A few days ago, actor Swara Bhasker wrote an open letter to Padmaavat director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Titled ‘At The End of Your Magnum Opus… I Felt Reduced to a Vagina – Only’, Swara says that she found the glorification of ‘jauhar’ in the film problematic.
She said in the letter that while she understood practices like jauhar and sati were part of our history, it is questionable to make a film in the present time glorifying these practices, or without commenting on them.
Swara also contested the patriarchal belief that death is better that a life of ‘dishonour’, which is what a sexual assault survivor is made to believe even now.
Swara's point – what feminists have been saying all along – is simple. A woman’s honour does not lie in her vagina. She has the right to live no matter what, even without her male ‘protectors’.
Does that seem problematic? It did to a lot of people, which is well and good. Not everyone has to agree with her.
But is the abuse – much of it sexually coloured - directed towards a woman who dared to express her opinion, and used the word ‘vagina’, also justified?
The backlash the actor received after she wrote the letter took her by surprise as well. The people who targeted Swara online took one word from her letter – vagina – and reduced her to just that.
There are hundreds of tweets ridiculing and abusing Swara. Some of them come from renowned names. Here are a few, to give you a lowdown of the arguments they make to abuse her.
1. Swara has reduced mighty queen Padmavati to a body part (no points for guessing, the vagina). And she used the word only to grab eyeballs.
2. Those going ridiculing her to any reason other than the points she makes in her open letter.
3. There were a number of people quoting the instances of women in ISIS captivity committing suicide or self-harm to protect themselves from their brutalities, including sexual assault.
4. Those who attempted to turn Swara’s point on its head, but may not have understood it in the first place.
5. That jauhar was without a doubt, Padmavati’s choice.
6. Those who said she merely expressed her opinion to get attention.
7. That Swara should understand what a ‘real vagina’ feels like, because she’s a ‘fake feminist’.
8. Those who argued a woman’s honour over all else for a woman.
9. And of course, people who thought that Swara would ‘prefer’ being raped or being a sex slave, over dying.
Swara did respond to some of these comments.
There are a number of problems with the vitriol being directed at her. For starters, most of them are not rebuttals to her argument, but her usage of the word ‘vagina’. And while you are free to disagree with her, the amount of fixation and subsequent backlash regarding the word is baffling.
The comparisons with women immolating or harming themselves to escape rape and sexual violence at the hands of terrorists also do more harm than good. Self-harm or suicide is not a code of conduct that every sexual assault survivor needs to life by. Glorifying women who would prefer death over being sexually violated only takes away from their struggle, and makes it a spectacle – a form of response to being ‘dishonoured’ that is ideal in the eyes of society.
And can 'jauhar' really be considered a 'choice' in a patriarchal world where rape is considered to be worse than death? Did Padmavati, if she existed in the first place, operate under free will when 'free will' is subject to misogynistic social conditioning? We will never know.
And let’s make one thing very clear: NO WOMAN, none, ever asks to be raped or sexually violated. Swara Bhasker is not an exception. While she said in her letter that she would do everything to “sneak out of that fiery pit– even if that meant being enslaved to a monster like Khilji forever”, it did not mean she would ‘prefer’ being a sex slave. It simply meant that she would not let being a victim of sexual violence define her, and that she chooses the right to live above all else.
That being said, no one is under compulsion to agree with what she said. And there are ways to respectfully disagree too. For instance:
There were many who defended Swara against the hate and abuse as well.