For a country that won’t shut up harping on the fact that it elected the first female Prime Minister, Sri Lanka sure can’t stand to see a strong woman hold her own without giving into some innate need to tear her down.
A strong, opinionated woman who is willing to face her oppressors head on, an anti-thesis to the patriarchy most of them have been fed since birth. Conflicting with what they’ve been raised to expect from women – quiet, docile, and with a physical appearance for their pleasure.
I suppose it’s most visible online, since we’re all drowning in our digital existence [don’t deny it], and the comments and memes are too hard to ignore. While the harassment of women online is not specific to any particular type of woman, those who step out with confidence in themselves and in their convictions are going to get torn down solely because some narrow-minded idiot can’t stand to see that strength.
The most recent being the spate of memes that Lanka Comic Con 2017 generated. I was there on Day One, my eyes wide in awe at the work put in by amazing people to bring their favourite characters to life. Variations on Wonder Woman, each looking equally stunning, bringing to a familiar character touches of their own personality, as cosplay allows one to. My sister herself went as Supergirl on Day Two. Far more unapologetic and body-confident than me and while we agree on absolutely nothing, she owned that costume.
Give it barely 48 hours before the troll pages had started making memes that trashed their bodies as being too skinny or too fat, taking the photos they had posed for with pride and turning them into a mockery. The comments sections as they play out become more and more appalling, kunuharapa laced with male privilege and bitter comments from other women too – which is obviously more upsetting.
Before that, it was Meliza Leitch – proud of her body and her achievements, she chose to share it all on Instagram BECAUSE SHE CAN. And that too, spiralled into some ridiculous pit about values and culture and ‘maybe it’s a little too much no?’
Before that, it was Ermiza Tegal – a kickass human rights lawyer who addressed the problematic MMDA on a BBC Sinhala Facebook Live chat. The sexist comments were coupled with racist ones in this instant, and it riled me up that they had the gall to take this out on someone who does actual solid work helping people while sitting behind their keyboards and having a laugh.
Before that, there was Bhoomi Harendran. Her confidence radiates from her body and words whenever she’s speaking, so of course some bigot will make a comment that asks her if she doesn’t feel ‘weird’ to be transgender, and people proceed to make rude posts about her body and genitalia. One of the country’s foremost LGBTIQ activists, a trailblazer in her own right, and people can’t stand to see someone who doesn’t fit into their black and white image of a what a woman should be actually having a voice and making a difference.
Before and in between all of that, there was every woman who dared make a statement online, got memed for it, got called an lesbian SJW feminist [please tell me how these are insults, someone?] and had a bunch of slurs thrown at her simply for standing up for what she believed in.
We’re very aware of what happens in our Facebook/Twitter bubbles, and that’s fine because the abuse that goes on there is truly appalling. Out there in the world, women who work on truly amazing causes deal with threats of death and violence. Very real threats of death and violence.
One of the organisers of the protest for justice for those who have disappeared in Mullaitivu was harassed one day and threatened with death if she didn’t give up the protest and go home.
Women’s rights activists in the East working on MMDA reform are subject to surveillance as well as death and rape threats.
Heads of community-based organisations for women widowed during the war can’t allow their names to run in the media for worry that they, or the women they work with, will become targets of violence from a range of actors.
I understand that these don’t equate precisely with women being degraded through online channels, but what I’m going for is that our society cannot stand to see women being ‘out there’ and doing something that they [and sometimes specifically their community] have deemed as not ‘mild’ enough to be becoming on a woman.
As I said earlier, it only makes it worse that sometimes women partake in the abuse, on occasion even generating it. We’re no strangers to the fact that aunties can be your worst critics. On that vein, it stings to see women joking about degrading posts made about other women, instead of sticking up and calling the trolls out.
Resorting to body-shaming and abuse threats when you can’t deal with a strong voice – be they male or female, really – doesn’t reflect very well on you. You’re intimidated and it shows, it shows that you can’t bring yourself to forming a good-enough counter-argument so you just resort to something, anything to tear another person down. With absolutely no thought about the consequences of your actions.
[Veering off solely female victims to the field of cyber-bullying in general – what if any of the people you’re memeing and joking at is in a fragile mental state? What if your words are the necessary push they need to take a drastic step? But you didn’t think about that when you ran the photo through Paint to edit the text, and you’ll share and pretend to be all concerned if things had gone south after your little joke.]
These personalities aside, I feel like any woman who stands out from the patriarchal mold is going to be met with backlash. The single mother, the businesswoman in a ‘man’s world’, the female politician, any form of outspoken liberal woman. Backlash from the men who created the system and the women who are deeply trapped in that same system, occasionally without even realising it.
To the women themselves, I can’t say how much I respect you. I have zero body confidence to unapologetically don a fabulous costume. I have too much anxiety to confront people sometimes. I don’t have the impact that you do in the amazing work you do on the ground. The idea of what people subject your confidence to therefore riles me up to no extent.
It’s oversaid, and you’ve probably heard these words a million times – you’re much bigger than their hate. The grace with which most of you handle the absolute garbage people rain on you makes me believe in superheroes. And I can only hope that the words of small-minded people don’t ever deter you from being the amazing people that you are.