Tales of ‘Mala-Bori’: Marginalized Muslim char women and population control policies in Assam, India.

Tales of ‘Mala-Bori’: Marginalized Muslim char women and population control policies in Assam, India.

By Bhargabi Das

The summer months in the chars of western Assam, India where my ethnographic fieldwork was based, are only of respite because of the calm breeze by the river, and conversations over jaggery tea. Because of my positionality, it was easier for me to strike up conversations with the Bengali Muslim women in the chars than men, particularly surrounding sexual health.  I was interested in bringing up conversations of sexual health because chars are known as spaces where the fertility rate among the people is high. The high fertility rate is for a variety of reasons such as low literacy level, early marriage of girls, and high dependence on agriculture requiring more labor.

But for those who are lost about what a char is, chars are river-islands that are unstable and undergo constant formation and destruction and are mostly inhabited by Bengali Muslims of East Bengal descent, who have historically faced stereotyping, violence and harassment in the hands of the majoritarian upper-caste Assamese Hindu society and State alike. They also constantly face suspicion of being ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘anti-immigrant’ hatred. Most chars in Western Assam, being geographically closer to Bangladesh, allow the Islamophobic and xenophobic caste-Hindu Assamese society and State to propagate such fears fiercely. The high fertility rate of Bengali Muslims has furthered the ‘anti-immigrant’ sentiment and even fears of the Assamese Hindu turning a minority. My conversations surrounding sexual health with mostly women in char areas is embedded in this history and context. However, through my conversations I stumbled upon a rather interesting practice among Bengali Muslim char women.

When I tried asking them about use or knowledge of contraceptives, they were confused by the use of my terminologies. One of the local women who often accompanied me to translate certain things then turned to them and repeated, “Baideo is asking about your use and knowledge of ‘Mala-Bori (pill)’.” The minute she uttered ‘Mala-Bori’ all started nodding their heads and showed evident signs of blush and giggly laughter. Mala-D is a type of oral contraceptive and in my two-year long ethnographic fieldwork, it became evident that Bengali Muslim char women were using these oral contraceptives widely. Interestingly, the use of condoms by their partners is extremely low. Women were candid enough to admit that most men simply refuse to use one, and women, including health workers themselves, find it difficult to even urge men to use condoms. Additionally, it became clear that though usage of oral pills were high, the knowledge surrounding their side-effects were next to none. For women, the pills were handy, saved them from menstrual pain – allowing them to work longer in the house and fields and most importantly, they do not have to face the heat of asking men to wear condoms.

Image 1: Char-land monthly health camps are majorly attended by women and children. Courtesy: Author.

But what is interesting is how the State is enabling this practice where the responsibility of control of Muslim population in the chars rests on Muslim women’s shoulders. Working with local health workers, it became evident that the distribution of condoms is lesser than oral pills citing reasons of low demand. In fact, the health awareness camps that are conducted in the char areas are mostly attended by women. The local health workers called Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) are local char women who themselves are hesitant in approaching men with taboo issues like male contraception.

In 2021, the right-wing Hindu state in Assam introduced a “population army” comprising of one thousand local youth in char-chapori areas with the intention to control fertility rate in char areas and improve living conditions thereafter. What is problematic in this initiative is that birth-control measures are specifically targeted with women in mind. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in his speech to the State’s Legislative Assembly on July 19 talks about inducting ten thousand additional ASHA workers to provide contraceptives and birth-control measures specifically to women in char-chaporis. The State’s initiatives can be seen in the light of controlling Muslim population by controlling Muslim women’s bodies.

I would also encourage one to think of this initiative of the Assam Government as a nexus of corporatization of the medical sector and the patriarchal state. For in 2019, the Modi Government decided to tweak the law and exempt oral contraceptive pills as Schedule H drugs meaning they could be sold without a doctor’s prescription. HLL Lifecare Limited the firm tasked with selling the contraceptives including Mala-D on behalf of the government had in a letter to Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) mentioned how their sale was greatly affected due to it. Though not vouching against freedom of choice for women and their bodies, I want to ask, for char women, is the easy availability of oral contraceptives really freedom of choice and greater control over their bodies? When women living in char areas are not even given the choice and access to all kinds of contraceptive methods and knowledge surrounding birth-control, there is no real choice or any control of their bodies. Hence, one needs to ask are marginalized, unaware women’s bodies becoming sites of profiteering for this State?

Image 2: Mobile health clinics on boats cater to mostly maternal health and women’s reproductive health in the chars. Keeping of detailed registers tracking women’s reproductive health is a must. Courtesy: Author.

In reality, char areas with their low education level have always been under the strict grip of religious men who are not only widely followed but extremely feared. Local Muslim religious leaders citing religion vehemently argue against the use of any contraceptive methods. The birth of life should be celebrated at any cost, according to them. But the greater availability and use of oral pills over condoms is beyond religion. It is in fact deeply patriarchal. It stems from a sense of sex as an act of display of masculine power and celebration of masculinity. It can be drawn from the narrative where sex is seen as an act where the woman is passive and at the service of providing pleasure to the man. Condoms are seen as road-blocks to that pleasure and the very act of a woman asking a man to wear a condom is seen as questioning his masculine power and masculinity. Hence, when the state forwards an initiative of population control by providing more birth-control measures to the woman, it is actively contributing to that deep-seated patriarchal narrative. Hence, though the state through this initiative can be seen by many short-sighted people as ‘anti-Muslim’, but in reality, this state is ‘pro-patriarchy’ and misogynistic.

Women’s wombs have always remained sites of contention and control by patriarchal states from the Vichy regime in France to anti-abortion laws in Ireland. In the char areas of Assam, when the woman is being provided with more oral contraception pills, the State is instead taking away voices and choices over rights of poor Muslim women’s bodies. In the attempt of the Hindu right-wing state’s motive of lowering of Muslim population, particularly in the chars, who are always seen as ‘illegal’, ‘criminal’ and ‘threatening’, Muslim women have been made into passive objects, which will only tighten the patriarchal grip on them.

I remember in one of the many conversations that I had with char women in health camps, I would ask them why there were more women than men in the camps. One of the replies shocked me – “Women’s bodies are more diseased than men, I guess. We are weaker than men.” The State infrastructure that has kept women’s bodies at the center of sexual health is changing Muslim women’s subjectivities, their sense of self. And in the conflict of changing numbers and dominance of majoritarianism, that is a realization that hurt me the most.

Bhargabi Das: I like to call myself a raging potato, a part-time anthropologist and a poet. Currently a PhD Candidate of Anthropology at National University of Ireland, Maynooth, my doctoral research is based on the riverine ecologies called chars in Assam, India. This ethnographic study looks at char-dwellers’ experiences with the state. I am largely interested in the politics and poetics of water, citizenship, state, bureaucracy, infrastructure and nationalism. My doctoral research is funded by the Irish Research Council, Government of Ireland and Irish Higher Education Authority (HEA).

Editors Note: This is the second in a series of three posts by Bhargabi Das.