Much has been said and written on the party launch of actor turned politician Kamal Haasan. The question and answer session that he held has been termed a refreshing change to the one way communication that politicians prefer. However, on Wednesday, the Makkal Needhi Maiam founder in his effort to make quick observations, faltered on a crucial question.
A supporter had asked a question about gender-based violence. It read - "I ask you with a lot of concern. What is the solution to the atrocities against women?"
Kamal Haasan did not hesitate for a moment before he said, "I am the solution."
By 'I', he probably was speaking on behalf of men, who are often the perpetrators of gender-based violence.The newbie politician did well to recognise that the solution to such violence lies not with the victims but with those who assault them.
However, he followed this up with a problematic statement, "It is not enough if you just talk about love and bravery. You have to think about your elder sister, your mother. Have to think about the younger sister you have to get married. You have to think about your daughter. If you think about all this and your heart melts, there will be no crimes against women. You can't see everybody as your lover. Not everyone can be the girl of your dreams. So you have to think about your mother and sister. You also need a lover, I am not saying you don't. But you have to give her equal space. Haven't you heard that the god you pray to gave half of himself? Give space like that."
With this statement, Kamal Haasan unfortunately showed that his understanding of gender-based violence is deeply flawed, much like that of most politicians. From rightly identifying that the problem was with men, Kamal went to elevating himself (and other men) to the position of women's 'saviours'.
Given that he is entering the political scene in Tamil Nadu with a desire to rid the state of old ways of thinking, it is necessary that he also updates himself on this important issue.
Most women's rights activists and experts who spoke to TNM pointed out major problems in his statement: from defining women according to their relationships with men, giving the term 'lover' to a man who perpetuates violence against women, and the failure to acknowledge the problems that women face.
Of mothers and sisters
"Kamal Haasan has failed to see women as co-travellers and as people who have productive roles in society," says Geetha Narayanan, a women's rights activist based in Chennai. "Yes, women can be mothers and sisters but that is not all that they are."
Geetha goes on to add that a person who truly believes in gender equity would not have made such a statement.
According to The International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), women face a staggering amount of violence within homes from their husbands, fathers, brothers and other male family members. The centre receives an average of 500 crisis calls a year from women across Tamil Nadu who are undergoing domestic and intimate partner violence.
Statistics on domestic violence, therefore, make such statements about needing to see women as "mothers" and "sisters" ring hollow.
"We believe that we need to look beyond the mothers and sisters rhetoric and examine the violence that our family structures routinely perpetuate against women," says Swetha, from PCVC.
Kirthi, the founder of Red Elephant, a foundation that works for gender equality, points out that by calling a woman, 'mother' or 'sister', a nexus is created with men.
"That takes away the humanisation of a woman as an individual. She can only be humanised when seen in relation to a man. The struggle that women have faced has been completely disregarded and they are only referenced to as property of men in some manner. What more, men are made the ultimate breadwinners who are responsible for these women and cannot have other aspirations," she explains.
The 'lover' tag
The film industry in India, of which Kamal Haasan is a prominent member, has played a huge role in depicting stalkers as 'lovers'. A woman's 'no' has seldom been taken at face value on screen and violence perpetuated by the hero in the name of 'love' has been routinely glorified and validated.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, crimes against women have more than doubled in the last 10 years. In 2016 alone, the state witnessed at least 854 cases of assault on women and 319 cases of rape. Around 8% of these cases were reported from Chennai.
"Cinema, which is a means of education for a large part of India has romanticised violence against women. Kamal Haasan could have spoken in a manner that changed this belief. Instead he re-emphasised it," says Kirthi.
By using the word 'lover' in this context, the actor-politician fell back to the same regressive ideas that we've heard from veterans in the field every time an instance of gender-based violence makes it to the headlines. As the then Janata Dal-United leader Sharad Yadav infamously asked in Parliament, "Who among us has not followed girls home?" The politician was speaking against a law to make stalking a crime.
It is necessary, therefore, to call out such patriarchal views because Kamal may well find himself in a position of political power and influence tomorrow.
Not acknowledging the struggle
In the run-up to his political plunge, Kamal had met with the media several times. On one such instance, he thought little of naming the sexual assault victim from the Malayalam film industry, even though she had clearly said she wanted her identity to be protected in the media. Kamal, however, persisted with defending his decision.
He had said, "Why is it the safety of women in the film industry alone? A female's presence in the crowd is important to me and I will not let anything happen to her. It's our duty to see if you are safe. It's not just about actresses. We are not supporting (mentions name) because she is an actress."
The National Commission for Women had termed it as an act that revealed his patriarchal mindset and insensitivity. He'd paid no heed to the assault victim's stance and failed to acknowledge why survivors seek anonymity, given the very real everyday battles they have to fight.
The actor-politician has stayed mum about misogyny in cinema as well as the rampant sexual harassment within the film industry about which women actors are speaking up.
Recalling the incident when Kamal named the assault survivor, Geetha asks, "Kamal Haasan's statement showed that he has failed to recognise the violence against women even in his own sector. So how will he even begin to understand about sexual abuse faced by women in agriculture or the informal sector?"
Other activists, meanwhile, term his statement an 'absolute travesty'.
"Women in Tamil Nadu have struggled for years with problems that challenged their very existence (foeticide, infanticide). His answer shows a complete lack of understanding of the issues that plague women on an everyday basis. It is absolutely disrespectful," argues Kirthi.
Women make half the population and as Kamal steps into the political arena, he will do well to remember this and deal with the issues they face with more seriousness and a far better understanding.