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What India’s “Anti-Romeo” Squads Can Teach Us About Moral Policing Under Facism

Donald Trump recently paid a congratulations call to his buddy Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the reason is just as depressing as you might guess.Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose pro-capitalist and anti-Muslim platform is just as charming as Trump’s own, recently swept midterm elections in key states, particularly the major state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).

The election results are predictably galling to opponents of the Modi government, and have brought with them several rapid changes. In UP, this has included the implementation of “Anti-Romeo squads,” groups of police officers ostensibly dedicated to cracking down on male street harassers. While higher-level government officials claim that these squads exist only to protect women from harassment and not to morally police, lower-level police officials have been quoted as saying that the squads’ express purpose is to target and separate young couples. As Indian media sources have been reporting, “Anti-Romeo squads” have spent much of the past week harassing consensual couples in the name of public morality.

The squads have combed public parks and waited outside of colleges, demanding that lone men justify their presence in public space and even demanding that young couples call their parents to inform them of their activities. While some women have said they appreciate the police targeting men who loiter to sexually harass women, others find the targeting of couples a serious infringement of their freedoms. 

Anti-Romeo squads and feminist response to them shouldn’t be dismissed as an example of the “conservative” sexual morality of a country far away from the United Sates. Rather, they give us insight into the way in which ethnocentric governments — like the current American regime — fundamentally rely on the policing of women’s bodies, and use women’s issues as an excuse to impose repressive agendas.

Freedom Without Fear

On one hand, cutting down on street harassment is a worthy goal, and some women are happy that Anti-Romeo squads have taken up the task.

The Quint quotes one college student who says that the reduction in street harassment thanks to Anti-Romeo squads have enabled her to pursue her education:

There were lots of boys who stood outside our college gate at all times. The moment we left the campus, we would be subjected to harassment, jeering and lewd comments. It was so bad that I once had to reconsider whether I should even come to college anymore. Both parents and students are happy that this is being put to an end by the anti-Romeo squads.

This student also supports the squads’ policing of couples, since she believes that young women should not be in relationships and should rather focus on their studies.

On the other hand, several women students objected to the squads’ harassment of couples and felt it was an infringement on their rights.

This echoes a longstanding argument of Indian feminists, which we’ve particularly seen articulated since the December 16, 2012 rape of Jyoti Singh. The resulting movement demanded that the government take concrete measures to keep women safe and to provide justice in cases of sexual violence. Yet the attack also led to a redoubling of the rhetoric of “women’s protection” — the idea that women, particularly young women, must be restricted for their own good. These restrictions range from familial diktats against going out of the house to university dormitory curfews for college students.

These restrictions have also been the target for Indian feminists demanding, not protection, but freedom without fear— cultural and structural change of rape culture and misogyny, not regulation of women’s bodies, mobility, and choices.

As communist feminist activist Kavita Krishnan demanded during the 16th December movement, “We will be adventurous. We will be reckless. We will be rash. We will do nothing for our safety. Don’t you dare tell us how to dress, when to go out at night, in the day, or how to walk or how many escorts we need!”

This is the spirit against moral policing and for women’s autonomy which has animated campaigns like Pinjra Tod (“Break the cages”) a national feminist movement against accommodation curfews for women in universities. The campaign seeks to abolish curfews as part of a movement for comprehensive justice against a patriarchal system which oppresses women along the lines of class, caste, sexuality, and religion, and which restrains them rather than giving them justice.

For feminist critics, then, Anti-Romeo Squads are merely an old logic in a new package, policing and regulating women’s freedom and mobility under the guise of their protection.

“Love Jihad”

The new Chief Minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, is an unsavory character, to say the least. 

The founder of the ultra-right Hindu Yuva Vahini, a militant Hindu nationalist organization, he and his associates have a long record of incendiary anti-Muslim, anti-woman, and anti-LGBT hate speech. His ascension to power in UP is like if Richard Spencer became governor of Texas.

Aditynanath himself has threatened to kill Muslims (“If they kill one Hindu, we will kill 100 Muslims”) and to convert Muslim women (“If they convert one Hindu girl, we will convert 100 Muslim girls!”). In a profoundly sickening comment from several years ago, one of his associates threatened to disinter and rape dead Muslim women. 

So how do anti-Romeo squads play into this history of Islamophobia? According to some members of Adityanath’s organization, anti-Romeo squads don’t just exist to target sexual harassers, or even couples — they specifically exist to eliminate the fictitious problem of “love jihad.” Says Sachin Mittal, a member of Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini,

The Yogi Adityanath government has formed these anti-Romeo squads with the intention of fighting love jihad. It is a huge problem in these parts. Whenever the police spot a couple, they must call the parents of both the boy and the girl. What if the girl is being trapped by a deshdrohi [nation-hater], an anti-national, a terrorist? The girl’s life can then be saved. This moral policing is much needed.

“Love jihad” is a paranoid figment of the Indian right-wing’s imagination, an alleged attempt by Muslim boys to romance, seduce, and finally convert Hindu girls, in order to threaten the Hindu majority.

While there is no proof that “love jihad” exists, there is a lot of proof of gender being used as an excuse for anti-Muslim and caste violence. Much of what we hear of as honor killings, for example, are instances of families murdering couples for forming relationships outside of their religion or caste. We can thus view the allegation of “love jihad” as an attempt by the right to spread anxiety about the possibility of love and marriage across religious boundaries.

In a country with a bloody history of religious nationalist violence, gender and the notion of women’s safety and honor has long been used as an excuse for horrific attacks—including violence against women. Adityanath’s hate speech against Muslims evokes the horror of the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which Muslim women were subjected to extreme sexual and physical violence.

While some might welcome Romeo Squads for reducing harassment of women, it’s also important to listen to the other, darker purpose intimated by people like Mittal, above. When “women’s safety” is used as an excuse for sexist and Islamophobic violence, what does safety actually mean?

What about the U.S.?

American feminists often hear about issues like anti-Romeo squads, moral policing, and honor killings, and dismiss them as uniquely Indian, South Asian, or Third World problems — problems endemic to “conservative” countries, in stark contrast to the United States.

While it’s doubtful that the Trump government is about to establish squads to morally police women in public places, the policing and coercion of women’s bodies has already proven a major plank of the Trump platform. It has also long been a major goal of the American right. Now, not only do we have a Commander in Chief who has been accused of sexual assault by at least a dozen women—we also find ourselves facing an active attempt to dismantle the legal protections sexual assault survivors currently receive.

Meanwhile, Trump presides over a party hellbent on policing women’s bodies through the denial of basic reproductive healthcare and the imposition of invasive, morally-policing abortion restrictions. These are all justified by a supposed concern for women. Yet aren’t medically unnecessary vaginal probes and permitting doctors to lie to patients about their medical care all strategies to coerce women to bow to the morality of the state?

And like its Indian counterpart, the American right-wing’s rhetoric about women reveals a racist reality. While liberal feminists may discuss honor killings like a distant “third world” problem, the history of American racial violence tells us otherwise. Violence in the name of “women’s protection” was a fixture of the Jim Crow South and of the regime of racial apartheid across the United States, in which black men were often targeted, imprisoned and lynched for perceived sleights against white women. Black women, meanwhile, were and are often subjected to sexual violence at the hands of white men. This legacy continues in the mass violence against and incarceration of black communities today.

With a rise in Islamophobic rhetoric and hate crimes following Trump’s campaign (and indeed, since 9/11), American hatemongers often employ rhetoric involving the perceived threat Muslim men pose to white femininity. We can see, then, that these histories are not things of the past —nor are they merely the current realities of far-off places.

Now more than ever, we must remain vigilant of the ways in which supposed concern for women is used to oppress us. And privileged women especially need to fight the way in which we are used to justify — and ourselves enable — violence against oppressed communities.

As feminists, it’s our responsibility to fight fascism by resisting violence committed in our names.

Image Credit: Indian Express

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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