Reactions to Malayali vlogger’s death show attempts to silence women with a voice

When Rifa Mehnu, a 20 year old vlogger died in Dubai, it is not her sudden death but her popularity that seem to have triggered angry comments across social media.
Rifa Mehnu
Rifa Mehnu
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In a video posted more than a year ago on YouTube, a young woman, not yet 20, is giving a Malayalam tutorial on wearing a hijab. She removes the shawl she is wearing, asking to be excused for it, while she demonstrates the tying up of hair and the pinning of the hijab on top of it. It seems there was criticism on some previous posts of hers when she appeared without a hijab. The young woman is apologetic as she explains it away as a moment of excitement on straightening her hair, and adds immediately that she is coming back to her old ways, for “what you like is what I like”.

Her name was Rifa Mehnu, and she was a star on social media, with lakhs of followers on Instagram. News of her unexpected death on Tuesday morning brought varied reactions from social media users. She was too young, 20, married and with a kid, living in Dubai. Mehnu (Mehnaz), her husband, reportedly found her dead when he came back home in the early hours of Tuesday, March 1, some time past midnight. Only hours earlier, she had spoken to her family back home in Balussery, a town in rural Kozhikode. She spoke to her toddler son over a video call, a report in Mathrubhumi said.

Both Mehnu and Rifa appeared regularly on Instagram, even on a music album cover. In her last video on Instagram, the couple is seen visiting a restaurant in Dubai and tasting their Kozhikode food. That was posted Monday, February 28, hardly a day before she died.


A post shared by (@mehnu_family_919)

Oddities began to emerge a little after Rifa’s death, when Mehnu reportedly posted a video about it as an Instagram story and the police got him to remove it. Mehnu found her body in the wee hours of Tuesday and hinted that it was a case of suicide. But Rifa’s family back home is suspicious of the circumstances of her death and reportedly wants further investigation. The Balussery police were not available for comments when TNM tried to reach them.

Reports also suggest that Rifa had been working in Dubai, and Mehnu, whose visa was about to expire, insisted she go back to Kerala with him.

It is, however, not the suspicious circumstances or the unexpected death that seem to have triggered angry comments across social media. Random users are apparently furious about the kind of popularity Rifa enjoyed on Instagram. They have been posting derogatory comments on the “extent certain women went to”, to become stars on social media.

Shimna Azeez, doctor and writer, posted several screenshots of these comments. One of the comments in a screenshot said that Rifa’s death was a lesson to all Muslim women who “showed off on Instagram”. Another said that a few girls in his town were “queens” of Instagram and in the end they had to suffer, bringing “shame” to the entire town. A third comment said that the lives of Muslim girls who forget Allah will end in tears and suicide.

Shimna writes that the “brothers” who heard about Rifu’s death suddenly became moral warriors. “Social media is a space that everyone can equally use. One shouldn’t take out one’s frustration of not reaching anywhere on a child (young woman) who died. One should at least learn to respect death,” Shimna said.

One must remember that these reactions came for a young woman who had tried too hard to please her followers – as in the earlier example of the hijab tutorial. She was not spared even as she lay dead in a foreign country.  

It is not easy to understand this anger. Rifa was not your textbook feminist, not someone who went against the tide or made daring statements. She mostly followed the formula that worked – posting family photos, sharing cute moments with the son and the husband, wearing hijab and socially acceptable clothes, smiling and spirited.

The only post that might be slightly off the track was on an album she did with her husband – called ‘Kiss me couples’. It showed them in a kissing pose that appears to have “offended” random users.


A post shared by (@mehnaz_mehnu_919)

If this is the kind of bullying that a young woman, who mostly abided by norms, faces when she dies, one can imagine what others who are more vocal go through.

Days after an 18-year-old spoke out about the sexual assault she faced from a tattoo artist in Kochi, quite a lot of bullying erupted rather predictably on social media pages, mostly from anonymous users. Aysha Mahmood, social media influencer and activist, posted a screenshot, with one such example, where a person is ridiculing the #MeToo survivor for making apparently false accusations against men after “asking for it”. “This is only an example of the slut shaming and bullying experienced by women who speak out about the harassment and abuse they face,” Aysha wrote.

The bullying comes from profiles which have no name, face or identity. These are men who hide behind false identities when they see women who speak with their own voice, revealing their identity, Aysha wrote. “The law will catch up with them, the day they are brave enough to come into their own identities.”

Priya Thuvassery, a documentary filmmaker who works with women in different parts of the country, said that such abusive comments are targeted at every woman who has a voice. “If you have a voice and you are a woman, they take it for granted that they can troll you. But how they respond is different when they know you have a strong network and support system. It is not only urban women, but rural women I have worked with also share such stories,” Priya said. She refers to the story of Suneeta Prajapati of Khabar Lahariya, an independent media platform run by women journalists and published in rural dialects, about the online abuse she has faced as a rural journalist.

Even women who have long established themselves online sometimes worry about how their content will be received. Indu Harikumar, an artist and writer who is active on Instagram, said that she sometimes fears doing some of her projects, worrying if people will point fingers at her. “It is also gendered. I once did a project on gender-based violence and asked several women how they perform online. That was very telling. Women, especially when they are in a relationship, are careful of how they perform online – not posing with alcohol, whose photos they will like, what kind of clothes they wear. A lot of people said they wanted to talk about sex but they are worried how they will be seen. They worry about getting labeled as loose or asking for it,” Indu said.

It need not even be random strangers; people known to you may decide to judge what you post on social media and then create murmurs around your character. Priya remembered how her mother was worried by stories she heard from others on what Priya posted online. “So I had to bring her on social media so she could see what I post, and that’s when she understood.”

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