About a week ago, a prominent Malayalam magazine that promotes itself as “a friend and guide to women” featured on its cover a well-known male star from the Malayalam film industry who has been accused of masterminding the sexual assault of a female colleague five years ago. The survivor is still in court, fighting for justice.
As all this was unfolding, photoshopped pictures of prominent Muslim women—journalists, actors and activists—were posted on Bulli Bai, hosted on an open-source platform, putting them up for “auction”. A few months earlier, women from the same community were “auctioned” on a similar platform called Sulli Deals. It was some of the women who approached the police and got it shut down.
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American journalist Susan Faludi wrote in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women in 1991: “Women are enslaved by their own liberation… A backlash against women’s rights is nothing new. Indeed, it's a recurring phenomenon: it returns every time women begin to make some headway towards equality, a seemingly inevitable early frost to the brief flowerings of feminism.”
Nothing could be truer—and more than 20 years after it was written, Faludi’s words continue to hold true. Outspoken women—those who rightfully ask for equality, fairness and justice—are the ones who are threatened, trolled and abused, all in an effort to shame them into silence.
In the 1970s, when the Indian women’s liberation movement was taking its first hesitant steps, those of us involved with it believed that all we needed to do is empower women with education and self-confidence and presto! they would be freed from the shackles that bound them to traditional expectations. We never expected liberated women to face a backlash.
As very early feminists, we each had to fight our own private battles to break out of the traps of traditional expectations. Educating girls was not a priority for most families. Family commitments were expected to take precedence over holding a job. Women did not dare to dream of careers because many professions sacked a woman if she got married.
By the 1970s, many working women had gained enough confidence to challenge these patriarchal views and over time, we won some very important rights—like the right to get married and hold a job, to get paid maternity leave and equal pay for equal work and the right to abortion. Sexual harassment in the work place was initially a hush-hush topic whose toxicity was not acknowledged until women went to court. The women of the 70s also brought up more empowered women.
Women colleagues have broken not just the entry barriers but also the glass ceilings which were once impenetrable. And so, inevitably, the backlash has gained momentum. It was always simmering, but now, as entrenched patriarchy is further challenged, the worst form of toxic masculinity has emerged.
Take the film industry, where the “casting couch” had become something people even joked about. As a film journalist, I have spoken to many women survivors of this recurring sexual assault and of blackmail. They were afraid to speak in public for fear of repercussions, to their careers and personal lives. It took a horrific assault on a young actor for women in the Malayalam film world to form the first Women in Cinema Collective (WCC). Apart from following up this case and offering support to other survivors, it has also looked at the problems faced by all women in cinema, not just the stars.
The active members of the WCC have not had it easy. Many have been boycotted by male biggies of the industry, while the accused continue to star in big budget films. Today, technology has put more power in the hands of the assaulter. Videos and photos are shared in a jiffy, online smear campaigns sustained. The paradox is that social media, which helps women amplify their concerns and name and shame predators, also helps hate mongers target women in public spaces.
In the old days, trolling meant anonymous phone calls or threatening letters—which in itself was pretty scary. I remember when I was investigating an illegal set up of porn film makers in Trivandrum, I started getting threatening phone calls at a precise time every weekend. The caller would abuse me and warn me to back off. These were pre-caller id days. How did he know my number or even who I was? I would be scared every time I stepped out of the house, wondering if my faceless harasser was lurking.
Today, we have caller tracing and call blocking, but often it does not help as the calls come from multiple numbers. The written note has been replaced by vicious online trolling and ever-inventive means of abusing, dehumanising and hating. Everyone detained in the Bulli Bai case, for instance, is a young digital native—it’s mind-boggling that 18 to 21-year-olds could harbour such deep hatred and use technology to target women or fulfil some political agenda. Did they know what they were doing when they used these easily available tools?
It is the women who will have to fight this backlash. On 10 January, emboldened by her supporters, the actor who was assaulted five years ago in Kerala put out a statement on her Instagram account. “Now when I have so many voices speak up for me, I know that I am not alone in this fight,” she wrote. When the hateful Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals went up, it was the women who forced GitHub to take them down. A few years ago, the MeToo movement enabled survivors of sexual harassment to come out in public and name their harassers.
Whether the woman was a nun raped by a superior within the convent, a singer molested by a senior lyricist or a journalist harassed while on an assignment, the scales were weighed against her. Many of the women who spoke lost job opportunities, while the assaulters managed to land new projects and distance themselves from the lives they had ruined. Yet, women continue to stand up. Tamil playback singer Chinmayee, for instance, who has accused a famous lyricist of harassing her when she was a young entrant in the industry has stood her ground despite losing assignments because of her powerful opponent. It is the women who will have to unleash their own backlash to counter the hostility of a powerful community that wants to maintain status quo.