Social media response to Sabila Nur’s conversation exhibited signs of internalised misogyny
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, social distancing has been enforced in many countries in the world and celebrities have been seen attempting to support their fans through different interactive digital platforms.
Oscar-winning American actor Jared Leto hosts regular Instagram Lives where his fans can chat with him. In one of those live sessions on April 12, actress Sabila Nur joined Leto for a small chat. The brief conversation between the two sparked controversy and the clip was instantly shared on social media sites.
A lot of people were offended by Sabila Nur asking Leto whether he had heard of Bangladesh. Some people even made video clips analysing the content of the discussion, most of which was directed at Sabila for disgracing her country to a foreign actor, during a live show.
However, perhaps the saddest part of it all was how some of these videos used offensive language targeting Sabila. The comment sections under these clips and news were also filled with offensive and sexist remarks.
In Bangladesh we have managed to create a toxic celebrity culture where female media persons are disproportionately disadvantaged, compared to their male counterparts. While controversy is part of a celebrity life, Bangladeshi female actors are often singled out and made victims of cyberbullying on social media, based on reasons which are often very personal, such as divorce, a second marriage, or how one chooses to dress, etc.
We must embrace the fact that we still live in a misogynistic society, where women are held in contempt, bullied and constantly policed – simply for being women.
Another sad truth is, women are also seen taking part in cyber bullying against women celebs. Often, we do so, or fail to resist such practices, partly because we do not fully understand that these actions are motivated by misogyny.
How can women not understand and detect when other women such as themselves are being targeted? Well, it can happen, for example, when sexist remarks remain hidden under the cloak of sensitive issues, such as nationalism and accountability for one's country. Subtle sexism can be hard to locate and resist.
However, sexism is not the only thing that went wrong with that incident.
Sabila's pronunciation of Bangladesh in an American accent and her bafflement as to whether an American actor, such as Leto, would recognise Bangladesh hurt people, for reasons that are understandable.
How we represent ourselves as a nation is an action that must be informed with accountability.
However, let's talk about some other things that we may have missed from this conversation. While Leto recognizes Bangladesh and its "great food," he mistakes it for a "big country" to which Sabila says that it's not.
Leto is seen to say that he is familiar with "daal" and probably does not need anyone telling him what it is. One can sense a hint of tension between Leto and Sabila as they both try to stick to their side of the argument.
Perhaps, it would not be wrong to say that for the most part, Sabila was interrupted by Leto. The fact that Leto is seen to stress on how "big" a country Bangladesh is, is itself a sad testimony of how little Westerners actually know about it.
In a world that is demarcated between the West and the rest, ignorance or limited knowledge of a Third World country – read previously colonised – is not unusual.
While our national history recognizes the unequal treatment of West Pakistan and the subsequent War of Liberation, it barely talks about our historical links with British imperialism and colonialism.
For many, it's a thing of the past that does not have anything to do with modern Bangladesh. However, postcolonial studies suggest that the residues of colonialism remain, in the forms of cultural and economic colonialism. Think of how we prefer English medium schools, and western certificates, and the numerous ways in which we copy westerners. What forces us to do so?
Frantz Omar Fanon, a French West Indian postcolonial scholar argued that racism is often internalised – where a racialised or colonised person will perform racism on their own, by adopting the language and cultural norms of the supposed racial superiors. In today's world, still, anybody who is not white, is a racialised person of effect.
Unequal power relations also affect gender relations and gender movements. Feminists have often pointed out why it's more difficult for a racialised woman to protest, or voice demands.
Black and Asian feminists refer to the term "triple oppression" to explain how racialised women from the Third World suffer not just class and sexism but also racism, all at the same time. So, speaking in defiance can be pretty hard between people who are not equal in their social and economic standing.
Think of how many times you have had to suppress your logical demands in front of your superior? Does it only happen because we would lose our jobs? Every working woman knows that it's doubly hard for them to navigate office politics, the extra issues they have to deal with, and how their opinions are invalidated just because of their gender.
Worker, woman, racialised person – or all at the same time – we live in a world of unequal power relations, a world where our voices are often suppressed. This is done by external forces, our own consciousness, or internalised oppression, racism, sexism-what have you.
To end this consciousness or internalisation, is to be able to see how it lives within us and how we rebuild ourselves. And when we do so, maybe we will also see the difference between pointing out what went wrong in a conversation versus being racist and sexist toward others.