Why might women support religious ‘fundamentalism’?

back to issue

WOMEN’S support to religious fundamentalism could be explained with the help of notions of women as objects and subjects of community identity, conditioned as much by patriarchal values as men, their interests so intrinsically connected to the community that thinking of individual or collective interests may amount to blasphemy. Also, making an assumption that all women would like to oppose fundamentalism implies rallying behind universal notions of women-hood and sisterhood, and romanticizing women as universal peace-seekers.

In this paper, I would like to explore women’s identities, interests and values as complex interactive elements in the multitude of intersections and over-lapping themes of fundamentalism. I will attempt to analyze a few key intersections of religion, nationalism, caste, class, gender and community identity in India with a special focus on current trends in Hinduism to understand the layers of women’s support to religious fundamentalism. I will also attempt to link the growth of religious fundamentalism with increasing attempts to control women.

While approaching religio-spirituality, we should make a distinction between the values of the religio-spiritual realm and their practice. The growth of values is associated more with metaphysical aspects of the religion and is seen as the preserve of enlightened and unattached spiritual persons who could devote themselves fully to emancipate the soul. The practice of these values is considered to be closer to ordinary mortals. The intricate world of attachments in which women live makes them ‘incompatible’ to the demands of a spiritual world which is highly valued, powerful, and a typically male domain. Some women may strategize an escape from attachments and create a religio-spiritual space for themselves by renouncing their sexuality and sex roles through sanyas (renunciation of attachments) (Babb 1988, p. 280-285) and affiliations with religious movements and organizations looking for women in their fold to gain broader legitimacy.

To use Gaitskell’s analysis of South African women’s conversion to Christianity through the Christian Mission Stations (Gaitskell 1990, p. 253), these organizations provide women an alternative set of protectors and economic base which makes escape from the drudgery of life as a daughter, sister, wife or widow possible (Basu 1999, p. 200). In India, right wing organizations like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and others, which frequently invoke the goddesses and female spiritual gurus of the past and use women in liturgy have attracted many Hindu sanyasins (female religious mendicants/proponents/ascetics) like Ritambhara or Uma Bharati. The invocations are not only a bait for women but also a reminder to the women affiliates to see the scope for their philosophy and activity in supporting everything that these organizations are doing, including promoting hostility towards faiths and people perceived to be damaging Hinduism.

Talking of the Sangh Parivar, Arundhati Roy says, ‘its utter genius lies in its apparent ability to be all things to all people at all times’ (Roy 1999, p. 181). A broad understanding of ‘violence’ beyond the direct physical and mental abuse and as produced in people’s perceptions may help us in seeing the image of the Sangh Parivar as it exists in the minds of middle class, poor and home-bound women. This perception of violence is linked to the notions of religious domination and subordination, which subvert the chances of survival of another value system. For example, beef eating, spread of non-Hindu values, unemployment, religious conversion, inter-religious marriages, adoption of a Hindu child, etc. may be taken as attempts to denigrate the status and spoil the purity of Hindu religion. Therefore, these may be perceived as socio-economic and cultural violence against the ‘Hindu’.

The Sangh Parivar has articulated a feminist politics that reflects upon such perceptions and created ‘a space for personal accomplishment to which unskilled working class women and frustrated middle class women [across caste, particular religious community and region] might be attracted’ (Sahgal and Davis 1992, p. 9, text in brackets mine). While taking on the persona of a religious saviour, the Sangh seeks to mobilize women against the ‘perceived perpetrators of the violence’. The counter violence or support to fundamentalist organizations is seen by these women as an issue of religio-political identity and collective empowerment to oppose ‘occupation of minds and cultures’.

Kandiyoti in her paper ‘Islam and Patriarchy’, talks about women resisting the old normative order slipping away without any empowering alternatives and women pressurize men to live up to their obligations to provide protection in exchange of submissiveness and propriety as part of patriarchal bargain (Kandiyoti 1992, p. 36). The exchange of submissiveness and propriety for protection brings forth the issue of women’s bodies being treated as sites of community identity in a patriarchal society (Kannabiran 1996, p. 32-33). Submissiveness and propriety by these bodies is essential for patriarchal honour.

In India, for example, Ritambhara’s speeches, marked by incitements to reclaim male honour, remind men to live up to their part of the bargain. Similarly, when Uma Bharati asks women to play a political role without compromising their ‘basic nature’ (Llewellyn 2001), she is reminding that impropriety by female bodies would damage the Hindu honour which corresponds to male honour. The Sangh Parivar seeks to secure women’s support by playing on the tensions between ‘deeply ingrained images and expectations of male-female roles and changing realities of everyday life’ (Kandiyoti 1992, p. 36), which put a demand on women to step in the public space. By using the lack of alternatives before women, it attempts to consensualize women’s investment in patriarchal values and simultaneously puts conditions on her public engagement.

The offer of male protection comes with (i) the condition that women will have to become consenting custodians of patriarchal values, and (ii) an implicit guarantee that they will get the residual power and benefits that would accrue from their support to the Hindu male communal coercion (Sangari 1999, p. 398-408). The perceived notions of danger and security and the chance to exercise residual power through patriarchal bargains may make this offer lucrative for many women (Jeffery 1998, p. 223).

According to Moghissi, fundamentalism is ‘an attitude towards time’. It proposes ‘an ideal past, initial conditions’ or ‘golden age’ which contrasts to the present and can be retrieved…’ (Moghissi 1999, p. 69). All may not view the fundamentalist form of return to the golden age as conservative or retrogressive. For example, by linking fundamentalist space with religion and women’s welfare, the Sangh Parivar makes it possible for a woman to occupy public space and for her family to explain their daughter’s feminism as a form of sewa (Sahgal 2000, p. 198). This may appear as liberal to many.

Similarly, in the context of Muslims, ‘attempts by disadvantaged groups to rise in ritual status by strict adherence to "tradition" or the Shariat are not seen by them as a return to medievalism but in fact as symbols of achievement’ (Pandey in Chhachhi 1988, p. 23). So, acceptance in a social group closed so far or the move upwards in the social ladder may appear progressive and create an incentive for both poor men and women to support fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism also has a unique feature of constructing its own version of the ‘true identity’. In India, this is evident from the Sangh’s move to homogenize identity by disregarding the variety of ‘Hindu religions’, which have existed within the concept of Hinduism (Romila Thapar 1989). An interrogation of gender, class and caste in India reveal that the Sangh is promoting a uniformly brahminized, class-based, transregional modernity and a principle of formal gender equality located in a dichotomous upper caste practice.

The impact is visible in the spread of practices like dowry in states like Tamil Nadu (Kapadia 2002), wearing of sindur and mangalsutra and practice of karwa chauth by Hindu women irrespective of the region and culture. In the homogenization process, women’s space as well as capacity to bargain is being curtailed further by emphasizing brahminized feminine constructs and collective identity (Basu 1998, p. 175-76). Traits like self-sacrificing motherhood and devoted wife are now also being channelized towards building and nurturing a Hinduised social cohesion. In this brahminized, class-based, trans-regional modernization process, women may not have the space to think of separating their identities from the image of the ‘homogenized community’.

The Indian national movement, beginning in the 19th century, was imbued with simultaneous processes of socio-religious reform, specifically attempts to improve women’s condition within Hinduism. These attempts could be attributed to (i) initially, a desire to emulate what the reformers considered modern, i.e., the models of womanhood and conjugality of the colonizers, and (ii) later, the need to engage the wider masses in protesting against the colonizers. It would not have been possible to engage women in the protest without raising the issues which restrict their participation. During this period activists like Pandita Ramabai, Anandibai Joshi, Kailashbashini Debi, Tarabai Shinde, Haimavati Sen, Saraladevi, among others, challenged the patriarchal system by identifying the power dynamics which make man-woman relationships unequal (Chakravarti 1998, Sen 2000, Sarkar 1997, Omvedt 1980). Though dalit leaders started talking about caste, cultural, regional and class differences, but on the whole women were treated as a homogeneous entity.

The national movement identified the humiliated and colonized land with the image of a subjugated Hindu woman’s body – her body, sari and adornment encompassing present India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Afghanistan and Myanmar. The image stays even after 56 years of Partition. It also plays an important role in the projects of Hindu nationalism. The image of the motherland has been used to exhort proliferation of female deity or Shakti cult among women who find the concept of shakti empowering. The Sangh Parivar sees partition as a mutilation of the sacred body of the mother and holds Muslims responsible for this act of ‘desecration’ (Sarkar, p. 163-190 and 268-288). By laying claim to Hindu nationalist feminine icons and linking them to female power, patriotism, partition and a dream of Akhand Bharat the Sangh has successfully managed to mobilize Hindu women to support the cause of avenging partition.

Women’s support to the communalized politics of the Sangh Parivar also needs to be looked at from vantage point of individual women’s politics to benefit from the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution as well as BJP attempts to enlarge its vote constituencies. The BJP has much to gain by keeping women’s collective political empowerment within the bounds of socio-historically gendered subjectivities. However, any such analysis must also keep in purview the socio-historical factors.

Women in India have long been active in various types of social and political movements – at national, regional and local levels. They were engaged in grassroots caste-based politics during the Nehruvian period when political power was mainly with the upper castes.

The emergence of ‘backward castes’ and farmers’ parties brought in many other groups of women in politics. Throughout, mainstream politics neither allowed an orientation towards gender issues, nor allowed women to use their agency in collaboration with women’s activists to actively raise and interrogate issues of gender inequalities. If anything the incorporation of gender issues has been considered divisive in the mass nationalist/caste/community building processes and movements. The controlled participation did help some individual women to ameliorate their own situation but systemic gender inequalities have remained unaddressed (Jeffery 1998, p. 222) and women’s orientation towards collaborative agency has been constrained.

Women’s support to religious fundamentalism reflects a situation where women are caught between emancipatory aspirations and inherited notions of ideal womanhood. Notwithstanding multiple factors influencing women’s support to fundamentalism and the impossibility of talking about a common protest against religious fundamentalism, it is possible to turn this ‘situation of being caught’ into a ‘situation of struggle’. Not by ascription to the universal notions of womenhood and sisterhood but by recognizing women’s multiple realities of and exploring questions such as, ‘is there a dissatisfaction with the nation building processes because they have not addressed the issues of gender, ideology, power and identity’, ‘are the modernization processes being seen by women as socio-cultural and economic devaluation of women’, and so on. The contested relationships between women, religion, society, state, culture, nationalism need to be theorized afresh in the public space and ‘discursive and related historical frameworks alike need to be (re)addressed’ (Rouse 1998, p. 69).




Babb, Lawrence A. (1988), ‘Indigenous Feminism in a Modern Hindu Sect’, in Rehana Ghadially, (ed) Women in Indian Society, New Delhi/Newbury Park/London: Sage Publications.

Basu, Amrita (1998), p. 175-176, ‘Hindu Women’s Activism in India and the Questions it Raises’, in Patricia Jeffery and Amrita Basu, (eds) Appropriating Gender: Women’s Activism and Politicized Religion in South Asia, New York and London: Routledge.

Chakravarti, Uma (1998), Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai, New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Gaitskell, Deborah (1990), p. 253, ‘Devout Domesticity? A Century of African Women’s Christianity in South Africa’, in Cherryl Walker, (ed) Women and Gender in Southern Africa, Cape Town: David Philip.

Jeffery, Patricia (1998), p. 222, ‘Agency, Activism and Agendas’, in Patricia Jeffery and Amrita Basu, (eds) Appropriating Gender: Women’s Activism and Politicized Religion in South Asia, New York and London: Routledge.

Kandiyoti, Deniz (1992), p. 36, ‘Islam and Patriarchy: A Comparative Perspective’, in N. Keddie and B. Baron, (eds) Women in Middle Eastern History, New Haven: Yale.

Kannabiran, Kalpana (1996), p. 32-33, in K. Jayawardena and M. D’Alwis, (eds) Embodied Violence: Communalizing Women’s Sexuality in South Asia, London: Zed Books.

Kapadia, Karin (2002), (ed) The Violence of Development: The Politics of Identity, Gender and Social Inequalities in India, London: Zed Books.

Llewellyn, J.E. (2001), ‘Uma Bharati at the 4th Akhil Bharatiya Sadhwi Shakti Sammelan at the Santoshi Mata Ashram’, in Kankhal, 10 April 1998,

Moghissi, Haideh (1999), p. 69, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism, New York: Zed Books.

Omvedt, Gail (1980), We Will Smash This Prison!: Indian Women in Struggle, London: Zed Press.

Pandey, Gyan in Amrita Chhachhi (1988), p. 23, ‘The State, Religious Fundamentalism and Women – Trends in South Asia’, in WLUML Dossier 4, August/September 1988, London: Women Living Under Muslim Laws.

Rouse, Shahnaz (1998), p. 69, ‘The Outsider(s) Within: Sovereignty and Citizenship in Pakistan’, in Patricia Jeffery and Amrita Basu, (eds) Appropriating Gender: Women’s Activism and Politicized Religion in South Asia, New York and London: Routledge.

Roy, Arundhati (1999), p. 181, ‘Fascism’s Firm Footprints in India’, in C.W. Howland, (ed) Religious Fundamentalism and the Human Rights of Women, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Sahgal, Gita (2000), p. 198, ‘Secular Spaces; The Experience of Asian Women Organizing’, in Gita Sahgal and Nira Yuval-Davis, (eds) Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain, London: Women Living Under Muslim Laws.

Sahgal, Gita and Nira Yuval-Davis (1992), p. 9, (eds) ‘Introduction: Fundamentalism, Multiculturalism and Women in Britain’, in Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain, London: Virago.

Sangari, Kumkum (1999), p. 398-408, Politics of the Possible, New Delhi: Tulika.

Sarkar, Tanika (1997), ‘Women in South Asia: The Raj and After’, History Today, September 1997.

Sarkar, Tanika (2001), p. 163-190 and 268-288, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism, London: Hurst & Company.

Sen, Samita (2000), ‘Toward a Feminist Politics? The Indian Women’s Movement in Historical Perspective’, Policy Research Report on Gender and Development, Working Paper Series No 9.

Thapar, Romila (1989), p. 209-231, ‘Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity’, Modern Asian Studies, 23(2).