The arrests of activists like Safoora Zargar, Devangana Kalita, and Natasha Narwal reveal a stark insight into how society views women who dare to take to the streets and has for decades.
Any woman who is angry is regarded as shrill, derailed, and often, even violently insane, like Charlotte Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’ character, Bertha Mason, in the classic Jane Eyre. This woman was always meant to be kept in check by society and the men in her life so that she would not be a danger to herself or besmirch the reputation of the family. This was used to speak of the condition of many Victorian women at the time and how they began to subvert societal expectations.
The madwoman of Victorian literature is still seen in stereotypes such as the ‘angry black woman’ in western pop culture and the so-called ‘nagging shrew’. We may now even see her as the ‘angry’ or ‘crazy feminist’ or even know her by the heinous and damaging ‘feminazi’ pejorative that has now come to dominate our socio-political discourse today. Perhaps, let us even take a look at the way Beth Moore and Jen Hatmaker were viewed when they voiced their opinions against Donald Trump?
Recently, over the past few months, I have been closely following some of the coverage of female activists in light of the CAA-NRC protests in India, in spite of having not been back to see family I have back home for over a year. What struck me most was once again, the representation and the nature of the coverage of some of these events.
Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, members of Pinjra Tod, a Delhi based activist group, were arrested under the rather vague charges of ‘obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions’ in connection with the Jafrabad sit-in during the anti-CAA protests in May. It was implied that they were part of a ‘conspiracy case’ and were also called ‘enemies of the nation.’ Despite being granted bail and the court finding no evidence of any violent activity, they have been rearrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a piece of legislation that has often been criticized for being vague and draconian in its provisions.
Nobody likes an angry woman
I was reminded of this trope of the angry woman when reading about the arrests of these Pinjra Tod activists over the past few weeks. Unfortunately, they are being depicted and reduced to yet another misplaced and prejudiced, cliched trope.
Upon further examination and reading an article in the New Yorker, I was first introduced to the political power of so-called ‘female rage’ and how it further underlines this trope and feeds into the language we use to understand and describe female protestors in mainstream media. Around the world, women who have spearheaded protests and revolutions have often been shunned and told to be more ‘ladylike.’ Soraya Chemaly cites how this stems
from the essentialist notion that women are meant to ‘suppress’ their anger. This implies that the very notion and existence of female rage in our political arena continues to be almost unfathomable to many.
In a recent analysis, Apoorvanand who teaches at Delhi University wrote about how amid the ‘scripted drama’ of the Delhi violence, the police are ‘casting for characters.’ Female activists seem to have become the likely scapegoats where they are portrayed as ‘emotional and angry.’ Many had even proclaimed that the women were a cover for ‘dangerous’ Muslim men and were behind a fictitious ‘urban Naxal group.’
The UAPA has also been used to charge Safoora Zargar and other activists, many of them predominantly Muslim. Zargar is an M.Phil Student from Jamia Millia Islamia University who has been accused of orchestrating the anti-CAA protests and the road blockade under the Jafrabad Metro Station in Delhi. Many Muslim women were at the forefront of the movements in Jamia Millia Islamia, Jaffrabad, and Shaheen Bagh. Meanwhile, Gulfisha, an MBA student is currently being held in Tihar Jail and has been in prison since April 9th, when she was charged on the count of sedition.
How the trope persists
These cases parallel the sad realities of many student and female activists who have sought justice in a polarising and turbulent political environment. Trolls, as well as media outlets, have provided the ammunition to further malign the reputation of these individuals.
The treatment of the Pinjra Tod activists is only a reflection of the government’s own fear of dissent where their commitment to social justice has instantly turned them into an ‘enemy of the state.’ We are made to believe that there is an almost militant vigor that made these courageous women ‘dangerous’ in some way.
The reverse side of the Safoora Zargar narrative once again diminishes her worth and power further, especially by portraying her as a ‘helpless pregnant woman,’ nearly akin to a damsel in distress. Unfortunately, this is fodder for further discrimination and bigotry against her that further underlines the spread of this gendered narrative.
For instance, the media has constantly portrayed and misrepresented her, with many right-wing trolls and news outlets labeling her, ‘unwed and pregnant,’ amidst the barrage of hate and criticism attacking and maligning her reputation and image further. Even more liberal and progressive press releases focus on her being ‘Muslim, pregnant, and in jail’ during the lockdown.
A character assassination
Unfortunately, the arrests also involve a swift character assassination with many deeming it a travesty of justice. A lot of the injustices they face stem from how they are perceived to be ‘characterless’ in some way simply because they take to the streets to fight for their own rights.
Safoora Zargar’s, pregnancy and marital status become an overarching and recurring aspect to a damaging character assassination tactic conducted to further support a certain narrative and political agenda. As Safoora Zargar’s sister, Sameeya Zargar said, ‘’This is nothing but character assassination,’’ after a sexist jibe from politician Kapil Mishra. Her marital status and pregnancy are seen as an aberration, making her ‘doubly deviant,’ a term often used to describe female offenders.
Worse still, sexist trolls even went as far as to declare, ‘Give her a condom,’ thereby further exacerbating the deeply rooted and misogynistic toxic ‘Madonna-Whore’ complexity. This is still used by society to further divide women, where a woman’s sexual desire is somehow equated with her lack of morality.
This is only the beginning of the level of lewd and sexist trolling that female activists have endured since the protests. The sexually-charged trolling against many of the arrested activists is only a reminder of the sexist and hierarchical society we continue to inhabit when women are silenced when they stand up for equality and justice.
It is hard not to imagine that this is, in fact, an extension of the anxiety and paranoia society feels when it thinks about an ‘angry crazy woman’.