An ironic sideshow in the anti-rape protests in the aftermath of the gang rape incident of December 16 is the optical illusion of a common cause between two extremes: the political conservatives making their point to defend the honour of women on the one hand, and the radical women's groups and
feminists keen to further the rights of women towards equality.
The common ground between them speaks for the dignity of women, but clearly, there lurks beneath this word niggling issues related to sexism and personal choices in a democratic India negotiating new values in a new millennium.
The conservatives stand for honour. This position urges men to treat women with respect and also bring on to the agenda issues related to sexual mores. In a nuanced way, this might reinforce in the public mind at large the position of women as "protected" in a privileged position and push back issues related to their choices.
There is a deeper view of women being 'worshipped' enough to deny their rights - as was portrayed by Satyajit Ray in the Sharmila Tagore-starrer Devi - in which a housewife is seen as a goddess in a way that denies her ordinary joys.
Such positions that use the cover of 'dignity' to stress on 'respect' and 'honour' may well fly in the face of humbler democratic values such as freedom and equality.
The sexist nature of Honey Singh's rap song that has lyrics that debase women raises questions on whether it is against free speech to ban it. While there may not much ground for dispute on a song that is explicit in its violent motifs, grey areas emerge when there are popular women actors dancing to item songs. Is the item song a matter of personal choice for the actor in question and the viewer who appreciates it? Or does it 'commodify' a woman and reinforce in popular consciousness the image of a woman as a sex object? There may be more than 50 shades to this grey, when subjective perspectives on sexuality, aesthetics and personal choice take over in the debate on gender justice.
In this melee of ideas, the conservative has an opportunity to see a cultural flaw. In a largely patriarchal India that has substantial feudal motifs, the search for a woman's 'honour' can take a backward march. In Bollywood's short-hand, rape is described as 'izzat lootna' (the looting of honour), as if an involuntary act of submission has a loss of honour associated with it.
Both radical extremes, one that talks of honour and respect for women and the other that works to stop the commodification of women, run into problems with a school of thought that might plead for wider choices in cultural expression - be it in a song, a movie or in public speeches.
However, there may be no ambiguity where issues concern public decency. The rap song on rape clearly has to be XXX-rated and not doing the rounds on the internet where children can read the lyrics or watch the video. But in a culture where internet censorship is a problem and free speech activism takes on an extreme hue not found even in its modern cradle, America, there are worries and concerns ahead for India.
These concerns get compounded when conservatives may step in to use the occasion to curb individual choices on dressing or kissing on screen. The feudal conservative and the radical feminist turn comrades in arms in such a context, but with different agendas in mind.
Radical women's groups criticise fairness creams for linking the self-esteem of women to the colour of their skin. But this in an India where fairness creams for men have made an equal appearance, and 'metrosexual' men are as much a part of the popular vocabulary as cheesecake women. Alternative sexuality is now part of the accepted 'new' public morality in urban India, and upheld by courts.
Clearly, there is a case to redefine the debate so that sexism is properly understood in the public mind as an act of discrimination or stereotyping that denies equal opportunity. Or else, there is the threat of backlash conservatism or radically subjective views that deny individuals their freedom of choice.
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