In yet another instance of how women are seen as the keepers of their men, a politician embroiled in a Twitter spat with another politician called him “a guy who ran after a Muslim lady.”

The lady in question, Tabussum Rao, now the wife of Karnataka Congress President Dinesh Gundu Rao, responded to this gracefully by declaring that she should not be used as a pawn in ‘cheap politics,’ as she had never made “any personal remarks against any BJP leader.” She added, that yes, while she was born a Muslim, she was a proud Indian first. “The Constitution of India, which is built on the foundation of secularism guarantees every individual liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.” She concluded that these misogynistic and provocative remarks were unbecoming of a Union Minister.

But this is not an argument about the BJP and the Congress. This is about mindsets in this country, in which a person is weighed not by the qualities of nature, academic or professional achievements, but rather by the religion they or, as in this case, their wives belong to. Women have always been the bearers of sanctity—of the family, or the community, of the religion. It is an unjust burden they have to bear. That the political discourse in this country revolves around the religion of a woman just because she happens to be married to a politician is nothing new. At the senior most levels of the Congress, we have all seen the amount of spiteful trolling Sonia Gandhi has been subject to, just because she isn’t born a Hindu or wasn’t an Indian by birth, but rather married into the Gandhi family.

But this is not an argument about the BJP and the Congress. This is about mindsets in this country, in which a person is weighed not by the qualities of nature, academic or professional achievements, but rather by the religion they or, as in this case, their wives belong to.

Marriage, in a patriarchal society, more often than not, has the woman adopting the religion of the husband’s family. By implication, she also renounces the religion she was born into. Under the law though, this is only if the woman chooses to adopt the religion her husband follows. This of course, could be either voluntarily or through coercion.

Interestingly, just a couple of years ago, in 2017, the Supreme Court had ruled that “the law does not sanction the concept of a woman’s religion getting merged with her husband’s faith after an inter-religion marriage.” This came about when a five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra dealt with a legal question of whether a Parsi woman lost her religious identity when she married a man from a different religion.

That the political discourse in this country revolves around the religion of a woman just because she happens to be married to a politician is nothing new.

At that point the bench stated, “There is no law which says that a woman loses religious identity after marrying a man from another faith… Moreover, the Special Marriage Act is there and allows that two persons can marry and maintain their respective religious identities.”

The bench added, “A man marries outside the community and is permitted to retain his religious identity and a woman is not allowed to marry outside and retain her religious identity. How can a woman be debarred.”

Another case that ruled the headlines for a long while was that of Hadiya, who had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man, but whose parents insisted she had been brainwashed and converted. This was even though, Hadiya, earlier known as Akhila Ashokan, a grown woman of legal age, declared openly that she had converted to Islam voluntarily. That the case of a grown woman choosing to convert after her marriage to a man of a different religion would reach the Supreme Court was itself a matter of concern. Where, in all this, did her own agency for self determination come in? This case served to underline how we really do perceive women, even after they reach legal age, as creatures in need of guardianship – their custody being passed on from their fathers to their husbands, and if they have the bad taste or bad luck to outlive their husbands, then their sons.

The case of a grown woman choosing to convert after her marriage to a man of a different religion would reach the Supreme Court was itself a matter of concern.

Religion, and the emphasis it places on female purity and submissiveness, might be perceived as the last barrier to female emancipation. The way religion plays on the binary they assign a woman to, with either the virgin or the whore duality is indicative of the lack of nuance with which a woman’s agency is perceived. And more often than not, marriage considered an indication of a takeover, as did happen in days gone by where royalty married into other faiths in order to cement friendly relations between their kingdoms. Even back then, we did have cases like that of the Mughal emperor Akbar, who having married a Rajput princess, graciously allowed her to continue practising her own birth religion of Hinduism with no compulsion to convert to Islam.

The way religion plays on the binary they assign a woman to, with either the virgin or the whore duality is indicative of the lack of nuance with which a woman’s agency is perceived.

I come from an interfaith marriage, it is something that has had me living on the fringes of both religions all my life. My mother is a Catholic. My father was a Muslim. I’m married to a Hindu Rajput from Kumaon. My mother continues to go to church after she was married, and prays to the Gods she grew up with. After all, what is comfort but the name of the God you turned to as a child. There was no compulsion on her to convert to Islam. My father followed his own religion after his marriage. I follow none, never felt the need to. The spouse follows his own religion. It amuses me when Twitter trolls brandish elitist and caste privilege as slurs at me. If anything I am an interfaith mongrel and that completely pleases me, the syncretism that allows me to stand back and look into every religion from the outside and see that the commonalities that each have, commonalities that are invisible to those who are deep within them. And of course, the greatest commonality of them all, that every religion is but a path to the divine. And to the divine within each person. And it is only when we can truly respect the divine in ourselves and the other, will we ever hope to reach the divinity promised to us by faith.

If anything I am an interfaith mongrel and that completely pleases me, the syncretism that allows me to stand back and look into every religion from the outside and see that the commonalities that each have, commonalities that are invisible to those who are deep within them.

Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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