On a balmy March day last year when the then nondescript model Poonam Pandey, declared, that she will publicly strip herself naked in the stadium if India wins the cricket World Cup; one would have thought that she has opened the doors to an unmitigated image disaster.
But a year later, Ms Pandey, 20, with her brazen antics and a barrage of pointed tweets, has managed to establish herself not just as a girl who has over 150,667 followers on Twitter but also has been the subject of write-ups which have annointed her the new embodiment of in- your- face feminism.Pandey is not alone. She is perhaps only the latest in a growing list of aggressive bimbos (aggrimbos) -- from Pakistani actor Veena Malik, 30, to the original agent provocateur Rakhi Sawant (among the dozens of quotable quotes she's thrown up "I am not teasing any man with my sexuality. I am only owning it up. If someone gets provoked, it's his problem",) and Mallika Sherawat -- who play up their sexuality not just to shock, but also to provoke, and make a comment on womanhood.
Malik's on screen physical intimacy with actor Ashmit Patel on Bigg Boss had the conservative up in arms against her "anti-faith" activities. She came back with a retort that a novelist would be proud of: Pakistan is not infamous because of what she had done but because of many other things that should be given attention to. She followed it up by posing semi nude in an Indian glossy. And then took on a religious cleric on a news channel in Pakistan.
What began with Mallika Sherawat, who unapologetically defended her steamy screen scenes with neo-feminist statements - such as "In my state Haryana, women are treated like cows" - is now being seen as a phenomenon.
It would not be incorrect to say that these starlets are an embodiment of the current expression of feminism in the world today -from the global Slutwalk to the more local Pink Chaddi Campaign. The new wave, seen as the first mainstream outburst of feminism after the 1970s, rejects the old feminist bra burning theory that in order to be equal to men, women are to repress their sexuality. It proposes that being a female does not require to let go of her sexuality -- but even flaunting it, and not being judged for it.
Prominent activist and director, Centre for Social Research, Ranjana Kumari, welcomes this new wave of feminism, saying "Traditionally women have been subjugated by controlling their sexuality. The re-discovered sexuality is a way to blow the lid off the cultural control system."
Making a point
Like in the fundamental argument of Slutwalk, the Aggrimbos don't just want their right to look like bimbos, but also want the right to be taken seriously. This is what seperates them from the average pin-up star or starlet of the past. Consider the manner in which Pandey tweets about National Cleavage Day, offers to take her kit off, if India wins a match and another day in a tweet, offers her views on Abdul Kalam as President ("apolitical and intelligent").Psychologist Namrata Sharma says, "What is riveting is the contradiction between their statements and strategies and that makes the observation worthwhile. The reason why the girls are being followed despite the fact that they got the society's collective goat is that they do represent an impeccable stagecraft that begs to be noticed." She adds, "One of the indicators that these girls are on a mission is their thickskin. They manage to keep a straight face despite the brickbats and hate that comes their way." Consider this: Earlier this year, Pandey created a flutter by welcoming the PM on Twitter and attaching a bikini-clad photo of herself along with it. She says, "I had to welcome him. If people have a notion that I would be lot less concerned with the PM's office and its proceedings then they are clearly wrong."
Many may hurl abuses, but many also sit up - and listen. Pandey was listed in the top 10 of Google Zeitgeist 2011 list of fastest rising celebs alongside Steve Jobs and Justin Beiber. Digital media company Pinstorm rated her online influence at 70.2, putting her ahead of actor Lara Dutta. Her morphed nude picture with cricketer Sachin Tendulakar's face put on a Hindu God and a Pakistani player bowing in front of her put up by a fan on Twitter, created a mini mayhem in Kolkata when a newspaper published it.
While Pandey says that all her actions are not aimed to make a feminist point, she does have a strong view on it. "If the society commands a girl to be embarrassed about her body it is a regressive notion and I want to take it by its horns."
The girls with their neo twist to feminism are in a way de-bunking the idea of sexy as we know it -- important in a country where cops are still seen as viewing rape as 'asking for it'. Women's rights activist Pramada Menon, says, "Rakhi Sawant was an original. She made no bones about her body being made up. It's like announcing this is what you are getting. Not every one will say it. That is a radical modern change."
However, Nonita Kalra, editor, Elle India, is not convinced with the girls' idea of dumbing themselves down. "The blatant sexuality that the girls are promoting seems to based on the formula - let's take our clothes off, let's be stupid. There's no feminism there. Also post Sawant they all seem to be following the same model."
The girls' and their in-your-face sexuality is a far cry from what a generation of Indians believed was sexy when they saw Rekha, on screen. Her craft was sensual but in a carefully suggestive manner. Menon says, "At different stages people use different ways to get noticed." Kalra agrees, "The shock value changes with times, many years later may be the Rakhis and Poonams may seem modest."
The new feminism?
However, as with Slutwalk, which snowballed into a global movement after a Canadian cop suggested that women should dress carefully if they wanted to avoid unwanted attention, there are feminists who advise caution, and warn that while it is a well meaning reaction to currently dominant male viewpoints, it has its drawbacks. Madhu Kishwar, Senior fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies says, "Any woman who uses sexuality as a tool of social or cultural improvement is playing a losing battle. I don't downgrade female sexuality but it's not an item on the road as purported by these women."
Activist Ritu Menon believes that women who talk about their individuality can't be representing a community. She says, "The aggressive bimbo is nowhere near the first, second or third wave of feminism. They are conforming to stereotype that women are sexual objects."
However, feminist Kalyani Menon Sen disagrees on typifying who can be a feminist. Sen says, "Claiming sexuality is a feminist right. If Poonam Pandey is bringing to fore vital aspects about liberation we can't say that a classified bimbo is not allowed to be a feminist. When people think 'sexuality' they may think of a nude bimbo, but sexuality is not about sex."
But is it true that a sexual provocation is necessary, especially in the subcontinent, which is laden with cultural conflicts. Rita Brara, Sociologist, says, "Each culture produces its own version of feminism. The aggressive bimbos are proporting a radical form of feminism that sets an agenda."
As Pandey sums it up, "What we see today is a reaction to a culture where preoccupation with how a woman behaves has become a crucial aspect."