While a section is lauding the women for hitting back, another is asking how vigilante justice can be condoned. And of course, the inevitable question: is this feminism?

Sowmya Rajendran

Kerala is divided on an incident that took place on Saturday. Two women, dubbing artist Bhagyalakshmi and trans rights activist Diya Sana, confronted a man named Vijay P Nair who had been making crass, defamatory and abusive videos on feminists. A third woman, activist Sreelakshmi Arackal, filmed it. The women, who played the incident Live on Facebook, hit Vijay, threw ink on him and also verbally abused him.

As was only to be expected, the incident has blown up into a hot topic of discussion, with Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Health Minister KK Shailaja expressing their wish to protect the rights of women in the state even as a case has been filed against the activists for taking the law into their own hands.

While a section is lauding the women for hitting back, another is asking how vigilante justice can be condoned. And of course, the inevitable question: is this feminism?

How effective are legal options?

This isn’t the first time that misogynists like Vijay P Nair have created abusive content on women. There have been sustained hate campaigns with rape and death threats earlier, too. While social media platforms do have options to report abuse, these are often ineffective. For instance, when Tamil Nadu journalist Kavin Malar faced slander and harassment on social media recently, Facebook, in response to her complaint, said that the posts did not go against their community standards.

According to an Amnesty report from 2018, Twitter sees abusive tweets directed at women every 30 seconds. Abusive tweets were defined as those that went against the platform’s own rules, including physical or sexuall threats, hostile content and negative and harmful stereotypes against a group. The organisation’s 2020 report, which was based on the period leading up to the General Elections in India, showed that women politicians across the board — whether left wing or right — received vile abuse on Twitter though the volume varied.

Not only are the platforms slow and reluctant to react, they’re also clueless when it comes to abusive content in regional languages because they don’t have the resources to take a call. Vijay’s videos are still circulating on YouTube and are yet to be removed.

Apart from reporting abuse to social media platforms, victims can also approach cyber cells, file an FIR (First Information Report) at the local police station, file a complaint with the Ministry of Women and Child Development or National Commission for Women. Perpetrators of cyber abuse can be charged under the Information Technology Act, various sections of the Indian Penal Code that deal with sexual harassment, voyeurism, criminal intimidation and so on, Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO).

However, many a time, these laws don’t help much. At the end of the attack video, the activists pointed out that they decided to confront the man themselves because of the weak laws. Take the instance when acclaimed actor Parvathy faced a sustained hate campaign online after she called out the misogyny in superstar Mammootty’s film Kasaba in a panel. Although she filed a police complaint over the barrage of death and rape threats that she received, Printo, a man who was arrested in the case, was let out on bail in just 48 hours. What’s more, the producer of the film even welcomed Printo and promised to give him a job for the rest of his life.

Parvathy is a well-known face in Kerala and yet, she found herself at the end of abuse for several months. The arrest did not stop the harassment in any way.

Retaliation or vigilante justice? 

Many who’ve supported the women activists feel that what they did was retaliation, a defence they put up when they were out of options, and not vigilante justice. For instance, if a woman were to slap a man who molested her on the road or in a bus, would we see that as a defence or vigilante justice? Why must cyber abuse not be treated with the same level of seriousness?

Whether it is retaliation or vigilante justice,  it must be said that citizens should not be encouraged to enforce justice themselves. If we did so, we would only end up becoming a more violent and vengeful society. However, it’s important to acknowledge that ineffective laws, systemic injustice and victims’ trauma play a major role in pushing them towards taking such steps.

Any condemnation or discussion of vigilante justice in such circumstances has to happen parallel to decisive action being taken to change the system and protect the rights of victims. One must also not draw false equivalence with other kinds of vigilante justice that have become common in the country, like cow vigilantism, where the perpetrators enjoy political support to exercise muscle power and the targets are most often from marginalised communities.

The #MeToo movement, for example, came under much criticism for naming alleged sexual harassers on social media. What about misuse and the rights of the accused to defend themselves, the critics asked. However, one must understand that such a movement was born out of frustration with the existing system, which only revictimises survivors and lets off perpetrators. It was the ineffectiveness of existing redressal mechanisms for decades that led to such an outburst.

Unless women’s rights are taken seriously and every time there is such a violation, no matter who the survivor or the perpetrator and their political affiliations, we may not be able to prevent such incidents from happening. They may be legally wrong but they will continue to be welcomed morally by many. Even if this may sound like a victory for women’s rights, it isn’t so because not all women can afford to take the law into their own hands. Not all women may have political backing; the commitment to women’s rights and justice has to be absolute and not dependent on who the accused is. What ultimately needs fixing is the broken legal system so that all women, no matter what their social location, can seek redressal.

But in the meantime, those belligerently asking ‘IS THIS FEMINISM?’ should introspect if they speak up consistently for women’s rights, support victims and survivors, take a stance against men like Vijay, who are in their midst, and hold them accountable for their actions. They should ask if their outrage only shows up when women decide they’ve had enough and find their own ways, however flawed, to respond.

courtesy NewsMinute