The Sociology of#SelfieWithDaughter : Saba M. Hussain

This is a guest post by SABA M. HUSSAIN

Many, many Indian fathers are tweeting selfies with their daughters making it one of the highest trending topics on twitter recently. These selfies are being posted in response to PM Modi’s appeals to his country during his monthly radio address to the nation as a part of theBetiBachao, BetiPadhao (Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter) campaign.Many including several celebrities from the sports and movie business have lauded this initiative from the Prime Minister of India by posting touching father-daughter pictures.

A Time Magazine report goes as far as to say:

“Gender inequality has long been a major problem in India’s highly patriarchal society, where female children are being perceived as inferior and even been killed in the womb or as infants — a phenomenon Modi has fought to reverse since he took office about a year ago”(29th June 2015, Time.com) .

Thus many like the Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, Kavita Krishnan and former VJ Shruti Seith, their longer interest in women’s welfare notwithstanding, found out the hard way that currently there is only one way of fight gender inequality in India — the Selfie way!

The nature of the #SelfieWithDaughter campaign, especially its stance towards alternative voices, perhaps offers some interesting sociological insights into the campaign and its political-ideological function in contemporary India.It is easy to view selfies as an individual act – of marking time, place or emotion. But as a sociologist I find it more fruitful to use the individual act of taking selfies with your daughter and the #SelfieWithDaughtercampaign as a way to comment on the contemporary Indian society.

Peter Kaufman (2014) says“selfies originate from the world in which we live as opposed to being products of individuals themselves”. It is a product of economic-technological-social complex that constitutes the lives of many Indians today. Ability to buy a smart phone, internet access and social acceptability of public expression of intimate emotions are some of the conditions that make the #SelfieWithDaughter campaign possible, and even popular.These very pre-conditions of the campaign also creates a divide between the “Betis” (daughters) that are worth saving and that are not. While unborn “Betis” of “cell phone owning”, “social media hopping” class of Indians are worth Bachao-ing more than some other types of women – Adivasi women, Kashmiri women, Dalit women, the Kausar Banos and the Ishrat Jahanswho have repeatedly been victims of State sanctioned violence.

Elizabeth Losh (2014) suggests in her feminist critique of selfies, that the genre of selfies is about the “narrowcasting of particular faces and bodies”. This narrowcasting of certain types of faces and bodies as protection-worthy then legitimizes violence on ‘other’ non-protection-worthy women – be it in the virtual world or in the real world.In other words the selective need for protection of kin-women complements the selective need for violence against non –kin women. It is noteworthy that noted actor Alok Nath posted abusive messages on twitter directed at Krishnan , after posting a selfie with his daughter.Similarly many men and women using twitter’s protective anonymity poured vitriol on Seith in the light of for her call for “reforms” and “not Selfies”. This indicating a lack of tolerance towards alternate ideas but also of the conceptual overlap between ‘protection’ of women and ‘violence’ against women in contemporary India.

The aggressive response to dissenting voices demonstrates the flawed premises of the #SelfieWithDaughter campaign – where somehow the campaign is enabling certain sections of Indian society to create a temporary but widely circulated social image of themselves that aligns with the Indian’s aspirational economic image of a neoliberal powerhouse.Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life coined the phrase “impression management”to convey the extent to which people act in certain ways so that other people respond to them in a manner that is expected. Goffman conceptualises “face work” as the mechanism through we present ourselves to others in an effort to win their approval. Adopting these concepts enables us to see #SelfieWithDaughter campaign as a face work at the service of individual and national (collective) “impression management” of India as a neo-liberal-heaven-in-the-making and Indians as worthy citizens of such a heaven. By challenging this very impression Krishnan and Seith have both invited vitriolic abuse from certain sections of Indian society. Thus, not only are the supporters of the campaign unperturbed by violence on born and unborn women,they are attempting to render invisible these forms of violence by focusing on individual father-daughter relationships which may or may not be based on ideals of gender justice.

Therefore, the biggest casualty of the #SelfieWithDaughtercampaign is the principle of gender justice.People located across various ideological positions can now claim to be gender justice crusaders–without actually having to alter anything in their own lives and ideological make ups.

Below, I briefly lay out some of the sociological insights from my observations around #SelfieWithDaughter from 28 June 2015 onwards:

  • The Father-activist: The overriding popularity of the campaign with fathers offers interesting insights into the location of fathers within the ideology of gender justice conceived by #SelfieWithDaughter campaign. No doubt, many fathers in India purse the ideals of gender justice actively and passively. But when they become activists by the virtue of being fathers instead of the virtue of their ideological leanings towards the aims of gender justice, we are likely to get father-activists with dubious commitments towards gender justice.For instance, this may even make it possible for people like A.P.Singh, one of the defence lawyers of the rape-accused in the Nirbhaya Rape case to pass off as a father-activist who is all ready to ‘protect’ his daughter! ‘Protection’ of course has always its costs for women. It is worth remembering that in Leslie Udwin’s film India’s Daughter, Singh was quoted saying “…in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight” in the even that his daughter or sister was “engaged in pre-marital activities” (1st March 2015, The Guardian). In fact the overt focus on the father-daughter relationship in the entire campaign can be interpreted as reinforcing the role of the fathers (and father-figures) as the protectors of unmarried girls passing on the responsibility of protection to the husband on marriage.
  • The Daughter vs. the Person: Interestingly, most selfies posted on twitter typically carried a tagline about “my daughter(s)…” or “my girl(s)…” with names of the daughters are rarely mentioned. This is not to say names of the daughters were never mentioned, but it was more an exception than a norm. By overemphasizing the father-daughter relationship, most posts hid the individual personhood of the girl or the women in the selfie. This invisibility of the girls’ personhood and hyper-visibility of the father’s personhood in many cases is consistent with the patriarchal framing of the father-daughter bond.
  • Pride (and prejudice): Most posts on twitter under #SelfieWithDaughter hashtag, carried taglines emphasizing ideas like “pride”,  though may other posts highlighted joys, love and happiness around parenting daughters. Sociologically, the idea of pride conveys similar emotions as honor. So common tag lines such as “My daughter! My pride” don’t necessarily connect pride with a particular act or achievement of the daughter. In contrast, pride is constituted in the subjectivity of a daughter i.e. “pride” rests on conduct as a daughter. Such a view of pride attached to a gendered subject then demands the surveillance of the subject in ways that the pride is maintained and if not, then restored. Thus, even when “Saving the daughter and Educating the daughter” is the formal message of the #SelfieWithDaughter campaign, the underlined message is that of the regulation of the kin-women/daughters/sisters. These regulation will then apply to their choice of sexual orientation, choice of partners, dressing, mobility and so on.
  • Blurring class : As I mentioned above, the narrowcasting of certain faces and bodies in the #SelfieWithDaughter campaign leads to a blurring of the (economic) background of the fathers and daughters in the selfie. Several pictures posted on twitter are technically not selfies, though taken under a strictly controlled environment. The later pictures do give some sense of a middle class, or upper middle class milieu of the posts in the crudest sense. This can be interpreted from posts with backgrounds such as parks, cars, malls, holiday destinations and so on.
  • People’s PM and PM’s people:The PM Mr Modi is well known as a media savvy politician. He has 13.5 million followers on twitter alone. And his ability to connect directly to the people is unparalleled among Indian politicians. He initiated the #SelfieWithDaughter campaign on twitter inviting people to post a picture and a tag line. In one simple step he has championed a particular vision of gender justice compatible with people from varied and conflicting ideological leanings. Has also making people “in charge” of saving daughters, without twisting their arms using legal provisions against foeticide, infanticide, dowry, sexual harassment, etc. He is neither talking about making tighter laws or is ensuring that the existing laws work, but he is relying on people’s goodwill to achieve the aims of BetiBachao, BetiPadhao (Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter). Therefore popularity of the campaign itself and the enhanced popularity of the PM as a result of it is unsurprising. By making the PM accessible to the people through his official twitter handle which is tagged in virtually all the twitter posts on #SelfieWithDaughter, the campaign has constructed a people’s PM. In return for the intimate familial relationship with the PM, then many supporters of the campaign are acting as online vigilante against views on gender justice contrary to those expressed by the PM.

To summarize the two broad sociological insights from the #SelfieWithDaughter campaign: first, it reinforces, the gender hierarchies in a patriarchal society and second, it reinforces the hierarchy between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ sorts of women. It does so using strategies ranging from overemphasis on father-daughter relationship, rendering invisibile the personhood of the daughter, and investing ideas such as pride around the daughter’s subjectivity. In the process creating armchair ‘Father-activists’ with dubious commitments to gender justice, legitimising violence again some sorts of women and maintaining the face work of economic liberalism without challenging the core of social and cultural illiberalism. A

I express my unreserved solidarity with Shruti Seith, Kavita Krishnan and many other dissenting voices which remind us to look at the ‘bigger picture’.

Saba M. Hussain is a doctoral researcher at the University of Warwick.

3 thoughts on “The Sociology of#SelfieWithDaughter : Saba M. Hussain

  1. meenakshi puri

    The campaign to celebrate Raksha Bandhan shows a similar ideology as the selfie with daughter-that women and girls need to be protected. No one is talking of them getting an equal share in inheritance. Relationships are being maintained at the cost of justice.
    I support kavita Krishnan and Shruti Seith in their endeavour to raise a critical voice.

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