The ‘Naak Katwadi’ Trope: Can We Stop Politicising a Woman’s Body?

Much of the hate and violence being incited today has a common link that we often miss out on or have internalised too much to notice. It seems that even when we want to incite hatred on grounds of religion, caste – or against countries even – we cannot shake off our sexist predispositions.

Three isolated incidents have done the rounds in recent time.

The first, a video that resurfaced from a rally in 2007 where the now UP CM had made the bold statement that the act of a Muslim man converting a Hindu woman must be countered by a Hindu man converting 100 Muslim women.

The second was when the current leader of the Hindu Vahini Sena filed a complaint against a couple on grounds that implied a potential case of “love Jihad”.

And finally, a video of a professor of theology in Egypt, who claimed that during times of war against Islam, Muslim men can make slaves of women of their enemies, and “can have sex with them, just as they have sex with their wife.”

There are multiple reasons that make these incidents problematic – that they incite hate and violence, encourage rape, justify a breach of privacy, to name the obvious few. However, interestingly, the common link that binds these incidents together is that the woman plays a central role in each.

We say the woman because women referred to in these statements are an archaic representation of women that prevails within the ideology of patriarchy. And it is only in societies where patriarchy is so widespread that the woman can be used as a tool to manipulate the sentiments of the masses.

The idea of women within the imagery of statements made is that they can be easily fooled, and are incapable of thinking for themselves. We have even gone to the extent of implying that an adult woman’s consent does not really mean anything if there is scope for manipulation. The behaviour that patronises one half of the world at once, also manages to develop a sense of entitlement in the other half, over her. This sentiment – that men must protect their women – is so innate that even just speculation that she has been wronged is enough to get everybody riled up.

This begs the question – why are you protecting her? When it’s not coming from a patronising attitude, is it because you have identified women as objects (to be owned and exchanged, and used for pleasure and vengeance, as convenient), and yet you’ve decided that this object must bear yours, and your community’s dignity?

What is testament to this is that the phrase ‘naak katwadi’ is more often used in reference to the actions of a woman, than a man, when they go against the values of the household or community. Not only have women never asked or claimed to be responsible for everyone else’s honour, but this has adversities for the man as well. Something as fundamental as protecting the “modesty and dignity” of individuals has become a gendered right, and under law too.

A repercussion less discussed is that people whose reputation and sense of self-worth is contingent on someone else’s behaviour has no reason then to feel responsible for their own actions.

It seems that even when we want to incite hatred on grounds of religion, caste, or against countries even, we cannot shake off our sexist predispositions. Worse yet, we fail to see that our behaviour is riddled with equivocation. We are at once claiming to protect women – yet we cannot respect them as anything more than objects. And at the same time, we’re giving men a sense of entitlement while weakening their right to protect their own dignity.

(Karan Singhal and Nisha Vernekar work as research associates at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, on issues related to education and gender. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)