Buzzfeed’s Imaan Sheikh & Rape Culture

A few years ago, I dated someone who got a lot of attention for his loud views on women’s rights, gay rights and child abuse. He also frequently said things like ‘faggotty shit’ and ‘Don’t be such a vagina’ and ‘stop PMSing all over the place’. When I pointed out these fallacies, he called me uncool because I didn’t get it. And when I pressed on, he insisted that joking about something reduced its sting.

This afternoon, Imaan Sheikh (Buzzfeed’s current darling) got into a conversation on Twitter. I’ve been a fan of her take on popular Bollywood. But this screenshot of her tweets from 2012 stopped me dead in my tracks. It made me want to throw up.

I tweeted about this tagging her and she replied. Here is the conversation we had.

Let’s talk about rape humour. Rape is an act of extreme brutality and violence carried on women in systematic and fully-supported ways, in every part of the world. It is aimed at and usually succeeds in leaving a woman stripped of health, self-esteem, dignity, emotional stability and security. Rape culture is all the conversations, rituals and social practices that simultaneously encourages the propagators and demonises the victims. Joking about rape makes it exactly that — a joke. It trivialises the victim’s trauma, minimises all the work being done to overturn it and permits propagators & supporters to go along in the notion that their actions are ‘cool’ or okay.

Now let’s look at Imaan Sheikh. I got the distinct impression that I was being indulged the way a troublesome but not quite trolley minion would be, on Twitter. Imaan’s attitude to the whole thing seemed to be “What that again? Aren’t you guys over it? How uncool of you. Still, I will deign to respond because you know, you guys do read my stuff.”

All of us have things in our past we aren’t thrilled about. But aren’t there degrees to even what parts of that can be brushed away as ‘I was young and stupid’? I cannot imagine rape humour ever being okay, especially when propagated by an educated, savvy woman.

This last because, the onus of standing for women’s rights falls to us even more than it does to other factions of society. Women on the internet, especially highly influential ones, enjoy the kind of freedom that is a privilege, not a basic right for most women. These women also inevitably become role models for younger women and prototypes for the image of strong women. What does it say about strong, influential women when one of them supports rape culture?

I’m afraid Imaan, this is one of those massive blunders that you are going to have to keep apologising for, for the rest of your life. I hope this happens because if it doesn’t, it means our world continues to believe that rape is a minor infraction. And that is not going to be a good world for either you or I to live in, Imaan.

10 thoughts on “Buzzfeed’s Imaan Sheikh & Rape Culture

  1. Hummm… this is a tough one. I’m not really sure how I would respond now if my past mistakes were brought up. In any case, I think respect is important from all sides. What would be an appropriate response?

    1. @Louise: Do see my replies to LSMD below where they asked the same question. That is how I would have handled it. I’m not saying she had to do the same thing. But I would have liked her to have done SOMETHING. Not brush it off with a ‘I said sorry, now if you don’t want to accept it, I don’t care’.

    1. @Lakshmi: What bothers me is the number of people shrugging it off saying “She said sorry, why are you going on about it?”. It’s apparently more important for people to support an irreverent pop culture icon than address a horrific social practice (rape culture).

  2. Rape is an issue, rape culture is worse, and having someone treat it so casually can be shocking.

    But I think Imaan’s response is valid. She tweeted this in 2012. This is 2015. By her own confession, she was a “horrible person” when she was younger. Call it immaturity, call it ignorance, call it sheer attempt at “coolness”. We’ve all done stuff we’re ashamed of.

    Clearly, she’s understood that she was wrong. And she says she’s matured as a person, and that she doesn’t endorse those views any more.

    What I see as a dispassionate observer is that you didn’t take her at face value (I was a horrible person, but assure you that things are better now), and you wanted her to what? Apologize to you again? Whatever for? Who are you?

    If she’s understood her mistakes and has tried to make amends for that, what else do you want? She can’t go back and unsay all she’s said, can she? You want to shame her again and again? How does that help her? Or you?

    Some of us do serious mistakes. We cheat, we lie, we shoplift, we tell rape jokes. The important thing is we realize our mistakes and don’t want ever to go back there again. I can empathize with what Imaan feels.

    Let her be.

    1. @LSMD: Imaan’s replies sounded more dismissive than apologetic. She also says she’s only popular now. Both these make me wonder whether she actually understands the gravity of what she’s done or whether this is lip service offered because rape is an uncool word now.

      I do not feel obligated to take her at face value. If a person takes a stand, they must expect to be challenged on the times they themselves did not live up to the ideals they preach.

      I think rape culture prevails because we are willing to let go of things easily or pass them off as minor mistakes/jokes. So while I can empathise with making mistakes, I don’t think this is small enough to let pass. How does shaming her help me? It doesn’t because my objective was not to shame her. As a reader/observer and also as a woman who bears the consequences of rape culture and all those who make it possible, I have the right to point out its instances. If I do not feel like these are being taken seriously or are being brushed aside as minor, I take a stand against it.

  3. @IdeaSmith – My reply is more about admitting past mistakes, learning from them and moving on, rather than rape/ rape culture in itself.

    You read her reply (at least the first one) as dismissive, a third person wouldn’t. We all look at the world in our own context. And talking of rape, even a rapist, arguably, needs a chance at redemption.

    Just a question – what would you have done if you were in her place?

    1. @LSMD: I am in a country that has seen incidents of rape & violence against women only get more and more brutal and depraved. I believe these incidents and their perpetrators are allowed to continue and exist exactly because we take the forgiving stance, never mind the sheer level of trauma, physical damage and social stigma faced by the victims. So I do not believe that rapists deserve redemption. This might put my opinion in better context for you.

      Imaan Sheikh is not a rapist, she’s a woman who deliberately perpetrated rape culture with extremely offensive, public words. She is also an extremely influential woman today whose words carry weight. What kind of a mixed message do you suppose this sends to her audiences? I think it actually devalues the message of cutting out rape culture when it is delivered by people who have perpetrated it themselves.

      It’s true that an opinion on her words is subjective. I believe her reply was dismissive and not sufficiently apologetic of her grave blunder. Perhaps you don’t; that’s a matter of opinion. Let me put it this way. Outraging about it certainly has made more people think about it. And it is hoped, it will make anyone who has a rape-nurturing opinion think twice about voicing it.

      How would I have handled it? Apologised as many times as I was pulled up for it (because yes, I would be horrified when I realised what I had done, even in thoughtlessness). Perhaps I’d have put up a blogpost or a video stating that this is what I had once said, explaining why it was wrong and how as a result, I really want to take a stand against rape culture now. These are techniques and different people do them differently.

      I don’t see Imaan Sheikh doing much more than shrugging off dissent with ‘Yeah okay, that happened, I said sorry, I got rapped on the knuckles, now shut up already.’ Never mind the arrogance in that, it makes me think about the superficiality of her words and her opinion then. Why should I take that seriously or give her any leeway then?

    2. I agree. I didn’t think her response was dismissive. ‘I was horrible person’ is a candid admission. I’ve made many mistakes but I hope I deserve redemption. I hope people let me be once I’ve corrected my course.

      Probably I would have deleted those tweets. Just to stop riling people. Or not – maybe a reminder I once made a horrible mistake.

      1. @Poonam Sharma: Why are we so quick to condone propagators of rape culture and rape with the ‘It happens, everyone makes mistakes?’. Would we do that for say, murder? Rape is as bad an offence as murder. Anyone who propagates rape culture is encouraging a horrific crime. I don’t believe it is a minor enough mistake to be brushed away.

        I get that opinions may differ on whether her apology was true or not. How about her later replies? I really don’t think a person who has made a terrible mistake and is truly apologetic about it, gets to be irritated that they have to apologise.

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