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Women, gender and love: India Tomorrow part 4 podcast transcript

A 2018 protest against rape and violence against women in India. Piyal Adhikary/EPA

This is a transcript of part four of The Anthill’s podcast series, India Tomorrow. Listen to the full episode here and also find out more about past and upcoming episodes in our series episode guide.

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Charu Gupta: What lots of us scholars and feminists argued that actually “love jihad” was actually a jihad against love. It was a war against love. You know it was this kind of a mythical and violent campaign. It was emotive. It was a political fantasy, you know, it was a mobilisation strategy. It was a crusade for political mobilisation in the name of women.

Annabel Bligh: Charu Gupta is a historian at Delhi University. She told us how this phenomenon known as “love jihad” or “Romeo jihad” has gained traction in India.

Charu Gupta: Some examples were quoted of Hindu women actually eloping or running away with Muslim men and then converting. And it was said that this was forceful, that these were actually not elopements, they were like almost like abductions. They were like kidnappings. These young girls were brainwashed, you know, and they were converted to Islam and this was a conspiracy to increase Muslim numbers.

Annabel Bligh: But this was not necessarily the case at all. Take the example of Hadiya Jahan who is in her 20s. Hadiya and her husband Shafin are a young Indian couple whose marriage was annulled after Hadiya’s Hindu family alleged that she was brainwashed into the relationship and into converting to Islam. Following a legal battle, the marriage was restored by India’s Supreme Court last year.

It’s just one story that exemplifies the conservative backlash that is playing out in India, as women increasingly assert their freedom to marry who they want.

Charu Gupta: I’m saying it a bit broadly, but women in India have been asserting themselves. They have been going out in public spaces, expressing their desires, expressing their love. They’re crossing religious and caste boundaries – and this is causing a certain degree of anxiety in the conservative forces.

Annabel Bligh: Charu says the “love jihad” idea is not just targeting women’s freedom. It is also linked to Hindu nationalism ideas, which promote the idea of India as a Hindu nation.

Charu Gupta: On the other hand you can also use it to demonise certain kinds of men, to demonise certain kind of … you know, particularly Muslim men – or to demonise a certain class of people.

Annabel Bligh: And, of course, women in India are not just asserting their freedom to love who they want. In many areas of life, they are asserting their rights as citizens.

India Tomorrow intro music

Annabel Bligh: You’re listening to part four of India Tomorrow, a series from The Anthill podcast, brought to you by The Conversation. I’m Annabel Bligh from The Conversation.

Indrajit Roy: And I’m Indrajit Roy, a lecturer in politics from the University of York.

Annabel Bligh: In this episode we are digging into what life is like for women in India, the extent that they make up an electoral group in Indian politics, and how they are represented among the country’s lawmakers.

Indrajit Roy: Like lots of countries across the world, India suffers from gender inequality. But in terms of global rankings, it scores pretty low – India comes in at number 130 out of 188 countries on the UN Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index.

Annabel Bligh: India is also pretty low down when it come to global rankings of violence against women. The gang rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi in 2012 sparked international outrage and led to huge campaigns in India to deal with its rape culture. Nonetheless, you’ll regularly see cases of rape and sexual violence against women of all ages in the local news. India’s National Crime Records Bureau reported more than 300,000 crimes against women – including nearly 40,000 rapes – in 2016, the most recent government data available.

Indrajit Roy: To find out a bit more about how this affects the day to day lives of young women, we spoke to Sneha Krishnan at the University of Oxford. Sneha studies gender and youth in India and spent a year talking to dozens of young women in the city of Chennai, which is the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Sneha Krishnan: So sexual harassment, as in most other contexts, is a major problem in Indian cities. So the young women I met had interesting ways of dealing with it. So carrying an umbrella with a sharp tip was a common one on the bus. So there was a man behind you who is harassing you, you could push your umbrella into him, right. And they had other ways. They travelled in groups. They texted each other about their experiences. They had ways of coping with the perpetual occurrence of “Eve teasing” or street sexual harassment in their lives.

Indrajit Roy: “Eve teasing” is how a lot of Indians colloquially refer to street sexual harassment. But a lot of feminists argue this phrase is unhelpful

Sneha Krishnan: Because they argue that the phrase “Eve teasing” kind of minimises the problem and makes it seem as if, I mean, the women are, frail little creatures to be teased, whereas it’s not really teasing that’s happening.

Annabel Bligh: Sneha pointed out the fact that there sometimes is a blurry line between harassment and flirting. And a lot of that is to do with cultural expectations of how men and women in India should behave.

Sneha Krishnan: As scholars like Caroline Osella at SOAS have written, this harassment can often pale into flirting as well. And the reason for that is that, while it’s very, very, very important, yes, normatively to emphasise that “no” means “no” and “yes” means “yes”; for a good respectable girl to say “yes” immediately is deeply unrespectable.

Annabel Bligh: Sneha gave us an example of one of the young women she knew in Chennai:

Sneha Krishnan: She played sports for the state of Tamil Nadu, which meant that she met other people from other colleges, including young men who also played the same sport, quite often. And she had met this male athlete whom she kind of had a crush on and she’d seen him staring at her across the field a few times and everything. She told me about how for six months every day he approached her and asked her out and she said no. Six months. She was testing him, right?

So she said that if he’d taken no for an answer and gone away she would have thought that he only wanted something casual with her. But because he persisted for six months she was sure of his love, right. They eventually broke up and that’s why I heard this story. But that said, I think it was really important to this young woman to ensure that the man she was with cared about her enough to persist for six months. However, if she hadn’t wanted him to persist, the same thing could have been sexual harassment, right? And thanks to that I think the line is quite blurry.

Annabel Bligh: So this issue of respectability that Sneha was talking about – how women need to be seen as respectable – is something that extends to other areas of women’s lives. For women at college, this means having their clothing choices scrutinised and how they spend their time controlled in a way that men do not.

Indrajit Roy: It also has implications for young women, living in student accommodation known as hostels.

Sneha Krishnan: Hostels are sort of fairly restrictive institutions and in my experience have gotten more so in the last ten or 15 years, with the anxiety about young women and sexual violence in Indian cities.

Annabel Bligh: Sneha told us about the strict curfew policies that these hostels have. The curfews range from as early as 4pm in the afternoon to maybe 7pm – if you’re lucky. Sneha actually lived in an off-campus hostel in Chennai for a year, as part of her research, to learn what life was like there.

Sneha Krishnan: In the past, it would have been more possible to sort of evade curfew by having a friend sign for you and so on, but increasingly there’s also cameras everywhere watching them. I counted a hundred-odd cameras in this one college – and the joke is literally the bathroom is the only place where there’s no camera. So the girls are constantly being watched and it’s something that they feel quite keenly.

Annabel Bligh: So young women are kind of kept under lock and key for their own safety. Was it like this when you were at university, Indrajit?

Indrajit Roy: To be honest, you know, I wouldn’t know because of the male privilege at work here. As boys, we never had any such restrictions, which we know some of our female friends did. But there is a growing movement in India called “pinjra tod” which literally means break the cage in Hindi. It’s all about making hostels less restrictive and reclaiming the public space to make it safer for women.

Annabel Bligh: Young women also find ways of resisting or working around the restrictions that are put on them. Sneha told us about the phenomenon of daytime clubbing that she found going on.

Sneha Krishnan: So there are these clubs, both official clubs – so commercial establishments – as well as unofficial clubs which are, you know, dance parties that happen in people’s houses, or in places that young people stake out for themselves, which only happen in the afternoon. This is because classes typically end around one or two in the afternoon and then people have a period somewhere between you know two and four hours after that, depending on the particular curfews of their hostels, during which they would otherwise go to cafes or, you know, to the – or something of the sort and wander about. Nobody by the way gets back to a hostel before curfew. That is just not done.

Annabel Bligh: So it’s like bang

Sneha Krishnan: Yeah, bang on. Everybody gets there at exactly that time. So these afternoon clubs were an interesting find because what they do is create the atmosphere of nightlife during the day. So they are really dark inside, right, you can smell the weed, you can smell the alcohol, right? And they feel just as seedy as Oxford’s clubs at two in the morning and people act just as insane inside.

Annabel Bligh: I’m kind of, like, after everything else you’ve been telling me about, I’m kind of shocked that they exist.

Sneha Krishnan: Why?

Annabel Bligh: Because why does it matter if people are in a club at 11pm drinking and partying versus 3pm?

Sneha Krishnan: Oh, because you can get home respectably.

Annabel Bligh: So it comes back to this thing of respectability?

Sneha Krishnan: Yeah and it’s about visibility – you have to show yourself to be a respectable girl. Right? So, a lot of these women will wear you know nice conservative clothes to college, with say a spaghetti strap-top inside, or will have, you know, clothes that are more revealing that they can change into. And then they’ll change into them in the bathroom of this place and then dance around for a while, have some fun, take a few selfies. And once that’s over change back, right? And go back to the hostel in an auto rickshaw, just hold all of their feelings and their sense of drunkenness in until they sign the hostel’s register, right? And then collapse in bed afterwards.

Annabel Bligh: I asked Sneha what would happen if someone broke curfew and she told us another great story to illustrate.

Sneha Krishnan: So there was one girl who got an internship at a newspaper whose office was on the outskirts of the city. And she was very keen to succeed, she really wanted to be a journalist. Being a journalist for young women is now an increasingly sort of mainstream aspiration. There are a lot of female journalists in the public eye. And she was very excited about having been given a big story and knew that she might be risking, you know, breaking curfew by actually covering it. And when she was done with her story she realised she had about an hour to travel back into the city, which if anyone has seen the traffic in Indian cities these days is very little time. So she got a ride from a male co-worker – to start with really dangerous, right? Because if the warden of the hostel had seen her on the back of a male co-worker’s motorbike she’d have gotten into a lot of trouble.

Annabel Bligh: So not dangerous because he might do something, but dangerous because of how it would look?

Sneha Krishnan: Absolutely. So it got worse because they crashed against something on the motorbike and she fell down and she had this massive gash on her knee. And then she finally got an auto-rickshaw and came to the hostel. She was half an hour late for curfew. She should have really been sent to the hospital because she had an enormous gash and clearly needed stitches. The warden left her sort of bleeding on the veranda of the hostel while she went in to call the girl’s parents and kept her bleeding there for the next few hours until they got there.

Annabel Bligh: So her parents were called to the hostel as punishment?

Sneha Krishnan: As punishment. Yeah.

Annabel Bligh: And what would her parents have done when they arrived?

Sneha Krishan: So (her) parents were really upset. I don’t think they knew about the internship. They were concerned that the internship was really dangerous because she’d been on the outskirts of the city, she’d been risking breaking curfew. They were also really upset that she’d taken this ride from a male co-worker. And all of this is, you know – I want to emphasise – it’s all with the best of intentions, right? Quite often. Because horrible things do happen to young women – all over the world – but they do … they do happen.

Eventually, her parents took her home for a few days and then she came back to the hostel. So that story didn’t end particularly badly in the end, but it was a dramatic moment and all she was was half an hour late.

Annabel Bligh: The more serious side of this can be seen in trying to “protect” women from who they fall in love with.

Indrajit Roy: As we heard from Charu Gupta earlier, there is an idea that permeates certain sections of Indian society – the idea of “love jihad” – a fear that some Hindu communities have of Muslim men trying to trick Hindu women into converting to Islam by making them fall in love with them.

Annabel Bligh: Similarly, fears over the safety and chastity of women have led to the rise of what are called “anti-Romeo squads”. These squads were established in the wake of the high-profile Delhi rape case, under the aegis of protecting women from sexual harassment.

Charu Gupta: So anti-Romeo squads were established by one of the state governments in north India, in Uttar Pradesh, to say that plain clothes policemen you know will be now keeping a watch on cases of “Eve teasing”.

Indrajit Roy: So you had squads of plain clothes policeman who were trained to look out for, and stop, sexual harassment.

Annabel Bligh: But, Charu says, these anti-Romeo squads turned out to be quite controversial

Charu Gupta: Love itself is seen as something which is a way by which women are expressing themselves. And it was a way actually to control women, that was the logic behind it. But it had to be couched in this language of trying to protect women, which itself is a problematic word. I mean women have not asked for this kind of a protection. But actually they landed up harassing women, and men, much more, because these policemen or the government itself was unable to differentiate between consensual and forceful expressions of love. So couples holding hands on Valentine’s Day, giving roses to each other, were harassed, you know – or anybody who was seen as just walking together. It was basically a way to morally police public spaces.

Indrajit Roy: And, it’s not just Hindus and Muslims whose love gets policed – though these cross-religious relationships are the focus of “love jihad” rumours – it’s also an issue for people of different castes.

Annabel Bligh: Yep, so Sneha Krishnan at Oxford told us two contrasting stories that reflect how caste, privilege and concerns of what it means to be respectable affected different people’s approaches to relationships.

Sneha Krishnan: There was an upper-middle class young woman who did not live in a hostel, because her family had a home in the city, so she came from an upper caste Malayali family. She had met a Muslim boy who also lived in the same neighbourhood as her, so quite an elite Muslim, right? They had fallen in love in her final year of school and were still dating when I knew them, and she fully had plans to marry him in the end and so on, and so forth.

And in her case she knew that the fact that he was Muslim would be kind of a problem for her extended family. Right. And she worried also that his family might ask her to convert to Islam. But it wasn’t something that kept her up at night worrying, because by and large they came from the same kind of social milieu.

Annabel Bligh: So for this couple, the fact that they were from different religions wasn’t such a big deal. But then Sneha told us about another couple she knew, who were from less wealthy, less “respectable” families.

Sneha Krishnan: There was another young woman that I met who had fallen in love with someone that she didn’t realise was Dalit until after they talked about it. And once she knew he was Dalit, she was completely apprehensive about continuing the affair, mainly because she knew that this would be a serious problem for her family, who were themselves members of a large bracket that’s called the other backward classes.

And she knew that her family would see this as a major step down for her. And she worried about, you know, her father acting violently and so on, and so forth. And additionally she really didn’t want to sort of marry down. Plain and simple, right? Because there was a lot of anxiety that she would simply lose social status and – as she explained to me – for families like hers, social status doesn’t come easily. So she actually eventually broke it off, explicitly for reasons of this sort.

Annabel Bligh: When it comes to the world of politics, the way that caste intersects with gender also has big implications for women politicians.

Indrajit Roy: Yes, we can see this in someone like Mayawati, who is the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP.

Carole Spary: Mayawati’s very significant in different ways. She’s significant symbolically as a representative of the Dalit community.

Annabel Bligh: That’s Carole Spary, an assistant professor at Nottingham University who’s just co-authored a book with Shirin Rai, a professor at the University of Warwick, called Performing Representation: Women members in the Indian Parliament.

Indrajit Roy: As Carole says, Mayawati is significant as a Dalit leader. Remember, Dalits are a group that have historically been oppressed as untouchables. From her very humble beginnings, Mayawati became chief minister of India’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, four times over the last 20 years. Her party, the BSP, is significant because it explicitly fights for Dalit rights and low-caste emancipation. The BSP has worked hard to ensure that Dalits, and members of other so-called low castes were not merely foot-soldiers of the Congress or the BJP, but could advance their own political voice.

So, the BSP may not be great at winning elections, especially outside Uttar Pradesh, but they do provide a means for Dalits to assert their public presence.

Carole Spary: The other thing when we talk about Dalit women and women in general – there’s such a wide variety. Women are … they might be Dalit, but they might be very different, they might have very different experiences. So, for example, when you compare Mayawati to Meira Kumar, for example, who was the first female speaker of the Lok Sabha, we see very different kind of backgrounds, very different careers in politics. So, on the one hand they might be Dalit women, but of course even among Dalit women, Dalit women are diverse as well.

Indrajit Roy: Meira Kumar, who Carole mentioned there, is also Dalit. She’s a Congress party politician. Her father was a former deputy prime minister – so she’s had a very different upbringing and background to perhaps the “average” Dalit woman.

Annabel Bligh: So there are some very high-profile women politicians in India’s parliament, the Lok Sabha. And there are women from a range of castes and parties. Sneha Krishnan explained how there are also lots of women who fit into the BJP’s Hindu nationalist mould.

Sneha Krishnan: And I think it would be a mistake to think of women as a singular category because Hindu nationalism has among its supporters certainly a lot of upper-caste, middle-class, urban women, upper-caste non-middle class, you know, non-urban women and so on.

So on the one hand there’s the sort of sadhvi image, which is the image of the sort of renunciate woman. Right. So women who typically wear saffron robes and aren’t married and, you know, claim to live austere lives, and so on.

Indrajit Roy: A good example of someone referred to as a sadhvi is, Uma Bharati, the firebrand Hindutva leader, born into a impoverished rural family and from among the so-called “low castes”, who rises up the party ranks in the BJP to become chief minister of Madhya Pradesh State and is today a minister in Modi’s cabinet.

Sneha Krishnan: There’s also the sort of, you know, good married woman image, you know, Sushma Swaraj, for instance, was a substantially important politician within the BJP who embodied that. And, I mean, there have been female politicians who have sort of capitalised on these, you know, quite right-wing imaginaries of womanhood really to gain power.

Annabel Bligh: So women feature across the political spectrum. But the actual number of women politicians is still very low. Here’s Carole Spary again.

Carole Spary: The national parliament has never really got above 12% of MPs as women. And state level average is often less than this, about sort of 8%. So while there’s some very senior sort of individual women leaders in Indian politics, such as party leaders, chief ministers of some states, a former prime minister and parliamentary leaders like two female speakers of the lower house of parliament, when you look at the average MP or state level MLA, this is overwhelmingly male. And there’s a fairly depressing statistic that if you take all of the women MPs ever elected to the lower house of parliament, you would not fill a single Lok Sabha, you would not fill a single lower house of parliament, which is usually about 543 elected seats.

Annabel Bligh: It’s not that women aren’t engaging with politics. Carole says the number of women turning out to vote in elections has grown a significant amount in recent decades.

Carole Spary: And if you look at the general election by general election, slowly that gap between men and women’s voter turnout has narrowed over time. And my colleague Rajeshwari Deshpande in Pune University suggests that this indicates the arrival of a women’s constituency or a women’s vote. So this kind of essentially encourages politicians to learn and to understand and to appeal to women’s votes more and more because of their increasing turnout.

Annabel Bligh: In the 2014 national elections, voter turnout for men was 67% and for women it was 66% – so pretty high for both. Now, of course, both men and women politicians must – and do – represent both their male and female constituents. Nonetheless, this gender inequality at the highest level of politics is reflective of the gender inequality that exists in India.

Indraji Roy: If India wants to see more women represented at the highest level of politics, there needs to be a wider cultural shift. Right now, Carole says there’s a reason politics is a male-dominated space and it ties into the kind of morality policing we were hearing about earlier, as well as the physical violence women face.

Carole Spary: There is a sense that women are often turned off going into politics because, there is a sense about what, you know, whether they would get aspersions cast on their character. Whether they’re … they call it character assassination – and there are examples, you know, where women candidates and MPs have faced those kinds of those kinds of problems.

So whether it’s character assassination, whether it is actually physical violence as well. I mean the online space as well as … I mean, as you know this is a problem around the world, the online space can also be very violent particularly for women in politics as well.

Annabel Bligh: Unless efforts are made to make politics more inclusive for women, Carole says, India is unlikely to see a big improvement in the number of women politicians working at the national level.

Carole Spary: At the same time, if that space is intimidating or if it’s violent – or if there are, you know, very real personal as well as professional costs to them in terms of, you know, family, integrity and reputation and all of those things, then actually it shouldn’t necessarily be the burden for women to accept those things in order to be able to participate. It should be the responsibility of those seeking to create a more democratic politics to actually address those kinds of issues, those kinds of problems. So, whether it’s the corruption or violence or the use of money in politics, intimidation, particularly gendered forms of violence, and gendered forms of intimidation, it shouldn’t necessarily be the cost for women to be in politics, it should be about trying to make democratic politics more inclusive for everybody.

Annabel Bligh: That’s it for this episode. We’ll be exploring the Indian economy in part five of India Tomorrow.

Kunal Sen: Many people felt that Modi did a very brave thing, a very bold thing. And many people felt that “OK we suffered”, and this is my own interviews with lots of poor villagers in different parts of eastern India. Their argument to me was, “Okay, we lost some income, some ways to ways to maintain our livelihoods, but we think that the rich person in our village suffered more and we feel that’s actually good, that that person suffered more than I did and I therefore I feel that this policy, as much as I think I got hurt from this particular policy, I think I support it.”

Annabel Bligh: That’s in part five of our India Tomorrow series. Do subscribe to The Anthill podcast so you don’t miss out. A big thanks to my co-host Indrajit Roy.

Indrajit Roy: Thank you Annabel.

Annabel Bligh: You can read more of The Conversation’s coverage of India by academics from around the world on or follow us on social media. If you’ve got any questions relating to what we’ve been discussing in this series, please do get in touch via email on We’ll put these to a panel of academics we’ve got lined up to discuss the election results at the end of May. And if you’re looking for a transcript of this episode, and other episodes in this series, it will also be available soon on

A massive thanks to all the academics who spoke to us for this episode and to the journalism department at City University for letting us use their studios. The Anthill is produced by Gemma Ware and me, Annabel Bligh. Sound by Alex Portfelix. Thanks to you for listening. Goodbye.

Indrajit Roy: Goodbye.

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