by Nikita Agarwal
I strongly condemn the backlash that the five students, all women, are facing in National Law University Delhi campus for exercising their right to protest against sexism and misogyny perpetuated by Abish Mathew during Kairos, the second intercollegiate festival of NLU Delhi.
The students protested against the various sexist, racist and casteist jokes made by Mathew ranging from a Malayali man’s ability to use 5 minutes efficiently to get drunk, beat his wife, kill, bury her and have time to chill out, to jokes on Punjabi women putting on weight post marriage. He made jokes on women being bad employees, bad drivers and called Mayawati ‘ugly’.
After twenty minutes of the performance, two female students walked out and came back with three more students holding placards, showing Abish Mathew the middle finger and asking him to “Get out, you sexist pig”. The women stood at the side of the auditorium and continued to protest by asking him to ‘get the fuck out’. Mathew made one last joke and made his final exit in the midst of a standing ovation and bows from a roaring audience. At this point the outraged body of 200 students surrounded the protestors attacking them for exercising the “heckler’s veto” and for denying them the right to witness the rest of the performance. The protestors were abused, called mentally ill, their attire was commented upon. They were pushed, accused of being hypocritical and attention/relevance seeking. Jokes were made about incidents of sexual harassment on campus and people were screaming at the protestors as they walked back to their rooms.
Such forms of sexist backlash involving heckling of students for expressing dissent is symptomatic of a larger ideological malaise where women are bound within the good girl-bad girl dichotomy, instances of sexual violence are deemed funny and flung at the face of students advocating for a sexual harassment free culture, gender stereotypes are perpetuated, everything that a woman has to say is deemed fundamentally irrelevant and where women are physically pushed and threatened without any due regard to structural positioning and privileges. This form of mob mentality needs to be rethought bearing in mind the contours of gender hierarchies, and the form of fear that such a backlash instills within a the minds of students confined in spaces like NLU Delhi.
The content of Abish Mathew’s performance, that which was protested against was primarily sexist, casteist and racist celebrating a number of gender stereotypes and diluting the seriousness of gender-based violence such as domestic violence. The standing ovation that Abish Mathew solicited and the harassment that the protestors experienced both are indicative of a deeply sick and sexist community which condones and even celebrates sexism under the garb of free speech and expression and at the same time condemns forms of dissent by curbing the voice of the dissenter by using that which they are distancing themselves from, the Heckler’s veto. It is the student community which is a hypocrite in this situation and not the protestors themselves.
It is important to note that the freedom of speech and expression under Art. 19(1)(a) of the Constitution is not an absolute right and all forms of speech and expression do not require the same form of tolerance. So when we are really talking about the right of Abish Mathew to spew out sexism in the form of badly crafted humour, we are basically talking about the right of a privileged cis-gendered man to be sexist in a society where the dominant social narrative is that of sexism and where women on an everyday basis are subject to social inequalities on account of their structural position within a society that seeks to curb and repress them. In such a context, instead of allowing for such forms of speech and expression which further encourage a culture where it is deemed acceptable to joke about sexualised and gender-based violence it is important to build a counter culture.
It is imperative to take cognisance of the power imbalances that exist here. The protestors were five in number, all women thereby occupying a marginalized status in an institution which has until now been largely celebratory of patriarchy, homophobia, casteism and racism. In such a context, women who want to make themselves heard against an Abish Mathew in front of a crowd of 200 odd people all complicit in their silence and their celebration cannot really do so with silence; the short history of NLU Delhi bears testimony to a silencing of subversive voices. As far as the form adopted here goes, the words “Get out you sexist pig” is an assertion by the women to reclaim the space, i.e. NLU Delhi campus back from the likes of Abish Mathew and his supporters on order to build NLU as a relatively safer and respectable space. Using a mode of protest that involved showing the middle finger and using words like ‘fuck’ and denying Mathew the space to finish his sketch were again acts of subversion challenging social constructs which have appropriated these words and actions as being sexist and perverse by further reclaiming them and using them to shame Abish Mathew for his blatant sexism.
At this juncture, I applaud the students for finally holding their first protest and for the student community for ‘coming out’ as a deeply sick community. However, I wonder if there is even a possibility or value of expressing dissent against the majority without alienating or scandalising them in the process. If dissent involves attempts at creating ruptures within the existing terrain, is there any such thing as a peaceful protest and if we are to start imagining alternative forms of expressing dissent, where and how do we begin?