Kerala polls, and the hyper-sexual, voyeuristic gaze towards women in public positions

Our public gaze has always been perverse in its perception of women. This has been the case every time a woman assumes space in the limelight, in any capacity.
Election campaigning for Advocate Vibitha Babu.
Election campaigning for Advocate Vibitha Babu.
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The Kerala local body elections of 2020 that recently came to a close is significant for numerous reasons. One among them is the number of women who contested this time. This was an election that witnessed the maximum number of female candidates across parties in the State. It is also promising to note that most of these women are very young including freshers just out of college, and young professionals from various walks. As hopeful as the picture looks, when there is a large number of women occupying the public space, there emerges another problem that was visible in this context as well – the sexualisation of female bodies.

Our public gaze has always been perverse in its perception of women. This has been the case every time a woman assumes space in the limelight, in any capacity. When a woman appears in the public space, she immediately becomes an object for sexual consumption. The conversation invariably shifts to her physical attributes and moral confirmation. This has happened time and again on instances of women being appointed as civil servants, public administrators, student body leaders, and anything and everything that gives them visibility for that matter. It is not just members of the common public who sexualise women in the public eye but also established media houses who often run full fledged features anchored on the “beauty” of the women in question. Decades after constant efforts to de-sexualise female bodies, this is where we are still at, perceiving women as objects first and individuals later.

Why didn’t the 'pretty' woman candidate win the election?

The most unmissable case in point with respect to the Kerala local body elections 2020 is that of Advocate Vibitha Babu, the UDF candidate who contested from Mallapally division in Pathanamthitta gram panchayath. The candidate’s personal photographs on social media went viral after they were circulated with comments on her physical attributes. Some of her pictures were morphed in ways that insult her dignity and personhood. On learning that she had lost the polls, online spaces became rife with posts expressing disappointment and blaming the voters of her division for not choosing a woman who had so much potential to be 'eye candy'. Similar comments and hype based on sexual objectification were unleashed on some of the other women candidates as well.

It is quite unfortunate that this is not a new occurrence. The same was witnessed when online classes commenced for students in the state early this year. The teachers who conducted lectures broadcast through the KITE Victors channel soon gained 'fans and armies' for their physical appearances. The 'Blue Saree Teacher' hashtag which went viral at that time was put in check by the government and the cyber cell who issued strict warnings against the perverse depiction of the respected teachers who were making extra efforts to face the camera and conduct the classes.

When Merin Joseph IPS was appointed in the Kerala Cadre post her training, quite a few fake Facebook pages had popped up in her name. Most people made comments citing how lucky we are to have such a young, beautiful officer take charge. Channels and publications also always include questions about diet, maintaining good looks and wardrobe choices when it comes to women, no matter how daunting a career they are in and how important their tasks at hand are. This is testimony to the fact that we are unwilling to separate the sexual aspect of the female body from her individuality, even while she is out there dispensing professional responsibilities. The potential for scandal when a woman is in picture often decides how much hype a piece of news gets, as was evident from the infamous Solar Scam and the recent Gold Smuggling furore.

Woman, individual, object: The separation of identities

All these instances point to the fact that even as we boast of being a modern society that backs progressive ideas in the political and social space, our attitude towards women is still guided by patriarchy and its hyper-sexual, voyeuristic gaze. We have been conditioned to look at women through the reflected gaze of male desires and this continues to be the case irrespective of all the other ways in which our political conscience has evolved. Even today, the easiest way to bring down a woman in the public eye is to slut shame her, morally judge her private life, morph her images and nit-pick on how she dresses. A casual selfie in comfortable clothes on her Facebook page makes it 'unbecoming' of a woman who holds a responsible position. It is hard to miss that women who choose to have public lives are often forced to dress up in fabrics and colours that confirm to the society’s idea of respectability. Women are constantly mandated to be careful of their bodies, because one visible bra strap or a little bit of cleavage has a huge bearing on their character, acceptability and public image. Everything from their marital status to their choice of words are scrutinised with patriarchal standards to make a value judgment about how worthy they are of respect, a process of chastising that men are not subjected to no matter how many criminal cases have piled up on them.

By now, it should be evident to all of us that these practices are not befitting of a civilised society that prides itself on gender parity and inclusivity. As for those who claim these trolls and comments to be harmless jokes, it is essential to remember that humour is not a tool for degradation. It is shameful to laugh at the expense of a person’s dignity and bodily integrity.

It is already a daunting and tiring task to be a woman. Being a woman who works under public scrutiny only amplifies this predicament. We have to understand that a woman at work performs tasks that are as equally important as her male counterparts. She is not here to fulfil our repressed sexual fantasies but to work and coexist as an individual of her own. Conversations about this are often dismissed or normalised because most of us have accepted this to be the inevitable destiny of a woman who chooses a public life. There could be no argument more ridiculous than this. It is not the destiny of one gender to have to constantly be limited and ridiculed by it. What we normalise as destiny here is a social construct that patriarchy has set in stone for women.

Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that we call out those who garner traction at online spaces by feeding into the society’s intrigue about a woman’s public and private whereabouts the moment she becomes visible. No matter how established a media house is, or how popular a youtube channel is, the mandate for public decency and objectivity of reportage cannot be compromised. We must keep calling this out until it is dismantled in both public and private conversations.

Sukanya Shaji is a freelance writer, poet and lawyer based in Kochi. Views expressed are the author's own. 

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