As 2017 came to a close, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation through his final Mann Ki Baat of the year. He announced that Muslim women would no longer need a male guardian or “mahram” if they want to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, otherwise known as the Hajj.
Why is the BJP suddenly focusing on Muslim women and their struggles? For a party known for its Hindutva politics, its anti-minority stance and which has politicians who have blatantly made regressive comments about women, this new interest in this specific demographic should be viewed with a big dose of scepticism.
Modi’s announcement made headlines as if it were the BJP’s #Resolution2018. The Times of India went with ‘Muslim women can now travel for Hajj without male guardian: PM Modi’ and The Indian Express, The Hindu and The New Indian Express all reported the story similarly.
Except, as The Quint and The Wire pointed out, India can’t exactly claim credit for Saudi Arabia’s visa policies. And Mecca, the destination for the holy pilgrimage, is quite squarely situated in Saudi Arabia. This claim is only the next in a line of claims that project an image that the BJP government is working as the “saviour” of Indian Muslim women.
But, the fact is that the Saudi Arabian government had relaxed its visa rules some years ago, allowing women over the age of 45 to make the pilgrimage without a male guardian but with an organised group. This was pointed out by politicians like MIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi and AIMPLB secretary Maulana Abdul Hamid Azhari. Now this, of course, still isn’t ideal but neither the imposition of such a condition nor its removal has much to do with Modi or his government.
So, about the scepticism. We should have increased our dosage when we realised the government had decided that triple talaq would be the ice-breaker they had been waiting for to talk to Muslim women voters.
Prior to the recently concluded Gujarat elections, a video began to do the rounds, of a Muslim woman chastising two Muslim men who had come to her door for votes. The woman then went on to credit Modi for having provided women aazadi from hell and insisted that the Prime Minister isn’t the sworn enemy of “our people”. It should be pointed out here that the BJP did not take credit for this video. Nobody did.
Just over a week ago, the Lok Sabha, where the BJP government holds a big majority, passed a Bill that aims to make triple talaq a criminal offence, with a jail term of up to three years. This escalation of triple talaq to a criminal offence was met with very varied and heated responses, but in the Lok Sabha the Bill was cleared with surprising haste.
However, when it moved up to the Rajya Sabha, the government saw a united opposition standing against the Bill and calling for it to be sent to a parliamentary committee for review. Aside from the Congress, the Left and the Trinamool Congress, the BJP’s own allies such as the Shiv Sena and TDP asked for the Bill to be sent to a select committee.
Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad called the Bill “a matter of women’s dignity” and said that keeping it pending has revealed “the double standard of the Congress”.
Now, it’s not new for one political party to call out another like this. In fact, in India, it’s only par for the course. But the BJP seems to be clearly positioning itself politically in a manner that sets it up as the go-to party for Muslim women – a marginalised segment of an already marginalised community. And on the other hand, it’s positioning everyone else as “the other” in a with-us-or-against-us sort of move.
This makes Modi and his party look like they’re concerned about both Muslim women without having to do a lot of work for it; making Modi and his party look like they’re concerned about Muslim women while continuing to make Muslim men the scary Other. The triple talaq political ad in Gujarat had followed an earlier ad that hints with a hammer that if Gujarat didn’t vote the BJP back into power, the state wouldn’t be safe for Hindu women. (The BJP didn’t take credit for this video and neither did anybody else.)
A little less obvious is the link between the triple talaq judgment and the BJP’s longstanding demand for a uniform civil code, which is one that the party made in its manifesto for the 2014 general elections as well.
The triple talaq judgment and support for the government’s Bill to criminalise it will help the party’s eventual goal to introduce a uniform civil code. The Bill, if it passes, will clearly show that Muslim Personal Law is not as untouchable as it has seemed in the past, with previous governments hesitating to push for reforms to the law for fear of losing the Muslim vote.
It’s annoying how there is already a need for push-back against the propaganda that the BJP had anything to do with the 2017 SC judgment against triple talaq. The BJP has only co-opted a long struggle and a victory that was hard fought for by Muslim women themselves.
In the 1980s, around the infamous Shah Bano case, Muslim women fought to codify a provision to guarantee post-divorce maintenance. And in this decade, petitioners Shayara Bano, Ishrat Jahan, Gulshan Parween, Aafreen Rehman and Atiya Sabri and the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan fought for the triple talaq ruling. The petition was titled ‘Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality’ not the BJP’s Quest for Muslim Women’s Equality.
In today’s age of easy fact-checking and the internet, how is it that claims such as the one Modi made about women and the Hajj get traction?
Take a not so different example from another country facing existential crises. American president Donald Trump recently tweeted that 2017 was a landmark in commercial aviation – not a single person died in a commercial passenger jet crash. Trump, for some reason, decided to take credit for this, saying that he was very strict on commercial aviation in the year gone by.
The fact is that air safety is a long-term goal and action taken by the US president – in just a year’s time – won’t make too much of a dent in the numbers. Also, the statistics he mentioned refer to crashes worldwide. Not even the President of the US has the power to affect global commercial aviation at that level, leaving aside the arguments made against his so-called strictness on commercial aviation within the States.
Now, anyone who follows him on Twitter, where he seems to make his most prolific political statements, will have access to this statement but it would require someone to actively look for the facts to find a rebuttal.
The headlines giving Modi credit for allowing women to go for Hajj without a male guardian have shared just as much space online as the headlines refuting the claim. Once something is out on the internet, everyone knows it lives forever and just that amount of traction can go a long way. This seems to be more true than usual for a Prime Minister and government that swept to power on the back of a massive mandate and possessing a true gift for digital media.
Complicated political struggles lie ahead if the government is going to continue to play its chance pe dance “saviour of Muslim women” role and if it pushes ahead for the uniform civil code. And what certainly isn’t required in India’s current polarised environment is the swallowing of any government’s claims wholesale. Or not recognising that there is an ongoing international war on truth. Sometimes, the truth may take a lot of hunting to locate, especially in today’s post-fact world, but nobody needs to lie down and play dead either.
Co-published with Newslaundry.