Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A lost opportunity?

 It was Nirbhya's birthday on 10th May. I am sure she would have celebrated it with her friends,  hanging out in a Mall, having dinner at some place and catching up a movie. Small pleasures of young people. But it was not to be because of the  bestial and inhuman behavior of some men who raped and left her to die. She died but only after she made each one of us conscious of the cruelty, the unfairness and the brazenness of the act.

I am sure many parents after the incident may have hugged their daughters and thought" thank god! It is not my daughter" and many others may have heaved a sigh of relief and thought " thank  God! I do not have a daughter". While both the sentiments are understandable given the gory details discussed endlessly in media and the mass reaction to the incident, they are problematic in their own way. On the one hand it may force parents to restrict the freedom of their daughters fearing for their safety and on the other hand it may help justify the decision of many parents not to have daughters. More important is for every parent of a boy to  ensure that he respects the rights of girls and women. That is possible only when we as adults have more equitable gender relationships in the family.

In retrospect, the whole debate somehow got restricted to policing and death penalty to the offenders. The anger at the candle light vigils and protest marches was also against the administration and the police. Many important factors which are widening the gender gap in aspirations,  values and needs of men and women, the cultural lag between the urban and rural perceptions about women and the modern and  patriarchal gender frameworks are not discussed to the extent required.

For instance, the insensitive sentiments from politicians and religious leaders only elicited condemnation, and jeering from the media with a highly defensive reaction from the offenders and their supporters. And,  after a few hours or days of media attention, the issue is forgotten.

 I would have loved to see a hour long discussion of Asaram Bapu with a cross section of young men and women regarding what his position is on the role of women, their status in families and society and his stand on violence against women .  It would have definitely helped us understand why religious leaders think the way they do and may be we could have sensitized him to what the young generation thinks about gender issues. It may have also opened up discussions between parents and children at homes.

Instead what we had was aggressive anchors/reporters trying to corner him, make him confess that what he said was wrong and extract an apology. We lost a golden opportunity to have a meaningful exchange of ideas.

Similarly, I would have loved to know about the background of the MPs who made such ridiculous statements, what was their stand on gender or development issue in the Parliament or Assembly, what was their level of participation in decision making etc. It would have helped the viewers understand the diverse perspectives and could have promoted a dialogue to bring about mindset change. But it requires research, investment of time and resources. Is it that in the 24 HR format of breaking news we do not have the luxury of such engagement on issues? Is the tried and tested formula of a panel discussion the only option? I fail to understand the purpose of a defensive ruling party representative, the heckling opposition party members with civil society and media representatives chipping into add to the noise in TV discussions. The audience can predict what each one of them is going to say and after a while switch channels.

The popular response to Nirbhaya incident was also more driven by anger and frustration. After watching hours and hours of TV I failed to understand whether we are protesting the treatment of women in India in general or venting our anger against the corrupt police force and self seeking and apathetic political class? What were the concerns of the protestors, who looked so bothered , so anguished and so angry? Did we try to understand their real concerns? Don't you think it would have been great to have a cross section of them particularly young men,  8 to 10 of them,speaking about why they are bothered, anguished and angry.

What are their perceptions regarding women? Do they think that a woman -  his sister, mother, girl friend, friend or wife has a right to choose her career and her life partner,  right to freedom to go out in the night, watch late night movies, be with a male companion alone, resist the advances of a man,  go to a pub and have a drink and dress up the way she wants. We could have had an audience poll, a social media event on the opinions expressed by the participants, thus drawing the viewers into a discussion. This could have been followed with a panel discussion to frame it in a larger perspective.

Even in the current scenario of 24/7 news channels, breaking news and cut throat competition for TRPs there is scope for improving the programming. We only need to think out of the box and give our viewers the respect that they deserve.

Till we do that Gudias and Nirbhayas keep coming and going on the national scene with not much difference to the way we treat our women in our homes, on the streets and at work places.

Friday, May 3, 2013

MARD for redefining gender?

There is an expression in Telugu´Karana  Janmuralu’ one who is born for a cause. I think, Nirbhaya is one. The brutal violence that she faced, her suffering, courage and death has shaken us out of our stupor and forced us to shake out of our apathy. A number of people have come forward to support the campaign against gender based violence and news papers have been consistently highlighting incidents of violence against women which would otherwise be relegated to some small corner in the inside pages. While this is making reading the news paper a harrowing experience, it is keeping us focused on the issue.

The most important fall out of this is the churning that has been brought about in the film fraternity with Bollywood stars coming out to support the cause in a big way. Farhan Akhtar’s MARD (men against rape and domestic violence) is a laudable effort. And, the discussion on item songs for once is being initiated by the film fraternity itself with candid expression of opinions on male gaze and objectification of women’s body. The thin line between freedom to express and celebrate sexuality and sensuality as against yielding to male gaze and objectification is being acknowledged. It was pleasure watching Shabana Azmi and Zoya Akhtar speaking on various channels/fora on the issue with seriousness and insight.

Just see the impact of MARD. It is being promoted by sports stars in IPL. Media is lapping it up; there are promotional events, icons from film industry lending their support and the social media buzzing.

But my concern is only with the packaging of the issue. The word “MARD”is highly gendered unlike purush or Aadmi. Whenever, we refer to men in a positive light we often use these words, Maryada Purushottam for deity Ram, aadmi achcha hai, aadmi ho ya janwar etc. We do not use MARD. We use Mard in contexts which are violent, aggressive, war like situations. It is actually used as a counter to the feminine stereo type. We say “mard hai to kar ke dikha”, “kya mard hai yaar, biwi ko control kar nahi sakta” etc.  The emotions evoked by MARD are those of power, authority, control and violence particularly against women.

The twirling moustache indicates once again pride, arrogance and control. A MARD is expected to protect a woman because she is his property and if he is mard enough he should not let anyone attack his property. So he insists that she need not work because he earns enough, she should not provoke others to attack her by going alone or going out in the nights, she should not challenge the boundaries set for her by getting involved in relationships beyond what is dictated by the Mard in her family. 

A Mard with or without twirling moustache would feel compromised if he cannot control the woman’s freedom and sexuality. He is not Mard enough, if for the sake of family honour he is not able to eliminate her, if the situation demands. A Mard is a demi God, no woman dare resist or reject him to pursue her own dreams and aspirations. If she does, he is ready with the most potent weapons, a bottle of acid, a can of kerosene or a sharp knife to disfigure her for life and of course his MARDANGI to rape and humiliate her for life. Umpteen films have been successful solely based on this theme of Mardangi - violation of women, macho response, revenge and retribution.

Will Farhan’s MARD be able to change the cultural and gender definitions of Mardangi/Masculinity? We will have to wait and watch.