'Swapna Sundari'? The misogynistic response to women accused is shameful

The crime involving diplomatic relations is a matter that requires grave attention, but does it justify the perverted interest surrounding Swapna’s personal life?
'Swapna Sundari'? The misogynistic response to women accused is shameful
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Crime and woman are a deadly combination, it seems. Whenever a woman’s name crops up in an act of crime, a nauseating uproar of perversion and voyeurism emerges almost immediately from the crowd around. The general mood shifts into the morality-induced restlessness of people vying for the blood of the woman accused.

A few days ago, customs officials at the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport seized over 30 kg of gold that arrived in diplomatic baggage. It soon snowballed into a controversy when Sarith and Swapna Suresh, two former employees at the office of the UAE Consulate General, were accused in the case. No sooner did Swapna’s name come out that the dull and brooding mood created by the lockdown vanished, and excitement took over as more details about the woman came out through the media.

The controversy is reminiscent of a media trial back in 1994 when the ISRO spy case was sensationalised by the presence of two Maldivian citizens who were supposedly involved in ‘honey-trapping’ scientists who were accused of selling the country’s secrets to enemies in return for sexual favours. The media went gaga over the ‘promiscuous life’ of the women, describing one of them as “a writhing tuna in bed” and “a man-hunter”. A few years later, however, the allegations were found to be false and the scandal ended, leaving behind the tormented and humiliated men and women robbed of their dignity, career and life.

This time, armed with more weapons and stooping to further voyeuristic lows, websites and TV channels excitedly coughed up ‘spicy’ stories on Swapna’s ‘dance’, private life, photos in different attires and even an ‘exclusive interview’ of the residents’ association representative of her apartment who, putting CCTV cameras to shame, explained in detail about the alleged visitors to her home, her family details, and even the food and drinks that she ordered. 

The primetime discussion of one channel was titled ‘Swapna Sundari aarudeyokke urakkam keduthum’ (The dreamgirl will disturb the sleep of who all?). On the day M Sivasankar, the Chief Minister’s Principal Secretary and IT Department Secretary, was removed from office after he was alleged to have links with Swapna, a TV channel anchor was seen on a show with blown-up, full-size photographs of Swapna in the background but no image of the male official in question. It was as if he was anchoring a sponsored programme for the promotion of Dasavatharam, the famous Tamil film in which Kamal Hassan donned 10 roles!

The crime involving diplomatic relations is undoubtedly a matter that requires grave attention, and if found guilty, the accused has to be punished. If government officials have helped Swapna or others in the racket, they should not be spared either. But does any of this justify the slut-shaming of a woman and the perverted interest surrounding her personal life? Social media too has been branding the woman as ‘promiscuous’, pointing to her photos attending parties as an official and videos of her dancing. Memes comparing Saritha Nair, the main accused in the solar scam, and Swapna in the most crude manner, have also been doing the rounds. (None of it can be published here). Ridiculously, the media has even assumed the role of the moral police by delving into the visitors’ log book of her residence and looking for clues about her ‘relationships’.

“This would have definitely not happened if the accused had been a man with the name Swapnesh or Swapnajith. No one would bother to call him a ‘Swapna Sundaran’ or go after his personal life. The words one uses is a choice based on ideology. According to linguistic theories, the collective subconscious has a huge influence on a person’s choice of words,” says Bilu Padmini Narayanan, a writer and academician. 

“Good language is a very crucial part of journalism. While it has to be eye-catching and readable, it also reflects the psyche of the writer based on his linguistic, literary and intellectual choices,” Bilu notes. By choosing the wrong words, the long-hidden stink is freed from its reins.

Writer Saradakutty concurs, “I haven’t come across any news reporter on TV channels asserting that the focus must be on the crime and not the woman’s physique or private life. The reporters and meme creators know well that the male accused in this case, Sarith and Sandeep, too have a family and morality, but do any of them ask their family about their character or behaviour? Does anyone know the name of Sandeep’s partner, or even remember Sarith or Sandeep’s face as well as they do Swapna’s? The men too look good, but they aren’t called handsome, are they?”

The media has elevated misogyny to entirely new levels of virulence and violence. In the TRP rating race, media houses run from Swapna’s voyeuristic neighbour to her photo albums looking for ‘eye-popping’ add-ons. The media’s moral policing, however, is not surprising. Last year, when the then secretary of the Thiruvananthapuram Press Club barged into the house of his colleague and assaulted her in an act of moral policing, journalists in Kerala were split, some taking sides with the accused and some with the survivor, and a lot of hullabaloo ensued until the accused was arrested. 

“Working at odd hours and sometimes round the clock, I’m sure that reporters too might have faced moral policing or scrutiny from ‘association secretaries’ like Swapna’s. And they too would have resisted it. Yet they intrude into the private life of an accused in a case only because of her gender,” Saradakutty points out.

Vulgar trolling of the accused woman’s body, tattoo and relationships are being justified as harmless ‘jokes’ and criticism. “The makers try to justify it as criticism, but won’t admit that there’s something wrong with the content. Mediapersons and trolls are well aware of the underlying issue, but they choose to shed the veil of political correctness to abuse the other person who has lesser power than them. The woman could be a criminal, but that doesn’t give anyone the license to dissect her personal life and vulgarise it,” says Bilu.

The misogyny churning in Kerala for decades is evident in the early 20th century smarthavicharam (adultery trial) and banishment of Kuriyedath Thathri, who was accused of illegitimate sexual relations with 64 men. “Hers was a lone revolution against the domestic system, and she was banished. For men, women are nothing more than flesh. Educational or technological advancement hasn’t brought any change in the attitude of Malayali men who struggle between fear and want. Those who are gentlemen in their family shamelessly use social media to verbally assault anonymous women. Any woman who lives against the socially construed order or has an opinion is immediately judged and subjected to a locust attack by even men who appear to be progressive,” says Saradakutty, who had faced a scathing smear campaign on social media when she supported Saritha Nair, who had at the time made serious sexual harassment allegations against several Congress leaders. 

“Saritha fearlessly revolted, but all the men whom she named lost nothing. This is how slandering works on women, who are considered public property,” the writer says.

Radical feminist writer Kate Millet, who was instrumental in kickstarting second-wave feminism in the 1960s, in her book Sexual Politics notes that male supremacy is the most primitive religion. “Patriarchal religion could consolidate this position by the creation of a male god or gods, demoting, discrediting or eliminating goddesses and constructing a theology whose basic postulates are male supremacist, and one of whose central functions is to uphold and validate the patriarchal structure,” she writes.

Crime is not to be judged using the double standards of morality. In this age of peddling spice-coated sexism, one can always correct the stance and evolve. Stressing that women too are part of wielding the patriarchal sword, Bilu notes that one has to correct rather than justify the mistakes. “When a woman is being attacked, other women, despite political differences, should express solidarity with them and slam the mud-slinging. When someone speaks in a vulgar tone against a woman accused in a panel discussion, the others have to call it out. As long as they refuse to correct themselves, the torchbearers of patriarchy will keep practising the double standards that they have been maintaining all along,” Saradakutty says.

Swapna may or may not be a culprit, but choosing to divert from the crime and focusing on her character lands one in a bigger legacy of patriarchal crime.

Vandana is a movie-maniac, an unapologetic feminist, a believer of human rights, and admits it if she is wrong or ignorant, or both.

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