A Feminist Defense of Urfi Javed

Urfi Javed

Indian actress and social media influencer Urfi Javed has said that she is facing difficulties in finding a home on rent in Mumbai for being “single,” “Muslim” and an “actress”. In her own words: “Muslim owners don’t want to rent me a house because of the way I dress, Hindu owners don’t want to rent me cause I’m Muslim. Some owners have an issue with the political threats I get.” Javed is not new to this nexus of patriarchal conservatism and communal politics. On January 1, 2023, Maharashtra Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Chitra Wagh, irked by Javed’s revealing outfit, had submitted a complaint against her “for indulging in nudity publicly on the streets of Mumbai.” Previously, Indian author Chetan Bhagat had criticized for Javed for being “a great distraction for the youth, especially the boys”. He even held her clothing style responsible for the supposedly flagging military spirit of the nation: “On one side, there is a youth who is protecting our nation at Kargil and on another side, we have another youth who is seeing Urfi Javed’s photos hiding in their blankets”.

Javed’s ensnarement in various political and cultural controversies has not made her docile. On the contrary, she has expressed sharp skepticism towards the religious underpinnings of public anxiety about her clothes. Reflecting on her personal background, she explains how religion has acted as a “deterrent” against her endeavors: “I have realized that no matter what I do, people will say things. I belong to a conservative Muslim family and for the longest time, I was told what I have to wear. I wasn’t allowed to wear jeans. My chest would always have to be covered with a dupatta. This made me a rebel and today I will wear whatever I want to.” The fact of her Muslim identity has meant that she has been receiving hate comments predominantly “from Muslim people. They say that I am tarnishing the image of Islam. They hate me because Muslim men want their women to behave in a certain way. They want to control all the women in the community. I don’t believe in Islam because of this. The reason why they troll me is because I don’t behave the way they expect me to as per their religion”. In order to escape from the burden imposed on her by the symbolic inheritance represented by Islam, Javed has tentatively turned to Hinduism, attempting to extract the “good part” of Bhagvad Gita from “extremism”. All these explorations are motivated by her effort to extricate herself from the confines of religious communitarianism. When asked about interfaith marriage, she said, “I don’t follow any religion, so I don’t care who I fall in love with. We should marry whoever we want to.”

The disputes caused by Javed’s individual acts are representative of the contradictions inherent in the gendered logic of Indian modernity. In the colonial context, Indian counter-nationalism had to be “different but modern” vis-à-vis the West. This assertion of differential modernity was carried out through the nationalist construction of the outer domain of material achievements and the inner domain of moral superiority. Whereas nationalists acknowledged the subordinate character of India in the former, they claimed a position of superiority in the latter. Women and the family came to be established as important agents of the spiritual domain since they were believed to be responsible for the biological and ideological reproduction of the nation. The 19th century middle class social reform movement dedicated itself to resolving issues involving the worst excesses of Indian patriarchy – sati, widow remarriage, polygamy and women’s property rights – so that the Indian family could produce better wives and mothers. Female education and social reforms were intended not to dismantle traditional family roles but to strengthen the efficiency of women as carriers of Indianness. Basing itself upon Brahmanical notions of self-sacrifice and the Victorian ideal of the enlightened mother dedicated to the household, the nationalist movement promoted dressing and behavioral codes that were intended to “train, improve and nourish the gentler and nobler qualities of heart,” “genteel norms” and “domestic virtues”. For the upper classes, purdah or the practice of female seclusion became “a mark of respectability and propriety. It distanced them from the ordinary people.” As purdah came to be attached to social status, the lower classes started adopting it in order to gain respect. These tendencies gave rise to processes of “Sanskritisation” and “ashrafisation,” in which the relatively liberal and diffused gender attitudes of subaltern social life hardened into the values of middle class propriety and respectability.

From a historical perspective, Javed is encountering the deeply entrenched gender politics of Indian nationalism, which requires that women be modernized so that they can better serve patriarchal objectives. In this peculiar scenario, modernization comes to involve the lubrication of traditional roles in the context of a changing society. During the colonial period, such a neo-traditionalist formulation of modernity involved social and educational reforms that would merely make conditions within the family less oppressive, particularly for women of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie. In the present conjuncture of neoliberal capitalism, neo-traditionalism means the search for an “ideal” woman who can combine the traditional attributes of domesticity and sexual submissiveness with modern skills acquired through education and employment opportunities. She has to be a good housewife and an enterprising success-seeker. Javed disrupts this model by breaking the fetters of sexual conservatism that act as a safeguard against the erosive effects of urbanization, dispersal of labor and the breakdown of the extended family. While capitalism destroys the family as a unit of domestic production and replaces it with generalized wage labor – thus reducing women’s economic dependence upon men – it simultaneously uses patriarchal ideology to hyper-exploit women as a cheap labor force. By disregarding women’s demands for independence and decreasing their perceived social value, capitalism rationalizes the lowering of their wages. As Kavita Krishnan explains:

Why do modern global corporations fear women’s autonomy in their personal and sexual lives? They fear it because women’s vulnerability in their personal lives contributes to their precariousness and exploitability at work; and moreover they recognize that such autonomy cannot remain hermetically sealed in personal spaces of family, household, caste and community—it is likely to leak into workspaces as well, spurring unionization and collective social and political action. A woman worker, for instance, may use her mobile phone and her freedom from surveillance at home and work to keep in contact with a male friend or lover from some other caste or community; and she may also use it to be in touch with her comrades, and to organize and attend union meetings and even to organize flash strikes, as garment workers of Karnataka have indeed done on more than one occasion!

Within the contours of Indian modernity, any possibility of growing female independence is preempted “by subordinating women to the joint family. Inter-caste and inter-religious encounters are judiciously avoided. This prevents other kinds of consciousness from intruding into guarded claustrophobic bourgeois homes. Women keep wearing skimpy clothes before marriage but the covered, caring, mothering, supporting and adjusting woman is ultimately preferred in teleserials”. The potentially emancipatory effects of capitalist modernization are avoided by ideologically reinforcing the appeal of kinship, loyalty, and honor. The modernity of the Indian woman is channeled through the conjugated couple living under the authorizing gaze of nationhood and religious community. The “good, middle-class Indian daughter” is one who conforms to her parents’ dictates and happily accepts an arranged marriage. In this popular imaginary, there is no place for women like Javed who are not bound by communitarian and familial restrictions in the use of their sexual agency. In a country where clothing norms have functioned as a method of controlling the decisions of women, her behavior defies the expectations of misogynist agents. Instead of being slut-shamed into acting as the demure modern woman who exists only as an addendum to her male counterpart, she asserts herself as the “most vulgar, most shameless, most unthinkable person”. The male response to this assertion has been to re-emphasize female sexuality as the chosen site for the clash of Indian and Western civilizations – a discursive operation that renders the woman’s body as a property of Indian tradition. Against this patriarchal agenda, feminism needs to highlight the bodily autonomy of women and struggle for the construction of a secular future based on humanist individualism.

Yanis Iqbal is studying at Aligarh Muslim University. His theoretical pieces and articles on contemporary affairs have been published around the world, in countries such as the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Netherlands, France, Greece, Italy, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Vietnam, Tajikistan, China, Turkey and several countries of Latin America and Africa. His poems have been published in websites such as Radical Art Review, Cafe Dissensus, Culture Matters, Palestine Chronicle, Live Wire, Frontier Weekly, Youth Ki Awaaz, and Indian Periodical. Two of his poems were also selected for “Anthology of Contemporary Poetry: Meet the Poets of Today”. He has appeared in many podcasts such as The Marxist Think Thank, The Anti Empire Project, A Correction Podcast, and Revolutionary Lumpen Radio. He is also a member of the writing staff of Midwestern Marx and has an op-ed page on Eurasia Review

Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News