Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Redundancy of the Sri Ram Sene

The right-wing group (Sri Ram Sene) also urged police to ban Valentine's day celebrations across Karnataka. "Celebrating Valentine's Day is a vulgar culture. We will not allow it. We will attack places where it is celebrated," Sene's state secretary Krishna Gandalekar told reporters here.

Muthalik, granted conditional bail in the pub attack case, also said the Sene would oppose Valentine's Day celebrations. Reports of fresh threats against ‘indecent dressing’ to young women in Mangalore are also doing the rounds.

Local goons are reported to have issued threats to young women to desist from wearing ‘noodle straps’ and ‘tight jeans’ or face action, in the run-up to Valentine’s Day on February 14.

I stepped off the plane, was in the sub-continent for precisely 12 hours, turned on the news channel in my guest house in Delhi Cantonment and was seething almost immediately. Overdramatic? Perhaps!

But not entirely without merit. Stories of the Sri Ram Sene attacking women for merely being present in a pub in Mangalore does tend to make my hackles rise a bit. When I was growing up, my dad once told me a story about Allahabad University where he went to college. It was pretty fashionable for women to wear sleeveless blouses in the 60's. Once, on a bus, a bunch of young men took razor blades and slashed the exposed arms of women in such blouses. Overnight, it seemed, women stopped wearing them.

The moral policing of women in the public sphere is accompanied by their hypersexualization in the popular media. The shorter the skirts of our item number girls, the more strict social norms are becoming. And strangely, there are enough women who support the moral policing of their own species. This parallel and contradictory process - of women taking on more active roles in the public sphere, in workplaces, educational institutions, the military, and simultaneously having sanctions placed on their mobility, their dress and just how far they can go in experiencing their states of freedom- has been exacerbated in recent years by the rise of the Hindu right.

Crimes against women are on the rise across the country, even in places like the northeast where women have traditionally enjoyed a somewhat more 'equal' status in society than the rest of India. Many, like Prem Chowdhry, have linked this to the enhanced visibility of women on the streets, work places, parks, restaurants, etc. There is something about this visibility, or this assertion by women, that is threatening the north Indian male. This combined with horribly skewed sex-ratios, has led to an almost manic cycle of attacks on women.

Organizations like the Sri Ram Sene invoke an ancient and absoluetly impractical version of 'morality'. The problem is not so much that they try to define what morality is for a vast chunk of the population, it is more that they selectively deploy it on women. They perceive and indeed actively construct women as being the repositories of this ambiguous category called 'culture'. So a man can drink, make merry, engage in promiscuity. But a woman can't. A man can dress in any way he finds fashionable, but a woman can't. A man can exercise his sexual, professional and other choices with impunity, but a woman can't.

The separation of male and female behaviours in such a manner in obviously problematic. As Jug Suraiya wrote recently, we have reached a stage where women can be and are astronauts, tecahers, doctors, lawyers, olympians, CEO's of multinationals, tennis stars, award winning actresses, but somehow it is still not OK for them to sip a beer.

The SRS has specifically targeted pub-going women. This automatically includes women in the new tertiary sector, recent entrants into the workforce and of course by extension women from the middle, upper middle and high income classes. The question really it seems, is this - is a woman's participation in behaviour which has traditionally been associated with men really threaten Indian culture? Or does it simply threaten a certain type of Indian man? One thing is clear, women's visibility and participation in the workforce has upset traditional gender roles in the country. As Lloyd Rudolph once put it, "It is hard to push women back into the kitchen once they've learnt to step out." Yes, once women begin earning they also become more vocal, they assume more control over their lives, they make independent sexual choices, and are less likely to take kindly to a man who asserts his authority over them.

The backlash against such women has been pretty phenomenal. In the US, for instance, Naomi Wolfe talks about how the emergence and success of women in the workforce was countered by the invention of the 'beauty myth'. It was not enough to be good at what you did. You also had to be drop dead gorgeous. So the paradox emerged as Wolfe so eloquently put it, "Never before in the history of human society have women ever enjoyed such freedom of choice and been able to earn so much. Never before have women also been this insecure about how they look."

In neo-liberal India the process of layering on roles for women has begun and is well underway. Now women are expected to work, be excellent housewives and also be naturally pretty. Eating disorders which I never heard of while growing up are now increasing in incidence. And many people do not know that anorexia can turn into an epidemic in boarding schools and residential colleges amongst women. This is still not a concern for most of society. Even the most successful amongst us women are still judged on the basis of the color of our skin (fairer means better/prettier) and the sizes of our waists (thin means attractive).

I think women in the sub-continent are under enough stress from existing cultural restrictions. We still find it difficult to marry the men we want. Our in-laws are still myopic enough to treat us like 14th century bahus when we are working women who do not have the luxury to keep fasts for the healths of our husbands and cook like gourmet chefs. We labor under deep insecurities about not being fair and how this affects our matrimonial prospects. We worry about showing too much skin in public because we don't want to be stared at. We don't travel alone at night by ourselves. We are constantly aware of men brushing past in buses. We keep our faces stoic when men comment on the sizes of our assets. We try to ignore catcalls and nasty comments. We have to be extra stern in the work place or we will be given unflattering labels. We cannot let our guards down for even a minute at work, or we are seen as unprofessional. We have to work extra hard to be taken seriously as professionals. We cannot succeed in politics without donning the image of a mother, sister, bahu, or religous figure. We don't get very many meaty roles in Bollywood. We are only expected to wear tiny outfits and prance around men. We are objectified, stereotyped, criticised for what we wear, who we meet, what we eat and drink.

We don't need another moral brigade. We don't need men to tell us how to live our lives. And we certainly don't need anyone taking away the few guilty pleasures we can still enjoy. We also don't need more women supporting outfits like the SRS or the Bajrang Dal. We do, however, need to do away with Saas-Bahu shows, which have invented a negative divide between good Indian women and cat-eyed, bad Indian women. We need the government to ban outfits like the SRS, the RSS, the Bajrang Dal for indulging in extra-legal activities (like attacking groups of people in public spaces). We need young people to read and understand for themselves what Indian history and culture is.


Vasundhara said...

From Jen Bussell:

Thanks for writing this Vasundhara. It's been so strange to be in the midst of things here in Karnataka for the last month, only half believing what is happening. It's terrible to feel glad that I'm leaving before Valentine's Day, when I wouldn't even be likely to celebrate it here. And I've avoided the pubs completely. One can only hope that people stay angry about this, so that the government can't simply 'forget' what's been happening before any -legal- justice is actually done.

Vasundhara said...

From Shweta Moorthy

Your blog really captures the contradictions in the way gender politics is evolving in India. Women themselves supporting moral policing and/or 'self-censorship' is worrisome especially since its a continuation of how some women have supported a certain lakshmi-durga sort of image propagated by conservative ideologies/organisations. A distorted ... Read Moreform of empowerment that!
The other aspect that needs to be chewed over is how class intersects with gender issues in India. Of course I will let you do the chewing :)

Eve* aka JB said...

and why the heck aren't you promoting this better?
Bang on and very, very well said. thankyou for the thoughts.

Anu Russell said...

Very well said...I have been under the radar for all things you have mentioned...how annoying...

this morning I dropped mom off at the airport in dallas...and on my way back to the car in a deserted parking lot, I thought to myself randomly...I feel so safe and I am a girl walking alone in the dark...wow! i had never felt that In chennai where I was raised...I was always on the lookout. I never looked up and saw ever...and today I do it...

I tell my husband that I ran away from all that and I am afraid to go back...to wonder what I should wear or what I should say or how fake I should act to look nice...

well said...