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A dishonourable cause

The controversy that started at a Mangalore pub seems to resemble a frantic chase scene from a slapstick film, where characters forget who was chasing whom and why. Amrita Nandy-Joshi elaborates.

india Updated: Feb 11, 2009 22:59 IST

The controversy that started at a Mangalore pub seems to resemble a frantic chase scene from a slapstick film, where characters forget who was chasing whom and why. While the Sri Rama Sene shooed women out of the pub, members of the National Commission of Women chased the pub owners to check if they had the requisite licence.

Miles away, Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot, bristled against the pub and mall culture, while Union Minister Renuka Chowdhury threatened to lead women for a ‘pub bharo andolan’. Women’s activists swarmed out with placards, as television screens flickered with public reactions. To heighten the drama, Pramod Muthalik warned that he and his men would forcibly marry off couples found dating on Valentine’s Day! Amid the uproar, a central and thorny issue has long stood neglected — the colonisation of a woman’s body and the spaces around it, all in the name of ‘honour’.

Apparently, the ruckus in Mangalore happened because men from the Sri Rama Sene thought it was immoral for women to drink.

According to them, cultural ‘codes of conduct’ for women require abstinence from alcohol and pubs. These codes clearly define traits of the Good Woman and the Bad Woman, etched in finer detail by Ekta Kapoor in her television soaps. It seems that the codes expect boys and men to punish women who fall out of line. Muthalik & Co., for example, thought it was their ‘moral’ duty to abuse, molest and assault women to keep them from transgression. (Ironically, Indian women have led many an
anti-liquor struggle to end the vicious cycle of men’s alcohol addiction, poverty and domestic violence).

However, it may be misleading to think that these age-old norms thrive only among right-wing votaries. In fact, they enjoy wider patronage among people who offered hushed approval of the Sene’s action.

Now that the codes have shown their ugly face, the incident should not just be dismissed as a ‘regressive versus progressive’ tussle. It is imperative to dig deeper at this juncture to develop a popular critique of these so-called codes and check their best-by dates.

So why is it wrong or objectionable for ‘Bharatiya’ women to drink alcohol, dress in western clothes or spend time with male friends and so on? The answers to these questions converge at the woman’s body, a site that has traditionally been perceived and depicted as the repository of shame and honour or izzat.

The entire focus is on her body, especially her virginity. The daily doses of socialisation eventually carve in our collective psyches the inescapable connection between women’s bodies and honour, a connection that is really a technique to control their sexual behaviour. By the time a girl is young, she knows that her body is actually the priceless honour of her family and community. She is kept away from her own sexuality and asked to guard her body against men. As a result, what she wears and how she behaves in public, especially with men, are all matters of public scrutiny.

The culprit here is our collective obsession with ‘honour’, a term that takes on a misplaced and regressive meaning for women, even legitimising ‘honour’ rapes and killings, where a mere allegation against a woman is reason enough to take action against her. Flirting, marital infidelity, pre-marital sex and choosing one’s life partner are some of the usual reasons for honour crimes, which bring men from different faiths together to take ownership and control of ‘their’ women.

Members of the Sene referred to themselves as ‘brothers’ of the women they beat up!

In times long gone, women’s bodies and spaces were strictly guarded to ensure continuous lineage for the family while avoiding confusion about paternity. It is time to snap the connection between ‘honour’ and women’s bodies, which eventually become the crosses they carry and safeguard all their life.

From education to marriage and careers, women are increasingly defying oppressive patriarchal structures and controls, and tasting independence. Conservative elements cannot tolerate such transgression of codes and thus the backlash. Nuanced public debates, especially with men, seems the only way out towards a transformation of attitudes. Meanwhile, many young couples have welcomed Muthalik’s warning about being forcefully married off if they are found together on Valentine’s Day.
Mangalore chalo!

(Amrita Nandy-Joshi is Coordinator, South Asian Women’s Network)