On February 12, 2021, Sapana Sanjeevani recited her poem, ‘Hum aab Sita nai banbau’ at the women’s march, part of the ongoing ‘Nagarik andolan’, as a symbolic deconstruction of the historic domination of women in the name of religion, culture, and tradition. In the poem, she named religious and mythological characters like Sita, Draupadi, and Saraswati to make her point. The poem, although drawing inspiration from mythological characters, was aimed at undermining the pervasive oppression of women and marginalised communities. As she recited her poem, the crowd of young and old, women and men, all cheered, joining in her call for a revolution against the patriarchy.
Sanjeevani was widely covered by national television and a video of her reciting the poem was viewed and shared hundreds of times on social media. Sanjeevani received immense support from many but particularly from women who could relate to her anger and the voice she represented through her poem.
However, since February 14, Sanjeevani, along with other women who participated in the march, began to receive threats on social media, including verbal abuse and rape and death threats. Some were extremely triggering and graphic. Sanjeevani particularly was targeted for her poem, with threats of rape and even vulgar music videos made with her photos. Madhesi activist Rita Sah, former National Human Rights Commission member Mohna Ansari, and women’s rights activist Hima Bista also received threats. Their photos were shared publicly on social media, with declarations of reward money for anyone who “blackened” their faces.
As close observers and participants of the women’s movement, we have supported poet Sanjeevani and the other women on social media. But even speaking out in support of these women culminated in death and rape threats against one of us. A female journalist who shared the video of Sanjeevani’s poem also received threats and was forced to take it down. Furthermore, Sah, who did not speak at the march, and Ansari, who did not speak about religion, are being targeted by religious extremists.
As these hostilities unfolded, the difference between the threats men, women, women from marginalised communities and minority genders receive became vividly evident. These latter groups are often the target of verbal abuse, with rape threats being common. These includes threats to gang rape them, mutilate their bodies, and toss them on the streets. The character of these threats show that women and other marginalised communities do not yet receive adequate space in constructive criticism; instead the mass turns violent and declares an attack on their bodies.
The bodies of women and minority genders have, directly or indirectly, always been used as a weapon of war and revenge. Many scholars of gender and violence have argued that extremist groups use sexual violence as it has extensive impacts of disrupting and destabilising families and communities, in addition to stigmatising women. These abuses are often justified in the name of religion and sanctioned based on radical interpretations of religious documents. This form of violence is particularly distinct and deeply devastating, as their consequences remain with the communities at large and continue across generations. In this particular episode, what is of particular significance is how women’s bodies have been placed at the threshold of religious conflict by the self-appointed guardians of ‘god’ and ‘religion’.
Most threats have involved lines like “How dare you insult our mother goddess Sita and our Hindu religion? We will rape and kill you.” This is worrying because it shows increasing intolerance and rising religious extremism in the country. The majority of threats coming from the Madhes also shows that the anger and frustration of marginalised groups are coalescing into religious extremism and communal orthodoxy. Sanjeevani, Sah, and Ansari all belong to the Madhesi community. However, the pushback from the same community they belong to reflects the deeply held belief that refuses to consider women as individuals with their own choices and voices, but rather, sees them as torchbearers of the community and the religion they belong to.
Sanjeevani’s poem questioned the very foundations of patriarchy and refused to idolise submissive mythological characters who are revered for tolerating extreme forms of violence. Sita, who was put through an agniparikshya to prove her chastity to Ram, is held up as an ‘ideal woman’ whereas Surpanakha, who openly expressed her love for Laxman, is portrayed as a woman of questionable character and punished by having her nose cut off (a symbol of being dishonored that can also be seen as a metaphor for sexual abuse/rape).
Sanjeevani’s poem challenged these skewed notions of women’s characters and the dubious standards of morality. Social media trolls and men in influential positions have even resorted to calling her Surpanakha, based on these distorted interpretations of women’s characters.
This incident illustrates the perpetual threat of violence within which women exist. It is emblematic of the patterns of violence that cut across communities, cultures, religions, and nations, manifested in a range of atrocities directed towards women. The struggles of women in Nepal, especially those emerging from intersectional experiences of caste, class, and ethnicity, thus needs deeper attention and engagement. The ongoing ‘Nagarik Andolan’ against the corrosion of democratic space and seeking a change in the nature of the state and the system of governance will also be incomplete without due acknowledgement of the issues associated with the women’s movement.