by Charukesi Ramadurai
- India -
India is now the land of The Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward Women. Who would have thought?
In quick response to the Mangalore incident, the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum (ALF) started the Pink Chaddi campaign (chaddi is Hindi for underwear), urging people to send pink panties as a symbol of love to the Sene office, which had also threatened to attack couples celebrating Valentine's Day (another threat to "Indian culture"). In just over two weeks since the campaign was first announced, it evoked unexpected interest and support across the world through blog links and networking sites. At last count, there are nearly 59,000 supporters - men and women - on just the campaign’s Facebook group.
Facebook was not the only medium used, though cyber-activism made it easier to bring people with one voice together in one place. Says Annie Zaidi, journalist and active member of the Blank Noise Project that fights the harassment of women in public spaces, “You must remember that Facebook groups are easy to join. And word spreads fast on the internet, especially when it is at the right time. The key is to work on an action/gesture that is simple, small, doable, and symbolic of their defiance and determination.”
“Panties for peace” may sound frivolous, but the thought behind the gesture is rational - a token act meant to shame the seemingly shameless. Also, sending pink panties in protest is quirky and irreverent, a way of cocking a snook at the moral police. Zaidi adds, “Muthalik's men (and his women) needed to feel sheepish, if not apologetic. They needed to see that the rest of the country was laughing at them, rather than fearing or supporting them.”
Tracing the path of moral policing
Moral policing is not new in India, nor is it confined to the issue of women drinking or couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. The earlier Bharatiya Janata Party Government actually had a culture Minister; Pramod Navalkar was considered the original culture cop when he gave a free hand to the Mumbai police to harass couples seen behaving indecently in public (read: holding hands). India’s most acclaimed artist MF Husain has stayed away from the country for the last few years, thanks to serious threats against his life for painting “indecent” images of gods and goddesses. In the most recent manifestation, noted author Vikram Seth was harshly criticized in India’s regional press for sipping wine onstage during the Jaipur Literature Festival.
The issue goes even deeper and to call it “Talibanization” is to attribute a recency and “otherness” to it which is not accurate. Sharmila, a Professor of Literature and Women’s Studies from Mumbai says that moral policing in India started many decades ago, in parallel with the Nationalism movement. Standards of how women should dress and look, and even think and behave, were laid down by reformers who saw women as critical to building an India - or an image of India - that was modern, yet came with its own home-grown culture. From there emerged the persona of the Indian woman in a sari, placing family and honor before everything else. The idea of a “Mother India” in every home was the basis from which the cultural identity of the new nation was formulated.
Although Western wear for women has been gaining popularity and prima facie acceptance, this has remained a touchy point of contention in public consciousness. In 2005, Mumbai University set about banning “bad clothes” including mini-skirts, tight tops and shorts. The reason given was that such a movement would reduce incidents of rape in the city; in one stroke again, the honor of a woman was equated to the clothes she wore (one of the phrases for rape in Hindi is izzat lootna – to plunder one’s honor).
Understanding the recent incidents
As social observers have noted, the issue now is not of culture - inside or outside a pub; it is about a gang’s whimsical notion of how women should ideally behave. Further, general elections are drawing close and questions of culture and morality, couched within a larger context of politics, carry huge vote-bank potential. Moral policing has been latent in Indian culture, quietly making its presence felt, and it is during times of economic recession or political upheaval that sharp blips occur.
The government has been a mute spectator to the incidents, even those involving violence. As Sengupta adds, “Instead of encouraging healthy dialogue or education on these matters, some political parties and regressive groups are fuelling the frustration, inciting it to flame for their own twisted agenda.” Mr. L.K. Advani, senior politician from the right-wing BJP, condemned the attacks on the women in Mangalore at a rally of students he addressed in Karnataka, hastily adding that while one may not approve of women going to pubs, one does not attack them in this fashion. Morality, where women are concerned, is clearly a sensitive issue and politicians have taken the safe road, with a clear eye on the elections.
Reactions to moral policing
In such incidents over the last few years, there was public outrage, some sporadic protests and then silence. The consensus among the thinking class seems to have always been that to ignore these elements was to make them vanish magically, while paying them attention was to glorify them. So what has happened now to spark off reactions of such magnitude? One contributing factor is that the recent rounds of attacks on women have been physical and arbitrary.
Suddenly across India, it is not faceless, nameless women who are getting abused - but women like me. Women who wear Western clothes everyday and enjoy nursing a drink with a friend - male or female - at a pub. Therefore, women who have probably all their lives ignored and disdained the idea of celebrating Valentine’s Day are out in full force, demanding their right to go out, by themselves or with men friends to drink, dance or just be.
“What we have in common is that we dislike the ease with which right-wing groups have been infringing on fundamental rights,” says Nisha Susan, one of the founders of the Pink Chaddi campaign in her article in Tehelka. ”Isn’t our culture infused with ideas of tolerance and respect for difference?” And that effectively answers naysayers - and there have been plenty of them - who have been asking if the right to celebrate an event as alien to India as Valentine’s Day is even worth fighting for. Or if drinking in a pub is all that female emancipation is about.
Following the initial mobilization by ALF, several smaller groups such as Blank Noise and Maraa are advancing the movement through a “Fearless Karnataka” campaign that aims to “reclaim public spaces.” Interestingly, men have joined the effort in great numbers; part of an ongoing blog campaign exhorts people to intervene, with posters that say “Do you enjoy watching women being beaten up? Don’t turn a blind eye.”
As things stand...
There is a deep sense of unease in various parts of India where violent incidents have taken place over the last couple of months, especially with the government ignoring or even fuelling them. The possibility of an Indian or Hindu Taliban is suddenly very real for many women, particularly in the smaller, more traditional towns. Who’s to decide what Indian culture is and how it is to be brought back into public consciousness, or even whether it needs to be? Who’s to say that tomorrow the Sene – or other similar political groups - won’t decide that education is unnecessary for women in India?
About the Author
Charukesi Ramadurai lives in Bombay, India - a city she loves, and can never call Mumbai. She has a degree in Social Research Methods and is particularly interested in exploring alternative research methods and in research aimed at socio-economic development.
After years of working as a market and social researcher, she discovered a new passion in photography. She now juggles research with travel, writing and photography. Her articles and photographs have appeared in several newspapers and magazines in India including Hindustan Times, Mint, Himal, Windows & Aisles and India Today Travel Plus.