Friday, June 7, 2013

Social Media Social Ignorance

This appeared in The Indian Express on June 01, 2013

Twitter outrage over the mannequin ban does not reflect Mumbai’s many conflicting moralities

Applying Western liberal standards of gender equality to Indian society is perhaps premature. Being the world’s largest democracy is no mean achievement. However, political democracy and equality alone is cited as a measure of its relative success. Social and economic equality, emancipation and empowerment have failed to follow political equality. One aspect of this socio-economic parity was the cause championed by B.R. Ambedkar (somewhat diluted and distorted today by his successors). Lamentably, in the context of gender, the issue didn’t quite get the same impetus.

Unequal socio-economic development is not only a function of class and caste, but of gender as well. And herein lies the root of our present predicament. Gender issues are just as deep-rooted as class and caste divisions, and cut across caste/ class divisions. This is a phenomenon that has existed in Western society as well. Plato for instance, advocated the communism of wives, along with property. Enough has been written and said about the position of women in our patriarchal society. However, what needs to be pointed out is that this is merely the result of a lack of social development. It is worth noting that there exist multitudes of demographics in India (often oversimplified as Bharat and India). Starting with that section of society that genuinely believes in the cause of female emancipation, followed by the section that mouths equality in public but manipulates the sex of their child through the use of technology in private, right down to the section that sees women as nothing more than cattle. The deeply traditional (read patriarchal) nature of a large section of our population, juxtaposed with those of scientific (and cosmopolitan) temper, clearly makes for a heterogeneous culture and value system. And it is this heterogeneity that the law must sadly cater to.

Mumbai is arguably India’s most cosmopolitan city. However, the thousands who come to the city seeking a better life are quite removed from the liberal culture of the city. Is it possible to compare men from a place where they don’t speak to a member of the opposite sex (unless she is a relation) with those who are part of Mumbai’s “upwardly mobile” crowd? And it is not only the migrant workforce that has attitudes and values different from what we consider Bombay culture. It is also the plurality of Bombay culture itself. So, do I agree with the ban on lingerie-clad mannequins? Most certainly not. But I do understand that a lingerie-clad mannequin will probably mean different things to my husband and to my 8th-class-pass Man Friday from rural Bihar. Banning things is the flavour of the season, and is easier than implementing much-needed social development and reform programmes. But, deep down, I can understand where Ritu Tawade, the BJP corporator, is coming from. Sadly for us, the social media voice of outrage is not quite representative of the actual value system in Mumbai.

I often hear the argument that women can wear what they like in Mumbai, and so Mumbai is liberal and progressive. Being an “outsider” from Delhi, I agree about the relative freedom to dress the way you want. But just because no one leers at a girl in shorts in Mumbai doesn’t mean the polity is progressive. What it means is that people have become desensitised to the way different women dress over the years. For example, just because one no longer reacts (overtly) to the sight of an elephant ambling along on our roads, it doesn’t mean that we are ok with it and don’t have an opinion on it. It just means that we are used to such sights. However, foreigners are completely awestruck at the very presence of a pachyderm.

My cook, a thoroughbred Mumbaikar, doesn’t react to girls in skimpy tops and shorts, or to lingerie-clad mannequins for that matter. But you have a conversation with her on the subject, and she will lash out at the “erosion” of moral values in our society and the impact on young men of the titillation that these girls and mannequins “provide”. According to her, the overt display of sexuality entices young men, whether in flesh-and-blood models or plastic ones. She sees it manifesting in the way young men covertly gaze at the girls dressed in non-traditional clothes. She also has an opinion on the roadside male vendors who sell lingerie, as well as the mostly male salespersons in generic shops that sell lingerie along with other items. But she feels powerless to do anything about it. She supports the mannequin ban and sees it as a way to check “moral erosion”. Coming from where she does, I find it hard not to see merit in her argument.

The writer is Mumbai-based actor and activist