How Preity Zinta broke the 'good girl' rules. And is paying the price

It's hard for a woman to score sympathy these days. There was a time when she could just wilt a little, and everyone jumped up to defend her virtue, modesty or some such attribute. Now, despite all the greedy interest in violence against women, it's much harder, as Preity Zinta has discovered.

Recently, Zinta filed a complaint against a male colleague who happens to be an ex-boyfriend, accusing him of verbally abusing her, manhandling her and threatening her with "dire consequences". The gent in question is Ness Wadia, who is well known for being fabulously wealthy but not for his cool demeanour. If Zinta had hoped that public opinion would be on her side because she's beautiful, famous and because it's cool to be pro-woman these days, she was quickly disabused of that fanciful idea.

There has been little sympathy for Zinta. Tavleen Singh has written and spoken at length about how she can't take Zinta's complaint seriously.

When a famous actress uses it to defend herself against an alleged ‘molestation’ in a packed public stadium, it amounts in my view to misusing the law. ...
As someone who has often had to report on horrific and much more serious crimes against women and little girls, I find it hard to feel sympathy for Ms Zinta.

 How Preity Zinta broke the good girl rules. And is paying the price

Preity Zinta and Ness Wadia in happier times. IBN Live.

Singh has since been attacked for her attack on "armchair feminists", but that hasn't automatically translated to support for Zinta. Everyone's waiting for her to make her statement and to see if she ends up settling it out of court.

Zinta's Bollywood friends have mostly maintained a diplomatic silence. At a press conference for his upcoming film Kick, Salman Khan figured it was a more sound idea to break out in dance than to answer a journalist's question about Zinta's complaint. Considering how clumsy a dancer Khan is, that's saying a lot. Before beginning his dance, Khan said to the journalist that he didn't think the press conference was the right place to talk about Zinta.

That's a valid point (whether Khan and other Bollywood celebs are ever available for real interviews with uncomfortable questions is a different problem), but by doing a jig, he unwittingly gave away how he and many others see Zinta's charges. They're frivolous enough to be dismissed with a few listless jhatkas.

Arguing against this apathy, Namita Bhandare wrote in today's Hindustan Times about why Zinta's complaints are much more than a personal tiff being brought into the public domain:

For millions of women around the world who face daily violence in silence, the alleged ‘tiff’ has a familiar resonance. Those who speak up are often seen as ‘trouble-makers’. Those who complain are placed under scrutiny. ...

Where does the trajectory of violence begin? Perhaps it begins by grabbing someone’s arm. Perhaps it begins with a slap. Today’s stalking becomes tomorrow’s acid attack. Today’s groping becomes rape. And quietly, insidiously a culture changes because we simply didn’t fight it when we should have.

Bhandare's argument is sound and is a reminder of how often those who are victimised -- women, children, minorities -- are told that the villains will go away if they don't react. It's advice that works sometimes, but what we tend to forget is that when we don't react, we tolerate. When we tolerate, we effectively invite the aggressors to up the ante. The trajectory of violence does indeed start with seemingly impotent words and when we allow them to be unleashed upon someone, we're opening ourselves up to more dangerous possibilities.

When the news of Zinta's charges against Wadia first came out in the media, many rolled their eyes. If two men had fought like Zinta and Wadia, would it have become this serious? We've seen enough famous men indulging in catfights in public places and they rarely become police cases. That doesn't make their words or actions more acceptable, but it's worth noticing that when Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan resorted to fisticuffs at a birthday party, both men came out looking equally bad. There was an effort to find out who started the fight because it goes without saying that if offensive words are flung at a man, then he will react. It's expected of him. Then the man he attacks will fight back, because that's expected of him.

In Zinta and Wadia's case, however, it doesn't seem to appall anyone that Wadia would use such language or behave as Zinta has described. Shouldn't he with his privileged upbringing and background know better than to use language like "f***ing b**ch"? It wasn't natural that Zinta reacted to his manhandling her by using a different kind of muscle because because that's not expected of her. She's supposed to behave like a woman: deal with it discreetly and privately.

However, more disturbing than this expectation is how the definition of violence against women appears to be changing. Verbal abuse isn't offensive enough now and neither is being yanked around. Fed with gruesome details like how a woman was raped with a metal rod and photographs of dangling corpses of raped girls, our yardsticks have shifted. Until a woman has been physically attacked and we can share horrifying details of the attack, it isn't worth talking about or outraging over.

Yet the fact is that even if verbal abuse doesn't morph into physical violence, it is deeply offensive. Words are not powerless paper planes, idling through the air. Depending upon the intent of the speaker, they're more like drones -- targeted and lethally damaging. They stick to people, damage psyches and colour reputations. Words define us. Good girl, momma's boy, slut, iron man, pappu -- we see ourselves and others through lenses made of words. Just as the praises stick, so do the abuses and frequently, the latter can inflict great damage. Except now, with so many reports of serious physical violence being inflicted upon women, the damage from words doesn't seem serious enough to warrant a reaction.

It would be stupid to say verbal abuse is as damaging and traumatising as physical or sexual abuse because it isn't. However, that doesn't mean there's no trauma or offense from words just because they don't leave torn flesh in their wake. That nothing less will move us as a society is worrisome because the average case of abuse -- against women, children, minorities -- is not one of spectacular extremes. The everyday offences are more subtle and seemingly slight. But like junkies looking for a better high, we as a news-hungry nation have no time for them. We want the next big case of violence against a woman that will top the lingering horror of the last rape that was reported. We won't waste our sympathy or empathy for anything less.

Updated Date: Jul 02, 2014 11:21:54 IST