The internet has long been lauded as a space where humanity gets to participate in some randomness. In a world defined by order, the internet is not. In a world marked by hierarchy, the internet is defiant. In a world marked by day in, day out, the internet is unpredictable.
How the internet’s unfiltered call of cult like mass participation in irrational urban rituals is not unknown to us. We have normalised it for the most part, and we call them trends. They do play their part. They inform us sometimes about important issues. But most of the times, when the internet decides to have fun, they invariably betray dark underbellies of our deepest prejudices. And what surfaces is ugly.
The new fad that has gripped our imagination is #SonamGuptaBewafaHai. It started when someone found a ten rupee note with the aforementioned written on it. However what began as harmless mirth on the randomness of the message, spiraled out of control as the social media co-opted the term bewafa and began a tirade of what essentially was incessant slut shaming. The argument in defense of this was that since Sonam Gupta is not a real person, the crime was essentially victimless. We beg to differ.
That’s because the same became very apparent after multiple women named Sonam came forward after being harassed and called bewafa. So let’s talk about why this whole instance is so problematic.
Despite Bollywood’s rosy picturisations, the institution of ‘wafa’ (and yes, it’s an institution) or loyalty is not cute. It is not Kishore Kumar lamenting in a melancholic drive, drinking away the night like red wine, capturing a million hearts even as he failed to live up to the institution.
It is not surprising that the song became so popular. It is not surprising that it tugged at your heartstrings. It is not surprising that even as Kishore Kumar sang of his inability to honor the institution, millions of people fell in love with him. It is not surprising because historically, the ability to be bewafa has been a very prominent example of male privilege.
In the interest of full disclosure, with time, meanings change, wounds heal and words are reclaimed, and now wafa has since its inception, widened its scope. Wafa means loyalty, which I’m sure is a great feeling when felt for people who don’t feel entitled to it. But here’s the thing. When we use the term in a context of intimate partner relationships, it bodes well to know where it comes from.
‘Wafa’ is a shackle that has chained (like many other patriarchal institutions) mostly women for thousands of years. They have been marginalized, their voices discounted, their hopes dismissed, offered only the role of ‘wafadar’. Dutiful, loyal subjects in their husbands’ reign.
‘Wafa’ historically has been been linked to purdah, and has often been used to target women who subvert patriarchal familial authority or venture out of the zenana (roles and spaces for women) and into the mardana (roles and spaces women aren’t allowed). The problem also is that for the longest time and counting, women’s lives were invariably linked to their husbands’ families.
Men have always had other identities, provider, powerful, men of stature, men of the house. So, a bewafa man while frowned upon, still has a leg to stand on. Whereas, a woman being called ‘bewafa‘ is the erasure of her entire identity since women’s identities and self worth have always been based on wafa, purdah and servile loyalty to a family.
Wafa discounts and erases a woman’s agency and looks at her as a property that must adhere to the confines of the spaces she has been given access to. It is in those spaces that she must do her bidding and it is in those spaces that she must languish.
So when you call someone bewafa, you summon its entire violent history. It is time to shed these oppressive cloaks. There is nothing to find in the dark. It is time to move on towards the light. Dawn is coming.
It is time for us to defeat the tyranny of Ruswai, Wafa, and Purdah. And reclaim the identities Besharm, Bekhauf, and Bewafa.