Sen charts the Aghadi's
Transformation from a support group into a militant and partially autonomous women's task force. She also reveals how poor women and children use violence and 'gang-ism' in the volatile social environment of the slums and how the Aghadi's popularity was pegged to an unofficial and brutal law-enforcing system which offers speedy retributive justice to women who were victimized by men. Sen's book turns feminist scholarship on its head by documenting a situation where women have become the primary retainers and perpetrators of a violent nationalistic discourse, acquiring social and economic status either by defaults or as rewards.
Atreyee Sen has held lectured in social anthropology at the University of Sussex and the School of Oriental and she is a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester.
In the city he was homesick for those evening on the prairie when, long ago, he had been homesick for the city. (Borges, 1999: 334-5)
To carry out ethnographic research on right-wing women in contemporary India is, perhaps, a long adventure, especially when the region is marked by various sagas of separatism and communal conflict. Throughout history the past has been appropriated and manipulated to justify present discord. Land and place are infused with different and contested forms of cultured memory that have been actively constructed, transmitted and re-interpreted through the generations (Appadurai, 1981b). in the last decade alone the clash between Hindus and Muslims has reached such a height that sustained brutalisation of the enemy has been openly sanctioned within warring communities. On this map of communal violence Hindu fundamentalism etched its own mark by giving rise to a cluster of organisations that fostered national and, most often, local political, social and religions insecurities for many years. One such organisation was the Shiv Sena (Shivaji's Army), a regional political party named after a martial Hindu king. For several decades the Shiv Sena exerted the cultural superiority of the native Hindu people in the state of Maharashtra in western India, thereby demanding for themselves economic and political power (Gupta, 1982; Katzenstein, 1979). In the late 1980s the Sena developed nationalistic aspirations and decided to move 'from region to religion'. The party turned towards Hindutva, a violent pan-Indian movement which fervently upholds the religious and political supremacy of the Hindu community (Katzenstein et al., 1998).
Through the early 1990s the women's wing of the Shiv Sena, the Mahila Aghadi (lit. Women's Front), played a conspicuous role in sustaining communal tensions in Maharashtra's capital, Mumbai. Although the wing was developed as a support network within a manifestly ' male' movement, the Aghadi emerged as an autonomous task force with its own agenda of delivering 'social justice'. The over participation of Sena women in orchestrating the 1992-3 Hindu-Muslim communal riots in Mumbai provided the initial impetus for this exploratory exercise in gender and urban violence. The book uncovers the complex relationship between poor women and the 'extremist' Shiv Sena Movement and highlights the 'potential' in communal conflict to offer limited power and autonomy to underprivileged women and children. It is based on intensive fieldwork in the slums of Mumbai where low-income, working-class women have allied themselves with this violent, ethno-nationalist organisation. It tells their stories.
This book suggests the Mahila Aghadi cautiously manipulated a nationalist discourse to address more localized gender interests. Drawing its primary membership from the expansive slums of Mumbai where, despite their strong political affiliations, poor-women cadres continued to face the consequences of migration, urban displacement and industrialisation, it was united and efficiently organised group involved in collective action. Although the Sena women's wing emerged as a 'sub-group' through ideological and political patronage, it became popular by contesting restrictive decrees on women imposed by patriarchal slum communities in particular, and fundamentalist movements in general. By participating in an essentially masculine performative arena such as riots and attendant nationalistic activities, poor women overtly displayed loyalty to a nationalist cause but covertly wrested important social spaces and economic levering within the exclusivist ethos of a commercial city. Determined to contest women's vulnerability and seclusion, the Aghadi developed mobilisational strategies and coordinated women's actions without threatening the integrity of the party. As a consequence, although the wing spawned various women's militant squads, their violence remained amplified as 'religious valour'.
This study further shows children of right-wing slum families became the recipients of militant ideologies and, by organizing armed violence to overcome vulnerabilities within a life of poverty, 'fitted' comfortably into the party mechanism. As valiant mothers, most women authorised this agenda for the next generation by encouraging their families to be at 'permanent war', a state which , if attained, could fully legitimise urban 'woman-and-child' soldiering.
Research here also identifies a number of vexed socio-political realities that determine the dynamism of right-wing movements in non-Western societies. Women and children usually support nationalist struggles from the periphery, but at crucial points of communal tension they can actively participate in violence to coalesce as social groups and assert their presence within a movement. Hence, this book also illustrates the ways in which poor women and their children observe and experience the social and emotional value of working collectively, albeit within the context of a violent struggle. Furthermore, it underlines the experience of collective action as the most potent catalyst in reorganising male discursive practices. As a result, 'warrior' Sena women become the primary retainers and perpetrators of a fierce nationalistic discourse, acquiring negotiated social and economic spaces either by default or as reward.
The analysis offered here peripherally critiques policy-making by development specialists, which remains non-interventionist, incomprehensible and inaccessible to its recipients. Along the way, it also points out a few failures of academic feminism and feminist activism in India. It raises questions within the shared discourse of gender and conflict, contests deterministic theories about violence and fundamentalist principles, and also suggests how the secular NGO movement may rethink its primary objectives. In sum, this book shows how an anti-feminist militant women's group emerges not only as a satellite of a male-dominated nationalistic movement (to which it undoubtedly owes its origins) but also as a product of complex patterns of displacement affecting the lives of poor urban women and children.
This ethnographic study, however, is neither a venture to undermine the efforts of activists/feminists to collectivise impoverished women, nor an attempt to sanction group violence as an alternative form of 'poor woman's rebellion'. While working in the Sena-dominated areas I witnessed the mar-ginalisation of the 'bad' , violent and non-conformist poor by local NGOs. My research therefore highlights the grievances of the Sena slum women to address, partly, the frustration of feminist activists. Despite her own pro-choice position, Ginsburg (1993) studied the actions the actions of women anti-abortion activists; similarly, even though I stand against violent nationalisms in all their real and symbolic manifestations, I share Ginsburg's concerns about circum-venting the worldviews of 'women we don't like'. I remain optimistic that 'tales from the other side' that is, why undervileged women choose to be part of a nationalist discourse will enable NGO workers to bridge years of rivalry between secular and religion-nationalist women.
In analysing their action, the contradictor relationship between the Sena women and various forms of collective violence are explored here. While some active members of the Aghadi displayed an overt militant identity, there were other slum women who engaged in violence in more devious ways. There were still others who participated reluctantly in political conflicts, lest they lose the social and economic support of the Aghadi in their everyday lives. Consequently, in describing the events and experience surrounding the lives of these women, their active and permissive agency in perpetrating violence are both acknowledge and highlighted. Permissive agency concerns the support network developed by slum women that range from cooking and cleaning for men and women who played a more prominent, public role in violence to reinvigorating male rioters by providing emotional support. Active agency, meanwhile, is primarily concerned with public displays of aggression, most of which centre around women's direct, destructive roles against persons and property.
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