Many said the tone was sanctimonious and in poor light, some abused the women in the pictures

Everything that went wrong with the I am an upper caste woman and I condemn honour killings campaign
news Caste Monday, March 28, 2016 - 15:35

Social media has been aflutter with campaigns, memes and comments, some even supporting the Dalit killing in Udumalpet. Last week, a Tamil news website carried pictures of prominent female journalists in Tamil and English media. In a matter of hours, the story had gone viral -  getting its fair share of praise, brickbats and raised eyebrows. The pictures had on them the words “I am an upper caste woman and I condemn honour killings.” in both Tamil and English. The article, which was simply a series of pictures had little context offered.

Many said the tone was sanctimonious and in poor light, some abused the women in the pictures but there was confusion on how the campaign had to be perceived. But days later, a majority of the writers and journalists who were the faces of the campaign said they were unaware of their pictures being used in the campaign, particularly with the quote.  

Challenging the predominating conversation on social media over the Dalit killing in Udumalpet was senior journalist and Founder Peer Mohammed’s intention. “I wanted women of the dominant caste to speak out and say they condemned honour killings.” But the response was poor, and Mohammed believes the women featured on the campaign were terrified by the backlash. “It had good intent, doesn’t that matter? Even if it was in poor light, I’m happy people are talking about it.” Mohammed maintains that the statement was endorsed by women prior to the campaign. 

Writers Nirmala Kottravai and Jothimani have issued statements on their Facebook pages, saying they were misled and were told that it was simply a campaign to protest honour killings. The quote, they said, was never by them. Kottravai said she had second thoughts about it. However, Tamil writer and activist Kutty Revathi has not raised objection to the campaign.

The fundamental problem, the writers argued, lay in bringing their caste and assuming they were upper caste without asking them. The quote carried the subliminal messaging of self-righteousness - being from a dominant caste, and providing those who were not with approval that they didn’t need. “The very power dynamic we are trying to fight, is being reinforced in the statement. Nobody knows what caste I am, how does he know I’m upper caste?” says Sonia Arunkumar, a journalist with News 7 Tamil who was featured on the campaign. “He says he did this for the good of people so they could think about caste killings, but my question is, why is our caste important to the conversation? Aren’t we trying to go beyond caste?”  More harm, seemingly, has happened than good. Arunkumar says Nirmala Kottravai has been pointedly harassed, and has sworn off writing and journalism after the backlash she has received from the campaign. 

Since then, persistent exchanges over phone between the writers and Mohammed have ensued, asking for their pictures to be removed. “And he isn’t budging,” says Kavin Malar, an activist. The judgement, she says, is largely splintered. “Some women are okay with it, most are not. But it is very offensive and patronizing to the Dalit community. It was just a spread to make it known that we were a dominant caste. Beyond this, what did it really achieve?” 

Activist Kavin Malar says his refusal to remove the pictures clearly violates journalistic ethics. Mohammed however, says he cannot remove them, and says a faction of writers supporting the spread means he must be doing something right. “I don’t want to say I have done justice to the whole conversation with this campaign, but we are talking about it.” Kavin Malar retorts, “This campaign has not furthered the conversation on caste. It has only dearly cost our reputation.”

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