Shutting up sexism: Here's what India should do
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Shutting up sexism: Here's what India should do

Online behaviour is toxic and violent against women and LGBT community, but popular culture can be used to sensitise people to at least start a discussion without prejudice, writes Sanchita Sharma.

columns Updated: Jul 21, 2014 15:33 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

UN Women has a very clever campaign to highlight sexist attitudes. It's used Google’s auto-suggest function to track what people are thinking and searching for when no one is looking. It found that the world over, when you type the words "women should," autosuggest offers "stay at home," "be slaves" and "be in the kitchen" as the most popular choices to complete the phrase.

But the campaign appears to have done little to change misogynistic mindsets. When I typed in "women should..." to get a real-time overview, Google’s autosuggest promptly offered to change it to "women shouldn’t" (which pretty much said it all), followed by "women should not work", "women should stay at home" and "women should not vote".

Anonymous online behaviour is more toxic and violent against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTs). When UN Human Rights Office’s Free & Equal campaign repeated the Google search substituting "gays" for "women," the reactions bordered on rabid. The phrase "Gays should..." was most commonly completed as "be killed", "die", "not adopt" and "be put to death".

While it's unlikely to have changed prejudices in less than a year, the UN’s Free & Equal campaign seems to at least have shamed someone at Google into deactivating its auto-complete function for searches on gays and homosexuals. When I typed in "gays should...", I drew a blank. The auto-prompter diplomatically refrained from offering rude borderingon-illegal suggestions on what they should or shouldn’t do.

Given this background, and India’s shameful flip-flops on abolishing the archaic Section 377 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) that criminalises gay sex among consenting adults, Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan publicly declaring that gays have the same human rights as everyone else was much cheered by the unbiased and the rational. Dr Vardhan didn’t stop there. "Everybody, including gays, has human rights. It is the job of the government to protect their rights," he said, putting the onus on government, and rightly so, to ensure LGBTs are not harassed or discriminated against.

Dated 1861, Section 377 criminalises all sexual acts that do not get women pregnant, which is what ultra-conservatives believe gives intercourse it’s religious, social and legal sanction. "Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine".

"It is relevant to mention here that Section 377 IPC does not criminalise a particular people or identity or orientation. It merely identifies certain acts, which if committed, would constitute an offence. Such prohibition regulates sexual conduct regardless of gender identity and orientation," said Supreme Court in its 2013, judgment, which it overturned a Delhi High Court July 2009 order that struck down Section 377 saying it was a violation of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India.

Under the UPA, abolishing Section 377 was supported by the Union Ministry of Health but opposed by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. Though the government has changed, it appears that the rift between the two ministerial views remains. Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who had been BJP party president in 2009, had welcomed the Supreme Court’s judgment. "If an all-party meeting is called, we (the BJP) will support Section 377 as we believe that homosexuality is an unnatural act. We cannot support it," he had said.

Till the government decides on a stand, ministers will continue make to make contradictory statements, much as they did in the UPA-1 regime. Till ministries sort out their differences, the only good news for LGBTs is that a Bollywood-style music video on gay rights has notched up more than 1.5 million views in less than four months to become the United Nations’ most-watched videos worldwide.

First Published: Jul 21, 2014 14:32 IST