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The World Before Her

Premiere Date: September 16, 2013

'The World Before Her' in Context

Durga Vahini

In December 1992, 55,000 women participated in anti-Islam demonstrations in the ancient city of Ayodhya. This demonstration was one of the first high-profile, visible contributions of Indian women to the political right wing.

While this type of confrontational action is not encouraged by all Hindu nationalists, women in the movement have been used to symbolize a victimized Hindu culture and the need to return to a "Mother India" and "pure" ideals of womanhood, in which women’s roles as wives and mothers are the most important parts of their lives.

The Durga Vahini was created in the 1990s as the women’s youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and is one of the many active women’s groups that have emerged in the Hindu nationalist movement. The Durga Vahini was started by female political activist Sadhvi Rithambara to mobilize lower- and middle-class women to contribute to Hindu nationalist culture. Main principles of the group include seva (service), suraksha (safety) and samskara (values). In Hinduism, the warrior goddess Durga is the principal form of Devi, or the divine feminine spirit. Legend has it that the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, along with all of the Hindu gods, unleashed Durga to slay the demon Mahisasura.

Women who participate in religious political organizations in India are often critiqued by traditional feminists due to the movement’s emphasis on a strong patriarchal authority structure that undermines women’s independence and adheres to the idea of a male-dominated society. Women who are involved in these movements, however, see participation in them as an entryway into the political arena that they cannot otherwise easily access. Many of these women see the reclaiming of the traditional female space (home) and the pure ideals of womanhood as a form of empowerment and a way for women to command influence and become participants in the public sphere.

While the Hindu nationalist movement emphasizes traditional gender roles, women who participate often appropriate traditionally masculine traits and adopt assertive, militaristic identities. Thus they enter the political sphere as mothers/nurturers and soldiers—a balance many scholars see as defining the inherent ambiguities of female participation in right-wing political movements.

The type of training program seen in The World Before Her is popular among women’s wings of Hindu nationalist groups and focuses on self-defense techniques. These camps typically admit women 15 to 35 years old and are designed to empower women as fighters in the nationalist movement, as well as to combat the rise in sexual abuse of women and young girls in India. Training focuses on "de-feminizing" and desexualizing the female body, and many Hindu nationalists blame Westernization and Islam for an increase in sexual violence. It is a common belief among Hindu fundamentalists that Hindu women have been sexually violated by Muslim men for centuries. Due to this belief, women have become a weapon for violent mobilization against Muslims and a symbol of the threatened Hindu culture and religion.

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