The arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi on the charge of sharing a protest “toolkit” and the burning of posters and effigies of Greta Thunberg carries ominous messages beyond the obvious ones relating to dissent and freedom of speech. One does not have to agree with the nature of Greta Thunberg’s environmental activism to conclude that reactions to her tweeted support for the farmers’ agitation reveal some deeply troubling aspects about gender in Indian society. You do not even have to be supportive of the cause of the farmers to think that our public culture has mutated to a particular level of toxic masculinity. If the sight of a group of men torching images and effigies of a young woman does not make our stomachs churn, then, perhaps, we have become completely habituated to the idea of violence against women and past efforts to address the issues have been in vain.
In the not-too-distant past, the so-called sati of 18-year-old Roop Kanwar led to the passing of the Rajasthan Sati (Prevention) Act of 1987. The Act was the end result of a great deal of debate, discussion and agitation that focussed on the forms of gender discrimination that normalised violence against women in the name of tradition. Eight months after her marriage, Roop Kanwar’s husband Maal Singh passed away and the young woman faced a horrific fate at her husband’s pyre. One of the key aspects of the Act was to make punishable activities that “glorified” the fundamental aspect of sati — setting a woman on fire.
The Act recognised that beyond the actual horrific nature of the deed itself, its afterlife — in popular culture and religious observances, for example — served as justification of violence against women. It recognised that, in addition to actual violence, symbolic violence is a significant factor in reproducing unacceptable ideas about women and their “place” in society.
If unwilling women were sent to a public death on their husbands’ funeral pyres, they did not fare much better in private life. The fires of the family kitchen — otherwise symbols of comfort and sustenance — have been made accomplices in peculiarly Indian dramas of domestic horror, homicide and human greed. Bride-burning constitutes the most frequent method of the killing of women whose families have not been able to fulfil dowry demands. It continues to be a fact of life that many women who are first imagined as cash cows are, when their families are unable to pay up, turned to embers and ash. With new consumer cultures and grander aspirations for material advancement, this tendency has, if anything, deepened.
Of course, women are set alight not just for money but also in the aftermath of rape. In December 2019, a young woman who was on way to the police station in Unnao to testify against her rapists was set alight by those she had accused. In the same month, a veterinary doctor was raped, strangled and her body set alight in Hyderabad and a teenager in a village in Bihar died of her burn injuries after being torched when she resisted rape.
Violence against women extends beyond dousing them in kerosene and setting them alight. There are many ways — hanging, drowning, being pushed from a balcony — through which death takes on a very public face. The recognition of dowry-related death as a legal offence is also a recognition of the deep-rooted nature of violence against women and the unequivocal need to both punish it and provide deterrence. The burning of Greta Thunberg’s posters and effigies should alarm us as these disturbing tendencies continue to break the surface of our collective consciousness. And, though effigy burning has a long tradition in India, torching the female form as a type of public protest carries very different meaning as compared to the male one. It comes with its own history of symbolic violence and masculine anxieties.
When male protestors burn effigies of other men, the act has no relation to what actually happens to men in real life. The symbol of the burning woman, on the other hand, has a long history and carries a very different set of meanings. The sight of male protestors burning effigies and posters of women is an image that should cause deep unease to anyone concerned about the ways in which images of gendered violence circulate and come to be regarded as unremarkable. The fact is that it is not just another way of protesting. It would be unthinkable, for example, for white protestors in the United States who disagree with African-Americans fighting for racial inequality to carry effigies of black men hanging from trees. And yet, that is exactly what the symbolism of the burning woman in India is. It represents a horrifying aspect of gender relations and must never be tolerated.
Apart from the immediate provocation — the farmers’ agitation — the burning of Thunberg’s images is also occasioned by additional factors. And this should also make us think about other kinds of malaise that afflicts us and what such forms of protesting might mean. The symbolic burning of public women also represents rising masculine anxiety regarding women who are seen to be independent and willing to engage in public debates. While there is growing acceptance that women should have the same opportunities as men in, say, the fields of education and jobs, there is the continuing expectation that the educated and employed women must nevertheless prioritise the home and “domestic duties”. Education and employment are still not seen as a way of ensuring women’s autonomy but, rather, as adding to the household income and material prosperity.
Our public spheres are heavily masculinised and the women who do not stick to the cultural norms of where they “actually” belong are both derided and, frequently, punished. The punishment is both actual and symbolic. It is not unusual to hear men sympathise on behalf of a rape victim but also ask if it is proper for a woman to be, say, out at night by herself as a man might. The burning of Thunberg’s images and the lack of protest against Disha Ravi’s arrest are symbolic warnings of the possible fate that awaits the woman seen as “too independent”.
It is easy to dismiss effigy-burning as just another form of protest that has been long prevalent in India. But that is also to dismiss the nature of our social relations and the ways in which they are expressed in the language of gender. The symbolic and the actual are deeply entangled.
The writer is a sociologist