Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXX No. 5 June 16-30, 2020
Early in May, screenshots from an Instagram chat group dubbed ‘Bois Locker Room’ went viral on social media. Run by a group of high school boys from Delhi, the leaked chats featured photos of underage girls accompanied by obscene commentary. A Snapchat screenshot with plans to sexually assault a girl also surfaced, sparking furious social media chatter. Swift action followed – the cyber cell of Delhi police arrested the 18-year-old admin of the Instagram group and recorded statements from six other students who were a part of the group as well. Then, events took a strange turn. The police discovered that the disturbing Snapchat conversation was in fact instigated by a girl who was using a fake profile to ‘test’ the values of her friend. In true social spirit, #ArrestSwatiMaliwal began to trend with some redirecting their ire onto the Chief of Delhi Commission for Women. Even though Swati posted a tweet condemning the girl’s deed, a few felt that this was yet another example of women receiving lighter repercussions for their mistakes. From there, the whole conversation limped its way to a natural death.
That’s the whole sordid story. If most stories have a moral, as we are wont to teach our children, what must we take away from this one? It started off with one script, gave us a twist which challenged our preconceptions and melted into oblivion from there. It is a narrative that can easily turn into a preachy sermon on the perils of jumping to conclusions. While that is undeniably true, we would be failing our young if we choose to moralize the Snapchat controversy instead of addressing the Instagram chats which reveal the ugly rot that is eating away at healthy gender dynamics between our adolescents.
On behalf of Madras Musings, I spoke to noted psychiatrist Dr. Lakshmi Vijayakumar to understand what makes adolescents believe that this kind of behaviour is acceptable. What makes them think that it is perfectly fine to share pictures, some even morphed, of underage girls and proceed to share lewd commentary on them? What, for that matter, drove a minor to ‘test’ her friend with the suggestion of a sexual assault? What kind of vulnerability must she be carrying to want to assure herself of her safety with a known person? Do our young learn these behaviours within the home? Or must we blame the internet?
“It isn’t either one or the other,” said Dr. Lakshmi. “The attitude we develop is due to three factors. First, one’s own personality; second, one’s immediate family and school environment and third, societal attitude. At the individual level, one must remember that there is a hormonal surge during adolescence. With better nutrition and physical health, girls experience menarchy at an earlier age than previous generations, while boys are developing secondary sexual characteristics more quickly. But they don’t have the mental maturity to handle it at such a young age.”
She went on to explain that technology complicated matters too. “Earlier, even when one had such impulses, one did not have the opportunity to exhibit or act on them without being found out. Today, with the internet providing access to social networks and all kinds of websites, children have the means to create a different identity for themselves online where they can give in to such thoughts without the fear of their parents finding out. Social pressure plays a role, too. It has become a mark of prestige to talk of girlfriends and ‘conquests’. Social badges of ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ are a sign of much-desired popularity and even masculinity. All this against the backdrop of our patriarchal society leads children to the notion that women are subservient to men.”
Her explanation is a hard truth to swallow. After all, one could be forgiven for thinking that we live in a more enlightened age of gender sensitivity compared to days past. In fact, the younger generation enjoys a greater exposure to concepts of feminism and gender equality.
“Have you seen a Tamil movie lately?” laughed Dr. Lakshmi when I brought it up. “Show me a hero who is pro-woman, doesn’t chase after a girl or behave violently.”
It’s true. We have collectively created our very own Jekyll and Hyde. Breathe one word online that can be construed as insensitive to a gender or race, and the internet ruthlessly dispenses swift justice with a heavy hand. Outside the virtual world, however, toxic gender constructs are often reiterated in our homes and entertainment media. It’s not just our homegrown silver screen Romeos either; there is enough cosmopolitan content on new-age platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime that is designed to shock to draw an audience.
“This extremeness of views isn’t new for us. We either elevate woman to the status of a goddess or we treat her like chattel,” remarked Dr. Lakshmi wryly. “The fight for women has never been about either, but to be treated as a human being. We seem to have lost the plot somewhere.”
I remembered a conversation I had with a college-going friend. I wanted to get his take on the Bois Locker Room issue. He had bristled with indignation. “Why is it okay to pick apart a private chat that was never meant to be public?” he had demanded. “Perhaps you don’t understand our brand of dark humour. I know for a fact that even though my friends sometimes say strange things, they will never act on it.”
I put his views across to Dr. Lakshmi. “It cannot be right to shame another person, even in the spirit of dark humour,” she said firmly.
One can’t help but wonder how Chennai fares in these issues. It can’t be denied that as Chennaiites, we tend to view these stories as incidents happening to ‘others’. The thought of a Chennai edition of a Bois Locker Room is nigh unimaginable for most. I asked my teenage nieces and nephews their opinion and they confessed that they wouldn’t be surprised if one surfaced in our city. I told Dr. Lakshmi their thoughts.
“I would definitely consider Chennai safer than, say, Gurgaon, for two objective reasons,” she replied. “One, law and order is better down south. Second, our southern states tend to internalise emotions as opposed to our northern states, which tend to be much more expressive. This could be because of our historical legacies – the north has constantly waged battles against invaders while the south has remained largely insulated from such wars. I remember an incident that happened to a friend of mine, who married a Punjabi man. They’re both in the UK. When they arrived in India on a trip once, his family burst out in joy with hugs and kisses all around. My friend’s father simply said ‘Vanthutiya?’ and welcomed them inside,” she laughed.
It’s a sweet story and I couldn’t help but smile. But it got me thinking, too. If we southerners tend to suppress our emotions, perhaps the chances of a Bois Locker Room are low; however, it doesn’t negate the problem, which probably expresses itself in a different way. Chennai is no stranger to gender assault. In February this year, a POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) court in Chennai sentenced 15 persons associated with the gang rape of a differently-abled minor in a residential society in the city. The same month, the Madras High Court sentenced two teachers of a government girls’ higher secondary school, who had been accused of sexually harassing students. Disturbingly, these teachers had been acquitted by a Mahila court earlier. More recently, we see reports that domestic abuse is spiking during the lockdown. There are enough and more incidents that underline how crucial it is to seed healthy gender relationships at a young age. I asked Dr. Lakshmi how this can be done.
“We have to understand that times are changing fast. It used to be that each generation was defined by a ten-year gap. Today, a new generation is defined almost every two years, thanks to the speed of change — there is some new medium, trend or the other cropping up. When change happens so rapidly, one does not have the time to think through one’s attitudes, values or ambitions. Teachers and parents have not been able to cope with this rapidity of change either. Children feel that elders don’t understand the social milieu they’re in. So, it is important for us to make an effort to understand their challenges and help them develop healthy relationships. Encourage them to build good friendships and teach them to put away thoughts of romance to a later age. Surely, there’s time enough for that.”