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Hanan Hamid’s case puts spotlight on the digital Malayali’s obsession to troll and the grave dangers it leads to

Hanan Hamid’s arduous circumstances in life and the ways in which she navigates them to support her studies and her fractured family made her a darling among the public, especially on social media.

Written by Vishnu Varma | Kochi |
Updated: July 28, 2018 10:12:33 pm
Hanan Hamid, a third-year student of chemistry, was totally unknown to the public until her life story came as a feature in the local Ernakulam edition of the Mathrubhumi, a prominent vernacular newspaper in the state. (Illustration by Vishnu PP)

“You are done. You have cheated Malayalis. These are people who have trolled even Facebook’s founder Zuckerberg. You fish-seller, did you think you have grown so big to teach us a lesson? Your film would release in Kerala, right? We will teach you a lesson.”

“Imagine the plight of the guy who would marry her. Who knew she wouldn’t cheat him also?”

“Couldn’t you just go somewhere and die?”

These are just a handful, and frankly less profane, among the thousands of comments in Malayalam that have landed on the Facebook account of Hanan Hamid. The more offensive ones can’t be reproduced here for obvious reasons. Hamid, a third-year student of chemistry, was totally unknown to the public until her life story came as a feature in the local Ernakulam edition of the Mathrubhumi, a prominent vernacular newspaper in the state. Hamid’s arduous circumstances in life and the ways in which she navigates them to support her studies and her fractured family made her a darling among the public, especially on social media. Also Read: Hanan Hamid: Girl who sells fish after college becomes online rage, but divides Kerala society

Hamid comes from a family of an alcoholic father and a mentally-depressed mother. But despite such troubling circumstances, the newspaper reported that in order to fund her education and support her family, Hamid travels long distances to sell fish after college (sometimes even in uniform), jumps at short stints in films as junior artists (sometimes for Rs 1000/day), loves to write poetry at short-notice, becomes ‘flower girl’ at event management functions and takes tuition classes for small kids. The 21-year-old’s determination in the face of hardships brought her laurels on platforms like Facebook with news TV channels jumping on the bandwagon too. Also Read: ‘Kerala must support her’: CM Pinarayi Vijayan bats for Hanan Hamid, the fish-selling college student

But something changed within a matter of hours. A rumour from some sections began floating that her story was somehow fabricated as part of a marketing stunt for an upcoming film in which she too would have a part. Soon, her photos on Facebook, where she is seen posing with film actors, were scrutinised. Questions began doing the rounds. How is a poor, struggling girl wearing such good clothes? Why isn’t she wearing a hijab as a Muslim girl ought to? Would a girl, selling fish, have a big, fat gold ring? Why does she look happy in front of the media? Even before Hamid could tell, the bouquets turned into stingy, abusive brickbats, raining insults on her Facebook account. Within hours, a smiling, self-confident Hamid was reduced to a sobbing, pleading youngster who begged people to ‘leave her alone.’

“I came to know that some generous people had donated Rs 1.5 lakh in my account. But I don’t want it anymore. Here, take my debit card. Take all the money you want. Please, just allow me to live in peace. I don’t want anybody’s help,” Hamid, folding her hands, wept in front of television cameras.

Since then, a barrage of media-led inquiries at Hamid’s home, college and her acquaintances, along with generous help from the state’s politicians have reversed the hate that was directed at her. Her story has been validated and to some degree, her image as a hardworking, young woman has been restored. But there’s no denying the damage that has been made to her consciousness solely by a swarming collective of social media users, particularly on Facebook, who made it their business to attack her without verifying the truth.

Meanwhile, Nooruddin Sheikh, a resident of Wayanad, has been taken into custody by the Kochi city police for making obscene comments at Hanan Hamid through a Facebook Live video.

Psychologists and sociologists agree that the average Malayali’s obsession with Facebook and the need to personally vilify anyone (pongala in local parlance) points to a dangerous narrative of online behaviour. “This is similar to crowd-lynching. This is cyberbullying and cyber sadism. This operation to demoralise someone is as bad as attacking someone physically,” notes Dr CJ John, a practicing psychiatrist, in Ernakulam.

“This is part of an online gossip culture where somehow people think is socially-sanctioned behaviour. Without verifying facts, they will voice opinions which can be damaging. The fact that we are not seeing enough cases of these culprits being booked encourages such behaviour. Right now, we are heading in a dangerous direction,” he cautions.

Several months ago, actor Parvathy was also a victim of vicious cyber-abuse after she criticised certain sexist dialogues of a Malayalam film in which the popular actor Mammootty starred. While the actor remained silent for weeks, his extensive, unofficial cyber fan-army got to work, launching filthy and distasteful comments at her. Even then, a few people were taken into custody and later released on bail. Meanwhile, the pattern continued.

Actor Maala Parvathi, who’s also a trained psychologist, traces such behaviour, especially among men, to how they view women and engage with them. “Men, even after marriage are curious about women. There’s very less interaction between boys and girls from childhood in Kerala. There’s no friendship. So that fascination doesn’t die. It’s a very complicated social situation,” she says on the phone.

She continues, “This body shaming must stop. I mean, where are they getting this kind of language from? This habit of abusing someone’s father, mother or grandparents. I think it’s coming from Malayalam porn literature. It shows how they think of women.”

On people raising doubts about Hamid’s gold jewellery or her decision to not wear a hijab, Parvathi says, “How can we let a section of the society decide what we must eat, how we dress or where we go? It’s like somehow the women have to convince our ‘brothers’ in the society about what we do.”

Among those who came out in support of Hamid was Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who found it admirable that someone was working hard to pool money for her studies and support her family single-handedly. “I am with you. Kerala must support her,” he declared.

In the same vein, he also punched hard at those who tread on social media waters, spreading fake news without realising the truth. “Everyone must understand that many reports on social media are like double-edged swords. There is a need for care while getting involved on social media. The habit to spread whatever you receive is not proper. Doing so will only lead the society to grave dangers ahead,” the CM warned on his official Facebook account.

What the social media age has brought in many people, especially in Kerala, is a sense of distrust and fear which has reflected in the abuse targeted at Hamid, says Antony Palackal, a professor of sociology at Kerala University. “There is the aspect of digital narcissism where we love ourselves on the social media. But at the same time, we want to see others destroyed,” he says.

“They believe a girl selling fish shouldn’t have a gold ring. They feel a Muslim girl should cover her head. They feel how is it that a girl like her has the confidence to talk like this in front of the media when she is going through tough circumstances. They have a stereotype of a struggling, disheartened girl. So, we draw certain boundaries and if a person goes beyond those boundaries, we cannot accept it. We are not willing to see her as a girl who fights fiercely against adversities,” says Palackal, who has done an extensive survey of social media behaviour among youngsters in Kerala.

According to Palackal, the anonymity and the networks that social media provides could be the outlet of suppressed emotions and feelings particularly among youngsters. That’s why, there are more and more opinionated posts, Facebook Live videos talking about how they feel about an issue and the need to get his/her perspective out there. Very often, that perspective transcends into name-calling and character-assassination.

“In our study, we could see that strong ties and friendships were getting replaced by weak ties on social media. The weak ties are superficial and for namesake. There’s the cover of anonymity as well,” the sociologist says.

“There’s very few people to talk at home, so they turn to social media.”

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