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Women, Communalism and the Shiv Sena

Shruti Tambe

By Atreyee Sen
Zubaan, Delhi, 2008, pp. 220, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 9 September 2008

This is a book about poor urban slum women and children using collective violence to contest their vulnerabilities. The author has attempted covert ethnographic research among Shiv Sena women belonging to the Mahila Aghadi, frequenting Sena women’s homes, ‘shakhas’ and meetings in temple premises. Sen has laboriously tried to engage with the worldview of urban underprivileged alienated women who attempt to counter gender constraints and show signs of ‘empowerment’ in the process. While tracing this ‘heroism’ of the Sena women, the author claims to privilege ‘how Sena women construct their own unique history’ and analyses the reasons for the collective violence that they plan, organize and orchestrate.   The book reviews feminist studies on the Hindu Right in India, and notably that of Paola Bachhetta, and seeks to move beyond an essentialist view of femininity. Sen highlights the subjectivity of Sena women when interpreting their violent actions. Unlike Bachhetta, she goes beyond textual sources, and hence her efforts at chronicling militant women’s political and cultural life should be applauded; this is one of the first works that has analysed from within the active participation of Shiv Sena women in communalism. It is an ethnography of the lowest rank of the Sena’s cadre, giving details of everyday slum life, their struggles for survival, as well as dramatic events such as riots. She covers two generations of Shiv Sena women, making available interesting points of comparison.   Sen argues that feminist concepts like agency and empowerment are applicable in this instance too, despite the fact that feminists have treated right wing women as passive recipients of rightist ideology and thus keeping them at the periphery of scholarly works. It is true that feminist and left oriented scholars and activists have expressed shock or anguish about Sena women’s participation in riots and other forms of violent actions. That shock occurs against the backdrop of an optimism that a reformist legacy—a brahmanical and counter-brahmanical one during the colonial period, a progressive women’s movement from the early 1980s and the burgeoning of an autonomous women’s movement since the mid 1980s—would lead to the creation of an ‘emancipatory’ feminist space in the particular context of Maharashtra. One feminist reaction to right wing women’s violence was therefore to lament the failure of progressive activists to reach beyond upper class, upper caste, urban women, while another was of utter shock at ‘...

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