By Aishik Purkait and Neelofar Abu Eusuf:
For all the alarm and outrage that conservative leaders have ignited lately with regard to actions perceived as attacks on women rights and freedom, there has been a fierce counter-offensive that is giving activists on the other side a larger voice and greater visibility.
While international organisations are marshalling forces to end the abuse and oppression of women and girls worldwide and enact laws to advance gender equality – here, in India, women have been forced to be cultural warriors.
This is not a new phenomenon in our culture. Remember Draupadi in the Mahabharata? She was successful in winning back the freedom of her enslaved husbands. She was saluted by Karna, as being ‘one of the world’s most renowned and beautiful woman’ to have accomplished such a task. She prevented her husbands from drowning in a sea of sorrows. She was a life-saviour. Yet, she refused to take any boon for her personal needs – because with her husband free and in possession of their weapons, she had no other need or want.
No twenty-first century woman can be thought to be this self-sacrificing. Imagine a woman having to suffer an attempt at being disrobed with her husband sitting mute, then facing abduction in the fore-stand, having to accept her husband forgiving the culprit, be molested again in court and be scolded by her husband for creating a scene, be carried off to be burnt alive, find all her friends and family members put to death – and then remain sane!
It feels that conservatives find it an obligation to convince as many people as they can that women are supposed to submit to their husbands – and that feminism is a lie from Satan meant to pull women onto the path of destruction. The ‘Culture Wars’ were never just about changing the laws: it was about changing the culture around us.
It’s perhaps ironic that none of that has actually changed. Oh, it’s changed in substance – but not in form. Instead, along with the physical abuse, there has been the addition of abuse in the virtual world.
The advent of the internet has created an alternate space for voicing one’s opinions. This space is instead turning out to be a draconian space for women, where their oppression has now almost become a norm – especially in war or conflict zones. Be it in Kashmir or in Bastar, women have been the worst sufferers of collateral damage. They have indeed become victims of a ‘double oppression’ – firstly, of the primary oppressor (be it the state or a foreign invader) and secondly, of a patriarchy which echoes from the actions of men in their own houses. The irony lies in that these are the very same men who demand independence, liberalisation, democracy and freedom – but in their own houses, their women are tied with shackles. Religious references, holy text citations make abolishment an easy task. Since the beginning of human interactions, suppression has been carried out through physical methods. With modernisation, however, virtual methods of oppression and suppression have also become a reality.
Zaira Wasim, a native of Kashmir, met the Chief Minister of her state, Mehbooba Mufti, after the success of her movie, “Dangal”. This caused a huge debate among the local people, accusing her of supporting those, who they believe, are responsible for the turmoil in Kashmir. Online trolls accused her of going against her faith, against her State – with people claiming her to be against Kashmiris – and terming her work in mainstream Indian movies as an activity against their idea of Kashmiriyat. Trolls on social media calling her names were rampant – and she was quick to be considered as an insult to their religion.
Previously, something similar happened with Indian cricketer Md. Shami’s wife when he had posted a picture of them, where the latter was wearing a sleeveless gown. This affair gained so much notoriety that Md. Shami had to shut the trolls up by Facebook and Twitter posts, justifying the act. Unlike him, Zaira Wasim had to apologise for her ‘actions’ in order to stop the detractors. The 16-year-old actress put up a long post on Facebook stating: ”I understand the sentiments behind it especially considering what had happened over the past 6 months.”
This did not end with there – she was further mortified by the regular Friday protests at Nowhatta, Srinagar. The online barrage transformed into physical demonstration. Her pictures, along with Chief Minister Mufti were burned, leading the young girl to write another Facebook post apologising – but then taking it down after it went viral, with undesired connotations.
Similarly, the lush green heartland of Chhattisgarh, Bastar, has been a war zone, with the Maoist guerrillas and the Indian Army fighting each other out. In a documentary by NDTV, called “Weapons of War” – a woman claims that the security forces pressed her breasts to check if they were lactating, even after she told them that she was married. The collateral damage which such incidents cause might end up creating a parallel opposition against the forces. The women were left after the forces got the necessary ‘proof”. Apparently, the process of checking whether women are lactating is a normal pattern in the region. The fight between the two sides usually end up in innocent, helpless, tribal women being unintended but also worst casualties. The men and boys run away fearing that they will be branded as ‘Naxalites’. Instead, it is the activists, who take up the cause of the tribal people – along with the women – who are charged of inciting the tribal people against the forces.
The outbreak of any war changes everything. Family life is severely disrupted. In a conflict zone, women, who are expected by society to uphold culture and traditions, therefore become easy targets. They are subject to religious, societal, economic, political, sexual and every other form of oppression.
This is neither a new phenomenon nor does it seem that it will end soon – if the society we live in does not change soon. There is no honour in attacking a sex which is inherently perceived to be weaker. Whatever the rhetoric, the systematic brutality towards women is not merely evil – but also cowardly.