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Modern-Day Witch-Hunting: Does Our Culture Take Pride In Villainising Women?

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On one hand, India has come a long way towards ending the social evils practised against women. It was assured by the nation’s architects that centuries of oppression meted out on women would be dealt with resolutely. We do witness outcomes of certain actions taken in this direction. However, a nation such as ours will never agree to the fact that our rich social culture has never been truly inclusive of women.

Notwithstanding inclusiveness, there have been both enumerated and unenumerated norms, and standards that a woman ought to conform to in order to fit into the ideal image of a woman, as conceived by the society and its inherent ideology.

Women have been glorified, praised and placed on pedestals since centuries as ‘Devis‘ (Goddesses), ‘Ghar ki Izzat’ (pride of home) and other such insidious honorifics that serve to contain women in a box of standards and norms. What happens when they try to step (or even peep) outside this box of conformity? The answer to the question is understood to be acceptable for many and is easy to digest for most. A woman stepping out of her box of conformity is liable to be slut-shamed, witch-hunted, isolated, vilified and what not.

The society regresses immediately into the larger tapestry of patriarchal biases from which we had purportedly made our way out to a so-called progressive world. We take no time to fall back into the same old habit: of pointing fingers at women, believing, beyond reason, that they are culprits. It feels deeply saddening that our awareness, wisdom and consciousness have not progressed at a pace with ‘concrete’ development.

The gaze that we place on women when they fail to live up to the norm reflects the systemic misogyny that refuses to leave our society. Consequently, as a nation, we seem to be failing when it comes to the empowerment discourse. We brag to ourselves about having worked amply on awareness drives, of being inclusive of women even in marginalised communities, and having spread awareness around the issue of gender and of the culture of silence head-on.

The age-old tradition of witch-hunting. Image is representational.

The social evil of witch-hunting, which was once largely prevalent and pervasive in Bengal and led to the abandoning of women, seems to have renewed itself in a completely new avatar. Today, it gradually tip-toes into the modern constitutional system. Of late, certain events in the country clearly demonstrate, inter alia, how traces of witch-hunting and the harassment that accompanies it are able to find an easy route even into the life of modern, independent and empowered women, rendering them helpless. They are left to grapple by themselves with circumstances following conviction before trial.

Earlier in 2020, I happened to be in the audience of a theatre performance, Bayan. It was a play that directed the attention of the spectator towards the social practice and evil of outcasting women, who are then left with no support from anyone in their community or village or indeed, the world at large. The events in the play are set within the macrocosm of rural Bengal. The protagonist happens to be a simple and hardworking girl: an empowered version of her species. She lives an independent life and makes a living as a burier of the dead. Soon in her life, she meets a man of her community who expresses his love to her and desires wedlock to which she approves willingly.

Later in the plot, the relations between the woman and her lover begin to sour to the point that she has nightmares about it even in her dying days. She is framed and implicated in a crime, declared an offender, and declared an outcast from her community. She is barred from practising her occupation and forced to live in a forest with no means of livelihood. Even a sight of her invites all possible forms mockery, rebuke, violence and abuse.

She is declared a ‘man-eater’ witch (Dayan) who deserves nothing but hatred. People who try to defend and rescue her face rebukes and are deterred from standing against this popular perception. Eventually, begging and pleading her people for mercy, she breaks down in surrender.

The narrative makes it obvious that women are easy targets for abuse. Pushing women into vulnerability, heaping insults on them, rendering them helpless, dissecting their character (such that every person gets a self-proclaimed right to judge) are acts that have been sanctioned by society since time immemorial. What etches this play into one’s memory, however, is the fact that even after centuries down the line, the ‘right’ of every man to be the best judge of the actions of others is most easily practised on women. Even in the twenty-first century, this play finds congruence with modern witch-hunts.

Our culture still takes pride in villainising women more than it would in villainising men in a bid to molest them and emotionally incapacitate them. It seems that an age-old practice we believed to have become extinct now meets us in a new avatar. The much-talked-about death by suicide of an actor and the accompanied assassination of the public image of an actress associated with him, well-in-advance of her being proven guilty by the processes and mechanisms of the concerned institutions, demonstrate the fact that we still love to break out our torches and pitchforks once we’ve spotted a ‘trouble-making’ women.

We ought to have a closer look at the incident to understand how witch-hunts work even in these modern and democratic times. Fundamental rights and human rights readily available at our disposal yet, self-proclaimed unwritten rights of the society, at times, override the written ones. Such, at least, is the case in the incidents being referred to.

It was just a few months ago when a piece of shocking news aired everywhere of death by suicide of a young Bollywood actor. This untimely demise, believed to be a case of suicide, immediately stirred up talks about nepotism in the industry and how the practice is leading deterioration of the mental health of actors who weren’t born with the silver-screen-spoon.

The untimely demise of Sushant Singh Rajput led to a misogynistic discourse in which his girlfriend actor Rhea Chakraborty was declared to be the cause of her boyfriend’s depression and his estrangement from his family.

Soon, however, a new debate sprung up, centring around the actor’s romantic relationship and the actor’s girlfriend is implied to have caused his death. While the debate over nepotism and its power to affect mental health settled down in no time, the minutiae of a romantic relationship drown other public discourses.

The whole discourse reeks of misogyny. There are baseless allegations levied on the actor’s girlfriend. She was called ‘a gold digger’, and an opportunist; she was declared to be the cause of her boyfriend’s depression and his estrangement from his family and accused of drugging him and even practising black magic on him.

Such conversations and ‘revelations’ touch new horizons of misogyny. Opinions and arguments standing up to gender biases are turned down, being considered irrational and inhuman, while the ones that embrace witch-hunting are assumed to be rational. The voices spewing hatred are embraced, while those against hatred are preempted unequivocally.

We see that, from past to present, those voices that put all the onus of being a cultural pride-object on women, those that put the onus of women conforming to the principles that shape the ‘ideal’ woman, have overridden the ones that suggest women empowerment as a means by which women may ensure their existence.

Falling short the ideal standard, a woman is vulnerable and open to humiliation, getting mobbed, witch-hunted and isolated. In such circumstances, where women are perceived to have damaged precious glass ceilings, we often get to see the society’s modus operandi.

We witness how the society, system and its pillars, in their vulturous avatars, leave no opportunity to eat away even the last layer of the flesh of a woman’s dignity and character.

We observe that not only has the woman who fails to live up to society’s expectations faced condemnation, accusations and abuses, but also her allies in the fight against the injustice meted out to her, equally and parallelly, get demonised and outcasted as well. In the context being referred to here, the justice-seeking fraternity asking for maintaining basic protocols of the treatment being meted out to the actress is no less villainised and vilified.

Among numerous instances, to quote one is one where a renowned journalist gets hounded, defamed and harassed horrendously for coming out in support of the actress. She placed the abuses hurled at her publicly and one can see how she’s been targeted for her religion, for being anti-national. One can see how she has faced the most unparliamentary words for rising in support of a female being witch-hunted. She presented these abuses thrown at her openly as a sample of what one must endure when one chooses the road less travelled by. The voices of dissent have no safe haven.

In conclusion, the pertinent and implicit question in the larger frame of discourse remains: how little does it take for a woman’s existential graph to fall from the highest point of Devi (Goddess) to the lowest point of Dayan (Witch), and why there is no in-between.

Probably, “being a woman is enough” is the only answer to this question.

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