Pageants for married women raise difficult questions about gender
The most unfortunate part about such pageants is that it takes the original problems about women’s beauty pageants and compounds them with another issue: classifying women into categories based on their marital statusUpdated: Dec 08, 2018 22:54 IST
It’s 9 am on a Sunday and I’m at a hotel in Pune. As I make my bleary-eyed way to the breakfast buffet – which always leaves me in all kinds of spiritual agony before and after, but never during – I come upon an unusual sight. A group of women who look about my age are dancing in the bar adjoining the breakfast lounge. I wonder if they have been dancing all night, but 9 am is too late even by hardcore party standards. And these ladies look quite sober. Allowing myself a longer glance, I notice they are wearing sashes across their torsos. “Mrs Maharashtra”, they proclaim, followed by a serial number. I proceed to the eggs and bacon, thoughts whizzing as quickly as a Neeta Volvo bus from Dadar to Aundh.
Victoria’s open secrets
I recently read an article about the Victoria Secret’s annual fashion show, where sculpted “angels” strut about a stage in their underwear. This is a celebration of beauty and style – much like many other pageants in the Miss World vein – except without the pretence of all-round “beauty”. It is about skin and curves, now emended to skin and bones, framed in leather and lace. The case against the objectification of women’s bodies doesn’t need support, one would think. But as recently as last year, when Hugh Hefner left for that great bordello in the sky, voices rose in celebration of a benevolent liberator of women. It’s like calling a piranha a liberator of small fish. I’m regularly appalled by adolescent girls posing sexily on social media feeds, encouraged, even pressured, by a deeply sexist culture that positions itself as free and equal. Pout all you like, I want to say to each one of the posers, but after you’ve thought a bit about whom you’re pouting for and why.
To win, you must conform...it’s no surprise that the miss universe pageant was co-owned by Donald Trump close to 20 years
In this scenario, one of the responses one can have about a pageant such as Mrs Maharashtra is: How nice that married women are granted a stage to shine on. The unfortunate part is, a pageant such as this takes the original problems about women’s beauty pageants and compounds them with another issue: classifying women into categories based on their marital status.
Tick the right box
Single. Married. Divorced. Widowed. As far as categories go, these are pretty exhaustive. Within them, there are sub-categories like the loose single girl, the married woman who won’t change her surname, the divorcee who won’t take the blame, the merry widow, etc. Seeing the Mrs Maharashtra sashes, I immediately imagined a pageant for divorcees. A conglomeration of mysterious, fearsome, failed brides who take the stage. A pageant of fast-talking, quick-thinking, rule-breaking, whisky-swilling fashionistas who eat men like air. Except, I can’t think of any two divorcees who are alike. In fact, they look and behave pretty much like Categories 1, 2 and 4. How confounding!
The thing about a sash is its tendency to reduce everything to a label. In order to win, you must first conform and then outshine. In a world where expectations from women are unrealistic, here is a literal manifestation of a pressure-cooker environment where women are pitted against one another. Men, and token women, standing in judgment over women’s bodies, and therefore, their beings. It’s no surprise that the Miss Universe pageant was co-owned by Donald Trump – noted adversary of women – for close to 20 years.
Equality in marriage
A lawyer friend once said to me: “Why bother getting married if you don’t want to change your surname?” It was astonishing, coming from an independent woman. But in a nation where Karva Chauth is still a thing, I find it less infuriating to address the name change business. Another strong, independent woman gave me this bit of advice – “Call yourself anything, you’ll always be addressed by your husband’s surname.” As it turns out, not once during the time I was married did anyone make that mistake. So there’s hope.
I remember reading an interesting take on the “husband and wife” nomenclature issue a few years ago. The married American writer was always uncomfortable using the terms, saddled as they are with sexist historical baggage. But then something unexpected happened. The state she lived in lifted the ban on same-sex marriage and some of her queer couple friends decided to register their unions. Once they began addressing each other using the terms “wife” and “husband”, the writer found she was not awkward about using them any more. The progressive legislation had rid the words of any negative connotation in her mind. Equal marriage had made the terms equal, too.
From HT Brunch, December 9, 2018
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First Published: Dec 08, 2018 20:38 IST