Indian women celebrate diversity, decry violence

By Paul Jeffrey

Stretching themselves across the courtyard in front of Hyderabad's massive Mecca Masjid, the 16th Century black granite mosque that had became the favored battleground for gangs of Muslim youth battling the Indian city's police force, the women joined hands in a human chain that put an end to further violence. Many wearing black burqas that covered all but their hands and eyes, the women stood their ground between the rock-throwing youth and the baton- and rifle-equipped police. Both sides tried breaking through the human chain, but the women held on and tenaciously stood their ground. For one hopeful moment, the violence that plagues India's cultural diversity met its match.

The peacemakers that day in March 2002 were Hindu and Muslim women, most of them illiterate, determined to stop the communal violence that occasionally breaks out in India, at times causing thousands of deaths.

"We women want unity, calmness, and peace. If we adults start fighting based on religion, our children are going to do the same thing. And some day either they are going to kill us or we're going to kill them. Nothing good will come of it. So we want communal harmony," Yousufunnisa, a 48-year old Muslim woman who participated in the human chain, told Response. According to Butli Begum, another Muslim participant, the peacemaking was a natural extension of the vocation of being mothers.

"Women don't fight on the streets, we only fight in the kitchen with the men. It's the men who fight outside. But whether they are children or men, they are all the children of a mother, a Hindu mother or a Muslim mother, and it's that mother's love that motivates us to do what we did," she said.

The women faced strong opposition from those who stood to gain from the violence. "Everybody tried to stop us, but we didn't stop. We didn't want our children dying over there. The politicians told us we'd die if we did it, so we should stay at home. We told them, ‘No problem. We're ready to die,'" said Yousufunnisa.

Since their debut as peacemakers, the women have formed their human chain two more times at the mosque when tempers flared and once to protect Muslim girls traveling to a school exam in a Hindu neighborhood. In each instance, they successfully blocked the outbreak of new violence.

Peacemaking a product of empowerment

According to Mazher Hussain, founder of the Confederation of Voluntary Organizations (COVA), a umbrella group of Hyderabad organizations working for communal harmony, what the women did was dangerous. "It looks romantic now, but it was extremely risky. On one side you have armed police who are trigger happy. A lot of times they fire with the slightest provocation, and not just tear gas but real live bullets. On other side you have these people who have gone berserk. They're throwing stones and smashing anything that comes in their way. If you stand in between, you're preventing both the protesters and the police from advancing on each other. Anything could have happened. Fortunately nothing did, but it represented great personal risk," he told Response.

The peacemaking women all participate in self-help groups organized by COVA. The groups focus initially on savings and credit, yet Mr. Hussain believes that peacemaking is a natural outgrowth of the social and economic empowerment made possible by the groups.

"They are heroines, but they come from very deprived backgrounds. Most of them haven't done anything very significant. They really didn't have an identity of their own. The children carry the father's name. The house and property are in the name of their husband or father. The ration card is in someone else's name. These women don't have a passport or identity card. For all practical purposes, they are non-entities. In some ways the first time their identity was formally recognized was when they got their savings passbooks. That's an official recognition of their identity, and added to their sense of self esteem," said Mr. Hussain.

"When they did this great heroic act, no one expected it. The media was agog. Their pictures were carried everywhere and people came to interview them. From unknown non-entities they overnight became well-known and appreciated. And others want to emulate that. Many women came to complain afterwards that they weren't invited to participate in the human chain," he said.

According to Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar, a professor at United Theological College in Bangalore, in a land where cultural differences too often become the foundation for conflict, Indian women are natural peacemakers.

"There is so much talk about dialogue, about interfaith relations, about communal harmony, but this comes so automatically for women's movements. For us, the prime issue is never what faith you belong to, but rather: Do you believe in peace? Do you believe in gender equality? That's enough religion to begin with," said Dr. Anderson-Rajkumar, a Lutheran and a Dalit–one of India's so-called "untouchable" caste.

She believes that exclusion in India, whether it's based on color, creed, class, or caste, is best combated when people can begin to see the connections between the four forms of discrimination. And there's no better place to start, she argues, than by taking seriously the perspective of women, who get the short stick in every hierarchical form of discrimination. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that women's movements are where we find hope for the world. If the churches can learn from them how to convert all those barriers into bridges, then there's even more hope. Come out and join the women's movement. That's my plea," said Dr. Anderson-Rajkumar.

According to Marc D'Silva, the country representative in India for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), women can often overcome obstacles in a way men cannot. "Since women have never been within the power structure, they're much more likely to think of solutions that will be outside the box, outside the way things have historically been done, and thus propose solutions which normally wouldn't have been proposed," he said.

Mr. D'Silva cited the example of women's groups that took the lead in responding to flooding in the Indian state of Orissa. Their assessment of need was much more accurate and their distribution of relief supplies much more fair than similar efforts coordinated by men, he reported. "Though it wasn't our intention at the outset, by letting women's groups take the lead in responding to disasters, it began to break down some historical caste divisions that had caused quite a bit of difficulty in the communities. This emerged from the women's natural way of working together," he said.

India is a complex place, with hundreds of languages (15 of which are official) and scores of religions. It's not surprising that some conflicts would arise, yet many observers say that when they do, there are usually politicians manipulating existing stereotypes and fears for their own narrow benefit. Hindus, although they make up 81 percent of India's almost 1.1 billion people, can at times be convinced that Muslims–with their high birth rates in a country where the government goes out of its way to discourage couples from having more than two children–want to grow into a numerical majority. And many Muslims, who account for about 12 percent of the population, worry about projects of Hindu nationalism that would deny minority religions their rightful role in Indian culture and politics.

"Outside the halls of power"

Mr. D'Silva believes many of these stereotypes are built on a lack of direct contact, even between communities that are geographically close. When the head of CRS came from the United States to visit India, Mr. D'Silva took him to an area where CRS was working in several neighboring villages with widely differing demographics. The villagers came together at a central gathering point. "The women from each community sang and danced for us, and then several of them commented that they had never seen each other's dances or heard each others songs, even though they lived just three or four kilometers from each other. The more we can bring these diverse groups together, to talk not about the conflicts but instead about the issues they have in common, whether it's educating their children or getting good health care, we encourage people to have first hand experience of each other and thus be less vulnerable to outside groups telling them how they should think about others," Mr. D'Silva said.

When women do come together around local issues, they're often not taken seriously, but that can work initially to their advantage, according to Mr. D'Silva. "Woman have always been outside the halls of power, always marginalized in terms of power, so when they get involved with these issues they're often not viewed as a threat, compared to a man. It's not pleasant to see how they're ignored or belittled at the beginning, but why not see that as an opportunity for them to take the initiative to do things that might not ordinarily be done? It's one thing for a group of 50 women to go to the police station to challenge an arbitrary arrest than to have 50 farmers show up with their hoes. The way the police will respond is much different, and in many cases the women will be much more effective because they take people by surprise," he said.

In addition to the women who formed the human chain in Hyderabad, other women's groups in India have made a big impact with public protest. In countless communities around India, women's groups have destroyed stills to protest the their husbands' alcoholism and reclaim more of the family's income for basic needs. In the largely indigenous northeastern state of Manipur, a group of several dozen women–protesting the rape and murder of a young woman by Indian soldiers–captivated the nation's attention when they marched naked to an army base last July, shouting at the soldiers, "Come rape us all!" And tens of thousands of poor women have recently formed the Mahila Shanti Sena ("Women's Peace Force"), a Gandhian group working for communal harmony, participatory democracy and women's empowerment in several northern Indian states.

Yet Sunita Charles, president of Isabella Thoburn College, an institution in Lucknow supported by the Women's Division, warns that women can also play along with patriarchy and contribute to violence. "Most of these conflicts are engineered by politicians. They never happen otherwise. But women play a major role. In all these practices that survive, women are the carriers. I will teach my daughter, ‘Don't let the sweeper come into your bedroom. Don't touch the bucket he uses.' It's women who teach those attitudes and prejudices, who pass them on to their children. Religious practices are taught by women. The subjugation of women is also taught by women," Dr. Charles said.

Women, in fact, played key leadership roles in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the rightist Hindu nationalist party that controlled the Indian government from 1998 until 2004, when it lost power to a coalition headed by the secular Congress Party (which is headed by Sonia Gandhi). Most defenders of India's cultural diversity were thrilled at the electoral defeat of the extremists.

"The fact that we have such a huge confusing mass of people speaking 3,000 languages with 50,000 different cultural practices all provides a base for resistance against the kind of monoculturization that the BJP stands for, or that globalization stands for. India is just too naturally plural and diverse and chaotic for that kind of homogenization and monoculturization to really be effective," said Madhu Bhushan, India coordinator of the Asian Women's Human Rights Council.

"Breeding secular Indians"

According to Nalini Solomon, coordinator of the women's studies program at Isabella Thoburn College, a healthy celebration of religious diversity exists at the grassroots in many communities, often centered on food and religious festivals. "During Diwali [the Hindu festival of lights] we decorate our house and light candles like Hindus, we set off firecrackers and buy sweets and distribute them. During Id [a Muslim holiday], we go and visit our Muslim friends, and I cook the same kind of food as they do," said Dr. Solomon, a Christian.

"I always bake a cake on December 24. My children like Christmas cake a lot, even though it's not our religious tradition as a family," said Anita Shukla, a Hindu who teaches political science at Isabella Thoburn.

Founded by Isabella Thoburn, who arrived in India in 1870 as the first missionary sent by the Women's Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, the college has since the beginning fostered an environment where all girls feel accepted.

"We are living in a global village now. Physical boundaries no longer have as much impact on our lives. In such a culture, it's important that people from all backgrounds, classes and castes come together to study and grow their own personality and contribute to society. Isabella Thoburn [College] is a model for that. And besides growing together, they learn to handle situations of conflict, they learn how to accommodate, not just tolerate, but accommodate each other's aspirations, each other's culture. They learn to grow together. They're the global village," said Smita Berma, head of the sociology department at the school.

"We've taught that we need to not just accept diversity but also to appreciate it. There's a big difference," said Dr. Charles.

Only about ten percent of the college's students are Christian, but the school celebrates Christian holidays and offers a chapel service every day. "Women of all faiths are invited and they come to chapel. We've seen girls sitting and crying and praying there, and their prayers are answered," said Dr. Charles. "And before examination time you'll find lots of candles lit outside the chapel."

"As a Christian college, we are breeding secular Indians. We do not talk about fundamentalism. We teach respect for all religions. However, as a Christian institution we teach and try to practice Christian values. We have a strong Christian character. We're not shamefaced about it. As an educator, I think its important to be correct and sure of my values, because I can't transmit them through my behavior or decisions or actions unless I'm sure about what I believe and what my values are. We're not bringing down anyone else or demeaning anyone else's beliefs, but upholding what we believe. That's what's kept Isabella Thoburn College out of conflicts with other institutions or other religions, and what's allowed us to appreciate and celebrate diversity," she said.