Unspeakable Inequalities: Between the Street and the Door

by Katheeja Talha

With the exception of the half an hour in the morning she leaves the house to collect fodder, Tamiben Wankh is confined within the walls of her homestead plot. She cooks, she cleans, she embroiders, washes, takes care of her children and her father in law within this admittedly generous piece of land. Ghunghat firmly in place, she opens the high gate of her house, heads down the street, then takes a parallel lane to avoid the paan shop where all the men sit and walks to the farm. When asked if she was satisfied with the new village, she says that ‘they’ didn’t rebuilt the village, only houses.

Ask her about the old village and her anecdotes are never ending. From the construction of her former home and her neighbours scandals to the functioning of the temple body, she has an informed opinion on everything. There her responsibilities extended beyond the household. She would meet her relatives in their community chowk, perform her daily pooja at the kuldevi mandir and end the day by singing bhajans in the temple chowk.

In highly stratified society in rural Gujarat, Tamiben could afford this limited participation because of the porosity of the boundaries between house and verandah, verandah and chowkchowk and  neighbourhood.

The normative values of the society might relegate the woman within her house. But when privacy is so layered, in reality most women learn to negotiate between them and find a space for their own. In reconstructed villages, especially relocated villages, these nuances of space, the gradual transformation from  inside to outside, private to public, between the house and the street are lost and along with it, the opportunity to push the boundaries of what is accepted. The village is then reduced to the house and the street separated by a wall.

While this absurd reduction might be seen simply as careless planning, the official statement of the agency reveals this as an attempt to discourage the formation of caste based neighbourhoods. This was supported by the lottery system of allotting houses – a random unbiased process that would slowly tackle the problem of caste. (Villagers later exchanged their houses to recreate those very neighbourhoods even before they moved in and eventually the Dalits chose to move back to the old village.)

The United Nations has recognized the opportunity that lies in reconstructing settlements to change historic patterns of inequity, to ‘build back better’. But without a careful, dedicated understanding of the forces at play, the structures that exist and the manner in which patriarchy and caste hierarchy reasserts itself, many efforts undertaken by agencies can become failures.

These failures are seen in reconstructed villages across the country where active, well intentioned policies and methods have increased the disparity rather than dispelling them. Bringing in piped water connections and sanitary latrines to every household is a considerate necessary proposal to reduce the problem of having to leave the house for essential activities. But they also deny women two reasons to go into the wilderness and enjoy unsupervised time with her peers and friends. In a few villages, the toilets remain unused even after a decade.

In one of the very few public roles assigned to them in Gujarat, women were responsible for performing the daily pujas in their local kuldevi mandirs. This task legitimized their presence in public space and was often the only means of engaging with the physical village and its public chowks. With new settlements relocated away from the often permanent locations of temples, this role too has become a man’s responsibility.

In coastal Tamil Nadu, the imposition of ‘no building zones’ have  increased the density of  most  settlements. This could only be achieved through the felling of thousands of trees whose shade and produce are of monumental importance to the socio-economic, mental and physical well being of women. The space surrounding a homestead plot was shaded and demarcated by trees. These were the communal spaces that replaced the chowks of agricultural settlements. Without the thresholds of trees, the village here is again reduced to the house and the street.

The problems do not only arise with the use of space, but begins with the construction of space.  Industrial building materials and technology that are oft employed by various governmental and non governmental agencies do not require the periodic and labour intensive maintenance of a mud plaster, thatch roof or a lipan flooring. But those are tasks that often showcase the skill and participation of the woman of the household. Especially in segregated societies where her physical presence may be barred, her work attest to her presence, individuality and in some cases, narrate her personal biography. By using materials and technology that require monetary capital over skill, the construction tasks shifted from a woman’s realm into a man’s domain.  In coastal settlements, where thatch weaving is often a crucial livelihood for elderly women, this shift has severe consequences.

Apart from these are the escalations of other violence – the increase in alcoholism and domestic violence that is consequent of traumatic displacement, the risks of rape and harassment in temporary community shelters, forced land acquisition from widows and their subsequent destitution.

The fluid definitions of patriarchy and tradition permit them to mutate into many forms and manifest themselves in any structure. Which is why the same institution that would shun women’s participation in public life might discontinue them from their studies to send them for work in a factory during a drought or opt for housing and settlement layouts, building materials and technology that reveal aspirations of  an urban, modern identity.

Without the support of an existing or sensitive new institution, the narratives of external agencies have often been appropriated by different forces to reinforce a patriarchal ideal of the community rather than the alternative that was aspired for.

The intent here is not to condemn the aspirations which govern the implementation of such initiatives . Nor is this an attempt to encourage a romantic notion of traditional space making patterns, which are fraught with problems and violence themselves. But by aiming for a specific, rigid and tangible outcome, creativity and real observation and, therefore, sensitivity and compassion are often curbed. The unused ruins that litters the landscapes of reconstructed villages are often relics of definite, radical and ultimately naïve ideas of instant reform.

In a climate of shifting roles and shifting rules, perhaps the answers lie in that grey space of thresholds, in the accommodating breadth of ambiguity.   Transformation needn’t begin with a new paradigm imposed from outside. Maybe it begins with not seeing women as passive victims or beneficiaries and giving ourselves the opportunity to learn from them. By identifying the existing patterns of resistance and participation  and working with the kinks and gaps of the the current paradigm.  Simple things of daily consequence. By strengthening the access to spaces and places where a woman’s presence is tolerated, if not welcomed. By creating institutions for long established activities that demand the resources of the settlement. By creating opportunities of encounters and dialogues, opportunities to linger and meander. By making visible the ‘trivial’ private world in the vast public realm.


Katheeja Talha travels, doodles, writes, laughs, cries, eats, (unfortunately for those around her) sings out loud, loiters and has recently started composting. When she’s not too busy gawking at beautiful walls and spunky women, she works as a researcher in a project, studying the long term impact of post disaster reconstruction in rural settlements.

16 Days Campaign Theme Series: Gender and Militarism, by Anuradha Chenoy

Anuradha M. Chenoy

Extracts from a paper, “Militarism in India

(Dr. Chenoy has very generously let us use her paper, “Militarism in India,”
to generate this post. The full paper is available at our website.)

There is widespread belief that militarization is ‘not an issue’ in India and as far as the sub continent goes, it is Pakistan that is a militarized state. In this context it would be useful to dispel some common myths about militarization in India and South Asia. It is true that while Pakistan has been saddled with direct military regimes and we in India have continuously lauded ourselves on the relative success of our democratic system, the Indian State has militarist responses on a number of issues. These include: Regions in India like the North East, and Kashmir that have been continuously subjected to militarized policies. Further, when ever the state feels a threat, either from internal or external sources a militarist response is considered the primary option. Thus whether it is the approach to tackling social justice movements or secessionist movements, from Naxalite to Khalistan, the state responds by the use of military methods. The effort is for conflict management through repression. The basic issues of social justice or alienation are not addressed. (…)

Militarism is belief system that: endorses military values in civilian life; believes in the construction of a strong masculinity that is also a necessary component of state power; legitimizes the use of violence as a solution to conflict and dissent; and closely intersects with patriarchy and nationalism.  Notions such as national honour, national pride and the ambition of being a great power form the basis of this militarized nationalism in India. Militarization involves the increasing use of military power by states to further their national interests, with the option of using military threats and war as an extension of politics. It implies the growing dominance of militarist values in civilian institutions. Militarization encompasses the process whereby military values, ideology and patterns of behavior dominate social and political systems and influence gender relations, resulting in the militarization  of the structural, ideological and behavioral patterns of both state and society. (…)

Threat Perceptions and Great Power Ambitions (…)

Pakistan and India’s relations are embedded in competing nationalisms couched in masculinist terminologies as every threat is couched in terms of the ‘other’. For example: After India’s nuclear tests former prime minister of Pakistan sent bangles to the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to explain his weakness and femininity.  In October 2001, when relations were tense, President Musharraf gave a message to the Indian leadership: “We in Pakistan have not worn bangles and we can fight India on our own.”[i]  Prime Minister Vajpayee replied in a public address: “In Punjab where bangles are popular, people also wear ‘Kada’ (steel bracelet).”[ii]  The two berated each other for being feminine to the extent of wearing bangles and thus incapable of protecting their country or honour. This debate on masculinity trickles down to inter community hostilities, for example, during the Gujarat carnage of Muslims by Hindus in 2001, Bangles were delivered at the doorsteps of those Hindus that did not participate in the rioting.

The ideologies of nationalism that exist and exercise influence in South Asia promote a conception of womanhood which reinforces the view that the family and home is its principal arena, and of woman’s role as nurturer, caretaker and sacrificing supporter for those (mostly males) who are supposedly in the forefront of this bilateral confrontation whether this is in directly military or non-military forms.  The possibilities of a trans-country feminism which can emphasize the common concerns of Indian and Pakistani women, of Indian and Pakistani families, and by extension, of ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, are greatly limited by the existence of such a hostile general environment that characterizes relations between the two countries.

National security based on exclusionary and gendered identity politics is emphasized by right wing groups in both India and Pakistan. In India the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s   (The International Hindu Organization, associated with the BJP) has repeatedly argued “Hindus! If you want to preserve your existence, you should arm yourself with different weapons dear to gods and goddesses” to overcome “weakness, timidity and unmanliness” that  “are great sins and bravery and masculinity of great punya -virtue”[iii]   The very basis of the nation according to the RSS ideologues like Guru Golwalkar is linked to manhood: “Our real national regeneration should start with the moulding of man, instilling in him the strength to overcome human frailties and stand him up as a real symbol of Hindu manhood.”[iv] Taken from the founders of the RSS this concept is echoed by contemporary strategists, like Jaswant Singh, minister for external affairs in the BJP led government: “India’s nationhood being essentially civilizational, a strategic thought to protect its territory has not emerged.”[v] When the Bharatiya Janata Party formed the government from 1998-2004, it attempted to translate such dictum into national security practice.

Internal Security (…)

The militarism of the Indian state has been countered by the militarization of the insurgency and both these have led to a social militarization of these societies, where common sense beliefs, relations between genders and people, and traditions  get coloured by militarist values.   A deconstruction of these conflicts reveals that these are conflicts for rights and aspirations and that military force has not been successful in dealing with these conflicts. The Maoist (Naxalite) movement in India is most active in the most backward rural and tribal regions of the country. The need here is for negotiations, development and fulfilling human security aspirations. The success of these other alternate and non-militarist methods have proven themselves repeatedly. For example, the current ongoing talks with insurgent groups of Nagaland and the Indian government have led to a sustainable cease fire; have lowered tensions; people and especially women have acknowledged that they feel more secure; the level of violence in civil society has decreased.

Nuclear Nationalism 

(…) Within a few weeks of taking over power BJP Prime Minister Vajpayee initiated nuclear tests in May, 1998. Explaining why these were necessary Vajpayee stated “India needs to regain its lost pride.” And “The BJP alone can undertake the task of leading a reinvigorated, proud India to its rightful place in the comity of nations.”[vi]  The rhetoric from the BJP and its allies in government resounded with gendered and chauvinist innuendos like “We are no longer eunuchs”.[vii] Sand from the test site of Pokhran was carried by Hindu fundamentalist organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to remote villages of India as ‘blessed’ land and the BJP science and technology minister stated on CNN ‘Pokhran and all our scientific endeavors have brought glory to India.’[viii] The tests were more signifiers of fundamentalist type religious nationalism than calculated defence policy. (…)

The nuclear tests by India in May 1998, and the subsequent preparations for nuclear bombs and weapons is based on an exaggerating threat perceptions. India had lived with the Chinese bombs and Pakistan’s preparation for a bomb under a status of ambiguity i.e. even after the 1974 Pokhran test India was not an open nuclear state. Sino-Indian talks and confidence building measures had been initiated and were moving smoothly. The nature of the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan i.e. low intensity/covert warfare or terrorists crossing into the India could not be controlled by nuclear attacks. The Indian Government had promised a strategic review but did not carry this out.[ix] The bomb lobby then set about justifying and legitimizing the bomb and asking for higher budgets for defence and the nuclear programme; up gradation/ modernization of weapons and deliberated on the number of bombs needed for security. Journalists close to the BJP were clear on the non-strategic nature of the tests as Swapan Dasgupta of India Today wrote:  “Vajpayee has released a flood of pent-up energy, generated a mood of heady triumphalism. He has kick-started India’s revival of faith in itself. To the west, the five explosions are evidence of Hindu nationalism on a Viagra high. To Indians, it is evidence that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Pokhran is only tangentially about security. Its significance is emotional. The target isn’t China and Pakistan. It is the soul of India.”[x] The underlying refrain was that the Indian bomb would return the masculinity, the maleness as an ingredient of great power status. (…)

Militarism, Nationalism and Kargil (…)

Conflicts like Kargil reinforce and sharpened identity and gender differences in the power equations of Indian society. The sacrifice and martyrdom of the Hindu male was the subtext of the entire Kargil saga. National security, privileged ‘at any cost’, rested in the hands of a ‘macho state’ that provided ‘protection’. Masculinity is valued as women and values associated with women like peace are de-valued.  Although the role of the woman is not passive during conflict, during Kargil it was a ‘given’ role, always ‘secondary’ or supportive. This included nationalist patriotic gestures like giving up of ‘personal items’ like gold bangles and small money for the ‘cause of war’; to the soldiers; encouraging husbands and sons to go to war and become martyrs as  Seema widow of a Kargil soldier said to the press: “it is an honour to be widow of a valiant soldier.”[xi]   Women were part of the war and became the agency for militarizing society. The images of the Kargil conflict stirred up and produced for popular consumption had an emotional substructure of masculinity and its connection to war as a masculine enterprise. The attempt to strengthen nationalist militarism through sentimentality and gender differences that suffused the conflict further enabled the entwining of patriarchy and militarism. (…)


Militarism in India is driven by an obsessive national security that is not strictly guided by a clear analysis of security threats but is based on inward and exclusive militarist nationalism that has created a national security state. Right wing forces and their chauvinist nationalism propel militarism internally. These policies privilege values such as physical force and devalue debate and negotiation and thus reinforce gender stereotypes excluding and marginalizing large sections of the population. The values, belief systems and gender relations get militarized in this process. The concept of human security proposed by the United Nations is a step forward though not as radical as the concept of people’s security that peace movements advocate.  Human Security emphasizes that states need to broaden their security paradigm from exclusive focus on the state to an inclusive one that that considers rights and entitlements especially of the marginalized.

The Indian women’s movement has been engaged in fighting for gender equity, basic rights and survival issues for women. From Sati to women’s empowerment and representation they have systematically struggled on all these counts with varying amounts of successes. The tasks for the women’s movement remain far from complete and despite the wide agenda that remains to be fulfilled the women’s movement needs to engage with other political struggles. Critical amongst these is an involvement with a peace movement. This is because the phenomenon of militarization is increasingly affecting the lives of women, especially in our sub-continent. Women’s movements need to question defence budgets and the militarization of civil society and state and for doing this need to deconstruct the basis of national security and the official nationalism that supports such belief systems. National security and defence matters have been exclusive male preserves and perpetuate militarist values and gender stereo types. Women’s movements need to challenge the very concept of power that privileges physical force as the basis of power.

There is an urgent need for the de-securitization of the state. The nation-state remains the primary unit of political empowerment for ordinary people through the principle of citizenship as well as to help locate oneself in a culturally distinct way. It is this institution that the women’s and other peoples movements seek to transform. The focus of national security should be on an inclusive gendered human security that emphasizes on rights and needs and the concept of a militarized national security must be questioned and replaced. This would necessitate a democratization of policy making and the expansion and protection of human rights. This involves including representatives of women’s and peace and social movements when debating defence policies.  International law in general, apart from international humanitarian and human rights law in particular, should systematically outlaw war, Weapons of Mass Destruction [including possession by nuclear weapon states], and the use of force in international relations, except in exceptional cases strictly regulated and monitored by international agencies like the UN, International Court of Justice, etc.  This alone would ensure security in the right sense of the term.  It is thus the task of the women’s movement to understand and confront militarization. They will have to demand the feminization of the notion of national security. This in itself presupposes the substantial democratization of the notion of national security. To talk in such a framework of the possibilities of feminizing national security is to talk essentially of gendering the composition of state apparatuses in a more balanced way and by doing so hopefully gendering its policies in a positive way.

Anuradha M. Chenoy is a Professor at the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the author of Militarisation and Women in South Asia (2002) and Human Security, Concept and Implications (2007, co-authored with Shahrbanou Tadjbhaksh). She is a regular media commentator.

[i] The Tribune, October 23, 2001.

[ii] The Tribune, November 1, 2001.

[iii] Ghanshyam Shah, Reflections on Gujarat, Seminar, April, 2002, pp. 82-85

[iv] Interview with K.S. Sudarshan, general secretary of the RSS, Outlook, April 27, 1998.

[v] Jaswant Singh, “What Constitutes National Security in a Changing World Order? India’s Strategic Thought”, (Centre for the Advanced Study of India, Philadelphia, USA, Occasional Paper No.6, June, 1998). See also Kanti Bajpai, “War Peace and International Politics”, Paper in Weather head Centre for International Affairs, (Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Massachusetts, 1997).

[vi] A.B. Vajpayee, quoted in pervovich, p.374.

[vii] Statement by Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackarey who had argued that the Hindus were not masculine enough and the bomb had empowered them. Earlier governments that had not carried out nuclear tests were described “as a bunch of eunuchs.” Asian Age 24 May, 1998

[viii] CNN, 11 May, 1999, On India’s Nuclear tests.

[ix] Many analysts have stated that there is no ‘grand strategy’ on the basis of which India’s nuclear programme or disarmament diplomacy is being executed. Amitabh Mattoo, “Does Public Opinion Matter?” Seminar, No.444, August, 1996, p.33.

[x]  S. Dasgupta, India Today, 25 May, 1998.

[xi]  Hindustan Times, June 23, 1999.