This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Shefalica Singh. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

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

More from Shefalica Singh

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.

You must be to comment.

More from Shefalica Singh

Similar Posts

By Prerana

By Devina Singh

By Ritwik Trivedi

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below