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The Treatment Of Female Activists Reveals Society’s Fear Of ‘Angry, Crazy Women’

Posted: June 9, 2020
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The arrests of activists Safoora Zargar, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal reveal a stark insight into how society views women who dare to take to the streets.

Any woman who is angry, is regarded as shrill, derailed and often, even violently insane, like Charlotte Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic,’ 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. 

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,’ ‘crazy feminist’ or even know her by the heinous and damaging ‘feminazi’ pejorative that now dominates our socio-political discourse today. 

In May, despite the nationwide lock-down, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, members of Pinjra Tod, a Delhi based activist group, were arrested. They 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. 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). This is a piece of legislation that has often been criticised 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.’ I read 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 are often shunned and told to be more ‘ladylike.’

In a recent analysis, Apoorv Anand who teaches at Delhi University, wrote about how amid the ‘scripted drama’ of the Delhi violence, 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 was also used to charge Safoora Zargar and other activists, many of them predominantly Muslim. Zargar is an M.Phil Student from Jamia Millia Islamia University. She 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. She’s 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. The women’s commitment to social justice instantly turned them into an ‘enemy of the state.’ We are made to believe that there is an almost militant vigour that made these courageous women ‘dangerous’ in some way. 

The reverse side of the Safoora Zargar narrative again diminishes her worth and power further, especially by portraying her as a ‘helpless pregnant woman.’ This is 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. A number of right-wing trolls and news outlets labelled her, ‘unwed and pregnant,’ amidst the barrage of hate and criticism attacking and maligning her reputation and image further. Even the 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 support a certain narrative and political agenda. As her 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. A society where women are silenced when they stand up for equality and justice.

It is hard not to imagine that this is an extension of the anxiety and paranoia society feels when it thinks about an ‘angry crazy woman.’

Picture credits: Twitter

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Shivani is currently an undergraduate political science student who is passionate about human rights and

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