How Feminism is perceived in India - A case study of the Neha Dhupia incident

This article seeks to understand the recent incident involving the actress Neha Dhupia and the Indian TV reality show MTV Roadies. The incident was amplified and given a lot of (undeserved) attention on almost all social media platforms. Nevertheless, the incident provides an understanding of how feminism is generally perceived in a negative light and what can be done to change this. The article also seeks to explain why being a feminist may not be bad.

"Feminism, the belief in social, economic and political equality of the sexes. Although largely originating in the West, feminism is manifested worldwide and is represented by various institutions committed to activity on behalf of women's rights and interests."
-Encyclopedia Britannica (from the online version)

The recent incident surrounding Neha Dhupia, Nikhil Chinappa and a particular contestant at an episode of the reality show 'MTV Roadies' has gained a lot of publicity. Although, indeed, reality shows in India are primarily driven by a motive to entertain the audience and are often scripted this incident has to be picked out and understood because some of the elements here have thrown a lot of light on how the Indian youth understands feminism. This is the main reason why I have chosen to write about this topic on an educational site.

The incident has been doing a lot of rounds on various social media platforms and chances are that you have already seen it (or at least part of it). Nevertheless for the newbies here, what happened was that a (male) contestant was asked if he had ever physically hit anyone of the opposite sex. His reply was in the affirmative following which he explained that he had actually hit one of his ex-girlfriends who was cheating on him and allegedly had five other boyfriends. It is important to note (just to be fair to everyone involved) that the contestant also said that he could have done far worse to her like abusing her. At this point, Neha Dhupia and Nikhil Chinappa, both of whom were judges on the show got furious. Curse words were freely hurled (a signature feature of Roadies). The controversy began when Neha said that cheating on him was her (the ex-girlfriend's) choice. This was the line that has launched the much-publicized clips into the trending topics of social media and earned a massive amount of disrepute for Neha.

Who was right and who was wrong?

Now as mentioned at the beginning of the article, Indian reality shows have very little 'reality' to talk about. But let us forget for the moment that the entire scenario might have been scripted and let us focus on who was right in the entire debate. The answers are extremely murky. Firstly cheating on someone, whether done by the male or by the female, can never be justified. If you are in a relationship, you have to be honest with each other. And on the other side, you cannot physically hit someone for cheating on you either. If someone is cheating on you, then break up with him/her. Accept that the person in question was a rotten one and just move on. Find a better human being to have a relationship with. From that perspective, all of them involved in this, whether Neha or Nikhil or the contestant or the ex-girlfriend were all in the wrong.

There were initially only three parties involved in this fiasco until the internet came in. The internet community especially the young male population has not taken kindly to Neha's comments. There are harmless jokes and memes of course but there are also extremely vitriolic insults flying at Neha (and more depressingly at Neha's daughter). It is entirely reasonable for people to get angry, but there are civilized ways to express our displeasure. There is also another tribe (mostly women) including the actress Richa Chadda who has come out in support of Neha. That is also wrong for another set of reasons. The entire drama can be a nice study on how sensible voices are often muted in the race to gain maximum visibility on the internet. I have already written an article related to this about whethersocial media is inherently hateful.

Feminists versus the rest

But let us move on with the topic. As already mentioned the incident was also interesting because of the reason that it has provided a nice window to understand how the average Indian (male) youth understands feminism. And the conclusion can only be that feminism has almost become a dirty word these days, perhaps to the extent that very few people would openly stand and call themselves a feminist. This is mostly a result of an incorrect understanding of the concept of feminism. Feminism doesn't seek to reverse the patriarchal social order and place women dominated order in its place. Feminism doesn't stand for the domination of men by women. It only stands for gender equality by removing the existing structures of discrimination. Nevertheless, an anti-feminist feeling does exist. This is true for most social movements. Whenever there is a push for greater equality there is always a group that seeks to ridicule and weaken the movement.

But it also has to be acknowledged that certain feminists are themselves responsible for these anti-feminist reactions. Academic works on this subject have also criticized the fringe within feminism that displays shades of misandry (this space would be too short to discuss this aspect of the subject). It has to be understood that feminism in its true form is a positive concept. It is a progressive concept that we in South Asia desperately need. For that to happen it has to acquire a more popular appeal. The Neha Dhupia incident shows that we are still far away from that, at least for now. But some changes may come soon. What we can do as educated people is to keep our eyes open for manifestations of discrimination, even in spaces such as advertisements or TV serials or maybe even in classroom or workplace conversations. And do remember, feminism is not a bad thing!


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