Actor Payal Rohatgi's outburst against Safoora Zargar typifies right wing obsession with Muslim sexuality

Mirza Arif

On 5 June, Payal Rohatgi, the Indian TV actor who identifies herself as a "proud Hindu", shared a video in which Safoora Zargar €" the Jamia Millia Islamia student currently in jail on charges of conspiracy to instigate the February riots in New Delhi €" was seen delivering a fiery speech during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC).

"Ram Ram ji, maybe she had sex after this video to remove her frustration and she got pregnant," tweeted Rohatgi, adding, "#SafooraZargar is a terrorist."

In another tweet, she asked: "Were medical shops not providing condoms?" "Oops for Muslim women there is no concept of condom, so when they produce kids like a dozen [sic], what's the problem if one is born in jail, but this k***ya will do victim drama," Rohatgi wrote.

The actor's Twitter timeline is replete with comments on the sex lives of Muslim women, including Zaira Wasim, the former Bollywood actor who quit the film industry citing religious reasons.

In the age of the IT cell, the Hindu right-wing discourse around the sexuality and sex lives of Muslim men and women, has acquired a particular tone and tenor: Muslim women are backward and hence they "understand very little about sex", but the men of the same community are near savage and perverted, always in the quest to entice and entrap Hindu women.

In December 2005, much before "Love Jihad" €" the alleged conspiracy by Muslim men to lure Hindu women and convert them to Islam €" entered the mainstream lexicon, the Meerut Police raided the city's Gandhi Park, rounding up couples, including married ones. "Operation Majnu" was filmed by TV crews who had been informed by the police in advance.

Three years later, in writer-filmmaker Paromita Vohra's documentary, Morality TV Aur Loving Jehad: Ek Manohar Kahani, Sandeep Pahal, then a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activist, was seen underscoring the "perennial Hindu-Muslim conflict" in the communally sensitive city of Meerut and saying, "It's their (Muslims') hidden agenda".

"You'll see, in 99.5 percent of the cases, it will be a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy," he said, adding, "They would wear vermilion on their foreheads, tie the red thread to their wrist and keep Hindu names." Pahal then said it was considered a kind of "Jihad", just as there was "terrorism jihad to kill Hindus and non-believers, this is loving jihad".

Charu Gupta, associate professor at the University of Delhi's Department of History, says there is a qualitative shift in the Hindu right-wing's rhetoric vis-a-vis Muslim women after the latter challenged the "meek" caricature of themselves through the very-well organised anti-CAA-NRC demonstrations in Shaheen Bagh and other parts of India.

"What is perceived of the Muslim male is now being extended to the body of the Muslim woman," Gupta says. "The anti-CAA protests revealed that a Muslim woman is not going to be won over so easily."

"For the right-wing, the Muslim woman was meek, less educated, less outgoing than the Hindu woman, and then there was this argument that Islam suppresses women, but the Shaheen Bagh protest brought [out] a different dimension," says Gupta, whose work explores caste, gender and feminism, modern Indian history, and masculinities.

These women cannot easily be accused of violence or for that matter can't be related to a terrorist figure, she noted. "A terrorist figure is largely a male figure. And then here's a woman who wears her identity on her sleeve, is also a nationalist in abiding by the Constitution, so it becomes difficult for them to tackle."

Shadab Bano, assistant professor in History, Women's College, Aligarh Muslim University, says when Muslim woman challenged the Hindu right's pre-conceived notions, the latter didn't know how to deal with it, and therefore the only way "to demonise Muslim women was through their sexuality".

She sees this as the primary reason why right wing trolls question the character of Muslim women.

Nivedita Menon, professor at the Centre for Comparative Politics & Political Theory, School of International Studies, observes that whoever has spoken against the Hindu Rashtra has faced online abuse of a sexual nature from the right-wing.

"That's how they attack people in any society but particularly in this highly sex-repressive society: through the use of sexual slurs, particularly towards women, cutting across caste, class and community," says Menon, who specialises in political theory, feminist theory, and Indian politics.

It's a mode of silencing because for them these abuses are meant to completely devastate people, she adds.

As for why it's women who are always at the receiving end of this verbal wrath, Menon says, "The idea of purity of any community, caste identity is determined by the woman because you would never know who the father is... so you have to control the woman's womb. That's why sexuality becomes a way by which you shame women, you punish women, you rape them."

Anyone who speaks up against the Hindu Rashtra is an issue, particularly women, and "the control over sexuality is crucial to their [right-wing's] idea of what a pure Hindu identity is," she said.

While Muslim women have been denigrated as child-producing machines, men of the same community are portrayed as hypersexual, deceitful and on a mission to win over Hindu girls.

Dibyesh Anand, associate professor at London's Westminster University, argues in his paper Anxious Sexualities: Masculinity, Nationalism and Violence that "anxious masculinity" lies at the heart of right-wing nationalism, of which Hindu nationalism in India is an example.

Citing a 2006 conversation with a young activist at the VHP's Nagpur office, Anand wrote the former tried to convince him that "Muslim men are too sexy because they have a hard foreskin due to circumcision and this is preferred by [Hindu] girls" and this is why "we need cultured Hindu girls who think of their family and not sex".

Muslim men's sexuality as a "threat to the Hindu community", particularly its women, foregrounds the Hindutva discourse, an example of which is seen in a recently published book, Love Jihadis: An Open-Minded Journey into the Heart of Western Uttar Pradesh, authored by Mihir Srivastava and Raul Irani.

Chetna Devi, better known as Yati Maa Chetnanand Saraswati, heads a Meerut-based outfit called Akhand Hindustan Morcha, a Hindutva nationalist political outfit. According to her, Muslims as a community are relatively poor and live in small houses without privacy. "Young children, therefore, witness their parents in the act of sex very early on. Since they are initiated into sexual intimacy early, they are better at satisfying a woman's desire. Therefore, if a Hindu girl experiences intimacy with a Muslim boy, she falls madly in love, and even the honour of her family becomes a secondary consideration," Chetna Devi is quoted as saying in the book. "There is a reason for it. Sex is not taboo in a Muslim family. And the family encourages them to trap Hindu girls."

The rationale behind such statements, says Shadab Bano, is to use Muslim men's sexuality to "other-ise" them completely.

"The sexuality of Muslim men is seen as a threat to Bharat Mata and Hindu women by Hindutva," says Bano. "And that threat has been recreated and harped upon so much these days."

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