. Deep rooted patriarchy has always put the burden of the community’s honour on women, making them ‘prized possessions’ of men who feel the need to protect it at any cost – even if that cost is to take away their right to choose. Love jihad is one such tool that first came around the mid-2000s and has since gained momentum with the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India, gaining legitimacy through popular legal and political support. The term, coined by the Hindu right, describes an alleged situation where Muslim men persuade Hindu women into marrying them for the sole objective of converting them to Islam.
Dr. Vibhuti Patel, an expert on women’s studies and Head of Economics at SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai, however, calls love jihad a barbaric assault on women’s rights, autonomy, and agency.
A report by Al Jazeera in July this year highlighted the case of Amandeep Kaur, a 24-year-old Sikh woman whose relationship with 22-year-old Usman Qureshi not only became a public spectacle, but also the basis for Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion, a law deemed unconstitutional by legal experts and an effort to subjugate women. The anti-conversion law is nothing but yet another attempt to place women under patriarchal control that infantilizes and denies them the right to make important life decisions.

Gender Imbalance – Women’s Reservation Bill in a Limbo

Patriarchal tendencies and unchecked sexism in India’s political system have made it necessary for women to participate actively in the country’s legislation. But regardless of being a representative democracy, women’s severe lack of representation in the parliament has India at 149th rank out of 193, reveals a study by Inter-Parliamentary Union.
According to Election Commission of India (ECI) data, women represent 10.5% of Members of Parliament (MPs) and only 9% of Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs). 2021 Global Gender Gap Index released by World Economic Forum further relegates India’s position by 28 places in gender equality – a trend believed to be in part due to the slide in political participation of women. Women are often demotivated, character assassinated, or routinely side-lined by being told they don't belong in politics. As such, women not only struggle to make a space for themselves in political parties but also navigate rampant sexism, denying them a safe level-playing field. For instance, recently a prominent male party member asked a woman MP to “go home and cook” instead of being in politics, highlighting the normalization of gender stereotypes and misogynistic attitudes in the Indian parliament.
To overcome this searing gender imbalance, the Indian government needs to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill that has been languishing at the Lok Sabha table since 2008. The bill proposes the reservation of 1/3rd seats for women in parliament and all state assemblies. Despite being introduced in the parliament several times since its launch in 1996, the status of the bill remains undecided due to non-consensus amongst political parties. However, Dr Patel explains that no rule of parliament requires a bill to achieve consensus before being passed. Moreover, since the current government is in majority, getting consensus should hardly be a challenge. “What then prevents the government from letting the lawmakers decide the fate of the bill?”

Equal representation of men and women is a prerequisite for a successful democracy. But failing to pass the bill despite numerous attempts is nothing but the lack of political will by the mainstream parties.

No Freedom of speech – online abuse and harassment

Free and inclusive internet has forever altered the way Indian citizens engage in political discourse, an activity considered critical to modern democracy. Online spaces are especially helpful for women and marginalized communities to break barriers and become politically active, thereby expanding the participatory scope of democracy. However, the unchecked digital environment in India is also a breeding ground for hate speech, abuse, and harassment directed at politically-active women.
A study by Amnesty International noted that up to 95% of women politicians in India receive more than 10,000 abusive or objectionable tweets every day. These abusive attacks are not just limited to women in political space but also journalists, activists, students, etc. I have witnessed these attacks online, sometimes have been at the receiving end of it myself. When attacks against women are carried out online, the borderless reach of social media platforms can amplify the effects of psychological abuse, undermining women’s sense of security and forcing them into self-censorship. Dr Patel explains that attacking women in digital spaces has become a tool to silence them. Relentless targeting of women journalists, artists, writers, and public intellectuals has resulted in social isolation, humiliation, and in some extreme cases even suicide due to victim blaming.

India boasts to be the world’s largest democracy and yet its women continue to live like second-class citizens, exposed to misogynistic policies, character assassination, strict cultural norms, and absence of representation. 

As my colleagues from Germany, Mexico, South Korea, and Brazil observe the alarming trends in their country, I witness a similar one at home.
These problems cannot be remedied by rag-tag feminist movements in India that lack cohesion and intersectionality. Draupadi Murmu’s appointment to the President’s office as the first Adivasi may be the first step in the right direction, but it is not enough. Unless women gain representation at the grassroot level, sadistic politicians will continue to undermine their rights.  

The only way for women to be heard, in an increasingly shrinking global space, is by banding together to build a movement that includes all strata of society, and not just bourgeois. Women need to realize that their power lies in putting up a united front. The biggest example of this is worldwide protests following the tragic death of Iran’s Mahsa Amini. It is only then possible to see sustainable change, both socially and politically. 

About the project:

In the last few years, the topic of antifeminism has gained attention. But what is antifeminism and what are its manifestations?

Anti-feminist positions are diverse and reach from a critique of the scientific discussion of gender to a rejection of gender equality. They are often directed against the strengthening of female self-determination and support the idea of a binary gender identity with a classical division of gender roles.

Behind the various manifestations of antifeminism are usually sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and anti-Semitic views. These can lead to a threat to central values of an open and liberal society.

In an exchange of letters, our authors from Brazil, Germany, South Korea, India and Mexico describe the anti-feminist developments they observe in their countries. They present a local perspective on the question: “To what extent does antifeminism threaten our democracy?”