Friday, 25 April 2014

Of ‘Hate Hags’, Witch-hunts, and the Orwellian Woman

The term ‘hate hag’, used to describe “women supporters of Narendra Modi” in an Outlook Magazine article recently gained currency, especially on social media. Vrinda Gopinath, who authored the article, clearly referred to three women—Madhu Kishwar, Tavleen Singh, and Sandhya Jain—as ‘Modi’s mausis’ (Modi’s aunts). Describing these women as what “Libs call Hate Hags or Hacks”, she states that they:
“have swung into the national debate ever since the media’s imbalance in promoting Modi tilted favourably towards him, feverishly affirming their faith on television, Twitter, Facebook and in their columns. They dismiss contrarian, inquiring views as archaic and wimpy; and club those who question them as com­m­unists, feminists, and socialists. They’d love to be hailed as right-wing reactionaries but are now famously known as Modi’s Mausis.”
She further explains how Kishwar—dubbed as ‘Madhu Mausi’—“has taken her Modimania to newer heights of emotional fervour”; how Singh “constructs ‘secularism’ as a dirty word”; and finally, Jain, who “apart from covering [Modi’s] rallies and quoting every pearl that rolls off his tongue…endorses Modi’s views on population control and religious demography, and chants with Modi on ‘Third Front, Third Rate’ and other mantras”. Perhaps, I am too quick to judge her piece (given that ‘a longer version’ of the article appears in print). However, even by the standards of criticisms levelled against Kishwar, or other apologists for the Sangh Parivaar, Gopinath’s pieces resonates with the crass tone one would normally find in an amateur, anonymous handle-led blog, and certainly not in a publication like Outlook (However, given Manu Joseph’s equally crass piece on the Tarun Tejpal sexual assault case, it is perhaps not so unsurprising).
While there’s no problem in writing a sarcastic article on these women, what I found more disconcerting was the over-judicious appropriation and usage of the term ‘hate hag’ by the anti-Modi and anti-BJP voices on social media to target women, especially on Twitter, who are either sympathetic to the BJP and Modi, or themselves are BJP workers. This attack on women—irrespective, or in this case, because of their political ideologies—I argue, is unprecedented, crass and unbecoming. In using the term ‘hate hag’ the risk is in reaffirming a notion of ‘ideal’ woman, whose political views have to be in full agreement with so-called liberal, secular (or religious, fundamentalist) ideal. This is not to say that there are no contradictions whatsoever in women’s support for the BJP, RSS, and the Sangh Parivaar—indeed, these contradictions, I think, are irreconcilable. However, there is a difference in expressing ones disagreement with these, and using a term that is inherently sexist, misogynistic and demeaning to women.
In this essay I critique the term ‘hate hag’ through three broad arguments: first, I argue the term ‘hate hag’ is inherently sexist and misogynistic, and in using the term to ‘shame’ women because of their political ideology, we reinstate another form of a the medieval witch-hunt. Second, I look at the irreconcilable contradictions in the ‘women’s question’ and the Political Right, especially in light of the Janus-faced patriarchy that the BJP and the Sangh Parivaar represent. Here I underscore the role played by real, symbolic and semiotic violence that is directed against women’s bodies and ‘honour’. Finally, I present the idea that the term ‘hate hag’ conforms to the same form of semiotic violence that the Political Right and conservatives use to ‘shame’ women to reaffirm a patriarchal politics. This, I argue, is creates the Orwellian Woman as the ‘other’—that is, the notion that “some women are more equal than other women”, when it comes to being objects of such attacks.

“‘Hate hags’? So what’s the problem? Don’t these women deserve to be shamed anyway?”
As expected, since its introduction, the term ‘hate hag’—not so much ‘Modi’s Mausis’—was widely discussed, shared, and was met with both opposition and appropriation over social media. The way this unfolded, at least on Twitter, was interesting. On the one hand, we had the ardent anti-BJP, anti-Modi (or pro-Congress crowd), who, quite unproblematically, appropriated the term, and used it to deride well-known women BJP-Modi supporters on Twitter (besides the three mentioned in Gopinath’s article). Said this Congress spokesperson:
“Hate Hags perfect term coined by Outlook magazine for NaMo’s women supporters on social media. Sue me now for saying this.”
Several other anti-BJP/Modi counter-propagandists have celebrated the usage of the term because of its “shock value”. Here’s another example:
Some have argued that “such behaviour must be shamed” (a line of thought which could give the Khaps a run for their money).
“Attach Shame”
These counter-propagandists, it would seem, see a war coming. “Political correctness”, they say, is of little use when “the dogs of war are here”.
‘The Dogs of War/Political Correctness'
For these counter-propagandists, it is a case of fighting fire with fire; of fighting hatred with hatred; countering one act of shaming with another. They speak of “shaming” women supporters of the BJP, but fail to see their own language as unbecoming, uncivil, and, ultimately, regressively patriarchal. I lack the space here to undertake an archaeology of the term ‘hate hag’. But let’s rely on the dictionary meaning of the term ‘hag’. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘hag’ as:
1. An ugly, slatternly, or evil-looking old woman;
2. Archaic
a: a female demon,
b: an evil or frightening spirit;
3. Witch
‘Cucking Stool, used in the “trial” of witches’ (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Thus, by its very constitution the term ‘hate hag’ is demeaning to women, and is inherently sexist (Although, many supporters of Modi are quite proudly, and sardonically, wearing the title of ‘hate hag’—as was with the term ‘slut’, which led to numerous Slut Walks). By underscoring the ‘internal/external’ ugliness (of women), people who support the term are supporting a perverted logic that assigns ‘value’ on womanhood based on a notion of beauty/ugliness and purity/pollution. This underscores an import point about the insidious function of discipline/punish that’s embedded in the notion of shame and honour (I will discuss this point in detail in the concluding segment).

External ugliness/internal ugliness’
Coming back, it would seem that Gopinath’s piece, and the so-called ‘shaming’ the counter-propagandists engage in, occupy a curious space in this on-going tirade against women expressing their political opinion on media. We are well aware of how journalists and activists have been viciously abused on social media by Right-wing fanatics. A BBC Hindi report revealed how women journalists and activists, like Sagarika Ghose, Kavita Krishnan, and Meena Kandaswamy, who have been critical of “caste and Hindu nationalism” have been singled out as victims of misogynistic attacks online. Ghose was abused on Twitter by right-wing chauvinists who called her a “high-class prostitute”; Krishnan, speaking at a discussion when someone with the handle @RAPIST posted abusive comments, and asked where he could “rape her using a condom”; Kandaswamy was threatened with “live telecasted gang-rape and being torched alive and acid attacks”.  These are among the many instances where women are abused and humiliated online, usually by anonymous handles. While Gopinath’s piece, and the usage of the term ‘hate hag’, does not use the abusive language of the anonymous Right-wing troll, it still perpetuates a language of misogyny, sexism and hatred. For her and the anti-Modi/anti-BJP crowd, these ‘Modi’s mausis’ are nothing but apologists for the Sangh, who find fault with the “secular, liberal media” on the one hand, and “have all been steadfastly loyal to the idea of their Hriday Samrat, emperor of India, Narendra Modi”. Gopinath’s argument is one which infantilizes these women for their “blind devotion” to Modi, and yet occupies the moral high ground. But it is unclear as to what she’s based her assumptions on. Going by her arguments, there is nothing to indicate that what people like Kishwar, Singh and Jain write about Modi is qualitatively exceptional in its content. Sure, Madhu Kishwar occupies a piƱata-esque position, when it comes to “Modi-worship”. Many of Singh’s columns in The Sunday Express, and on NitiCentral are terrible excuses. And, to be honest, I don’t know enough about Sandhya Jain to comment on her. That said, I do know several people, of both genders, who appraise Modi—from enumerating merits in his so-called ‘Gujarat Model’, and admire the vast and burgeoning propaganda surrounding the man. But why single out these three women? I mean, if one is thinking of women insofar as talking about their role in the Sangh’s moral-political economy, there are women in the Sangh Parivaar who occupy a more dangerous role.

The Janus-faced patriarchy and the Women’s Question
On the face of it, it’s not entirely inaccurate to assume that there can be grounds for one to have sympathy with Gopinath’s piece. It is well-known that the Political Right in India produces, harbours, and espouses misogynistic and sexist ideologies, and, by any standard, is a text-book case of what I have previously described as a patriarchal moral-political economy. Women, however, occupy a more tenuous role in this matter: Should they conform to an ideal notion of universal feminism where they condemn all forms of misogyny and sexism?[1] Or, does their support of individuals or ideologies put them at odds with these so-called universal feminist ideals? Can the so-called “women’s question” be reconciled by constructing an inner, spiritual domain, free from the trappings of western modernity—and yet, is ‘modern’ in a more functional way?[2] If indeed so, are Kishwar, Singh and Jain exemplary in this regard? I don’t think so. For one, none of the three women are being castigated explicitly for ignoring/endorsing a feminist question. In fact, Gopinath’s sole criticism seems to be their hero-worshiping of Modi. She, it seems, couldn’t care less about actual irreconcilable problems and contradictions between equal rights for women, and the inherently patriarchal ideology of the Sangh Parivaar.
Before I proceed, however, let me clarify some things. I am very definitely critical of the BJP-Sangh and Narendra Modi. I have argued elsewhere that the BJP, RSS, and Sangh Parivaar, with Modi as its face, represent a Janus-faced patriarchal moral-political economy, and have underlying fascist tendencies. I have also categorically stated that apologists for the patriarchal Sangh—and these includes women “supporters”, as well as members of the Sangh’s women’s wing, Durga Vahini—espouse an idea that is fundamentally inimical to the goal of achieving equal rights for women. There are glaring contradictions in the support women give to Modi. For one, I find it irreconcilable that one can support Modi—no matter how awesome his visions of ‘development’ are—and not be bothered by the violence perpetrated by the Sangh on women: be it the brutal gang-rapes of Muslim women in the 2002 post-Godhra riots, or rapes of nuns in Kandhamal in Orissa during the anti-Christian riots; or the Bajrang Dal’s and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) moral policing and beating up of women and young couples; or even the Rashtriaya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s claims that “rapes happen in India, and not in Bharat”.
Thus, when Modi speaks of the Nirbhaya case, and promises “security” for women, does he also promise them safety from the vile, misogynistic elements within the fold of the Sangh? In her article Gopinath doesn’t ask if we expected Modi, or his “mausis”, to speak up after Pramod Muthalik, the Shri Ram Sene chief was inducted, and subsequently expelled from the BJP (Muthalik and the SRS is infamous for the 2009 attack on women in a Mangalore pub) Apparently, Muthalik joined the BJP with the objective of “making Narendra Modi the prime minister”. More pertinently, she does not raise any questions about other women within the Sangh’s fold—women who do not enjoy the celebrity-like status of Kishwar, but women who nevertheless believe in, and espouse, the ideologies of the Sangh Parivaar, violently so, if required.
Take, for instance this clip from Nisha Pahuja’s documentary, The World Before Her, which examines two contrasting scapes: first, the camp of the RSS’ women’s wing, Durga Vahini, and the assaults on women and couples in public places, and pubs (the latter by the notorious Shri Ram Sene); and second, the selection round of the Miss India pageant. The instructor at the Durga Vahini camp goes on record to say that women are “biologically weaker than men”, and must, therefore, shun any hopes for gender equality. The more shocking aspect about this “brainwashing at the VHP’s Durga Vahini camp”, according to Pahuja, is what Prachi, a 20 year-old trainee at the camp, has to say about her father, (and, thus, the moral-political economy he and the RSS represent). Says Prachi about her father:
 “In a traditional family they don’t let girl child live. They kill the child. So this is the thing. I get angry; I have quarrels with my dad. But this thing, when it comes in my mind, I feel like crying… he let me live. That is the best part.” 

Clearly, if we highlight the issue of women’s rights—and, thus the contradiction of women supporting Modi and the Janus-faced Sangh Parivaar-BJP—what Pahuja’s clip shows is more inimical to the question of gender equality. This, evidently, is what deserves our attention, and perhaps is worth filling column inches. Instead, what we get from Gopinath is a pointless tirade and caricaturing of three women, who aren’t even big names in the BJP. On Twitter itself, several counter-propagandists have highlighted several female members/supporters of the BJP who have espoused a variety of illiberal balderdash—from casteism, to (ironically) misogyny. Incidentally, it would appear that the preoccupation of these counter-propagandists is to find women who fit into the bill of the ‘hate hags’.
‘A random, unverified handle vilifying Dalits deserves to be labelled “hate hag”?’

Before I conclude, let me offer a clarification: While I am critical of the contradictions between the question of violence against women perpetrated by the Right-wing, patriarchal Hindutva organisations and the women who support these ideologies, I am equally cautious about the risk of reducing violence against women and misogyny to the crucible of ‘culture’. This risk is of patronising women, and given the colonial discourse of paternalistic intervention, there is a risk of reinstating what Gayatri Spivak has described as “saving the brown woman from the brown man”. Anthropologist Kamala Vishwesaran in her book Un/Common Cultures: Racism and the Rearticulation of Cultural Difference, too, highlights this point in the case of refugee women seeking asylum to the United States, where the lands these women come from—usually the Middle East—is seen as inherently misogynistic, sexist and inimical to women’s freedoms. She points that this perception draws from precisely the colonial tension Spivak highlights, and obfuscates (if not entirely erases) the question of violence faced by women in the west, and in United States.
Thus, to reiterate the question I asked earlier: can there be a version of feminist thinking that emanates from the political Right-wing Hindutva discourse that is in line with the feminist goal of equal rights for women? By relying of the praxis of Hindutva politics in the last two decades—and not merely on scriptures—I am inclined to say I don’t think so. I would, very self-reflexively, say that the ideas women like Prachi and the instructor at the Durga Vahini training camp espouse in fundamentally inimical to the language of equal rights. They are based on an insidious logic of demarcating, and targeting, women based on certain notions they have of the ‘other’. This is based on the double-bind disciplining function of women’s ‘emancipation’ and their ‘punishment’, which can be achieved only by conforming to the hegemonic idea of what is deemed as appropriate in the patriarchal moral-political economy. This is the same notion the French, and so-called liberal western discourse has of the Muslim women. And this is at the heart of using the term ‘hate hag’ against women supporters of Modi, and the BJP.

Conclusion: A twenty-first century witch-hunt and the Orwellian woman
In this essay, I have attempted to present two broad critiques of the term ‘hate hag’, which was used target “women supporters of the BJP”. First, I argued that the term ‘hate hag’, etymologically and discursively, is inherently sexist, misogynistic, and demeaning to women—in this case, since it is used to target, and ‘shame’, women because of their ideological standings. Secondly, I stated that there are indeed several contradictions in the sexist, misogynistic, and regressive patriarchal politics of the Sangh Parivaar, and the RSS, and the question of equal rights for women, and their security—and, the patina of Modi’s “development” does little to hide that fact. This also underlines an insidious Orwellian ploy that “some women are more women than others” and thus, the latter are more deserving of abuse, castigation, and so on. Given these two contexts, the effect of ‘hate hags’ is exacerbated as it functions on an insidious patriarchal logic of discipline/punishment, wherein the woman is assigned space in the dichotomy of virtue/wickedness. In other words, it’s perfectly alright that a particular type of woman is the object of misogyny and sexism and violence (semiotic and/or real) since sheher very being reduced to her appearance, or other marker (like her political belief)—represents the other. She may be a woman, but her ‘marker’ (and that she’s casteist/sexist/bigoted etc.), makes her a less equal one.
‘The language of shaming has universal resonance in patriarchal discourse’

Admittedly, perhaps, I am overstating things, and drawing too many conclusions. In all likelihood, like most things on Twitter, this will probably blow over (if it hasn’t already). Unfortunately, Vrinda Gopinath’s piece will still exist. And I will still live with the memories of the crass, misogynistic and sexist language used by people I follow on Twitter. Probably a good thing, too: a closet misogynist, for me, is more dangerous than an obvious bigot. 

I am indebted to some of the wonderful feminists I follow on Twitter for their interventions during this debate; to Ketaki for a conversation we’d had long back on women and the Hindutva Right; and, to Nolina, for her constant encouragement, love, and support. This post originally appeared in the secular humanist website, I would also like to thank the editors, especially Satish, for their feedback and for publishing it. You can access it here.


[1] This also holds true in the case of Islam and feminism. In western liberal circles most debates on Islam and feminism have centered round the ‘veil’, or the hijab or burqa (these terms are used interchangeably). However, many other scholars and academics, like Lila Abu-Lugodh, have argued that this debate reinstates the colonial tension of “saving the brown woman from the brown man” (to use Gayatri Spivak’s phrase), and ignores the systemic oppression of women in Islamic regions due to colonialism, and more recently, the ‘war on terror’. See, Lila Abu-Lugodh, ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others’, American Anthropologist 104/3, 2002. Accessed from:; see also, Val Moghadam, ‘Islamic Feminism and its Discontents’, Steal This Hijab, 8 June, 2011. Accessed from:
[2] Historian and Subaltern Studies scholar Partha Chatterjee has explored this in his essay, ‘The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question’. Chatterjee argues that in the 19th century Bengali bourgeois nationalism, nurtured the idea of the bhadramahila—that is, the ideal Bengali woman, who is formally educated, but also well-versed in the traditional etiquettes of the household. The distinction Chatterjee traces between the home and the outside, ghar and bahir. See, Partha Chatterjee, Empire & Nation: Essential Writings 1985-2005, pp. 116-135, New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2010.