The ‘Knight in Shining Armour’ Complex

This week the internet found a new hero. In these heinous times of molestation, Pakistani singer Atif Aslam played Lancelot to a ‘hapless’ girl who was being harassed by a group of men at a concert in Karachi. Apparently when the singer saw the girl being pushed around he stopped singing, ‘saved’ the girl and ‘schooled’ the youngsters. This act of ‘bravery’ and ‘kindness’ has catapulted him into the chivalry hall of fame.

Now while he was ‘rescuing’ this girl, Aslam is believed to have told these men (in a bid to shame them, of course), ‘your mother and sister could be here!’ That is the proverbial ‘a woman can be your sister, your mother, your wife, your daughter but never a woman in her own right’ argument.

Even if for a moment I ignore the patriarchal entitlement and privilege in that statement and choose to forget the fact that looking at women from the point of view of her association to the men in her life is the only thing that makes her safety a priority and her ‘honour’ worth ‘protecting’, we aren’t speaking of the girl’s ordeal. We aren’t talking about how she was harassed; who these men were who thought they could target her, buoyed by their numbers and regardless of the fact that there were hundreds of people there — we’ve only chosen to glorify this one man who deigned to play the role of benevolent rescuer.

It’s what always happens when we speak of these incidents — the privileged, male rescuer becomes the point of the story (Oh look! He’s a man and he didn’t rape/assault her. He’s different!). This is exactly why the #NotAllMen narrative in the aftermath of the Bengaluru molestation case was the wrong answer to the very complex issue of women’s safety.

The woman’s ordeal became important only because of who intervened, not because of her harassment. Had Atif Aslam not been the celebrity he is, would anyone have cared? Like someone said on social media – “She doesn’t exist at all, and she will remain non-existent until men in power, like Atif Aslam at the concert, choose to validate her presence.”

I’m sure this woman was not the only one who was harassed, groped and targeted that night.

So, what about the other women there? Those women who weren’t in Atif Aslam’s line of sight? Didn’t they deserve to be ‘saved’ as well?

This comes back to the skewed debate about how men need to be part of the solution — how feminism needs men. Yes, we do. But not as our saviours, thank you very much.

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‘Period Leave in lieu of Equal Pay

Zambia has now introduced the concept of allowing women employees the opportunity to take one day off per month – an idea that is being referred to as ‘Mother’s Day’ in the country. This entitlement applies to all women – young or old, women need no prior permission to avail of the day off and employers can be prosecuted for denying their women employees this leave. Most Zambian women seem to be in favour of the concept, arguing that when women can take leave for childbirth, why not for their menses especially if their period brings with it immense pain and cramps?

Three provinces in China introduced the idea of menstrual leave for women employees in 2016 so Zambia is not the first country to have thought of this measure. CNN reports that Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Taiwan already have laws guaranteeing women days off during their periods.

But is ‘period leave’ really what women need in the workplace? Leave aside the fact that regular sick leave can be used by those women who have to deal with debilitating pain every month, for me the idea of ‘period leave’ reinforces the concept of taboo associated with menstruation. Treat a woman’s period like a disability that requires her to stay at home, unable to concentrate on her work thereby once again reinforcing the assumed biological superiority of men (we don’t need period leave, they will say, hence we are more productive) is just wrong. It may be the woman’s discretion to avail of the day off but the concept is also a problematic one because of what it represents. After having fought for generations to get an equal footing at work, do we really want to relinquish that?

The concept of ‘period leave’ also allows organisations to reach for the low hanging fruit. Instead of giving me a day off every month, give me equal pay instead and that’s another fight that will take a huge hit. Women are already being paid less for the work they do when compared to the same work done by a male colleague. One day off every month will only compound that problem while giving employers an excuse to brush away the gender pay gap.

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Misogyny Online

Misogyny has many faces — but often times, when the internet is involved, it masquerades as a faceless, menacing, venom-tongued troll(s) that in 140 characters or less can threaten, abuse, ridicule and bully.

16 year-old Indian actress Zaira Wasim was recently the subject of online vilification. Her fault? She met J&K CM Mehbooba Mufti at the latter’s request.

Politics in Jammu and Kashmir aside, at the crux of this kind of hate (no matter how much you want to deny it) is unbridled misogyny. Zaira is to Jammu and Kashmir what a woman’s honour is to any family — both are ostensibly and bizarrely linked in the minds of these trolls. By meeting Mufti, Zaira let them all down, has besmirched her family’s honour and has breached the limits laid down for her.

The misogyny is as much in the sentiment being expressed as the language being used to attack her.

Most of the insults levelled were gendered — from being called a slut, to being called amoral, to her parents being lambasted for letting their daughter go ‘astray’. A closer look at the individuals who trolled Zaira is another indication of the prevalent patriarchy on social media: almost all of the individuals who left behind threatening, abusive messages were male.

This is not Zaira’s first brush with sexism. Not only did she have to convince her parents to let her act in a mainstream Bollywood film (because she is ‘from Kashmir’), she was also similarly threatened and abused online when news of her ‘Dangal’ casting spread. She was called wicked, accused of having sold out and her short hair was mocked. She got life threats back then as well.

Now, trolling is not new either. Just earlier this week, actor Trisha was forced to deactivate her Twitter account following days of harassment over her association with PETA and the organisation’s opposition to Jallikattu

Last year, Sona Mohapatra was at the receiving end of a continuous stream of Twitter rage after she slammed Salman Khan’s rape analogy. It was this particular incident that forced the Centre to acknowledge the menace of online harassment of women.

Back then, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had pointed out that online attacks against women should be treated on a par with physical violence. The initiative though has gotten off to a less than favourable start. Reports indicate that in six months the cyber cell has received only 57 complaints but that’s certainly not because of a sudden dearth of cyber attacks. Research validates this figure — only 35% of Indian women report online violence.

But what this circles back to is the hate, the kind of sustained abuse women are forced to endure on social media. A Pew research dating back to 2014 found that at least 23% of young women are threatened online, 25% have faced sexual harassment and 18% have been harassed over a sustained period of time.

Further, a 2015 UN report found that 73% women have been abused online, that women are 27 times more likely to be abused on the internet than men and that online harassers are 61% more likely to be men.

Here’s more validation of the gendered abuse on social media. In 2006, a University of Maryland research found that accounts with feminine user names incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.

It’s these statistics that have been behind the battle cry for a feminist internet, a platform that among other things ensures “violence against women is taken seriously and addressed”.

Zaira didn’t share her picture with Mehbooba Mufti on any of her social media accounts but that’s the portal that was picked up by numerous individuals to target her. Why? Because hate comes easy where there is anonymity, because a digital platform and the opacity of implementable laws gives such voices impunity to say what they want in the guise of freedom of speech.

Zaira’s ordeal brings back memories of the last time girls from the Valley were harassed. The Srinagar-based all-girl rock band Pragaash was forced to disband after a fatwa was issued in their name, following weeks of merciless abuse on Twitter. The narrative was similar: they were accused of pursuing ‘un-Islamic’ music, of “indecent behaviour” among other things.

And that’s the battle we are fighting (patriarchal entitlement and sexism are still just as insidious) irrespective of the medium being used. Calling it out and recognising it is only the first step towards ensuring that women have equal and safe access to the internet.

Neha Poonia Mukharji is an Indian journalist and news presenter who writes passionately about gender and feminism. She’s currently a news anchor with one of India’s top news channels, CNN-News18

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