Dangers of silencing Gurmehar Kaur and Alankrita Shrivastava's Lipstick Under My Burkha

Charumathi Sankaran
Charumathi SankaranFeb 28, 2017 | 19:40

Dangers of silencing Gurmehar Kaur and Alankrita Shrivastava's Lipstick Under My Burkha

Two women subjected to acts of submission and omission to protect national honour have robbed India of any pretence that it is conscious of women's rights.

Most recently, Gurmehar Kaur, a young university student, was hounded into withdrawing from a campaign against campus violence amid rabid abuse and rape threats, and outrage from one of the highest seats of the government — silenced for engaging in a peaceful protest.


Less than a week ago, feminist filmmaker Alankrita Shrivastava was informed that her film about Indian women's sexual experiences, Lipstick Under My Burkha — told from a woman's perspective, without objectifying women — is too "lady-oriented" even for adult audiences and denied a certificate by the CBFC chief, to "preserve the culture and tradition of the country".

It is an unequivocal attempt to impose and normalise a view of what all Indian women should want and how they should behave. Photo: Screengrab

The unfortunate thread that binds Gurmehar and Alankrita is a ruling dispensation that refuses to respect their rights to express themselves — let alone value their independent thinking as equal citizens.

When 20-year-old Gurmehar — who happens to be a martyr's daughter — speaks up against a student outfit she believes violates their rights, far from engaging with her, Union minister Kiren Rijiju wonders "who's polluting this young girl's mind".

In much the same way, his government-appointed censor chief Pahlaj Nihalani calls the experiences of Alankrita's characters "fantasy above life", refusing her the right to portray and exhibit emotions experienced by a woman because he believes they do not exist.

It would be convenient to call them hypocrites who abuse women's freedom to serve the nation, but their threat is far more insidious. While one prevents a woman from telling her story, the other patronises her — neither treats them as individuals capable of making sense.


Much like Margaret Atwood once said, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

This is no veiled attack to suppress expression, it is an unequivocal attempt to impose and normalise a view of what all Indian women should want and how they should behave — denying them their agency and argument.

It isn't a first, women have always been deployed as a front in conflict — too close to home are Kashmir, the Northeast and the Naxal-dominated regions, where even rape has historically been used to shame the defiant into submission. 

And regardless of regime, women's expression in art has always been under attack — Deepa Mehta's Fire was banned because it portrayed lesbian characters, and one of India's fiercest writers, Ismat Chughtai, faced obscenity trials for her literary portrayal of homosexuality.

In 2016, a motley group of protestors in Haryana, including students of the ABVP, were irked that the Central University of Haryana staged a play on feminist author Mahasweta Devi's Draupadi, a short story that portrays adivasi resistance in the time of Army excesses.

The reason for the flare-up was that the play's protagonist is raped by a man in the uniform in the story, which upset the self-styled nationalists.


It would not be a surprise if those in power, who refuse to accept a "lady-oriented" film and resist a 20-year-old woman's opinion with a vitrolic response today, refuse to entertain a debate on atrocities as grave as marital rape, which is not a crime in the eyes of the state.

Never before have Indian women experienced such diabolical attempts to retract their beliefs. Far from giving women a place of our own in the national discourse, today's India has left no room for so much as a silent protest.

To take away Gurmehar and Alankrita's basic freedoms is to attack all independent Indian women — to demean all the struggles Indian women have gone through over centuries to build their identity and come into their own.

Gurmehar and Alankrita's cases should be a watershed moment for free-thinking Indian women to unite and oppose this vicious trend of drowning female voices — to deny our right to exist and be heard.

Because this too is honour killing, and the state is guilty.

Last updated: February 28, 2017 | 23:02
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