The Malayalam film Kappela, released on the OTT platform Netflix, shows the protagonist Jessy as a young girl belonging to a small village. The people in the village are a closely-knit community and women’s bodies are shown as subjected to micro-management, monitoring and surveillance with an overriding male gaze through it all. Everyone knows each other and unlike the cities and urban towns where we could hope for at least partial anonymity in the public spaces, in villages like that of Jessy, that’s often absent. The behaviour and mobility of women in the public spaces are often policed- as an extension of the control on women’s bodies in the private spaces into the close-knit public arena.
For example, we are shown a scene in Kappela where Jessy’s younger sister Jenny is “caught” riding on a young school boy’s bicycle by the father after which he berates the girl for “misbehaving”. This becomes an important reminder of how each of our actions are constantly monitored by the overriding male gaze. Our bodies are constantly policed and young girls are never allowed to be merely children. Their childhood is constantly fraught and riddled by people sexualising not only their young bodies but also their innocence. Everything is open for the public to view, comment upon.
This gives us a glimpse of what could be one of the potential factors motivating a young woman to migrate to a city- in addition to escaping the poor living conditions and the unemployment opportunities, also the chance to explore life without judgement, to build and lead a life on her terms. All because of the relative anonymity that the city offers when compared to the rigid small-knit community of a village.
This is directly interconnected to the role of technology. For women who can’t migrate, technology can play a particularly liberating role like it did, initially, in the movie for Jessy. In Kappela, Jessy is shown dialing a wrong number on her basic cellphone, at the other end of which is Vishnu, with whom she falls in love over conversations mostly devoid of the penetrating male gaze she is otherwise familiar with.
Speaking to The Wire, Anja Kovacs, the founder of Gendering Surveillance, said “Phones are different because they enable more autonomy by creating a private space for women – where they can choose who to interact with, how they want to conduct themselves and construct identities for themselves that go beyond the constantly monitored traditional roles they’re restricted to in their homes. All of which young men are simply entitled to.”
In Kappela, we get to see that due to the monotonous life that Jessy leads, she is instantly attracted to the new found freedom that she experiences when talking on the phone with Vishnu. In a way it becomes her own private space which is not up for scrutiny by anyone else. A safe place where her identity is anonymous and so she is allowed to say or be however she wants to be. Even though later the meeting with Vishnu goes terribly wrong, we still get a glimpse of how in regressive environments such as these where each of your action in public spaces are constantly under scrutiny technology can be liberating.
Which leads us to the question: Why is it important for woman to have an anonymous identity on digital spaces?
We have all heard this before- Stay inside your home to stay safe. However as you grow up, you realise how ironical and patriarchal this is, considering most of the violence that women face ranging from physical violence to sexual abuse to rape are almost always committed by the men we know so intimately- father, husband, brother, close male relative, boyfriend.
Why are we then told to stay inside?
I say that it is a patriarchal trope because it actively encourages us to step away from the public domain and stay inside. Under the garb of concern for women’s safety, families actively try to control women’s actions and mobility. This restriction on women’s physical mobility is more about protecting families’ reputations by making women believe that they are incapable of making decisions when it comes to their own self and body.
This leads not only to the normalisation of surveillance but also to the belief that our homes are our safe places.
Digital spaces, meanwhile, provide woman with anonymity- they no longer have to carry the burden of reputation on their shoulders. Technology can be a liberating force when it comes to the women’s empowerment. But it should be noted that the social landscape of technology is also fraught by factors such as gender, caste, class and literacy, social and cultural barriers but most importantly how meaningfully they engage with that technology once they have access to it.
Meanwhile, the counter argument that with the increase in surveillance, this idea of complete anonymity has lost its relevance on the Internet is also substantial. Surveillance was introduced in the modern society as a disciplinary power- with the idea that crimes could be prevented simply by that fact since people knew that their behaviour were being watched and monitored so then they would self-monitor and self-regulate themselves. This means people police themselves for the fear of punishment.
But let’s not forget how gendered this surveillance is. Women receive regular rape threats for publicly expressing their opinion online. These violent threats acts as disciplinary power for not conforming to the norm. I would say that patriarchal surveillance is a form of gendered violence, considering how it impacts women and the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to be the prime target of it and thus at the receiving end of it.
This patriarchal surveillance extends not just to expressing our political opinion online but it also permeates in our other everyday usage, if not simply the very presence of women on digital spaces. This can range from policing women when they post pictures online, subjecting women regularly to misogynistic or unwanted sexual comments and messages, mansplaining, and creating fake profiles to harass, often leading the women to delete their digital identities, thus eventually even rendering these digital spaces also unsafe.
What we need in place are more robust policies to make sure that such patriarchal surveillance online is systematically and actively discouraged. But what is more important is the need for a dialogue about how technology is not neutral, how public spaces are oppressive to women and the reassessment that can we really ever escape the male gaze?
Swaraj Choudhary is in a third year student of Political Science from Delhi University. Apart from being a full time mom to four cats and overdosing on chai all the time she can be seen reading books and watching indie movies. She can be found on Twitter.
Featured Image Source: The Atlantic