To be a feminist atheist in India: Hate-filled and violent responses make even the act of offering solidarity fraught
Many Feminist Atheist Women navigate life and work by keeping our opinions on religion largely to ourselves unless we have the assurance of a safe space.
In the mid to late 2000s when the tedious subject of actively seeking nuptial associations through newspaper ads and matrimonial websites was being broached in my family, I offered my lukewarm consent to speaking to potential alliances based on a checklist of things that were core to my personal politics. Ranked very high on that list was religion, or lack of its practice thereof in a future partner. I wasn’t yet out to my family as an atheist but I knew what I did not want.
(Disclaimer: I still use ‘oh god!’ and “omg!’ as exclamations out of sheer force of habit.)
Beyond the mild chiding of “beshi barabari korona (don’t overdo it)”, my parents were resigned to the fact that I will actively try to sabotage every potential match to escape being tied down in holy matrimony. It wasn’t much of a surprise that most Bengali middle class families sought practicing Hindu daughters in law and none of the arranged attempts at matchmaking fructified into potential leads. I grew up in a Hindu family with an atheist father and a religious mother with no real restrictions on my choices. Both of them encouraged me to think independently and question everything, but also to respect the fundamental rights of others.
I grew up with the simplistic notion that, like sexual acts, religion is a deeply personal thing, practiced within the confines of one’s house with enthusiastic consent of participants. Of course, with age, the nuances of religion’s close ties with culture, community, caste, sexuality and gendered components were clearer. What didn’t change was how I and many other Feminist Atheist Women navigate life and work — by keeping our opinions on religion largely to ourselves unless we have the assurance of a safe space. Mostly we do not. And in current times, a comment against religion is opening oneself up to an endless cycle of organised online harassment, state intervention in the form of FIRs, and physical violence in the form of mob attacks.
There’s a blurry, uneasy space in the backrooms of activism of change that is inhabited by this minority group whose voices are increasingly guarded in criticism of certain things. And by certain I specifically mean all things that have to do with religion. They are the irreligionists, the atheists, the rationalists, and the ‘nones’. These are the people usually at the forefront of campaigns against political intimidation of those accused of “hurting religious sentiments” — a blanket term that can mean anything from an insulting tweet to a risqué dialogue in a film.
The Indian law vigorously protects those who practice religion. There are no similar provisions for atheists, though Article 51A (h) of the Constitution does say that it is the duty of every Indian to develop a scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform. Read in the current context, it probably means that spirit of inquiry is okay as long as it does not ruffle religious sentiments.
There, of course, is no legal recourse for hurting of scientific sentiments.
Now narrow this group down to women. Narrow this further down to women who identify as feminists. It’s a space filled with lifelong experiences coloured by violent patriarchy which not just policed their actions since birth but also their free thought from an age when they started to question injustice. It started with a “don’t ask questions,” and bled into all spaces of life — from being made to go to places of worship against their will to being punished for not keeping religious fasts. This, of course, is in the context of access, ableism and privilege. For women without all of this, a vocal lack of belief in god in a deeply religious family is still punishable by violence in many parts of India. Many women are brainwashed into picking up familial religious traditions from a young age. Some do it willingly, others through the force of habit-forming repetition.
It’s bad enough to be a woman practicing atheism in India, it’s worse if we’re also feminist.
I do not even mean radical atheism. What most of us grow into is an atheism printed in the mellow colours of regional, cultural acceptances and reluctant observation of events tied to religion — such as Durga Puja, harvest festivals, feasts and public holidays. We’re basically indulging our loved ones from the outer periphery of religion, impatiently waiting for the food service to start.
Since in India religion is closely woven into one’s cultural and community identities, atheist women find themselves not just a minority but also navigating multiple layered existences within caste, sexual orientation and gender identities. The protection and accumulated privileges that upper caste, cishet, practicing atheist, feminists have, will starkly differ from anyone else.
But what is most intriguing is the way this feminism plays out in this intersectional space. Especially in the performative atheism on the internet that ignores and demonises the politics of religious women as primitive versus actual allyship. And this also works the other way round.
Often religious women — mothers, sisters, mothers in law, aunts and grandparents gatekeep this space for Indian women atheists. How can we protect our atheism online from a bloodthirsty religious mob and still stand in solidarity with religious feminist sisters who are under attack for other aspects of their work? How can we protect the fundamental rights of women who say anti-religious things and not face similar attacks?
I found myself writing and deleting several times an atheist response to the hounding of the two young women in the past week — Hindustan Times reporter Shristi Jaiswal who made a puerile comment about a Hindu deity, and comedian Agrima Joshua who used (the statue of a) historical Hindu icon as a punchline of a joke in a standup act. I would think that both views should ideally be inconsequential to the stature of the icons in question. But as is the custom of India’s thriving industry of offense taking, both views have resulted in the two women’s relentless hounding, including public rape threats. In the case of the former, the silence of women journalists who are normally quick to jump to the defense of a colleague, is bothering me. I found myself asking, does feminism not extend its benevolent safety net to those who lampoon religion? In the case of the latter, the silence was broken mainly after there was a rape threat, not because Joshua’s free speech is her fundamental right if that speech isn’t breaking a law and it didn’t.
It is not that feminist religious women do not protest arbitrary muscle-show of religion. They often have in the past.
One does not have to be an atheist to protest injustice. But silences in the face of religious anger directed at women could stem from the following reasons — i) that they too feel their own religious sentiments have been hurt and this is where they need to introspect why this makes them uncomfortable ii) they think that an adult displaying irresponsible behaviour should bear the full consequences of their action, and iii) as is mostly commonly the case, without steel-strong safety nets of judicial protection, online spaces are violent and swift in retribution to those who question the majority view, especially if the majority view is in favour of majority religion.
Navigating atheism and feminism in India — with the view that most organised religion oppress women and underrepresented genders — is standing up against layered structures with roots that start with one’s own families, then creep into society, in schools, colleges, community gatherings, marriage, workplace, public recreational places and every structure where patriarchy has a hold in deciding what women say and read, and how they live their lives.
If there has been hesitation to put in words the sense of irony in seeing the harassment of a living person for an immature opinion, to protect a mythological character who probably does not need this protection, will be to expose oneself to similar attacks. Religion wields too much and too disproportionate a power. Especially in the absence of a clear definition of what constitutes “religious sentiment.” The problem is not that religions form the basis of most lived practices in our country — it’s one of the things that makes India diverse and multicultural. The problem is that ardent followers of religions demand absolute immunity from caricature.
To be an atheist feminist in India is to increasingly expose oneself to hate but more alarmingly, to actual acts of violence in physical spaces. And the act of offering solidarity to sisters and brothers outside this space is getting increasingly difficult.
Illustration by Namaah K for Firstpost