Dismislab

Official Desk

Qurratul-Ain-Tahmina

Mahiya Mahi’s Election and a ‘Stripped’ Face of the Society
This article is more than 5 months old

Mahiya Mahi’s Election and a ‘Stripped’ Face of the Society

Dismislab

Official Desk

Qurratul-Ain-Tahmina

A reel or short video of a few seconds on Facebook. On the dirt road of a village, six children can be seen–two of them girls. The three boys in the front row look comparatively older. Yet they could be hardly eight or nine years old.

The middle one is holding a red toy truck over his head and chanting the lead line of a slogan, which the other two are finishing.

The slogan is sexually suggestive. 

It was created by the people, ostensibly to seek votes for the film star Mahiya Mahi in the twelfth parliamentary elections of Bangladesh. The truck was the symbol allotted to Mahi for the January 7 polls.

The reel is captioned  “In our own voices”. The gestures and smiles of the two boys are flippant.

Facebook does not show the number of views for reels. At the time of writing this report, the video had earned more than 13,000 likes and 148 comments. It had been shared 37 times.

The slogan and the ‘truck’ symbol have been used in various insinuating ways in many videos published on social media. The images shown in the videos and the dialogues and gestures of the protagonists grossly or subtly present Mahi as a sexual object.

In a video published by ‘Rangpur Entertainment’ on Facebook, seven men, young and old, can be seen dancing and fooling around on a village road. The caption declares that it is for entertainment only.

In addition to the same suggestive slogan, Starting from its provocative caption and key words, the video is full of sexual innuendos demeaning Mahi. 

At the time of writing this report, the video had been applauded with 38 thousand likes and laughs emojis (reactions). By then, it had been viewed by 1 million people. More than a thousand users had commented on the show.

Screenshots of Facebook Reels and Videos

Another Facebook video had been viewed by nearly 900k people. It had 33 thousand likes and laugh emojis along with nearly 700 comments. The video contains excerpts from the preachings of a maulana–a religious scholar.

In his speech, the scholar recites the sexually suggestive slogan in reference to ‘young men’ making TikTok on Mahi’s candidacy. He calls Mahi’s election campaign a ‘sign of doomsday’ and describes her as an ‘immodest’ shameless woman.

He criticizes the cost of Mahi’s dresses and makeup and voices his disapproval of her contesting the elections. He remarks that Mahi will “destroy and end” Bangladesh if she goes to parliament.

He also makes hateful and sexually suggestive comments about the Member of Parliament (MP) and star singer Mumtaz Begum. He criticizes the sportsmen, singers, and male and female film stars who aspire to join the parliament in hateful and vicious language.

Journalist, researcher and media analyst Afsan Chowdhury said to Dismislab, “If you want to finish someone politically, you have to target their weakest point. People’s  sexuality or sex life is one of their weak areas. Such attacks happen all over the world.”

But in the case of Mahi, the matter has a different and larger dimension. Afsan said, “Mahi is one of the 10 most renowned faces in this country. She is not perceived as a politician. People see her as an entertainer.”

Gender and media expert Prof. Geetiara Nasreen PhD says, gender-politics or belittling women is universal. Mahi is seen not only as a woman, but also as an entertainer.

She said to Dismislab, “One of the Bengali words for female entertainers is ‘Notee’. Notee literally means dancers, connoting a cheap and bad woman in a gray sense of the term. We could call it the sexualization of a profession (viewing the profession from the dimensions of sexual enjoyment or provocations solely).”

This is the face of the society

Professor Gitiara says Bangladeshi society is characterized by classic patriarchy. Misogyny is deep rooted in this society. In this case, misogyny is used as a tool to hurt the chances of a candidate in national elections.

Mahiya Mahi sought Awami League’s nomination to be a candidate from Chapainawabganj-2 constituency in the January 7 parliamentary elections. Failing to secure that, she contested as an independent candidate from Rajshahi-1 constituency.

Mahi had also sought Awami League’s nomination for the Chapainawabganj-2 constituency by-election held in February 2023. She had been disappointed that time as well. 

Numerous videos on Mahi’s attempts to join politics, especially after she became an independent candidate in the 12th parliamentary elections, have surfaced on social media.

Dismislab selected 60 election-centric videos with keywords ‘Mahi’, ‘Vote’ and ‘Majkhane (between)’ published across Facebook, YouTube and TikTok to analyze their trends. There were many more videos on every platform. But only the videos appearing in the first row in search results were taken for analysis.

Of these, a total of 39 videos were taken from Facebook, 23 of which are reels. The sample included 10 YouTube videos, and 11 TikTok videos. Three YouTube videos have been confirmed to have generated revenues. That is, the channels on which these three videos are being broadcast are ‘monetised’.

The majority of the sampled videos claim to be published for so-called entertainment purposes, while some of them suggest a campaigning tone. On the other hand, the main content of 15 of the videos are excerpts from the speeches of Maulanas or Muftis (religious scholars, preachers, or clerics) delivered at religious congregations. One even featured an ‘Islamic song’.

The most popular video is the one containing this Islamic song. This is one of YouTube’s income generating  videos. But it had been first uploaded 11 months ago, during Mahi’s moves for candidacy in the by-election.

This video resurfaced in this election season as an ‘Election Song about Mahiya Mahi / Breathtakingly Hilarious”–Mahiya Mahike Niye Bhoter Gaan / Hashte Hashte Pet Byatha. The song is a concoction of sexual innuendos, insults and ridicules. By the time of writing this report, 1.8 million people had seen this video. The video fetched 19 thousand likes emojis.

None of the TikTok videos had less than a thousand views, while one had a whopping 53 thousand views.

In a nutshell, the videos show

All but 15 of the videos analyzed contained the popular sexually suggestive slogan in their titles, captions or in the dialogues and speeches by the protagonists.

Women rarely feature in these videos. In some, a woman’s voice can be heard from the background. In a TikTok video, two girls are seen dancing to the slogan. In several videos, young boys pose as Mahi and mimic her. Many videos pronounce rap songs as ‘rape’ songs.

Sex is the main selling point of almost all entertainment and promotional videos. With few exceptions, Mahi has been grossly or subtly degraded through images, words and gestures.

A lesser viewed Facebook video mocks Mahi’s election campaign. It has a scene where young men rub condoms on a carrom board instead of discs, making gross sexual innuendos.

Screenshots of Facebook and YouTube videos

The Truck, Mahi’s election symbol, is called people’s truck in a video. Her body has been directly and indirectly compared to a truck—in the sense that it can carry a lot of weight. In one video, a young boy imitates having intercourse on top of a toy truck.

Mahi’s dress (‘short dress’) is parodied, by taking scenes from a movie. She has been called ‘Chhidranayika (a heroine with a hole)’ which is a play on the word ‘Chitranayika (film star)’.

According to Professor Geetiara, though the topic here is elections, casting aspersions on a candidate’s sex life and ‘character’ has been used as a weapon to trivialize her. In this case, the good girl-bad girl division works. A bad girl is ‘bad’ because of her sexual behavior. In the case of a girl, that is the benchmark of character.

A former Health Minister Dr. Murad Hasan had sexually harassed Mahi over the phone. Mahi fell victim when in December 2021, that phone conversation had gone viral on social media.

In several videos, people have indicated or hinted towards that incident by naming Dr. Murad, using his pictures or by calling the truck ‘Taak’ (baldheaded) ‘. Directly or indirectly, Mahi has been blamed in all of these videos.

In terms of viewership and response, videos featuring religious figures are generally ahead. Sexually stimulating words or images, hints, puns are also major components of these videos. The religious speeches and songs too mentioned Dr. Murad.

In addition, the videos with a religious slant harbor blatant misogyny and contain declarations that politics is not for women. The speeches have a political dimension. Some of them accuse that religious leaders are not considered to be qualified for joining the Parliament. 

Mahi has been humiliated not only on the grounds of her gender but also because of her profession. Similarly, film star Ferdous Ahmed has been criticized for contesting the elections. Mahi is seen as an entertainer as well as a courtesan. She has been called ‘characterless’.

In a rarely viewed video, Mahi is called ‘Daius’ by a mufti which means a woman who calls others to Hell and goes to Hell herself. Several videos have used words such as ‘heroine’, ‘dancer’ and even ‘whore’ in reference to or while discussing her.

Geetiara told Dismislab, “When a woman steps out of the house and ventures into the outside world, we call her bad very easily. The defining terms are also like that. Take for example, Gharani-Gribhadhu (housewife) Vs Barbanita-Barbadhu (‘prostitute’). Barbadhu means she is available to all.”

A number of videos set against a religious backdrop have made puns on the cost of Mahi’s make-up. A Maulana called her election posters as ‘beauty posters’ and said that youngsters are hugging Mahi’s photos there.

When the race runs beyond limits

Only 11 videos were taken from TikTok for analysis. However, at the time of writing the report, new videos of Mahiya Mahi with similar sexually suggestive slogans were being added every hour on the platform.

A feature of TikTok videos is the presence of hashtags ForYou (#ForYou, #fyp) (#ForYourPage). In TikTok’s own words, ForYou is the ‘hub of the experience’ for TikTok users. This is where most users spend time.

Tiktok says, “When you open TikTok and scroll down to your feed, you’ll find a stream of videos tailored to your interests. It makes it easier for you to find the content creators that you want.”

Naturally, most creators on TikTok want to be on the ForYou page and are tempted to create #ForYou video regarding any topic that is on trend. Some videos on Facebook and YouTube use ForYou as well as viral and viral video hashtags.

According to Afsan Chowdhury, social media lets people react instantly. “It doesn’t require a lot of thought or intellectual effort,” he said to Dismislab. These platforms appeal more to people’s primal instincts such as sex. Sensationalism (glitz and glamor, sensuality, excitement, raw emotions) is the main attraction and feature of these media.”

Professor Gitiara says, there has always been hatred and spite towards women in society. Social media can multiply that to a great extent. As a result, what had earlier been on a small scale, is now spreading on a larger scale.

“It’s like taking [women] to the market or throwing stones at her,” she said to Dismislab. “Each person can come and throw five stones. It is possible to multiply, spread. There is an opportunity to do shameful things or go bad without disclosing yourself.”

Symbolic image

Social Media Platform Policy

Many of the examples from these videos cited in this report may conflict with Facebook and YouTube’s hate speech policies. The same goes for ‘bullying’ or governance policies.

Gender-based harmful stereotyping, hatred, belittling, exclusion or segregation – all are hate speech according to Facebook’s policy.

The policy says that such things cannot be published on Facebook. Innuendo is also prohibited. Also, writing or images cannot contain generalizations that demean any person or group (regardless of gender). Likewise, derogatory terms related to sexual behavior (slut, whore, pervert, etc.) may not be used.

YouTube’S Policy on Indecent or Vulgar Language also contains similar provisions. YouTube will take action if the language or description contains sexually explicit elements, excessive profanity or sexually suggestive words in the title, thumbnails, or associated meta data. Such content can even be removed.

Furthermore, YouTube will not allow any hate speech based on sex or gender. YouTube’s Harassment and cyberbullying (Online Rule) policy states that identifiable individuals may not be shown in an unintended sexual manner. This includes showing someone in a racy, dirty, obscene, lascivious, humiliating and sexually explicit manner.

It is not clear why these principles would not apply to such contents on Mahiya Mahi.

“Just as there are social media policies, there is also a business imperative to increase ‘hits’ both institutionally and by individuals,” Professor Gitiara said to Dismislab. She said, everyone from all spheres must start resisting proliferation of such content. Families, educational institutions, religious institutions—every level has a responsibility to stop hate.

Spreading hate and hatred should stop, says Afsan Chowdhury. But he said, “Since everyone is doing this, it must be assumed that no one is taking the responsibility to prevent or stop it. Technically it is not possible to turn it off. It does not stop anywhere in the world. Males are also victims of this. Besides, negative publicity attracts more people. Meta knows that.”

The world of politics, the politics of the world

After becoming an independent candidate, Mahi said, she did not get the boat [the symbol of Awami League] but she too serves as a boatman.

Mahi alleged that the supporters of the Awami League candidates obstructed her election campaign on December 29. The next day she complained that her  election camp in a village was set on fire.

A couple of videos on social media have brought up the topic of political rivalry. [She lost the race to the ruling Awami League candidate]. 

But the context of hatred towards Mahi is even bigger. The root of that hatred is basically within the society. At the same time, there is an urge to go viral or earn likes on social media.

Professor Gitiara Nasreen said that when a woman leaves the house and comes out, especially if she joins politics, generally everyone wants to drive her away. She said, “A lot of people support this kind of activities. It’s on everyone’s mind.”

And Afsan Chowdhury said, “People are willing to see personalities like Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina or Sahara Khatun as politicians. Not Mahi. Another great cause of this hatred is the idea that she has left her world to get a share of another world.”

Explanation: This report uses Images, words, phrases, and descriptions from the videos solely as examples of harmful practices. No excerpt, reference of quote is meant to spread the content further. The article is being published just before the elections. But it has no political goal. The report only attempts to highlight social trends.