South Asia: Table of Contents
Organizer: Elora Shehabuddin, Princeton University
Chair: Shahnaz J. Rouse, Sarah Lawrence College
Discussant: David Ludden, University of Pennsylvania
This panel explores the increased politicization of religion in modern-day Bengal, the centrality of gender issues to this development and some of the local responses to the phenomenon. Through examples from both West Bengal and Bangladesh, these papers examine the manner in which ostensibly religious notions of gender relations or a womans role in society are propagated, exaggerated, but also resistedspecifically, the Hindu emphasis on dowry which has been taken to new levels in the Marwari community in Calcutta and the Islamic concerns with modesty and chastity as manifested in the Jamaat-e Islami literature and in the recent spate of Fatwa cases in Bangladesh. In each case study examined, the cultural and historical setting of Bengal is of paramount importance in understanding the different types of religious revivals. At the same time, the papers in this panel also attempt to look at the influences of globalization and imagined public spheres which impact on the context, content, and effects of local practices. The imagination of a wider sense of public, in which religion increasingly figures as a political force, has reconfigured the dynamics of social practices in which religion is invoked.
Anne Hardgrove, University of Michigan
Though the problem of dowry has been a debated concern in Hindu social reform since colonial times, in recent decades womens groups and community organizations in Bengal have developed creative new strategies for combating the problems of dowry and dowry-related violence. This paper examines how these problems have been addressed by the organization of "community marriages" in Calcutta and India generally.
After the gruesome 1981 dowry-death of Neelum Jain, a young Marwari bride from a bania trader family, there was widespread discussion and publicity about the problems of dowry and dowry-related violence in middle-class families. Womens groups and caste social reform organizations banded together to look for strategies through which to combat dowry violence. The long-term result has been the emergence of "community marriages," through which a community organization organizes a public form by which prospective brides and grooms can be introduced to the community at large and families, girls and boys can meet each other; finally a public mass marriage is held at which several couples tie the knot. The organization bears the costs of the marriage, and couples promise not to exchange any dowry.
In this presentation I discuss the case of Neelum Jain and the performance of community marriages. Using insights gained from ethnographic research, when I personally observed and participated in a business communitys project of organizing a community mass marriage, I discuss the idea of community marriages as a possible solution to the problem of dowry and dowry-related violence.
Elora Shehabuddin, Princeton University
One of the most remarkable features of the parliamentary elections of June 1996 in Bangladesh was the distinct reversal in the electoral success of the Jamaat-e-Islami or "party of Islam." Both the Jamaat and its detractors have attributed its debacle to the unusually large number of women voters which, in turn, is seen as the result of the growing influence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). According to opponents of the Jamaat, rural women realize that it is not in their interest to vote for the Jamaat because it has publicly threatened to close down many NGOs were it to come to power, thereby depriving many of them of their sources of credit, education and employment. Jamaat adherents, on the other hand, claim that most voters are still so poor and uninformed that they can even be bribed into voting against the one party that can bring them "true democracy" in this life and save them from "the bed and blanket of fire in hell" that awaits those who prefer man-made ideologies.
This paper seeks to identify the extent to which the Jamaats recent decline in popularity was due to ideological unpopularity rather than simply an inadequate pre-election campaign. This question is approached from two perspectivesthe Jamaats position on gender relations in society as well as opinions on the Jamaat and other political parties among the majority of the countrys populationthe illiterate rural poor.
Dina Siddiqi, New School for Social Research
This paper examines the increasing prominence of fatwas in the public sphere in contemporary Bangladesh. The fatwa is a public statement by a legal scholar of Islam on any issue brought to his/her attention. Fatwa verdicts are not legally binding and any attempt to execute them constitutes a violation of state law. However, the nature and meaning of fatwas have changed dramatically in the last few years. It is now commonplace to use fatwas as weapons in personal and political battles. How does a fatwa work? Under what conditions are fatwa verdicts enforced? How is the moral community being reconstituted in the public sphere? And what is the relationship between the increase in fatwas and the rising number of madrassas or Islamic schools that are funded by rich Muslim countries? This paper addresses these questions by analyzing cases of fatwas against women, school teachers and public intellectuals.