The other day, when I put up a picture of myself basking in the Venetian sun, displaying my not-so-long-or-beautiful but bare legs, there were quite a few who had good things to say – about my legs, my looks, the place and about the campaign too.
The campaign started shortly after a teenaged actor of Mollywood, Anaswara Rajan, posted a picture of her wearing a pair of shorts and an off-shoulder top, looking as dainty as ever. However, this did not sit well with the cyber brothers who are the self-proclaimed vigilantes of Indian women’s modesty.
The dam of vile abuses broke without much ado and Rima Kallingal, another actor of the industry, took to social media and posted a picture of her sporting swimwear, flaunting her beautiful long legs with the hashtag #womenhavelegs. And Malayali women all over the world have followed suit. When I put up my photo, along with the rosy comments, there were also people who ambushed me with statements like – “It doesn’t help”, “This is not a grave issue that plagues the society”, “Why don’t you talk about rapes or that other feminist issue instead?” and more such whataboutery.
Yes, it would be great to see celebrities and influencers come up with more campaigns on ‘serious’ matters. However, when we try to dissect matters concerning the society and segregate them on the grounds of the gravitas they carry, it is tricky as to what is actually grave and what’s not.
Here are five points that may help in that demarcation and in slaying the barrage of such incoming whataboutery:
1. The matters that people in general consider ‘serious’ are typically issues pertaining to justice and atrocities that women are subjected to. However, there is a judicial system in this country which is responsible for dealing with that, and a hashtag campaign is not going to bring about any change to how matters of justice are handled. It can only be a means of protest and a device to bring awareness regarding the incident at hand. (Even the #CAB that trended across the world failed to bring about any difference in how the law was carried out. The Citizenship Amendment Bill still got passed as an Act.)
So, social media ultimately gets reduced to a profile building platform for the mere proclamation to followers that one cares about such and such issue, and nothing more. The fact is, the law and order system will only be as effective as the collective conscience of the society, for the law enforcers come from that very patriarchal society. During the Nirbhaya case, it was insinuated that the rape happened because the victim’s dress was too short, because she was out late, because she went out with her boyfriend and so on. During the US women’s suffrage movement, even abolitionists wanted out, because they felt the women demanding more than just voting rights and expecting equal wages, equality in marriage and custody over children, was crossing a line. Trying to salvage people from such social and societal conditioning is something that can progressively materialise only by changing one individual at a time. Social media along with other podiums definitely aid that.
2. The first and foremost freedom of every individual is the freedom over their own self – body and mind. Our society and people still haven’t been able to instill this in their consciousness, nor have they realised that the violation against that particular freedom is against the most basic tenet of democracy itself. To make people more cognizant of this fact is one of the main goals of such campaigns.
Remember Nangeli and her fight against breast tax? There have always been people who think and behave like they have a say over the bodies of women. And to those who say that these campaigns do not help, I beg to differ. These are the campaigns that do help, that can make any change at all through a social media forum, because the very first change that needs to happen is from an individual level, from a single person’s mind. And in a fight for women’s rights and democracy, every argument in favour matters, every inch, every ounce, every iota matters.
3. There are several generations of Indian men who have grown up watching B-grade movies in secret, thanks to a culture in which sexual openness has been stigmatised. Topics on sex or sexuality have been considered a taboo in any forum, to the point where the prudishness of high school teachers has made them skip the chapter on reproductive biology faster than you can say the word ‘sex’.
At the same time, B-grade movies are notorious for objectifying and fetishizing every part of a woman’s body – hands, legs, under-arms, navel, nape and what not. In fact, any skin above the toe-nails of a woman can be considered ‘vulgar’ to anyone who has been conditioned to think so. Social media campaigns such as #Womenhavelegs are an attempt to normalise and reclaim women’s bodies. It may take decades. But these are baby steps towards that giant leap.
4. There are a 100 million issues in the world, women-centric, child-centric, nature-centric, animal-centric, war-centric, poverty-centric, oppression-centric. Everyone – celebrity or not – mostly voices their opinions about matters that they are passionate about or that they can relate to more. Just because one doesn’t put up posts on matters appealing to another person’s interests doesn’t mean whatever they have put up is irrelevant. No one reserves the right to dole out certificates or seals of approval on whether a person’s opinion is significant or not, because he/she hasn’t yet been vociferous on what is deemed more important by them.
5. The reality is that the perverse mind will be aroused by the most frivolous of things. In Marjane Satrapi’s book Persepolis, she talks about post-revolution Iran where she, clad in an attire that covered her body and ‘modesty’, was running after a bus, only to be caught by the police for behaving “immorally” because her hips were moving in a “provocative” way while she was running!
Changing the mindset of the society in how they see women and perceive sexuality in general is what will pave way ultimately to the curbing of violations against them, for these offenders and their offences are the off-springs of the same social conditioning. And such campaigns are imperative for that. So, I reiterate, this is the kind of movement that can actually bring about actual change, even if it is at the pace of a snail sitting atop a tortoise! For, isn’t it better to try and change the society’s regressive ideas of morality thereby stopping a crime from being committed, than to protest with a campaign once we allow it to happen?
Dedicating this post especially to a particular group of women who are supposedly bold, independent and empowered, yet look down on other women depending on the amount of skin they are willing to expose. They are okay with women wearing knee-length skirts, sleeveless blouses or sarees but anything over and beyond is sacrilege! So, seeing skin till the shoulders or knees, or even in the mid-riff is kosher because they are okay doing it. But since they are apprehensive to bare any skin beyond that (for fear of society ultimately) they are cynical about other women who do that.
This is what transpired during the breastfeeding campaign too, when the model was exposing more than what these modern-day witch-hunters deem appropriate. I’m sure they are clueless on the fact that other “Kulasthrees” (Bharatiya Naris) do look down on them in the exact same way. Oh, the irony!
In a way, those opposing views on women’s rights leads to catharsis. It will ultimately mean that the more refined views will get sieved from the mix of opinions, and thereby help lay the founding stones for future feminist movements which will stand strong.
Though the flak I received was mostly from women, the fact remains that in a patriarchal society, everyone – sans gender, age, class, social status or generation – is conditioned by such regressive notions that objectify women, contributing to this rape culture which India is now notorious for.