Disha Ravi, one of the early members of Fridays For Future India Bengaluru chapter and a climate change activist, was arrested by the Delhi Police on February 13 for editing an online toolkit associated with Greta Thunberg on the ongoing Indian farmers’ protests. Criminal lawyer Rebecca John noted how proceedings against Disha had begun at the Patiala high court even before she could be represented by a legal counsel, resulting in her having to fight her case on her own. Of course, this blatant denial of fundamental rights did not stop many on the Internet from channeling their righteous anger towards questioning Disha’s character and age, “Looks high on weeds… I look younger than her and I am 43.”
And that’s not all. In what is an infuriating response to those demanding Disha to be freed, some have asked her to be impregnated so she could walk out free on those grounds. What is clearly a threat of sexual violence, this is in reference to Safoora Zargar, the anti-CAA and NRC activist and MPhil scholar from Jamia Millia Islamia, who was pregnant at the time she was arrested and was finally granted bail taking into consideration her health.
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This is not the first time that when a woman, assumed to have no right being political (after all she is just a 21-year-old kid) took a political and popularly anti-regimental stand, that the focus has been shifted to her sexuality. Be it Rihanna, Mia Khalifa, Amanda Cerny, Greta Thunberg, Swara Bhasker, even Kangana Ranaut and now Disha Ravi: the bodies of women taking a political stand would become collateral damage in the process.
On February 3, Kangana Ranaut tweeted a picture of her taking part in a religious ceremony and that of Rihanna performing at a concert, with the caption: Right Wing role model VS Left Wing role model … I rest my case. The tweet remains undeleted with over 17k retweets and 80k likes at the time of writing. The idea was to project a scantily-dressed Rihanna (the left-wing model) as the anti-thesis of Kangana’s fully-covered and therefore, culturally appropriate avatar (right-wing model). Not to mention how Mia Khalifa and Amanda Cerny taking a stand for the farmers’ protests were met with similarly disgusting responses that called it an organised “international celebrity conspiracy”. A Newslaundry report revealed how Telegram groups of ruling party leaders were picking on their careers as adult entertainment stars and splashing their photos on the Internet after Mia, Amanda and pop singer Rihanna tweeted in support of the farmers in India. Ever since Swara Bhasker did the masturbation scene in Veere di Wedding, right-wing troll army seem to have kept the template ready every time the actor takes a stand against the current political regime of India.
Clearly, when women are anomalies in the political discourse that expect them to be the symbols of nationalism, the most common retort seems to be an attack on their bodies. While in digital spaces, this plays out as doxxing, deep-fakes and harassment, in physical conflict situations and war zones too, women’s bodies become collateral damage. As is evident from trajectories on the violence during the India-Pakistan partition, Gujarat riots 2002, Kunan Poshpora and even as recent as the Muzaffarnagar riots, sexual violence has historically been used as a weapon in war zones and conflict areas as a way to emasculate the opponent.
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V Spike Petersen in her paper ‘The Politics Of Identification Within Globalisation’ emphasises on the narrative of nation-as-woman and woman-as-nation. A woman’s body is seen as the cultural carrier of ethnic groups, nations and communities. Her body is the symbolic marker of the group she represents and is the reproducer of the group’s identity especially owing to her pivotal role in procreation. Even as a woman is denigrated using sexist attacks on her body for the political stand she takes, it is ironical how national and international discourses around law and policy are built on the anatomies of women: because the underlying theory is that men fight wars to protect their women, children and mother nation and to attack their opponent, they use sexual violence as a means.
On the Internet, when women foray into political spaces, especially if they do not have a political background, they are met with patronising remarks on their age and bodies, especially their bodies. Given the aggressive and masculine space that most structures, including the internet and politics, continue to be, attempts are made to ‘culturally’ chastise women with a political voice.
More than a left-wing or right-wing ideology issue, this is the result of how the political space continues to be inherently sexist and belittling of women with opinions. Because in the comments’ section under Kangana Ranaut’s tweet positioning herself to be better off than Rihanna on the basis of the amount of clothes they wear in the said pictures, there are also pictures of Kangana in a lingerie or kissing an actor in a scene from a film.
On the other hand, there are men from the entertainment industry who also have spoken against the regime and fascist policies, Anurag Kashyap, Sushant Singh, Shashank Arora to name a few and although they have also been subjected to trolling, rarely might have their nudes or scantily dressed pictures been paraded on the Internet.
Clearly, a non-essentialist, post-structural approach to politics is the need of the hour to ensure feminist leadership. The more there are feminist women at the helm of politics, structures like the Internet and politics could become safer spaces and questioning a woman’s political choice might (hopefully and) gradually come to not involve attacks on her body.