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Who defines obscenity?

KALPANA SHARMA

A.M. FARUQUI

It is the image of the `Indian' woman that is the issue.

CAN you be pro-flesh and anti-flesh at the same time? Apparently you can, if you belong to the Shiv Sena. In Mumbai, the city of its birth, the Shiv Sena is enacting one of its stranger dramas. One arm of the Shiv Sena has gone on the offensive against vegetarians, those who oppose all flesh, particularly if it is raw and brought into residential buildings inhabited by vegetarians. And the other has gone on the rampage against hoardings displaying too much flesh.

In the course of just one fortnight, we heard the South Mumbai section head of the Shiv Sena, Bala Kaleshkar, declare: "Mumbai is the land of Maharashtrians and we have been large-hearted to accept everyone. That does not mean they (meaning the vegetarians) can displace us. If these vegetarian societies continue this segregation, the Shiv Sena will speak the language it is known for". And all residents of Mumbai, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, certainly know what Kaleshkar was talking about in his thinly veiled threat.

And even as Kaleshkar was fuming about vegetarian housing societies preventing meat-eaters from living on the same premises, the moral wing of the Shiv Sena was pulling down hoardings of a particular clothing company that displays men and women wearing jeans with ostensibly nothing on top. Ostensibly. Because the women are wearing flesh covered bikini tops while the men display their naked torsos. The Shiv Sena objects to the women, not the men.

People in Mumbai are familiar with the Shiv Sena's sporadic tirades against particular advertisements. Around 10 years ago, the party had built up a head of steam against an advertisement for jogging shoes in which a naked man and women were entwined with a serpent around their necks. The advertisement was eye-catching because it was provocative. But the Sena had objected not so much to the nakedness of the couple, which was cleverly concealed by trick photography and the aids that computer graphics provide these days, but the fact that the individuals in the advertisement were Maharashtrians. Furthermore, they were engaged to be married! How could a "decent" Maharashtrian girl pose for such an advertisement with the man she was supposed to marry? The models were Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre and incidentally they did not marry each other although I doubt if it was the Shiv Sena's tirade against them that caused the estrangement. But the advertisement was taken off and Soman and Sapre more or less apologised.

Ask an average person in Mumbai their opinion on this issue, and they are likely to say that it is a non-issue. Why make a fuss about one advertisement? But the Chairperson of the National Commission on Women (NCW) disagrees. "Such images are not conducive to the dignity of women," says Poornima Advani. "We don't want to curb anybody's freedom," she says, but "we owe it to the women of the country in particular and society in general to ensure they are properly projected."

But is the reality of women, where they are denied their rights even as human beings, "conducive to their dignity"? Is being the victim of gang rapes during communal riots dignified? Why does the NCW not go on the warpath on these issues?

Some people would argue that these are not mutually exclusive choices. That you can be concerned about women's rights and about violence against women even as you object to their being objectified or commodified. But what is disturbing about groups like the Shiv Sena claiming the moral high ground on behalf of Indian women is that their concern is selective. And that it conforms to an image of the "Indian" (read Hindu) woman that they have and which they would like to impose on all women in the country. This image has less to do with liberation or empowerment and more to do with control and conformism.

In fact, women who choose to speak out, not to conform, to question, pay a price whether they are in cities or in villages. Even as the Shiv Sena was making a fuss in Mumbai over one advertisement, tribal women in Rajasthan were sitting in the boiling heat on a dharna to protest against the high-handedness of the police and the molestation by a local tehsildar. Their story remains untold; the outcome of their struggle is uncertain.

The Sahariya tribals of Mundiar village in Rajasthan's Baran district objected when the local tehsildar arrived in their village completely inebriated during Holi and proceeded to fondle the women and rammed his jeep into two bystanders. When they protested, he sent a police party to beat them up. As a result, one woman, Gulab Bai, died and many more were injured. Up to the end of last month, the villagers were on dharna protesting and demanding action against the tehsildar, who was absconding. For the Sahariya women, what women wear, or what people eat, is of little consequence when they have to fight for their basic right to live in dignity.

It is this kind of obscenity that we should be protesting about and that the NCW ought to investigate.

E-mail the writer at ksharma@thehindu.co.in

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