Solidarity in a polarised world

How we can create spaces for discussing transgressions, weave in accountability and work towards a collective transformation

Jo ladki izzat layak hoti he, hum uski izzat karte hein. Jo izzat layak na ho, uski hum izzat nahi karte,” (We respect a girl who deserves it and not the ones who don’t). I turned around and saw a schoolboy, possibly 15 years of age, shouting out these words to a young girl running by in shorts and a T-shirt. The girl immediately slowed down and started walking self consciously, head bent down, and the boy surrounded by his friends began laughing, back-slapping with “Bilkul, bilkul!”.

Fast forward to another time in the same park, where I see two young women, full of glee and laughter, playing badminton in hijabs. Suddenly, a crowd of boys, possibly 13 to 15 years of age, jostle their way through as they return home from evening school. They come close to the girls, snigger and point fingers at them. The girls immediately wrap up their play and scuttle away, leaving the boys to do a victory dance — thumping their chests, stamping on the ground, arms stretched out with loud chortling. What struck me as ironic is that they were wearing school uniforms — white-collared shirts, ties, trousers — and making fun of young women playing badminton in hijabs, a garment that is very much part of our country’s history and cultural traditions. They were also oblivious to the colonial references of their own attire.

These incidents of intersectional transgressions have made me question: What are the different scenarios that could have played out?

I could have dismissed these antics as “boys will be boys,” the misogyny or Islamophobia might have become invisible and the injustice of it completely obscured. I could have taken to shouting and shaming the boys or even lectured the girls on feminism and how we have to stand our ground, shoving the responsibility of resistance on to them. I could have walked to the neighbourhood school, reported to the authorities, where the boys would have been duly punished, starting another cycle of oppression. Would any of these have helped at all? Not really, as they might have got chastised, but in many ways, I might have worsened the situation for the girls, when the jeers and abuses would be even louder and more vengeful the next time. The only person who might have ended up feeling good about it is me as I would march home after taking a moral grandstand.

Talking about metaphors, this daily play of power in the park is a reflection of what is happening on social media. At every hint of a transgression, there is a knee-jerk outrage, and the wrongdoers are drummed out for public humiliation. Lines are drawn in the sand, sides taken and pushed to polarised positions. Issues that are so nuanced and complex are presented in binaries of black and white. We locate the problem in individuals rather than see it as a reflection of a society that is steeped in gender inequality, casteism, Islamophobia and violence. Shaming might make us feel good about ourselves, but what does it do to dismantle generations of oppression?

Feminist ethics is a privilege and not a badge of honour

The schoolboys I ran into at the park have grown up in a society where a girl’s worth and layakness is measured in terms of culturally sanctioned, stringent ideas of clothing, body language, or religion, where every girl is sorted into good/bad, layak/nalayak boxes, and the boys stuck in a maze of cultural clichés of narrow masculinity. If you take that lens, then their actions in the park make perfect sense. Rather than judging them, it becomes my responsibility not to shame them but to ask myself, what am I doing to perpetuate this injustice? If I am committed to feminist ethics and social justice, does it give me the right to automatically rubbish people who might not have had that privilege? How can I meet them in a way that does not lead to polarisation and further entrenchment?

Danger of virtue signalling

So what am I saying here? Sab chalta hai? Not at all. This is not about obscuring issues of social justice but about reflecting on how the typical virtue signalling in social media – “I am right and you are wrong,” is very much like the victory dance of the schoolboys in the park. It ends up othering the problem as if it is out there and we do not have anything to do with it. There is no “us” and “them” here. We all carry scarred memories of the boys’ similar metaphorical chest-thumping on Instagram in May 2020 (the Bois Locker Room controversy), which led to such a massive public outrage and, ultimately, tragedy.

Who did this social media lynching really help? Did it enable in restoring justice or just sow seeds of intense shame with virtue signalling in the guise of social justice — instant high, minimal healing, maximum damage.

Gender politics and active accountability

The social justice movement can move forward when we instate gender and active accountability at the core of school and college curriculum. There was an incident in a school when some Class IX girls took a stand on how the boys in the class commented on their bodies. The wise teacher decided to bring the conversation to the class circle time and built a safe space for girls to talk openly about the humiliation they had to face every day. The teacher later shared with me that what was remarkable was that despite the intensity and pain, there was no blame, and the boys apologised. Together, they started talking about what they could do to make the class a safer and more respectful space for the girls and what steps could be taken if there was a transgression. This conversation created ripples of resistance as the girls were called to speak in the school assembly, and other classes started having conversations on gender politics and diversity, too.

What if this could happen throughout their school life rather than just a one-off class — where issues of gender, sexuality, consent, disability, body types, caste, religion could be discussed in safe spaces without judgement or shaming? How will it be to inform our young people to question power and patriarchy? How would it make this world a safer place for all? How would it enable us to make spaces for discussing wrongdoings, weave in active accountability and solidarity?

I resonate deeply with these words by bell hooks, the Black feminist writer, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”

(Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, writer, co-founder, Children First. In this column, she curates the know-how of the children and the youth she works with. She can be reached at [email protected])

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