Women that deviated from the script

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India is witnessing brazen censorship and backlash against women who choose to ignore the roles and rules prescribed for them by the masculine majority.

Gurmehar Kaur earned the wrath of trolls by not baying for Pakistan's blood nor essaying the weeping daughter of a martyred Kargil soldier. | Special Arrangement

Since the age of 18, all Alankrita Shrivastava has wanted to do is make films. Her bachelor’s thesis at Lady Shri Ram College was about female directors in Bollywood. Seventeen years later, she is one of the few female directors in Bollywood and, as her classmate, I am proud of her. However, recently the Central Board for Film Certification refused to certify her film Lipstick Under My Burkha for release, stating: “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy above life. There are contanious [sic] sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society."

 

Another young woman from Lady Shri Ram College, Gurmehar Kaur, has also been in the center of a political storm for her views on war. In a video released last year, Gurmehar, 20, asserts that her father was not killed by India’s traditional adversary, Pakistan, but by the act of war-making. What was a 20-year-old’s astute observation has turned into a medieval witch-hunt. When I visited her Facebook profile, before it was pulled off the Internet, I saw many messages that wished sexual and other forms of violence upon her young person.

 

There is something deeply wrong with a country where the expression of a non-majoritarian opinion leads to murder, lynching, abuse and sexual threats. These are all forms of censorship, deletion and erasure. The only “crime” that Alankrita and Gurmehar have committed is to have an opinion different from the masculine majority of India. Alankrita’s film explores how women across different age-groups understand intercourse, and gives them agency to act on their desires. Her film explains that female desire is a hidden thing — in the film, desire is hidden under literal burqas — given society’s constraints. However, she allows her characters to taste freedom through the act of sex.

Alankrita and Gurmehar’s voices exist in a public discourse, which is increasingly being subjected to homogenisation through very typical and unsurprising tactics employed by bullies. If one does not agree with the new dominant narrative of the right wing, then one is anti-national. As Sucharita Sengupta has pointed out, these "ill-conceived binaries" of 'national/anti-national' do more harm than good, as they do not allow room for discussion and conversation.

Indian women have always led remarkably censored lives. Whether it is about dress, good behaviour, physical movement, nutritional and health care access or sexuality, everything on this spectrum is easily policed and decided for them. It is only quite recently that women in India have been challenging such censorship en masse, in their homes, at work and on the streets.

 

The current incidents testify to a millennial masculinity where — education, progress and development notwithstanding — the one thing that hasn't changed is the capacity to abuse and bully and physically hurt those that have differing opinions.

When one leads a censored life, where women are “not allowed” to do things or act in ways that they desire, a woman deviating from the script assigned to her causes consternation in the ranks. Alankrita and Gurmehar have both deviated from the script that Indian society agrees upon. In other words, they are nails that stick out. And the current institutional and public bullying they face is an attempt to hammer them back into place.

Pride in Censorship

Indian society includes both men and woman that see censorship of women’s lives as a sort of moral and rational act in keeping with their religious or nationalist sentiments. They take pride in such censorship. In fact, they argue that the target of such violent censorship has been “taught a lesson”. This sort of censorship occurs at two levels. First, it occurs at the institutional level when parts of the State attempt to silence such voices. For instance, in the case of Lipstick Under my Burqa, the CBFC, a government body, essentially banned a film because the members of the board could not agree with its content.

The second sort of censorship of women (and others) is occurring through online bullying, campus violence and engineered street clashes. These campaigns are singularly being undertaken to silence voices. These men have a limitless capacity to hurl abuse and violence and they are very well aware that most women have limited capacity to take abuse before they back down. The targets typically do not have any social, institutional or even legal support that they can turn to in order to effectively generate consequences for the abusers online. The online abusers have taken refuge in this numbers game.

Indian women have always led remarkably censored lives. Whether it is about dress, good behaviour, physical movement, nutritional and health care access or sexuality, everything on this spectrum is easily policed and decided for them.

Both types of censorship are very worrying. The institutional censorship is worrying because it shows that the film certification board does not either understand female sexuality articulated from a female standpoint, or is deeply uncomfortable with women making choices about their bodies. It is, however, fairly easy to see what is really happening here. This is the same CBFC that happily and efficiently certifies films, where a woman dangles over a sea of sweaty drunk men in a barely-there fisherwoman’s outfit screeching something about a chikni chameli. That particular scene comes to mind because it is the best visualisation of a rape culture in India, if ever one existed — a woman dangling like bait over a sea of alcohol-infused sharks.

This is the same CBFC that has certified countless films that glorify stalking of women, murder and killing, rape and other forms of misogynistic violence. Even so, they have found it fitting to censor a film that talks about how women see themselves and their desires. It remains then to be argued that the problem with Lipstick Under My Burqa is that it is a film that refuses to incorporate the male conception of female desire in mainstream Bollywood and replaces it with something more ‘lady oriented’. This is seen, as the censor board points out, as a very bad thing.

 

In Gurmehar’s case, her viewpoint on war undercuts the online nationalist army. Gurmehar is closer to war and its consequences than most of the online nationalists. She is someone whose scripted role is to be a female enabler of male war. Her deviation from the script disrupts the nationalist’s imagination of how a “good” daughter or spouse of an army-man should act. Gurmehar can only be seen as nationalist if she decries Pakistan and plays the weeping daughter, a role she has categorically eschewed by displaying maturity and compassion that is almost astonishing.

Indian society has a long way to go before it stops its institutional and social censorship of women’s lives. The current incidents testify to a millennial masculinity where — education, progress and development notwithstanding — the one thing that hasn't changed is the capacity to abuse and bully and physically hurt those that have differing opinions. Such violence and abuse, which is explicitly employed to further censor women’s lives and which was routinely conducted inside patriarchal households, is now being conducted on the streets, on college campuses, by the institutions of the state and is executed through clashes and keyboards.

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