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Women and RSS: The Long and Shorts of it

Author: Shefali Vaidya
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: October 15, 2017
URL:      https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/women-and-rss-the-long-and-shorts-of-it-4890986/lite/?__twitter_impression=true

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi recently asked if anyone had ever seen women at a RSS shakha wearing “shorts”.  My own association with the RSS is a fairly recent phenomenon. My views on cultural nationalism made the Sangh reach out to me a couple of years ago. Even though the image portrayed by the media of the RSS is of a traditional organisation deeply rooted in misogyny, my personal experience has been refreshingly different.

I wear everything from shorts to saris, have my own opinion on everything and lead a lifestyle that is very different from what is portrayed in the media as a ‘typical Sanghi lifestyle’, and yet, not once have I felt oppressed by Sangh patriarchy.

Emancipation of women doesn’t lie in their clothes. Emancipation is in the mind. Mr Gandhi’s comment about shorts is childish, but his other charge that “as soon as a woman speaks out, they (RSS-BJP) silence her”is amusing, especially as information & broadcasting minister and vocal BJP female member, Smriti Irani, looks all set to give him a run for his money on his home turf Amethi in 2019.

So is the RSS really the secretive misogynistic organisation some people make it out to be? I decide to find out by talking to some women closely associated with the Sangh Parivar for many years.

Manik Damle doesn’t fit the conventional image of a ‘Sanghi’ at all. She is an articulate woman in her late thirties usually dressed in smart casuals. She is an engineering graduate who runs her own thriving consultancy in organisational development. Manik is also on the executive council of SevaVardhini, a Sangh Parivar organisation that works towards empowerment of grass-root level voluntary programs.

Manik says her association with Sangh goes back to her college days. ‘I am not from a Sangh-related family at all. I used to volunteer right from my school days, but I felt something was lacking. Most NGO-led volunteer work feeds the fire of pity, not of self-reliance. What attracted me towards the Sangh was the philosophy that every person has the potential to help themselves and RSS-led voluntary work is to only be a facilitator.’

“The media is trying to create the impression that the RSS is exclusive, whereas in reality it is very inclusive, ‘ she says, adding, ‘I see it on the field everyday. If you ask me if there is perfect gender equality in the Sangh, the answer is no. But then there is no perfect gender equality in any organisation in the world. Gender equality in Sangh is a work-in-progress, like it is everywhere else.’

Ashwini Mayekar, the first woman editor of ‘Vivek’, the Marathi weekly run by the Sangh Parivar echoes the same sentiments. I talk to her about the challenges she faces in her job as a woman. She replies with a smile, ‘I face the exact same challenges that a male editor faces. Tough deadlines, running behind stories, getting people to write and making sure that I print a readable magazine with quality content week after week.’

When Ashwini joined as the executive editor of Vivek seven years ago, it was a choice that raised many eyebrows. When I ask Ashwini about it, she laughs and says, “all those eyebrows you are talking about belong to people outside the Sangh. No one from the Sangh has ever tried to either patronise or pressurise me. Nor have they forced me to kowtow to a particular line of thought. I have written a whole series on leading women social activists from Maharashtra. Some of the women I profiled, like Mukta Manohar and Shobha Bhagwat, are ideologically left-wing and critical of the RSS, but I haven’t changed a single word in my articles so far under pressure from the Sangh Parivar.”

I ask Ashwini about Rahul Gandhi’s charge that “in the RSS you will never see women.”She points out that it is a question she has been asked many times before. ‘See, the Sangh is a ‘parivar’, a family made up of many organisations. When Dr Hedgewar started RSS, he meant it for men, primarily because that was the need 96 years ago. Rashtra Sevika Samiti is exclusively for women. There are other ‘Parivar’ organisations where men and women both work together. As for the RSS and Samiti, they are like separate schools for boys and girls. Would you find a boy elected as the head in a girls’ school or vice versa?”

The Rashtra Sevika Samiti was founded in 1936. Today, it has a presence in 22 countries and almost 4 lakh members. The Samiti has a“three-point ideal” of ‘matrutva’ (motherhood), ‘kartrutva’ (performance and efficiency) and ‘netrutva’ (leadership), says Manik, but the media only focuses on the ‘matrutva’ part, which they believe is limited to biological motherhood. I have realised from my own experience that when the Sangh says ‘matrushakti’, it means an attitude of love and nurturing. I know senior male ‘pracharaks’ who have nurtured Seva projects with a mother’s love. A male pracharak working in a remote area in the North-East told me that you don’t need to be born a woman to be a mother,” she said.

Rajashri Kale inhabits a world that is markedly different from the educated, upper middle class milieu of Manik and Ashwini. She is a single mother who works as a peon in a college. She is also the first municipal corporator from her tribe, the nomadic Phase Pardhis, in Maharashtra. Rajashri studied at an RSS-run residential school in Yamgarwadi, near Solapur. Her alcoholic husband left her after the birth of her two daughters. When she was struggling to earn a livelihood, it was the RSS who supported her and encouraged her not only to find a job but to work for her community.

Rajashri’s leadership skills impressed the BJP who offered her a ticket for the municipal elections and she won. “I owe the turnaround in my life to the people of Sangh” she says, adding, “If I hadn’t joined the school at Yamgarwadi, I wouldn’t be where I am today.’ Rajashri has ambitious plans of  establishing residential schools and hostels for the children from her community. She also wants to work towards making women from nomadic tribes become financially independent with the active support from the Sangh Parivar.

- Shefali Vaidya is an independent freelance writer in English and Marathi and is ideologically close to the RSS. She tweets @ShefVaidya
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