At first, monochromatic photos of women who frequently share their visages filled my phone’s screen – familiar and familiarly attractive. I was used to double-tapping a heart on them, perhaps even used to their beauty. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly challenging about the latest Instagram trend, despite the caption “Challenge accepted”, and the women’s empowerment hashtags alongside seemed random. Then, slowly, a different category of photos trickled in, posted by women who rarely shared photographs of themselves solo. I would not be so cavalier as to say they hid; rather, they usually just allowed different aspects of their lives to speak for them. They regularly shared their art, photography, food choices, friendships and leisure, but didn’t often place their physical appearances front and centre.
There are stories in those images, from the women who rarely pose. The halo of a hooded winter jacket around one face implied an adventure, the quiet side profile perusing documents hinted at intellectual pursuit, a selfie in a dirty mirror from one who usually prefers to remain unseen conveyed a powerful declaration. The automatic glamour and gravitas of monochrome aside, the portraits that some women have been choosing to post cannot be called superficial. The captions remain as minimal as ever, yet – at least in some images – I had the sense that there was something more to all this.
We’ve seen a fair share of so-called challenges that are rightly called frivolous: from belting a pillow to one’s naked body (#quarantinepillowchallenge) to posting a photo for just 24 hours and deleting it (#untiltomorrow), and more. Saree, “glow up”, makeup and other fashion-related “challenges” also persist; and indeed, create real challenges for women whom stalkers find through them. As for the hashtags, we see trends like #womensupportingwomen all year round (and especially on International Working Women’s Day, March 8th, when every brand on the planet wants a woman to fill their coffers, oops, I mean pamper herself). But something differed…
Finally, I learned: the lack of details in the captions belies the origins of #ChallengeAccepted, which was begun by Turkish feminists reacting to the brutal murder of a young woman by her ex-boyfriend. She was one of over 40 women killed in the country by a partner or relative in July alone. The Turkish government has plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty that deals specifically with gender-based violence. Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia have already rejected or withdrawn from the same.
Perhaps most of the women responding to the challenge worldwide have little idea about all of this, and are just enjoying a moment to bask in appreciation. But I’d like to think that something about the spirit of true resistance – battle-weary, not very pretty resistance – spoke to them before they picked out that desaturated filter, meant originally not to invoke glamour but to symbolise how newspaper stories reporting crimes are often accompanied by black and white photos of the victim or survivor.
Even not knowing all of this, however, it’s true that any woman who posts any image of herself – ever – in the quotidian environment of hostility and harassment online, is being brave. Every time.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 3rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.