A kiss is still a kiss

Salil Tripathi attacks the lawyers and judges from 'Indian hick towns' who criticise Shilpa Shetty b

The millennium-old Sanskrit treatise about the art of love, Kama Sutra, describes many different ways in which a lover can kiss his beloved, including the bent kiss, the turned kiss, the straight kiss, and the clasping kiss. (The rest are best not named when impressionable children are around).

The Kama Sutra makes no mention of the sweeping tango motion, with which Richard Gere lunged at a surprised but clearly happy Shilpa Shetty, planting several kisses on her cheeks at an HIV-AIDS awareness rally in New Delhi late last month. While the audience cheered and whistled, clearly enjoying the performance, others weren't amused.

One curmudgeonly lawyer in Jaipur stomped off to a local court, arguing he was offended by that obscene act in public. Never mind the 3.5 million cases clogging the Indian court system - including nearly 500,000 pending over a decade - and never mind cases of forced marriage of children which took place in his state that very month; a local judge set a court date. He called the kiss "sexual and erotic"
and blamed Shetty for not doing anything to resist Gere.

Shetty acted like an innocent schoolgirl caught by her headmaster, saying that it was Gere who had kissed, but she hadn't kiss back; Gere too apologized after initially refusing to do so. She added, for good measure, that what Gere did was as per "his culture, not ours," and that they were merely re-enacting a scene from Gere's film, "Shall We Dance?"

Shall we stop this humbug first? Why this hand-wringing? After all, kissing is as much part of Indian culture as are the temples of Konarak and Khajuraho, where sculptures of kissing couples are probably the least erotic images on display. In Rajasthan alone the offended lawyer will find miniature paintings that reveal erotic love far more explicitly.

But why go that far in the past? In almost every Bollywood film, an actress bursting out of her skimpy, body-hugging costume cavorts in rain or shine, thrusting her torso and twisting her hips, leaving nothing to imagination, as she coils herself around around a male heartthrob. Now that kissing is not a taboo in Indian films, these days their lips – and not two roses – meet, accompanied by thunder and lightning.

The spoilsports aren't far behind: another lawyer, this time in Muzaffarpur, has sued stars Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan for kissing in a film called "Dhoom – 2". Another judge, seeking his 15 minutes of fame, has set a date later this month for the case to be heard. More cases are planned against Gere and Shetty.

Every ten years India goes through this paroxysm-like ritual, when an Indian actress kisses a foreign celebrity – or is kissed by one, as in Shetty's case – and the nation's honour is presumably besmirched. In 1980, Padmini Kolhapure, then an aspiring Bollywood star, couldn't resist Prince Charles and planted a kiss on his cheek, when he visited a studio where a blockbuster was being filmed. In 1993, Shabana Azmi, an actress and activist in the Vanessa Redgrave mold, kissed Nelson Mandela on his cheek. There was immediate criticism; this time Muslim leaders too joined in.

The clash between a rapidly urbanizing, modern India and the tradition-bound, insecure smaller town resurfaces periodically, and in a nation with a billion people, as the late author Nirad Chaudhuri observed, even exceptions run into millions.

Take a closer look at the curmudgeonly towns, and the picture becomes clearer: Muzaffarpur and Jaipur are relatively small towns in northern India, unable to adjust to rapid change. Satellite television is invading homes there, showing how men and women behave elsewhere in their own country. The towns too are expanding, and in that churning, tradition-minded men want to assert their authority and control their women. They are worried how their daughters would behave when out of sight, and they are horrified seeing Indian women in saris kissing foreign men in public. It must be stopped.

At heart, then, this reflects the deep-rooted misogyny. In 2005, Khushboo, another Indian actress, was criticized after she said that nothing is wrong with pre-marital sex provided it is safe, consensual and between adults, and no educated man should make virginity an issue. Tennis ace Sania Mirza appeared to have supported those remarks, but later backtracked. She didn't have a choice; the 20-year-old was already in hot water because a few Muslim leaders wanted to pass a fatwa against her for she played tennis wearing miniskirts. Mirza and Khushboo, like Azmi, are Muslims; that being Muslim women they are able to lead liberated lives is actually a triumph of Indian secularism.

The denial of sexuality – as something women can flaunt, as a natural act they enjoy – is the core of the complaint of the lawyers and judges from Indian hick towns. They will ignore horrendous abuses like rape, trafficking, dowry deaths, and female foeticide and female infanticide around them. But the moment an adult woman expresses her sexuality, she must be forced to repent. The backlash against Gere and Shetty has far less to do with maintaining Indian traditions and all to do with preserving male dominance.

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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other women in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.