By Sreemoyee Mukherjee May. 05, 2019
Throughout history, women have been publicly shamed for any number of reasons, from adultery, witchcraft, smiling, walking, even existing. We shamed “aunty ji” for her comments, for her clothes, her appearance, her accent — even though we’re aware that public shaming has never been a tool of those who know better.
On April 30, a middle-aged woman allegedly told a girl in a restaurant that she should be raped for wearing a short dress in public. She reportedly even exhorted men at the restaurant to assault the girls, before leaving the scene. Afterward, the woman “aunty ji” had insulted began recording her, asking her to repeat her statements. This video, of this “aunty ji” being asked to repeat her comments by an outraged group of women went viral until Instagram took it down. People are naturally outraged by her comments, social media has been flooded by her video reposts and back-up videos of the incident in a circulation of what could only be called public shaming.
The uproar brings to mind another, lesser-known incident, from a little over a month ago. On March 22, an angry mob led by a women’s social group, the Meira Paibis (which translates to women’s torchbearers) descended on a farmhouse in Utlou in Manipur’s Bishnupur district during an exclusive party attended by 80 local elites. The Meira Paibis group prides itself on upholding Meitei culture, and was instrumental in getting alcohol banned in the state. This group, whose members were once seen as apostles of women’s rights and mobilisation, attacked the women attending the party, hitting them, tearing at their clothes, and bullying them for wearing short clothes and drinking alcohol — two practices that go against the Meitei culture, which allows only men to drink.
The Meira Paibis later put up videos of the violence on YouTube, which are being used to further identify and shame the women who attended the party. The men were mostly unharmed, leading one to believe this culture policing was only reserved for women.
Throughout history, women have been publicly shamed for any number of reasons, from adultery, witchcraft, smiling, walking, existing. Colonial ethnographer James Johnstone describes the practice of “nupi khongoinaba”, a way of public shaming, in his book, My Experiences in Manipur and the Naga Hills. He says the convicted woman is stripped to the waist, her breast painted red (most probably with a lime and turmeric mixture), tied with a rope around the waist, and paraded in the market with people shouting, “come and look at this naughty woman!”
Throughout history, women have been publicly shamed for any number of reasons, from adultery, witchcraft, smiling, walking, existing.
The Meira Paibis incident that occurred in Utlou, writes Lukhoi Meitei for the The Imphal Times, was a case of public shaming similar to nupi khongoinaba. And the Meira Paibis’ beliefs are like “aunty ji’s”, with one crucial difference — they have enough power to do what they want.
I mention the Meira Paibis, who have worked so hard for the influence they have, because they are ironically who we will soon become — individuals who exercise their power without responsibility, just because we fought hard to get it.
The internet gave us a voice, which in turn gave us power, and the first thing we did with that power is what patriarchy has been doing to us for centuries — shame other women. We shamed “aunty ji” for her comments, her clothes, her appearance, and her accent — even though we’re aware that public shaming has never been a tool of those who know better. The apology “aunty ji” posted after a barrage of online harassment sounds just like we did not too long ago, when we were forced to concede to our patriarchs, seething and swallowing our anger. It does not sound sorry; it sounds insincere and scared. Is that our idea of justice?
Here is a tricky question. Why do we upload certain incidents to the internet? On her Instagram page, the woman whom “aunty ji” lectured writes that she was forced to upload the video online because the woman was unapologetic despite multiple opportunities to take back her words. While she might have been right to do so, it also sounds dangerously close to a deliberate invitation to shame the shamer, another example of today’s “call-out culture”.
Let us not forget this is the same call-out culture that the Meira Paibis are using to identify the women who were at that unfortunate party, who are now living in fear for their reputations. Online participation is an empowering act, but it is not a shortcut to justice, one that avoids the complexities and disappointments of litigation. There is a reason public shaming — a practice that was prevalent in earlier centuries — has now been banned in civilised societies. Yet, with the rise of a new technological age, in an anachronistic swoop, we have gone back to the days of mob justice — the same mob justice that once burned witches at the stake. Today, feminism can be difficult, but it cannot be blind.
But make no mistake, this was revenge, not empowerment.
Many have defended the actions of the netizens criticising “aunty ji”, because it isn’t the onus of the victim to be kind, thoughtful, and dismantle patriarchy, which is both fair and right. We are all tired, we are all angry, and revenge is sweet.
But make no mistake, this was revenge, not empowerment. Truth is, there is no shortcut to feminism. The burden of fairness does lie on the victim, and yes, we could abandon that and burn the world down, but then, there would not be much difference between us and what we are fighting. Would there?
Sreemoyee spends her time deconstructing irresponsible pop-culture and thinks that her love of fries and her Literature degree are both privileges that she is fortunate to have.