Rapes Won’t Stop This Way
There’s no business like morality show business. The most visible and voluble outcome of the countrywide reaction to the horror of the December 16, 2012 rape in Delhi has been the outpouring of moral anger and outrage not only from the self-appointed sentinels of all things moral – the media, but from “ordinary people” themselves. The brutal nature of the crime that resulted in the victim’s long-drawn and painful death has made head-shaking and fist-clenching move from the dinner tables out into the streets. This venting has been totally understandable, especially since the law and order machinery initially failed to gauge the scale of how the Delhi rape has left the people of this country traumatised.
But since the media started its coverage of the Delhi rape case – with its accompanying “campaign coverage” of sexual violence in India and the wave of apathy that has greeted the subject from both citizenry and the establishment – there has been a noticeable bend in the river. Along with the Pavlovian thrashing about to the specific tragedy and to rape and sexual violence against women, there is a growing noise against depictions of women, against how women are viewed through the lens of popular culture. In other words, there is a militant concern about the morals of men.
The initial form of this righteousness appeared in the form of the kind of “pledge” that schoolchildren down the decades (including myself) would be familiar with. The “Pledge” in the beginning of the New Radiant Reader textbooks used in many English-medium schools – based on the old series The Radiant Reader, The Radiant Way and Radiant Reading school-goers of my generation 30 years ago were familiar with – reads:
“India is my country, all Indians are my brothers and sisters. I love my country, and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage. I shall always strive to be worthy of it. I shall give my parents, teachers and all elders respect and treat everyone with courtesy. To my country and my people, I pledge my devotion. In their well-being and prosperity alone lies my happiness.”
Now take the “pledge” The Times of India printed on its front page on December 29, 2012 alongside its page 1 news coverage of the Delhi rape case. In the prelude to the “pledge”, the paper tells the reader that “the real reason behind her agony [is] the lack of respect for women in our patriarchal society. Instead of venting out anger in mindless violence, let us seize the moment to make a collective pledge to treat all women with respect and to demand the same from others.”
Then comes the “Radiant Reader”-style pledge itself: “Let us swear that we will fight discrimination against them at home and the workplace. Let us resolve to intervene when we see a woman being harassed by word or deed and to ensure that complaints are lodged and acted upon…”
An updated version of the “Times campaign: Honor Nirbhaya by making this pledge” on the internet adds two other bullet points to the earlier pledge:
“We will personally treat all women at home and elsewhere with respect and demand the same from others…
…We will not vote for politicians who treat women with disrespect.”
The school textbook and the newspaper bear the same tone of solemn demand based on a faith in “goodness” and the need to treat elders/women with respect. Nothing is wrong with both demands and going by the “votes” on the ToI website (36,571 of them), Facebook shares (57,000) and tweets (339), many clearly agree with what is being said with one’s hand on one’s heart.
If sharing such a sentiment means also showcasing that you are righteous and good, far removed from the likes of those horrible, backward-looking misogynists who hint at the fact that sexual violence is something that women bring about, or at least, fail to discourage, by their own behaviour and action (“going out at night”, “wearing ‘revealing’ clothes” drinking etc), then that can’t be bad, can it? If being “good” is cool, then being moral and being lawful will merge in one happy ball, leaving only the immoral criminal out in the open to be picked up and locked away.
When Haryana Labour Minister, Shivcharan Sharma retracted a statement about Geetika Sharma, the former employee of MDLR Airlines owned by his ministerial colleague and prime accused in Geetika’s suicide case, Gopal Kanda, he was desperate to be seen as a “good, woman-respecting man” too. “I respect women. I realise that women have divine powers – be it Mata Lakshmiji, Mata Durgaji or Mata Saraswati.” Swirling in all that respect for all those “Matas”, Sharma showed that he can’t possibly be a misogynist, the same way home minister Sushil Shinde couldn’t be a misogynist after he reminded everyone that he is the “father of three daughters”.
But competitive morality went up a notch in the second phase of the national demand for total respect for women. This was about not only respecting women, but also about stopping anything remotely considered to be insulting towards women. And in such a heightened “we will protect our sisters” atmosphere, ripe targets are always the soft ones.
Furrowed brows are already talking about women being constantly, ubiquitously “objectified as sexual objects” in advertisements and movies. The offensive lyrics of rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh already elicited a successful campaign which stopped him from performing at a New Year’s Eve gig, making the performer, known for his misogynist prattle about rape and women’s body parts, taboo.
The correlation between pop cultural anti-women references and violence against women – and how the former whether in movies, ads or songs affect the mind of those “enjoying” them in the real world – has been a subject of much gnashed-teeth debate in the West, most notably in the 1980s when Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, took on the American pop-rock industry and its content full of “smut” and “lyrics degrading women”. With the sudden onslaught of morality triggered by the Delhi rape case here in India, I won’t be surprised if the mob (read: popular demand) bays for a crackdown.
This, to my mind, could lead everyone – the media, law enforcement authorities etc – to a giant operation of missing the wood for the trees. The fact of the matter is that the war should not be against pornography, adult entertainment and other perceived “causes” for sexual violence. Not only because these simply will thrive underground thereby adding another layer of repression to the whole state of childish repression that covers the Indian psyche. But because the real and only issue at stake here is protecting women from sexual violence and the law acting and being seen acting on offenders.
To go down the slippery slope of cracking down on movie item numbers, offensive songs, titillating media images, will make the argument of women staying at home at night, not drinking or wearing clothes of their choice, refraining from making their own sexual decisions, stand up against the real argument: that it’s not women or the depiction of women that leads to sexual violence or rape against them. But criminal-minded torturers who will find reason to do whatever they seek to do simply because there are women.
For this, the crackdown, the anger, the anguish – moral, social and legal – should be targeted with a laser-like focus on people who believe there’s nothing wrong in abusing women in the real world and believe that they can get away with it. People must know – like so many already do – that watching Priyanka Chopra prance around with very little on or listening to Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” or DJ Fadu’s “Kash Koi Mil Jaye” is in no imaginable way a sanction to humiliate or hurt women. If that was so, watching every screen hero killing a bad guy would have made vigilantes out of all of us and made bad guys turn into perfectly decent humans after being morally forced to by watching movies.
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