When a Kerala activist uploaded a video of her children painting on her bare body, it raised quite a storm on social media as well as in the courtroom. Questions of morality and legality are still looking for answers
A mother has been charged and arrested under various sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act amongst others, for sharing a video on social media, where her children can be seen painting a phoenix on her bare torso.
The mother is an activist, Rehana Fathima, whose methods of activism have in the past not gone down too well. The resident of Kerala’s Ernakulam became a topic for national headlines when she tried to enter the Sabarimala temple after the Supreme Court ruled that a person of any gender could enter it.
This time, the point to be made was that a woman’s body is not a sexual object, and that children from a young age need to understand that. But the reaction to the video, uploaded on June 18 under the tagline “Body art and politics” quickly provoked the ire of individuals who called it pornographic. Based on a complaint filed by BJP OBC Morcha state general secretary and advocate AV Arun Prakash, Thiruvalla police registered cases.
The case registered against her include sections 13, 14 and 15 of POCSO – relating to a child used in any media/ for the purpose of sexual gratification – and also 67B (d) (publishing of material depicting children in a sexually explicit act) of the Information Technology Act) and Section 75 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act.
Rehana Fathima’s husband Manoj Sreedhan says his wife’s objective was to express that a woman’s body should not be considered obscene. He told Patriot, “Rehana has been trying to convey that just as males are not seen as sexual objects, women shouldn’t be either.” And instead of that being understood, people took it as an immoral act.
But should this case be seen from the point of view of an activist, or an artist, or from what is perceived by the viewer of the video, or in fact, the children in question?
Fathima’s children, a 14-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl were seen on the video painting on their mothers naked torso.Vidya Reddy, Executive Director of Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, says their interests should be of foremost concern.
“Can you imagine when the child will go to school?”, Reddy asks, considering the scenario where the son could be bullied. “What I have a problem with is that there’s nobody talking about this issue from the context of a child. Think of the child as an entity, who has an identity, who has a social context that he has to engage with. And then there is a context of grooming, where people may use artistic instruction as a defence.”
She describes her litmus test as the ability to share with one’s peers the said account without hesitation. “On a Monday morning when you go to school, when you are talking about the weekend, will you be able to say I painted on my mother’s nipple”? she asks.
Reddy believes Fathima made the video to further her own agenda, at the expense of her children. If the body painting had been part of a tribal community cultural ritual it would have still been okay. “Obviously then it would have to be taken into context and there would be nothing askance about it. When you are doing it in the heart of Ernakulam city where the child is living among what would be considered a fairly normative context, this would definitely be an aberration.”
She further goes on to say that in this discussion of right and wrong what is forgotten is adolescent sexuality. “A 14-year-old boy is a very sexual being, and sexuality is a predominant aspect of that stage of development. So, isn’t it a violation by ignoring the sexuality of a 14-year-old?”, she asks.
That’s not to say she holds Fathima to be guilty as charged. Reddy thinks the mother had no sexual intent. “I believe that the Kerala High Court judge was projecting too much when he said she got some sexual gratification out of it.”
The judge, PV Kunhikrishnan in his order wrote that “Prima facie I am of the opinion that the petitioner uses the children for the purpose of sexual gratification because the children are represented in the video uploaded in an indecent and obscene manner because they are painting on a naked body of their mother.”
He goes on to say that “If this painting on the naked body of the petitioner happened inside the four walls of the house of the petitioner, there cannot be offence”. Basically, saying what made it an offence in essence was the video being uploaded on to social media.
Reddy does not agree to this, calling the art exercise as crossing boundaries. She does however think criticism against Fathima should not have mushroomed into a situation, where she is now under arrest. “In countries where they have very robust child protection systems, the kids would have probably been taken away from her (mother) and there would have probably been an assessment. I don’t think it (the current actions) warrants punitive action.”
Rehana on her post – which now has been taken down, and boasts of over 13 lakh views – says that children have to grow up “seeing the natural women bodies”, with “seeds” of proper sex education and sexual consciousness that “need to be sown when they (children) are young. No child who has grown up seeing his mother’s nakedness and body can abuse another female body. Therefore, vaccines against these false perceptions and expectations about women’s body and sexuality should be initiated from home itself.”
Woman of action
Sreedhar recounts the troubles that his wife has faced. “First it was the Muslim fundamentalists who were after Rehana, because I am Hindu and she is Muslim. They also have a problem when she wears a sleeveless churidar, they will call her a prostitute. And after Sabrimala the right wing groups started trouble…”
He clearly is supportive of his wife and says she is a feminist who unlike some others, is about action, and not just writing and speaking. And that is how they are also bringing up their children, he says, kids who are informed about scenarios around them. “Our children are aware about things; we take them for protests and strikes.” As we ask him about their reaction to their mother being arrested, he said, “They say she has not robbed anyone or done any crime, she is going to jail for a protest.”
He tells us how the video came about, its beginnings some four years ago in 2016. Back then, Fathima took part in the tiger dance in the Ayyanthol Pulikali team, a traditional dance done during the Onam festival by all-male troupes, where they paint their bodies to resemble a tiger. “That was the first time a woman took part in it. My son, who is an artist, said he wants to paint someone as well. He asked Rehana when she was lying in bed with an eye problem and fever if he could draw on her, and she said okay.”
He now says things are difficult in their neighbourhood, “Neighbours think we are aliens. Things were fine earlier. But with this case there has been some trouble.” The man fighting her case in Kochi is Renjith B Marar who tells Patriotthat the family has another headache to look into, as they were asked to vacate their BSNL allotted residential flat, because it felt the former employee (Fathima) had tarnished its image.
Marar says after his client surrendered on August 8, she was given a 14-day judicial remand. Her next bail hearing is now set for the 17th. “Our contention for bail was that she is cooperating with the investigation. But our primary point is that whatever she is said to have done does not constitute an offence under the POCSO Act or the IT Act. My client wanted to point out that if the same thing is done on a man by his children, it would not attract an offence, therefore there is nothing obscene in her semi-nude body being painted on by her own children.”
But he says the High Court pointed out that the role of the mother would be much different than the role of the father. “Secondly, from the eyes of the accused, the court found that the mother was being sexually gratified for which she should be put into custody. The court even quoted the Manusmruti (Hindu religious text) and the Quran (central religious text of Islam) to make us understand the role of a mother.”
Taking a look at the order by Justice PV Kunhikrishnan, the court after quoting the verses says that “in both the above verses, although both parents are mentioned, the mother is singled out as she bears greater responsibility.” He then says the verses were quoted “only to explain the role of a mother in the life of children”.
Marar says that while he argued the case, he was given a scenario by the court, “They asked…’you may go to the temple without wearing a shirt, but would you be okay with your wife going without a top’? I said I need not answer that but so far as Kerala is concerned, women had to make a public outcry for wearing a blouse.”
He is referring to the practice from when Kerala was the kingdom of Travancore and women of lower caste were not allowed to cover their breasts until 1859.
We spoke with Kavitha, a friend of both Fathima and Sreedhar, who says this is the irony of the situation. “Earlier women had to go through so much to get the right to put their tops on. And now people think it’s very much a crime to not wear it”.
“I’m a mother of two children, they are always around me. I feed them, they bathe with me, they lie on my chest. How does a mother’s body become so sexual for the kids? They are showing Victorian morality or they are trying to get back the Victorian morality. (Some) People are supporting (Rehana), but the majority think a woman is a commodity, that they (women) are covered with sexuality.”
She doesn’t think her friend did any wrong, but instead points out that the court has separated the mother from her children. “Rehana has her own ideologies and political views which is also related to her life… Society is restricting how she lives and how to bring up her kids, and how to follow some morality.”
Obscenity for highest court
After the High court of Kerala declined anticipatory bail, the Supreme Court was approached. Senior Advocate Gopal Sankanarayanan represented Fathima, but here too the plea for anticipatory bail was rejected, with the bench observing that the video uploaded was “clearly obscene” and “prima facie falls within child pornography.”
On being asked if the outcome of the case was down to the view that this was something culturally improper, Sankanarayanan told Patriot that it was a lot about the poor application of penal provisions, and also that the judge assigned to the case happened to be someone who would not be able to relate to it. “Most of these matters which are at the intersection of law and morality really depend to a large extent on the judges the case comes before. We have 16 courtrooms and 33 judges and it could have come in front of anybody who is a little less conservative and not so old world, but it didn’t.”
The Bench of Justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari in fact observed, “What is the impression this will give to the children about the culture of this country”? It also asked, “Why do you do all this? You might be an activist but why do this? What kind of nonsense is this? It is obscenity clearly which you are spreading. It will leave the society in a very bad taste.”
Sankanarayanan says it beats him how it can be claimed that the video was at all sexual in nature and secondly, how it can be child pornography when the child is not involved in any sexual activity.
“If you look at the video and read the description you cannot see anything sexual in nature. The children are wearing their clothes, this is not a random person, it’s the mother. The mother herself put it up on social media. Why would the person put it online if it was child pornography? The automatic view that a woman’s breast is only a sexual organ and nothing else is problematic. The context always has to be looked at.”
He does, however, think to some extent that Fathima could have “protested in a better manner”, but at the same time says that looking at the message she is trying to convey, “You cannot really find fault with her and definitely not criminality. That when a man is standing with his chest bare is fine but when a woman is doing so, it is deemed sexual. I think the message has validation but people are so coy talking about it.”
Jose Abraham, advocate on record in the Supreme Court, believes the case will be a landmark one with regard to the proper definition and interpretation of the POCSO Act. The advocate who has written a book on child sexual abuse and articles on POCSO says that the “bare reading of section 13 gives an impression that if a child is used for pornographic purposes then this is what the section attracts. But if we read it thoroughly then it also gives an interpretation that if the child is part of any pornographic video then section 13 can be attracted.”
The courts have in their rejection of bail, already painted the accused as one who has obscenely projected herself on camera, in front of her children. Her belief that this would teach her children about sexuality, body positivity, and in essence equality, blurred.
(Cover: Rehana Fathima, an activist whose methods of activism have in the past not gone down too well // PHOTO: Instagram)