Earlier this year, in mid-February, Amazon fired Emmy Award-winning actor, Jeffrey Tambor, from the show Transparent, after a speedy, three-month internal inquiry into sexual harassment claims, brought against him by two of his transwomen colleagues. Needless to say, while Tambor was unhappy with the treatment meted out to him based on “false accusations”, Amazon held its ground in an effort to prove its commitment to ensuring that their “workplace respects the safety and dignity of every individual”, as Jill Soloway, creator of the show, stated.
This wasn’t the first time that Amazon found itself in the midst of a sexual harassment controversy. Only a month earlier, the then-head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price, had found himself in the eye of the Harvey Weinstein storm. He had allegedly done nothing, despite being repeatedly informed of Weinstein’s reprehensible behaviour towards female colleagues. The situation was further exacerbated by sexual harassment claims made by Isa Hackett, a producer on the TV series The Man in the High Castle, against Price himself. The retail giant was quick to suspend Price (who subsequently resigned) and send out a memo to its employees, reassuring them of its zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment and abuse.
In both instances, the swift action taken by the company sent a clear message to its employees, consumers and the public at large that, Amazon, as a brand, believed in supporting women in their struggle against patriarchy and sexual violence. In fact, in the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo campaign, Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa would respond to the question “Are you a feminist?” with, “Yes. As is anyone who believes in bridging the inequality between men and women in society.” She had come a long way from thanking her master for “feedback” after being called a “b****” or a “sl**”.
This rewriting was more in line with Amazon’s progressive practices in working towards establishing a gender-equal culture, where, by 2016, they claimed to pay “99.9 percent” equal wages to their female and male employees – one of the only tech companies, in addition to Apple, to do so at the time. All in all, if one were to assess Amazon’s policies and actions in the recent past, it would be safe to say that the company, and the brand, had proactively aligned itself with a campaign for a just, fairer society.
It seems, however, that Amazon’s progressive practices on issues of gender are reserved for women in the United States or the developed West. Last week, Amazon India allowed itself to be bullied on social media, by the fanatic Hindu right, into dissociating itself from Bollywood actor Swara Bhasker simply because she had vocally protested the horrific rape and murder of a child.
The question we are all asking is how Amazon can claim to stand for one thing in an American context and the exact opposite in a South Asian context?
The news of the horrific murder of an eight-year-old girl from the politically disturbed state of Jammu and Kashmir left large sections of India’s population shaken. As per police findings, she was kidnapped, heavily sedated and raped multiple times by several men for six days and finally, bludgeoned to death. All of this took place at the Devisthan Temple, located on an isolated hilltop approximately a kilometre away from the village of Rasanna. Once the child was dead, the men dumped her body in the nearby forest, where she was found two days later.
What made the incident even more gut-wrenching was that the child, only eight years of age, was targeted to send out a warning and a strong message to the nomadic community of Bakarwals, to which the girl belonged. The message was that they, a Muslim community, were not welcome by the Hindu residents of Kathua district. For most, the premeditated and heinous nature of the crime was difficult to come to terms with, leading to protests across the country.
Bollywood celebrities joined the movement by circulating photos of themselves holding the placard, “I am Hindustan. I am ashamed. #JusticeForAasifa. 8 years old. Gangraped. Murdered. In ‘Devi’-sthaan Temple. #Kathua.” Swara Bhasker too participated by tweeting this placard.
Around the same time, Bhasker was approached by Amazon India to tweet about her experience purchasing a music system on the e-commerce site. Momentarily associating with celebrities on social media and piggybacking on their followers to advertise the brand and its products is a routine marketing strategy used by Amazon and others. Amazon is one of the largest e-commerce companies in India, with 31.1 percent standalone share of the market, as per the latest findings compiled by Forrester Research.
As Amazon retweeted her promo tweet, completely unrelated to anything controversial, a section of right-wing trolls launched an online campaign, threatening Amazon with a boycott unless they immediately dropped Bhasker. Much to our collective horror, Amazon promptly complied by deleting Bhasker’s tweet, without a moment’s thought about the implications of such a deletion.
This single move validated the entire belief system of rape apologists and rabid nationalists who succeeded in preventing yet another woman from speaking her mind against the extreme injustices that women and girls in India suffer in our deeply unequal society. Undeniably, Amazon India sided with and emboldened those who do not want justice served in a case that involves the politically motivated murder and rape of a child.
The question we are all asking is: How Amazon can claim to stand for one thing in an American context and the exact opposite in a South Asian context? If, as a brand, Amazon truly believes, as Alexa the AI assistant does, that there is virtue “in bridging the inequality between men and women in society”, then how could it distance itself from Bhaskar and a just and worthy cause?
Are our desires and struggles, as women in the Global South, for a safe, non-violent society any less legitimate than the demands of North American women? Does our location automatically disqualify us from having similar expectations from a multinational known for its carefully crafted gender-sensitive policies in the US, and possibly elsewhere?
Amazon India has chosen to continue its silence on the matter, despite repeated requests for comment by the media. Clearly, explanations to the South Asian public are unnecessary. They have, however, responded to private messages sent to customer care by concerned citizens, stating that Amazon has not in fact “dissociated” itself from any celebrity but are waiting for an “appropriate time” to see to it that the needful action is taken.
|A message to Amazon India’s customer service by a consumer and Amazon’s response to it.|
Given that the deletion of the tweet was a public act, visible to all, what are the implications of private responses of assurance? The public stance is what the religious right continues to read as a victory.
Continued silence on the issue in the public domain makes Amazon complicit in creating conditions in India they seek to alleviate elsewhere – allowing public intimidation of women who speak against horrific sexual violence ultimately fosters conditions that perpetuate aggression against women in the digital and material world alike.