The abuse began a few months ago, soon after images began to appear on Facebook of 16-year-old Kashmiri actor Zaira Wasim with her hair trimmed, as she prepared for a role as a young wrestler in the Aamir Khan starrer Dangal. Internet trolls in the conservative Kashmir valley, where Islamic militants in the early 1990s forced cinema halls to shut, questioned the teenager’s moral character for acting in a hit film.
The trolling grew stronger on late Saturday evening, after pictures were released of the teenaged actress meeting with Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who described her as a “Kashmiri role model”.
“Cursed girl”, declared one Instagram user from the Valley. Added another, “Payi se trath” – may you get hit by lightning.
Hoping to calm down the abusers, Wasim on Monday posted a public “confession/apology”, as she described it, on Facebook, copying a screenshot to Instagram. “...I want everyone, especially the young, to know that there are real role models out there whether they be in this time or history.” she wrote. “To even consider me as a role model would be disgracing them and their disgrace would be our disgrace.”
However, this only fuelled the controversy, as her message was picked up by news websites and television channels.
Within hours, Wasim deleted her post and issued another message asking the media not to “blow this out of proportion”. She wrote: “Regarding my last post, I have no idea why this has become such a big issue. I just wanted to make sure that I did not hurt anyone’s feelings and all of a sudden it has been turned into national news.” Shortly after, this message was deleted, too.
A stark reminder
The controversy has left teenagers in the Valley disconcerted. To many, it has been a saddening reminder of the social constraints under which they operate – something that is quite contrary to the message on the film in which Wasim has acted, which celebrates the efforts of two girls in tradition-bound Haryana to become world-class wrestlers.
“I didn’t watch the movie but I know she didn’t do anything wrong,” said Shayan Nazir, a friend of Wasim’s, who appeared for his 12th Standard exams last year. “She did not do anything vulgar or wrong.”
He added: “What is bad if someone wants to do something, why can’t you do something? Why can’t you have the freedom?”
A 17-year-old Srinagar, who requested anonymity for fear of inviting abuse upon herself, said that Wasim had nothing to apologise for since she had not done anything wrong. “Whatever she did was of her own choice and was in her control and I don’t think she was pressurised to do anything,” this teenager said.
A Class 12 student named Suha Ismail also said that while there was no need for Wasim to have expressed contrition, she quite understood her gesture. “If I had been in her place I too would have done the same because we all understand the societal pressures when a girl decides to choose any unconventional career,” she said.
Ismail added: “It’s weird how people are thanking her for posting the apology as if they were waiting for it. I think it is time to separate politics from everything because this becomes a reason why we always remain afraid to take any bold decisions.”
To many young Kashmiris, the abuse heaped upon Wasim is a reminder of the campaign in 2013 against a girl band named Pragash. The three Class 10 students – vocalist-guitarist Noma Nazir, drummer Farah Deeba and guitarist Aneeka Khalid – had to disband their group after a string of online abuse and eventually a fatwa issued against them by the state’s grand mufti. While the girls apologised, no action was taken against their abusers.
“They showed their talent but then stopped making videos because of the threats they received from Kashmiri people and especially Ulemas” or religious scholars, said the 17-year-old Srinagar resident. “I think Zaira Wasim must be going through the same situation and this is why she is trying to say all this.”
Two years later, in 2015, Kashmiri schoolgirls chosen to tour India as part of the army’s Operation Sadbhavna were targeted by trolls after the release of photos their meeting with President Pranab Mukherjee. Even then, the character of the girls was questioned.
“Girls are soft targets,” complained a 23-year-old female engineering student. “In the past men, too, have worked in Bollywood but they have never been made targets.”
Added 23-year-old student Adam Khaleef: “I think it’s as unfair as it can get. Had it been a Kashmiri boy, they would have praised him and turned him into another Qazi Tauqeer” – who won the prime-time reality show Fame Gurukul in 2005.