Activist Rehana Fathima has her right to express restored, but she won’t trust Pinarayi Vijayan any more

ByK A Shaji

Published Feb 03, 2023 | 10:00 AM Updated Feb 03, 2023 | 10:00 AM

Fathima

A week has gone by since the Supreme Court restored her right to print, post or publish her views on “any medium of the media”, despite objections by the LDF government in Kerala.

An outspoken activist for gender equality and women’s rights, Rehana Fathima is, however, in no hurry to be active on social media. She is guarded, saying there would be more self-restraint in choosing subjects for discussion.

She has won the legal war, challenging the Kerala High Court’s bail condition that restricted her from airing her views in any media. Fathima, however, is baffled: Why did the state government, which swears by Left and democratic values, object to her demand for free speech in the first place?

The government had argued that she continued to hurt religious sentiments and willfully disrupted communal harmony.

“Despite a favourable verdict from the Supreme Court, I am yet to recover from the shock caused by the arguments of the LDF government. I can understand the hatred BJP and RSS have against me,” she told South First.

Fathima recalled that the LDF government had inspired several women, including herself, to visit Sabarimala based on a Supreme Court verdict.

The fear factor

“I fail to understand why the LDF government submitted to the Supreme Court that I am a troublemaker attempting to disrupt communal harmony in Kerala. I fear about my very existence in Kerala where progressives join hands with right wings to deny me the basic democratic right to express,” she added.

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Rehana Fathima (Photo: Supplied)

“Fear haunts me and hence I have decided to be extremely careful in using social media in the future, even for non-controversial subjects with no political overtones,” an unusually submissive Fathima said.

“Fighting for truth is a big challenge when even governments attempt willful distortion and manipulation of basic facts,” she said.

In the last week of January, a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices BR Gavai and Vikram Nath ordered her to continue on bail. The severe condition preventing her from airing her views in any media must be revoked, the court said.

The court was considering her plea against the strictures imposed by the high court.

Earlier, while granting her bail, the high court said, “Till the trial is over, the accused shall not directly, indirectly or through any other person publish, transmit, share, upload or disseminate or publish any material or any of her comments through any visual and electronic media, open to the public.”

A case over beef fry

The case was filed by Sangh Parivar activists against Fathima for uploading on Facebook a video of her preparing beef fry in a cookery show, with a title that they found offensive.

The high court had observed Hindus in India worship cows as a deity, and using the term she used as a synonym for meat would hurt the religious feelings of many people.

While restoring her right to expression, the Supreme Court instructed Fathima not to share or forward any social media content that would negatively affect the religious feelings or sentiments of any community.

“I don’t feel any objection to that stricture. No responsible citizen can hurt social harmony and religious sentiments. In my case, I have always favoured communal harmony and amity,” she said.

“Whatever I did was within my democratic rights as part of an inclusive society. The Sangh Parivar misinterpreted my positive thoughts and filed cases against me. For reasons unknown to me, the LDF government wanted to deprive me of my basic rights though it upholds a conflicting political ideology,” she added.

During the hearing in the Supreme Court, the state’s counsel argued that Fathima had violated the bail conditions multiple times and re-circulated the controversial posts to hurt religious sentiments. “The problem is the petitioner’s conduct,” the Supreme Court heard.

The beginning 

pulikali

A 2016 photo of Rehana Fathima taking part in Puli Kali, a recreational folk tiger dance of Thrissur in Kerala on the occasion of the Onam festival. Till then, Puli Kali was a male bastion.

Fathima invited the ire of the LDF government in 2018 when she attempted to visit Sabarimala in the customary attire of Ayyappa devotees.

She was then booked for outraging religious sentiments (Section 295A IPC).

“I attempted to visit Sabarimala based on the Supreme Court verdict allowing all women to go to the forest temple of the celibate god. I trusted Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s words that no women would be prevented from visiting the temple,” she said.

Two years later, an FIR was lodged against Fathima for a video published on Facebook. The video showed her children drawing paintings on her nude body.

Rejecting her argument that the video was an attempt to desexualize the female body, the high court held the act prima facie obscene.

The trial is still on in the two cases, and the third case is related to the posting of a picture of beef preparation. In between, Fathima lost her job with the public sector BSNL, which terminated her from service, saying she created enmity between communities.

As per the cases pending in different courts in Kerala, Fathima had committed “deliberate and malicious acts” to hurt religious feelings in December 2018 and November 2020, among other things, violating section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

A POCSO case also was charged against her in the body painting controversy.

Life lessons

Fathima’s Facebook profile has 5,000 friends and 1,60,764 followers, but she has decided against much activity on it in the future too.

“Life taught me several bitter lessons, and I must avoid tensions,” she said.

“The price I had to pay for social interventions was heavy,” she added. Fathima said the Supreme Court partially allowed her right to use social media in February 2022, and the final decision came recently.

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Rehana Fathima (Supplied)

“Except for rarely sharing family pictures or apolitical personal opinions, I never used Facebook in the last year. But the government has objected to my request for relaxation in the bail conditions by saying I continued to hurt communal harmony using social media. It is a lie,” she said.

“It seems the government has raised a false charge against Fathima in the apex court. After all, it’s a so-called Communist government that boasts of its policies against the hate politics of Hindutva. The government has repeated whatever the Hindutva forces are talking about her,” women’s rights activist and scholar J Devika said.

According to Fathima’s supporters, she enjoyed the support of Kerala’s LDF government when she attempted the trip to Sabarimala in the company of Hyderabad-based journalist Kavitha.

A huge posse of police officers and district authorities escorted them until they reached a point a kilometre from the temple.

However, the women had to return in the face of stiff opposition from right-wing activists who opposed the entry of women of menstruating age into the temple.

The government started distancing itself from her after finding that the temple entry issue started adversely affecting the electoral prospects of LDF.

Rehana Fathima

Rehana Fathima. Photo: Supplied.

Her social isolation was aggravated when she was expelled from Islam, the faith into which she was born, by the conservatives there on the charge that she antagonised their counterparts in the Hindu religion.

Fathima started hogging the limelight in 2014 by becoming an active champion of the “Kiss of Love” event, a non-violent protest organised essentially by apolitical youth against what they described as the tendency of certain groups to police the behaviour of couples in public spaces, or “moral vigilantism”.

She also challenged social mores by getting women to stage the “tiger dance or puli kali, traditionally performed by men during the Onam festival in Kerala’s cultural capital Thrissur. There too she attempted to break a male bastion.

“The Supreme Court has made a laudable intervention restoring the basic democratic right of a citizen. The court order also exposed the double standards of Kerala’s LDF government,” said senior advocate Colin Gonsalves who represented Fathima in the court.