‘Love Jihad’ is an Islamophobic Campaign: Why Honour is about Controlling Women's Bodies

In light of the renewed demand from certain sections of society to enact laws against religious conversions for marriage, this reading list analyses the harmful impact of the narrative of “love jihad” on Hindu women.

“Love jihad” is an Islamophobic conspiracy theory. It claims that Muslim men are “luring” women (mostly Hindu women) into converting to Islam, under the pretext of love and marriage.

Claims of an alleged “love jihad” are not new—this phrasing first gained notoriety in 2009 with groups such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Shri Ram Sena claiming that women in Kerala were being converted to Islam for the sake of marriage to Muslim men.

But demands for action against “love jihad” have received renewed interest in 2020 after the shooting of a woman in Faridabad, allegedly by a Muslim former classmate who had proposed marriage to her.

A recent Allahabad High Court order, which observed that “conversion just for the purpose of marriage is unacceptable,” has also been used to legitimise the perceived threat of religious conversions. While the Allahabad High Court made a new ruling rejecting this prior order as “not laying good law” and categorically upheld the right to choose a partner of one’s choice as a fundamental right, the prejudices against inter-faith marriages have not diminished.

The Uttar Pradesh government has passed an ordinance to curb “forcible or dishonest” religious conversions, including those for the sake of marriage. Not only will marriages found to be in violation of this law be declared null and void, but violators will also attract up to 10 years in jail.

Chief ministers from Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states, including Madhya PradeshHaryana, and Karnataka, have also announced that they are considering enacting laws against “love jihad.”

The Islamophobic underpinnings of the Hindu-nationalist “love jihad” conspiracy theory are meant to demonise Muslim men. However, the narrative does not work in favour of Hindu women, in whose name it is invoked.

The protecting of “women’s honour” is rooted in seeking control of women and their bodies.

Protecting Patriarchy

Drawing parallels between the 1920s campaign by revivalist Hindu bodies (such as the Arya Samaj) targeting “abductions” of Hindu women by Muslim men and the 2009 fake claims of “love jihad,” Charu Gupta (2009) wrote:

Whether it is 1920 or 2009, Hindu patriarchal notions appear to be deeply entrenched. In both campaigns, images of passive victimised Hindu women at the hands of inscrutable Muslims abound, and any possibility of women exercising their legitimate right to love and right to choice is ignored.

Protecting a Hindu woman’s “purity” forms part of the self-image of the community. Gupta explained:

The invocation of fear of elopement and conversion of Hindu women and related concerns with Hindu female purity allow Hindu male virility and prowess to reassert itself in a public-political domain in more forceful ways. The converted Hindu woman is a potential site of outrage of family order and religious sentiment, strengthening the drive for patriarchal assertions and restoration of family and community honour… the Hindu woman is regarded as an exclusive preserve of the Hindu man, and safeguarding her virtue is identified as his exclusive prerogative. One of the arguments grounded by the Hindu communal organisations is that to protect “our” women, any steps are justified. What is involved here is a self-image of a community at war.

Denying Agency

Recently, an advertisement featuring a Hindu woman married into a Muslim family was withdrawn by the jewellery brand that ran it, after sections of social media users called the advertisement an example of “love jihad” and threatened to boycott the brand. The reality of inter-religious marriages runs counter to the “love jihad” assumption that young women cannot think for themselves and are “lured” into converting their religion.

Jyoti Punwani (2014), who interviewed multiple Hindu women married to Muslim men, wrote:

These women do not fit the image of the love-struck, helpless with desire, giddy-headed girl who elopes with her irresistible Muslim lover, as portrayed by the love jihad campaigners.

According to her, the “love jihad” propaganda demeans Hindu women, assuming that they get easily seduced.

This understanding is echoed by an EPW editorial from 2017, which commented on the case of Hadiya, a young adult woman in a consensual marriage with an adult Muslim man. The National Investigation Agency had been involved in the case to ascertain whether Hadiya’s choice was actually a symptom of a larger conspiracy by the Islamic state to recruit youth into its ranks through “love jihad.” The editorial said:

By whipping up conspiratorial fervour, the courts, Hadiya’s parents and right-wing sociopolitical organisations have visibly nullified her fundamental right to life and freedom of association. Repeated statements made by the courts and her parents have infantilised her and rejected her ability to take her own decisions, especially those which violate the writ of her parents over her.

‘Honour’ is Harmful to Women

Calls to punish Muslim men for their alleged transgressions against Hindu women is only one expression of the rhetoric of “honour.” Women, who marry outside their religion or caste or within their gotra or simply without their family’s explicit approval, have been met with social sanction and even violence.

Sneha Annavarapu (2013) wrote:

According to the Human Rights Watch, the mere perception that “a woman has behaved in a way that ‘dishonours’” her family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life.

While the use of the term “honour killings” to describe such violence against women and their partners can create the problem of eulogising such crimes, notions of individual and community “honour” lie at their root.

Maithreyi Krishnaraj (2007) wrote:

Violence is almost always a coercive instrument to uphold or enforce cultural codes of honour. It can also be a show of resistance. There are frequent reports about male members of families killing the girl or boy who has violated norms of caste marriage or contracting tabooed alliances like sagotra marriage.

As against women, “honour” manifests itself to protect Brahminical patriarchy. For example, in the context of rural Maharashtra, Manisha Gupte (2013) wrote:

My fieldwork indicates that only men from dominant caste and class groups possess “intrinsic” honour. While men possess honour, women are patriarchy’s embodied honour. Women possess the “gendered counterpart” of honour, namely, “shame”. Since men lose honour through the behaviour of women from their families or kinships, the control over women’s behaviour becomes imperative, as does punishing transgressors.

Gupte further wrote (citing Uma Chakravarti):

Compliance of women through coercion and consent has been the ideological and normative premise of brahminical patriarchy, which structured social relations that “shaped the dominant/hegemonic model of gender, and of caste, in early India”. This ideal is widely accepted even today, though such total control over women’s sexuality has never been achieved in practice.

Read more:

Back to Top