When Women Get Violent

There has been a lot of hue and cry in Kerala recently over a live video that shows three women verbally abusing and physically attacking a man. Vijay Nair, a YouTuber, is known to make derogatory and sexually explicit comments about various women. In a recent video titled ‘Why do Feminists in India, especially Kerala, not wear underwear,’ he makes vulgar comments against feminists and accuses them of practicing sexual anarchy.

The video targeted many women, including 86-year-old poet Sugathakumari, artists Bhagyalakshmi and other activists like Trupti Desai, Bindu Ammini and Rehana Fathima, with vulgar and crass language.

The three women – Bhagyalakshmi, activists Diya Sana and Sreelakshmi Arakkal – have said that police inaction over an online abuse complaint they filed forced them to adopt such a measure. The three have raised serious concerns over police indifference and the need for stringent cyber laws for hate speech – something which should be rectified in the near future.

However, it cannot help if we expect to find solace in stringent laws alone. By doing so, we conveniently overlook the cultural practices that breed violence which helps no one except the State, as it only serves to strengthen its monopoly over violence by legitimating surveillance.

Let us look at the incident critically by looking at the responses and comments from different sections.

One group looks at the whole incident with disdain and has outrightly called these women “characterless” and “desperate for cheap publicity”. This set comprises both men and women who prefer to talk little about the incident.

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Meanwhile, a second group has moved beyond blaming the women and is ready to accept that the man was wrong to say what he did. Nevertheless, they believe that it was improper for these women to indulge in violence and take the law into their hands. According to them, it will provide a harmful precedence to potential lawbreakers, leading to a collapse of law and order. As per this line of logic, irrespective of being men or women, anyone resorting to violence must be punished. Here, the violence that the marginalised sections in society resort to as a last means of resistance is indiscriminately equated to the dominant group’s violent repressions.

On the contrary, the third section opines that before condemning the women for the violence, we must look at the social conditions that compelled them to take refuge in such measures. According to some, like the bomb that Bhagat Singh threw on the legislative assembly to make the deaf hear, these women also chose a mode of protest (in legal terms, a criminal action) to performatively break the patriarchal prescriptions of being a [respectable] ‘woman.’

Interestingly, many who support the women have at the same time blamed them for the language they used to make their protest heard. Here too, before raising such allegations, we must look into the inherent patriarchal underpinnings in our language, which we define as a mere medium of communication. It’s a language that renders women incapable of speaking their minds even when they desperately feel insulted and hurt. The onus is on the women to choose between speaking or silence. If she opts to speak out and make sense in a society that is apathetic to women, the only language available is misogynistic.

Therefore, more than endangering law and order, the women’s attempts lay bare the deep-rooted patriarchy shaping our consciousness. There is a fear that celebrating such incidents will legitimise violence, especially when lynch mobs and encounter killings already rule the roost. It is not to deny this concern; nevertheless, there is an ongoing pressure on men to prove their masculinity by not being passive in a patriarchal setup. So, most of the feuds which men get into stem from the cultural compulsion to be aggressive. For instance, the image of the ‘angry, young man’ celebrated in our cinemas contrasting the naïve and gullible woman is not merely an innocent portrayal of real-life men or women; instead, it plays a prescriptive role in shaping gender identities.

So, can there also be a probability that women adopting violent means to settle the score may lessen the pressure on men to prove their distinctiveness through aggression?

In one of the developments following the brutal sexual assault of a female actor in Malayalam cinema, many female actors raised their objections against glorification of misogyny in Malayalam cinema. They, too, were cyberbullied and threatened with rapes in social media spaces for their audacity to question the status quo.

However, many female actors have fiercely come together to fight for equality and have formed a women’s collective, which is unprecedented in Indian cinema history. These women have given a fillip to debates on feminism and its significance in Kerala. It has been interesting to see the popularisation of the word ‘feminichi’ (roughly translating to a colloquial version of feminazi), which was initially used to delegitimise feminist politics. However, today we see women taking it up as a badge of honour, thus reclaiming patriarchy’s insult.

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At the same time, we also see many women disagree and reject feminist politics, in an attempt to stand up for tradition and culture. In the controversy that erupted over the Supreme Court judgment permitting women of menstruating age to enter the Sabarimala temple, many women stepped out in protest, declaring they were “ready to wait” (to enter the temple only after menopause). However, a person with the right understanding of feminism would be the last to get demoralised upon seeing regressive tendencies within women and their unwillingness to break free. Feminists know very well that it’s a structural problem that requires time to fix. The struggle for equality and dignity, therefore, demands a lot from the people who spearhead the movement.

There is no doubt that the kind of public attention the incident involving the YouTuber received has a lot to do with the unapologetic courage the three women dared to show at this particular moment. We cannot afford to belittle it, especially in a society that perpetually trains women to be passive and silent. It’s a rare sight to see women being accused of violence, as otherwise, we are so used to seeing them on the other side as victims. One may complain that the game rules remain the same – there is no change as long as violence reigns.

In the latest, the state government has opposed the move to grant anticipatory bail to the three women, saying it will send a wrong message to the public that they can take the law into their own hands.

The reversal of gender roles that contradict conventional practices sets in motion all kinds of insecurities. This fear, which creeps in only when we see women resort to such measures in their helplessness, speaks volumes about the discriminations innate in our culture. The attempt is not to hail these women’s responses as the ideal one or eulogise violence.

Nevertheless, their courage to shout out loud in the face of repression deserves acknowledgment, irrespective of its shortcomings. They inspire many others to fight for their rights ferociously.

Sonu Vincent is a research scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Featured image credit: YouTube screengrab/Editing: LiveWire