Free hadiya protest

The Free Hadiya Movement and the Hypocrisy of Right-Wing “Concern” for Muslim Women

Recently, the Indian Supreme Court ordered a terrorism agency probe into the actions of a young woman. Her supposed crime? Converting to Islam — and deciding to marry whom she pleased regardless of her parents’ opinion. This decision, and the resulting movement for justice, starkly reveal how right-wing claims to protect Muslim women’s rights actually support a global agenda of Islamophobia. 

In the global landscape of the War on Terror, right-wing rhetoric about gender and Islam has demonized Muslims and promoted militaristic agendas, from the Bushes justifying the war in Afghanistan with a cynical appeal to women’s rights to Trump calling ISIS (rather than, say, the Republican Party or his dear VP Mike Pence) the biggest threat to LGBT Americans today. These arguments rely on the (false) idea that Islam is a uniquely patriarchal religion (it’s not), that gender norms and relations are somehow uniform among 1.8 billion Muslims (they’re not), and that Muslim women are helpless damsels just waiting to be saved by white Christian men and women (nope).

In today’s landscape this kind of rhetoric continues to be used by Islamophobic governments and politicians for cynical ends, with real political effects. And when it comes to the relationship between the Indian and American right wings, Islamophobia is a major unifying discourse, with both sides drawing upon similar myths concerning Islam and gender.

Most recently in India, this dangerous logic has reared its head in the case of Hadiya, a 24-year-old woman who has been sentenced to house arrest by the Indian court system for the supposed “crime” of choosing her religion and her spouse.

The Indian Supreme Court ordered the anti-terrorism investigation in response to the Kerala state High Court, which had unconstitutionally sentenced the adult woman to the custody of her father regardless of the fact that she has committed no crime. Hadiya, a 24-year-old woman, had converted from Hinduism to Islam and married a (Muslim) man of her choice. In response, her parents claimed to the courts that Hadiya had been duped into converting, that her choice of marriage and conversion was not valid, and that she should be brought back under her parents’ custody — even though she is well above 18, the legal age of adulthood in India. The Kerala Supreme Court agreed, placing Hadiya under house arrest in her parents’ custody and issuing a verdict with such choice statements as: “marriage being the most important decision in her life, [it] can also be taken only with the active involvement of her parents” and Hadiya, “being a female in her twenties is at a vulnerable age” and thus cannot take decisions for herself (even though this is her constitutional right as an adult citizen).

Within a climate of increased Islamophobia in India, wherein lynchings of Muslims have become common news, Hadiya’s case exemplifies the hypocrisy inherent in right wing expressions of “concern” about Muslim women. In the right wing logic, Muslim women aren’t full citizens or human beings with rights — they are victims lacking the basic human agency to take their own decisions, especially when those decisions include religious participation or forming relationships with Muslim men.

This refusal to acknowledge the agency of a grown woman reflects a broader campaign in the Indian context to demonize Muslims on the basis of gender. The terrorism probe into Hadiya’s case will specifically look at so-called “Love Jihad,” a myth of the Indian right-wing which argues that Muslim men are attempting to convert Hindu women by seducing them. It’s an idea as inaccurate and totally Islamophobic as the oft-cited right-wing American paranoia that Muslim Americans are hell-bent on legally implementing sharia in the United States.

This leaves us with a glaring question: What does the state find so threatening about Islam, and particularly about the autonomy of Muslim women, that it would deem a young woman choosing her husband a valid subject for a terrorism investigation?

Anyone paying attention to the discourse of the global “War on Terror” in the past almost two decades is sure to notice some patterns here. The figure of the helpless Muslim woman in distress, the Muslim woman oppressed by tyrannical Muslim men, and the Muslim woman who, as Lila Abu-Lughod puts it, “needs saving” has populated the War on Terror since its beginning. Her image is conjured by right-wing politicians seeking to justify their blatant Islamophobia and liberal politicians attempting to use human rights rhetoric to justify Islamophobic violence. These arguments are deeply racist, misguided, and simply bad feminism, yet they are often accepted as truth by dominant societies in countries where Muslims are in the minority.

In the Indian context, the demonization of gender in Islam and “concern” for Muslim women similarly haunts the right-wing agenda. Coming from organizations responsible for inciting anti-Muslim violence (which includes sexual violence against Muslim women) this “concern” is about as believable as Mike Pence saying he’s for women’s health. Hadiya’s case is a clear counterargument against this faux concern, revealing that the government thinks so little of both women’s autonomy and religious freedom that it is willing to imprison a young woman for nothing more than the crime of deciding her conscience, her partner, and her future.

Hadiya is a human individual with the right to autonomy over her body, romantic choices, and religious choices, and her imprisonment is both highly unethical and completely illegal. The movement to free her is about her specifically. But it also draws attention to the way in which contemporary governments complicit in the violence of the War on Terror manipulate women’s rights in order to promote their own Islamophobic agendas.

As long as world powers use women’s rights as an excuse for war and call love terrorism, feminists must continue to assert that the real thing women need freedom from is the global right wing — and in that struggle, non-Muslim feminists need to be allies, not saviors.

Image Credit: Free Hadiya Protest, Delhi. Image from India Tomorrow

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 her masters.

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

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