Speak Up / Speaking Out

What Agrima Joshua's Case Tells Us About India's Problem With Women's Free Speech

. 3 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
What Agrima Joshua's Case Tells Us About India's Problem With Women's Free Speech

Hey, did you hear that joke about that female comedian walking into a bar? Well, it doesn’t really end in a punch line, just some casual rape and death threats instead. No big deal. 

We’re somewhere in the middle of the year 2020 and difficult has a whole new meaning. For many, it is difficult to survive. Even for those of us for whom survival is not an issue, the pandemic has taken its toll on our mental health and our plans for the future. Study after study speaks about how the impact of the pandemic is gendered, how women are more negatively impacted by it than men. 

It is difficult to exist. 

But it is even more difficult to have that existence be attacked all so casually on a daily basis. 

The Curious Case Of Offending Opinions

If you’re lost on the details here’s a rough gist of what transpired. A Mumbai based comedienne Agrima Joshua’s old video went viral on social media. In the video, she has cracked a satirical joke on the manner in which this country’s decision makers prioritise their resources. The joke was severely called out for “hurting the sentiments” of the followers of Shivaji Maharaj. 

If the response had ended at disagreement, it wouldn’t be an issue. But this video was met with rape and death threats being issued to the comedian on her social media handles. The cafe where she performed was vandalised. And the big finish: a Vadodara based Youtuber, Shubham Mishra, posted a video in which he very graphically described all the ways he would choose to vandalise her, her body, her mother and her sister.  

We live in a world where a man feels not only comfortable and secure but also rather proud to openly dole out explicit rape threats with zero fear. 

That’s rape culture. 

Women’s Work: The Chronicles Of Patriarchal Scrutiny 

The case of Agrima Joshua however, is not an incident in isolation. 

Women have, and will continue, to be called into scrutiny for infiltrating traditionally male dominated spaces. 

Or just, any space in general. 

Exhibit A: Neeti Palta, yet another established comedian, speaks about this particular incident that clearly highlights the unequal power structures we so unquestioningly live in. In one of her interviews, and in a few of her sets too, she talks about an incident when she, and her peer (a male comic) put out videos of their respective sets on YouTube. 

The male comic received a lot of criticism and hate. The comments ranged from hating the content he put out, to belligerently dismissing his views to critiquing his work. When it came to the hate that Neeti’s videos received, however, it was all about abusing her appearance, hating her haircut, and commenting about various aspects of her body. 

Neeti Palta finishes this part of her set by saying “It was as if they saw my video on mute.” 

Take another recent example. The demise of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death was met with extreme hate for another privileged group of the film industry. While one can and should have all the freedom to question power structures, how did that translate into the consensus that doling out rape and death threats to the women in question was ok? 

Sonam Kapoor for instance, received some severe threats that wished death upon her, her family, and her unborn children. There were also graphic and violent rape threats, no different from the ones that Agrima had to face. The troll army meted out a similar fate to the likes of Alia Bhatt and Sonakshi Sinha as well. 

The lines are blurred, all too easily between critiquing a woman’s work and critiquing her appearance. Hating a woman’s work or opinion shifts too quickly into a desire to punish her entire being. 

To Fear For Your Career Or To Fear For Your Life? 

Post the backlash that she received, Agrima was compelled to release an apology video. In addition to this, she had to take legal action and seek help from the police to ensure her physical safety. 

The Gujarat Police arrested Shubham Mishra in the past week and he too, released something resembling an apology video. The video mentions how his words were actually misconstrued and he didn’t really mean what he said. 

A man who issued an explicit rape threat in the crassest language possible was able to deny it with complete confidence.

That’s rape culture. 

Why does expressing an opinion translate into a woman fearing for her life?

Whatever the source be, the fear is not going away anytime soon. 

We’ve normalised rape culture to the degree that it seeps into our colloquial vocabulary without giving much thought to it. Sexual violence, more often than not, is treated as the norm and victims are often blamed for their own assaults. This inherited misogyny is so entrenched that we’ve generally forgotten to question these unequal power structures. 

Female emancipation, by extension, is a myth. 

The normalisation of this culture forces women to sacrifice their freedoms (in the case of Agrima, her freedom of expression) and puts the onus of their safety on their own shoulders (the consequent apology video). 

This safety too, is almost treated like a prize. Something that’s only awarded to those who abstain from transgressions and adhere to those established power dynamics. 

But nothing sums this whole ordeal up better than Shahbaz Ansar’s tweet.

The Big Beginning? 

If I look at this incident in isolation, I think it has a happy end. The world of social media came out in support of Agrima, comedians everywhere showered their love and support for her, the National Commission for Women wrote to the Gujarat Police to take action and Shubham Mishra indeed was arrested. 

In looking at it, however, as one more incident in a series of constant rape threats on social media and in real life , and also as a cultural phenomenon that social media makes more visible, there is no happy end in sight.  The damage was done the moment Agrima felt unsafe enough to apologise. 

Women continue to quicken their pace post 8.30 pm and continue to release apology videos for their work. 

And that’s your punchline.

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