Two events in the last couple of weeks have signalled a crisis for the freedom of expression in India – more specifically, the freedom of expression of young women in India.
Alankrita Shrivastava's Lipstick Under My Burkha was barred from a release in India by the Censor Board (CBFC) because it was "too lady oriented".
And Gurmehar Kaur, a student of Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, was systematically trolled and dragged on social media for daring to air a political opinion.
These are only the latest examples of a longstanding problem: the voice (especially the political voice) of young women in India being dismissed, diminished or reduced to an extension of their relationship with men.
When Gurmehar spoke out against ABVP, online trolls immediately traced a year-old video on the Facebook Page, "Voice of Ram", that features her, and juxtaposed her against her father – she became the “anti-national” daughter of a father who died fighting for the country. Her opinions were labelled a direct affront to her father’s legacy, and she was suddenly an ungrateful daughter.
Amidst the attacks on her beliefs, abilities and veracity, what stood out for me was Union Minister Kiren Rijiju's tweet, where he wondered (out loud, of course) who was "polluting the young girl's mind".
This idea was picked up by countless others, all of them dismissing Gurmehar's political views as those "planted" by political parties, "taught" to her by various stakeholders, and "fed" to her by a shadowed, nebulous, undefined "them".
She was painted a passive recipient of ideas not her own.
Because the alternative, that Gurmehar could be a young woman with a perspective and opinion of her own, was too unpalatable.
The CBFC’s ban on Lipstick Under My Burkha works on a similar vein. The movie was created, written, and shot with an unflinching feminist lens. It normalises desire in women, and shows them reclaiming their sexual agency, independent of their relation to any man or their religious identity.
This idea is so alien and so difficult to digest that the CBFC simply refused to acknowledge its existence.
The jokes about Pahlaj Nihalani’s intolerance may be new, but the pattern these events have followed certainly isn’t.
This slighting of opinion, ability and autonomy of thought in women has become routine, and every single paradigm limited to them is taken as a frivolous escape from reality.
It starts small – at home, in the playground, in schools. A young girl’s opinion is shrugged off at the dinner table. Parties at home see women and men sit separately, the topics of conversation divided neatly between them – "serious" politics and business for him, "frivolous" gossip and domesticity for her.
As we grow up, we’re taught as young girls to soften their opinions and make them more pliable. We are offered small smirks when we try to assert ourselves and slight admonishments when we are "too loud" in public.
Systematic repression works insidiously, convincing even women of what we can and can’t think or say or do. It conditions us, so that we don’t challenge status quo, and often act as vehicles for it instead.
The binary is laid out for us – clear, and stark. We can either be stereotypical feminists (ugly, loud, agenda-driven) or beautiful "ladies" (meant only for benign consumption and appreciation).
When I, personally, put across an opinion on social media, I’m told that I’m too ugly, too "frustrated" and too "deprived". My outrage is dismissed, derailed by my performance of my gender instead of my beliefs.
If I bring up statistics, it is often assumed I do not know how to interpret them because I’m a woman (and women are intrinsically bad at math and science).
Often, when I raise my voice against political manipulation, I’m talked down to by men who assume they know better.
Ironically, sometimes, my gender is blamed for taking things too seriously (women have no sense of humour), and at the same time, brushed off when I do seriously comment on issues (women don’t understand politics and business).
These stereotypes slowly build up and percolate into a society that’s being pulled in two different directions.
While on one hand, women find themselves being equipped with better education, exposure, and resources today, our struggle with intangible structures of oppression that assumes our inability to think for ourselves is also heightened.
Why is our society so intent on dismissing its opinionated young women? The reason is simple.
At this moment, in India, a straight man from a higher caste between the ages of eighteen and sixty is the most socially privileged human being. He holds the power that shapes, controls, and defines most world orders. And this power is simply an extension of oppression, stemming directly as a result of oppressing and controlling people lower than him on the social totem pole.
And young women are supposed to be very low, but armed with opinions, they can break this social order. They are loud, angry, educated, and willing to call out the unfairness of the existing systems.
Hence, they are systematically reduced, ridiculed, and eventually shut down.
But there are ways to change this system.
To begin with, as young women, we need to start standing up for each other, supporting and reinforcing opinions to create conducive, dynamic spaces for ourselves.
We can lend our support to feminist literature, art, cinema, and use social media to be vocal about our distaste and anger for things that slight us – as a consumer, we need to demand content that empowers us.
To young men who are allies – pass on the mic. You don’t have to speak for women, but to cede space to them, to be okay with letting go of their monopoly on platforms. You already have the power in this dynamic, and if you want, you can make substantive changes from within the system.
Before all this, though, we have to acknowledge the problem itself.
Indian women, especially empowered urban women with access to forums to air their grievances, need to be very, very angry with what has happened in the last two weeks.
The attack on our right to political and personal expression is no longer insidious or subtle, and by brushing off what happened in the last couple of weeks, we’d be doing ourselves a great disservice.
Instead, let’s use this moment as a wakeup call. We need to champion our free speech, and create platforms for voices that have been systematically silenced, dismissed or ridiculed.
It’s time to not only keep shouting, but to create spaces where our shouts get heard.
Contact Harnidh Kaur at Arundhati.Dahiyafirstname.lastname@example.org.
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