When a male professor in Kerala described students’ breasts as watermelons and chided women for not covering up, Rehana Fathima was quick to sign up for the online protest against his comments. She posed bare-breasted with watermelons, and drew anger, support, shares, and Facebook’s equivalent of a rap on the knuckles — the account being suspended.
To the 31-year-old government employee, mother-of-two, model and activist from Kochi, plethora of reactions is one she’s used to. “I don’t understand why people make such hue and cry about a woman’s body,” says Rehana. “I wanted to question the restrictions regarding a woman baring her body,” she says. “Men and women are held to different standards.”
It’s not the only protest she’s been part of. She was among the first women to participate in the Thrissur pulikali, the traditional Onam tiger dance done by all-male troupes, in 2016. She’s also taken part in the Kiss of Love campaign against moral policing in 2014.
Dressed in a peach-coloured shirt and faded jeans, Rehana says, “I don’t think anyone just decides to be a revolutionary or a rebel one fine morning. Often, it’s their experiences that drive them to be one.”
Rehana was brought up in an orthodox Muslim family and attended a madarassa. “I used to wear the hijab and do namaz five times a day,” she says. Things changed after her father died when she was in Class 12.
“We were just three women (including her mother and sister) in the house and after my father’s passing, and just about any man in the neighbourhood wanted to come home. They would come drunk or call after dark. I have lost count of the number of times I made a public ruckus but got no support,” she remembers with anger. Those experiences made her disillusioned with religion.
Though she’d always questioned conservatism, it was the chauvinism on social media that pushed her to speak out. When she posted a photo of herself and her family at a picnic, she was shocked to see abusive comments about her clothing — shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt — and character. “My kids and my partner were also in the pic and he was shirtless, but nobody had any issue. There were threats too, and it got me thinking.”
She responded by posting a photograph of herself in a bikini. “The more you pay heed to regressive comments, the more freedom is chained. It’s my body and I have the right to wear what I want,” she says. Or not wear anything at all, as she has done for her debut film, Eka, which is about an intersex person. In interviews, she’s spoken about her nude scene and how she thought of it as something natural. In fact, to make her feel comfortable, the crew shed their clothes too.
Rehana, who got her father’s government job after his death and put herself through college while working, feels strongly about many issues and doesn’t hesitate to speak up on everything from education loan rackets to Kochi’s drinking water crisis.
Since her Facebook wall is her sounding board against orthodoxy and patriarchy, it isn’t surprising that Rehana has gangs of trolls after her. But she doesn’t just block the abuser on social media and forget about it. “Once a group of men from north Kerala went on an abusive spree against my friend Diya Sana and I. Neither of us was ready to back down. We asked them to meet us, but they wouldn’t,” she says. Complaints to the police and other agencies had no effect. Finally, she and Diya decided to lay a trap and draw out one man who had abused Rehana’s daughter in his posts. “My friend Diya convinced him to meet her, and he fell hook, line and sinker. He got off the train in Ernakulam and the police were waiting. Once we posted the news of the arrest, the other abusers vanished,” she says.
Rehana now lives with her filmmaker partner Manoj, their two daughters and his parents. Manoj has produced the art film, and her debut movie, Eka about intersex people.
“Intersex people — those born with ambiguous genitals because of genetic glitches or hormone problems — are a minority among minorities. We made the film to throw light on the community and build a conversation around the subject,” she says. The movie, which has been sent to various film festivals, is yet to be screened in Kerala. “We don’t know how the censors will treat it,” she says.