Self-appointed guardians of “culture” have routinely targeted women in India because of the prevailing notion that there are certain boundaries for women in “public spaces”. According to Women in Modern India by the historian Geraldine Forbes, attitudes to women’s rights in India began to change in the 19th century with an understanding of European ideas of gender.
Raja Rammohun Roy’s role in questioning the practice of sati, which was legitimized by religion, was an important step that helped make this change. By the second half of the century, reformist groups all over the country focused their attention on sati, female infanticide, polygyny, child marriage and female education. Laws such as the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 could be passed partly because of the efforts of such groups.
During the course of the nationalist movement women got more space to negotiate issues with regard to their rights. Geraldine Forbes writes that while Mahatma Gandhi did not bring women into public life he made their presence felt by giving them a blueprint for action. He did this while assuring the husbands and fathers that these women would not rebel against their families. Muslim women’s organizations also began to articulate similar demands, as demonstrated by the work of the historian Gail Minault.
Partition was an important period to understand how notions of “religious nationalism” were contested over women’s bodies. As Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin say in Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, women’s bodies were seen as territory to be marked by the enemy.
In post-independent India, the first serious debate about the religious opposition to equal rights for women took place when Jawaharlal Nehru attempted to pass the Hindu Code Bill. “Towards Equality”, a report commissioned in 1974 by the Government of India, pointed out the lacunae in the state’s intention and the results when it came to gender equality. In 1986, Muslim fundamentalists, with their excessive response to the decision of the Supreme Court to grant alimony to Shah Bano, exhibited the influence of patriarchal notions over them about women’s place in society.
Notions of patriarchy are still a challenge to the women’s movement in India. In the Mangalore incident, for instance, a large number of people surveyed by online news portals, newspapers and TV news channels, though not condoning the excessive methods of the Rama Sene, expressed their disapproval of women drinking. A conservative element dominates in the thinking of certain groups of people which is opposed to Western habits.
The manner in which a National Commission for Women (NCW) team led by Nirmala Venkatesh assessed the situation is perhaps indicative of this line of thinking. The NCW, a statutory body set up by a Central Act, condemned the Mangalore incident and immediately sent a team led by the member in charge of South India, Nirmala Venkatesh. She made statements that almost justified the Rama Sene’s action; she blamed the pub owners for not providing enough security and recommended that the licence of the pub be cancelled.