Two nuns, two Indias and the politics of identity


Swarna Rajagopalan, Through their bodies we strive, New Indian Express, November 3, 2008.

(Also available here.)

In October, two Catholic nuns from India made news.

First, news broke about the gang rape of a nun in Kandhamal on August 25, 2008. Her rape was part of the anti-Christian mob frenzy that followed the killing of Lakshmananda Saraswati. She was dragged out of her hiding-place, raped and paraded naked in the market-place. She alleges that the police were watching and did nothing. Neither did others in the marketplace.

Second, Sister Alphonsa was canonized and India celebrated. Saint Alphonsa’s miracles were remembered and her followers and faithful interviewed, as we watched the Vatican ceremony live. Those who had never heard of Alphonsa before that day now know a great deal about her, her hometown, her miracle and her schoolfriends.

Within us, live two Indias.

The first India I know is that of my great-grandmother, walking down from her home to pray at “Alphonso kovil” in the neighbourhood, a ritual we continued on every visit to Chennai. The nun from Kerala, her contemporary, became a much-loved part of our family pantheon.

The second India, also somewhere within many of us, has responded to communal violence against Christians in Orissa and Karnataka in a shamefully muted way. It is petulant about the pride we felt collectively at Alphonsa’s canonization, pointing out that India has other women saints.

But this article is not about my family, communalism or ‘Indias,’ old and new. It is about the way in which women become the currency or the medium through which we transact or express identity politics. In October, what the Orissa nun and Saint Alphonsa had in common is that their lives and stories were drawn into political battles far removed from their own experiences.

Women, their bodies and their lives are too often gadgets deployed in political struggles over delineating what defines a national (or local) community and what relationship each part of society shall bear to this whole.

The symbols of the group are cast as women, whether as Mother India, Britannica, Thamizhthai or Rosie the Riveter, inspiring the group to act upon its self-definition. The symbol is given attributes—a nurturing temperament, the spirit of battle, divinity, chastity, sacrifice, discipline—that are then extrapolated onto women in the group. This works, first, to stereotype women in the group; they are uniformly nurturing, feisty, adventurous, chaste, and so on. Then it serves as a moral code for women, laying out do’s and don’ts for them of dress and behaviour. Expressing the group’s values, these become custom, ritual and norm, into which all the members of a group are socialized and to which they are expected to conform. Women, who live this code, become its first teachers; prisoners becoming jailers, one might say. Transgressions of this code are punishable by the group, physically, through shaming or ostracism. These codes also assure that when Mother India and Rosie the Riveter are done with their work of inspiring the troops, they can return to the private sphere to live and teach the group’s code.

Because women come to embody the group, its values and the continuity of the code that defines it, they are the most effective target for its opponents. Historical and contemporary case studies around the world show that subjugation is often expressed through sexual violence. The abduction, rape and enslavement of men and women is a common detail in accounts of most military encounters. The acquisition of concubines and wives from the enemy’s ranks is a symbol of military victory. This is what Helen of Troy ultimately stands for. The recognition of rape as a weapon of war is an acknowledgment that interpersonal acts of violence are not isolated from hostilities between groups.

‘Jauhar,’ ‘sati’ and ‘karo-kari’ all express the belief that the honour of the group (whether community, family or clan) lies in the bodies of women. Women must die rather than risk the loss of this honour which does not bind the group’s men in a similar way. (That this honour is in strange ways tied to property, inheritance and succession is the subject of another article.) Riots and mob violence pose particular threats for women and girls, because rape, especially rape by a gang, is both to act out and to express hostility and dominance. The war begins elsewhere, but is ultimately waged on and over female bodies.

Gender stereotypes, gender roles and behavioural codes have one unintended consequence. In times of conflict, they create an unexpected space for agency. Women are able to act as mothers, even when the demands of group honour restrict their movements in the name of protection. ‘Mothers’ have organized to search for missing children, to tend to the wounded, to organize supplies and to rally for peace. Where daughters, sisters and wives are confined to the so-called safe haven of the home, mothers cross its threshold into public action, time and again in Chile, in Kashmir, in Northern Ireland, in Sri Lanka and other conflict zones.

The two nuns, working in Kerala and Orissa, could have scarcely imagined that their lives would be a part of a political discussion that also evoked Mother India, Helen of Troy or the Chilean Mothers of the Disappeared. Patriarchy unrelentingly weaves them all into the politics of identity as symbols, as vectors and as battle-grounds and makes their lives currency in battles over conscience, culture and history.

Swarna Rajagopalan directs Prajnya Initiatives (

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