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Why The FIR Against A Goa Political Science Prof For Questioning Marital Symbols Is Not Ok

Posted: November 12, 2020

Rajiv Jha, a member of Rashtriya Hindu Yuva Vahini’s Goa unit filed an FIR against Shilpa Singh, a political science professor in a law college in Goa, for questioning marital symbols.

According to this news item yesterday, Rajiv Jha, a member of Rashtriya Hindu Yuva Vahini’s Goa unit registered an FIR against Shilpa Singh, a political science professor in a law college in Goa.

Rajiv Jha claims that this was a result of her “outraging religious feelings with deliberate and malicious intent” through a Facebook post. The Facebook post in question was made in April 2020, in which, she she apparently compared the mangalsutra to a “chained dog”.

A question of intent

Before arriving at an opinion about the professor’s post, I think it is important to examine the intent behind it.

In her Facebook post explaining herself, the professor states that it was never her intention to “ridicule religion or women”. Further, she expresses how as a political science professor, she was looking to question why marital status symbols such as the mangalsutra are worn exclusively by women. She then goes on to say that “It is depressing to see that a false opinion has been created about myself by my detractors- that I am an ‘anti-religion’ or a run-of-the-mill ‘god-hating atheist’. This is far from the truth”

From her explanations, it becomes clear that the professor’s intent was not to put down a religion. It was instead, an examination of religious practices and symbolism. She sought to look at the mangalsutra through a critical lens.

When we consider her intent, many flawed concepts surface. It is in fact true that the female population is exclusively made to “look married”. Henna-laden hands, covered heads, sindhur and of course the mangal sutra are symbols of a married woman- a rarely questioned notion.  For these practices to be prescribed to married women is very different from them choosing to do so. Isn’t it then relevant to ask- why only women?

The way to express oneself

While one can choose to disagree with societal notions, the ways of expressing disagreement can vary. Here, one could critique the way Professor Singh chose to express herself. She compared a mangalsutra to a chained dog.

Readers may choose to view this either way- the statement could be labelled disrespectful or just a metaphor that is a part of her feminist critique. We must also keep in mind that the professor eventually makes it clear that her intent was never to ridicule a certain religion. This aspect remains a question of interpretation and how a reader decides to view the post.

Rajiv Jha on the other hand, made an outright statement saying that “If she (Singh) has thoughts on religion, she should keep it to herself”- while her way of expressing may be critiqued, can the professor be asked to refrain from expressing herself?

Response to the post

Rajiv Jha, as a response to the post filed an FIR against the professor on the grounds stated in the beginning of this piece. This development also comes after the professor was once targeted by ABVP which objected to the topics that she teaches students. The college, backing the professor, had refused to fire her from the institution.

From the complaints, it becomes clear that the opposing forces are critical of Singh’s approach to religion and practices- a critique that apparently spills into her teaching as well, which they may well do, given that she teaches Political Science.

The complaints together paint a bigger picture- Singh’s posts, her style of teaching are all being considered as an attack against a religion.

Defending her teaching, Singh claims that she doesn’t believe in rote learning and that she “enables her students with critical tools necessary for students of political science”. In scholarship, one cannot simply take things for face value, students need to develop skills to critique texts. So should the professor really be ridiculed for her style of teaching? More importantly, who can really tell Singh how and what she should be teaching?

Is this only about a Facebook post?

Religion has remained a sensitive public issue, both online and offline. Singh’s post and her teaching fit into this very framework. The issue is about more than just a Facebook post and the topics she teaches- it is about reactionary forces that awaken when religion is talked about.

Symbolisms, religious or not, should be critiqued. Practices that are made exclusive to a gender need to be examined deeply. Not because a certain religion needs to ridiculed but because symbolisms and practices are merely a reflection of inherent beliefs that may be problematic.

While we may go on about religion and its practices, we must not forget the larger context. Religion is only one part of a larger social sphere- one that views women very differently from men.

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A student of International Relations at Shiv Nadar University. Enjoys old bands and acrylics.

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