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The Problems Of Being A “MARD”: The Social Impact of Gender-Sensitizing Ad Campaigns

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By Rovel Sequeira:

Since the last year or so, before the beginning of movies in cinema halls, among the run of ads about desi brands of toothpaste and turmeric powder and the standard ‘smoking-kills’ shots, a certain social awareness short film campaign has been making the rounds. Entitled M.A.R.D. (Men Against Rape and Discrimination), the campaign, created by the popular film star Farhan Akhtar, attempts to instil respect towards women among Indian men by trying to change what it means to be a ‘real’ mard, or man. In the light of daily reports of sexual assault on women, including the brutal gang-rape of a student on a Delhi bus by six men on December 16, 2013, which led to the popular renaming of Delhi as ‘Rape City’, one cannot deny that such campaigns are necessary. There are, however, various arguments from multiple sides about the content of such campaigns and their effectiveness in tackling this deep-rooted problem.

mard

The M.A.R.D website reads ‘’I want to see a man whose mother, sister, wife and daughter are proud to call their own’’, taking Farhan Akhtar’s words as the guiding line in the conception of its short films. The quote, in essence, demonstrates the problems in the content of the campaign and marks a key difference from campaigns generated by women’s movements such as ‘One Billion Rising’ and ‘Reclaim the Night’. Directed towards men, the campaign asks them to respect women as mothers, sisters and wives, not as women, conveying the message that women deserving of respect are always those who are in some relation to men, either as caregivers or as entities deserving the protection of good and strong men. This, in turn, creates a big brotherly mentality among the films’ male audience, often used to justify restricting and policing women’s movements under the pretext of respecting them.

Showcased most often before the screening of films addressed to a metropolitan audience such as Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani (which sets the cosmopolitan rootlessness of the hero against the ‘modern’ rootedness of the heroine) the message of such ad films could then be more easily adapted by Indian patriarchy as it often “embrace(s) other imaginations of gender introduced through global media flows because they can be combined with existing gender arrangements”, as Steve Derne argues in the broader context of Bollywood cinema in his book Globalization on the Ground: New Media and the Transformation of Culture, Class and Gender in India. The problem with such a film campaign is that it fails to address specific patriarchal attitudes such as those blaming women’s cell-phones, or their partying or walking around after dark, or their dress, for rape. Besides, the rhetoric of the campaign, directed at the emotions rather than at reason, arouses a sense of outrage among its male viewers, always seeming to posit the ‘fake’ mard as someone outside oneself, as someone who must be rejected. It fails, thus, to generate introspection about one’s own complicity in patriarchal attitudes.

Having said this much, one cannot merely dismiss such campaigns on the grounds of their use of emotional rhetoric. Among those who already do not discriminate against women or have a certain degree of awareness and education, arguments directed only to one’s reason may reinforce such attitudes but there is a space for arguments based on emotion. Emotional talk-shows such as Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate (modelled on The Winfrey Oprah Show), tackling various gender-related issues ranging from female foeticide to dowry to ‘honour killing’ have produced genuine testimonies of real conversions or changes in attitude among Indian men. Khan’s testimony to the media about a man who wanted a boy and admitted to crying after watching the show and apologizing to his wife, saying that he just wants her to be happy, is a case in point. In addition, the show was praised by celebrities including Farhan Akhtar, Salman Khan, and Shabana Azmi, for striking an emotional chord with audiences due to its rawness. There is an audience for such a television show and more often than not, it is the same audience that watches Ekta Kapoor serials or Karan Johar’s movies religiously. (Again, these movies or serials are often proclaimed ‘groundbreaking’ for bending the slightest stereotype, whether in the portrayal of women as modern working individuals, or in depicting finally, in mainstream cinema, a closeted gay character). It is such audiences that need major conversion but such conversion will always be generated by a process and continuing dialogue not what will amount to a cultural shock that will be dismissed immediately. It is in this context that Tanishq’s new advertisement endorsing widow remarriage (legalized in the colonial era) can still be seen as revolutionary. It is revolutionary for multiple sections of the Indian population which sees it as such, sections which still believe in the sanctity of arranged marriages and in joint-family systems and which put up matrimonial ads exempting LSR (read, feminist) girls from applying.

Although India is a major economic global power today, it has not been affected by globalization uniformly, creating huge disparities not just in income, but also in education as seen in metropolitan and rural divides. India thus, is not just an amalgam of multiple cultures and languages but also of multiple time periods simultaneously, and cannot have a uniform strategy to address gender inequality. It is this varied Indian audience that M.A.R.D. attempts to address by making its campaign multi-lingual and by roping in local and mainstream celebrities like Telugu cinema actor Mahesh Babu and cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar and other IPL stars. The large number of Indians who attribute deity-status to both film-stars and cricket-players would actually be influenced by gestures made by such superstars. Voting campaigns undertaken by multiple celebrities and the presence of actor-politicians such as Govinda and Dharmendra in the Parliament and State Assemblies are emblems of the enormous power they possess to influence attitudes. In the absence of a long-term solution such as systematic sex education in primary and secondary school, and in the gestation period for the formulation of such a program by the State, such ‘limited’ gender-sensitizing campaigns, therefore, are needed and will be for at least, some time to come. Thus, Akhtar, himself admits that ‘what we are hoping for is some kind of a trickle-down effect of the message’ (as reported in an interview with DNA).

Finally, however, for such campaigns as M.A.R.D. to succeed on a large-scale, the nature of male-oriented Bollywood itself needs to change. It matters little if a Shah Rukh Khan or a Salman Khan endorses respect for women in a two-minute short film before going on to star in a feature film with multiple ‘item numbers’, subjecting leading film actresses to an intensely objectifying ‘male gaze’. Films like ‘Saawariya’ or ‘Anjaana Anjaani’ with their much touted scenes of Ranbir Kapoor in a towel being subject to a female gaze, and others like ‘Kahaani’ with strong women protagonists who break the vamp-wife binary are positive steps in this direction.

In the meanwhile, for those men who claim to already be liberated from chauvinism, the Tarun Tejpal case should be an eye-opener where several of his friends and other male ‘intellectuals’ justified and still condone his behaviour as a harmless ‘pass’ at an attractive woman employee, thereby demonstrating the endemic nature of sexism and patriarchy at the very highest level. For these men, a recent French video which has been doing the rounds on social media forums should convey the extent of sexism even in supposedly advanced societies. The video portrays a world in which men become the objects of sexism and of sexual harassment by a women-dominated world. Beginning with ludicrous reversals in which men are ‘adam-teased’ for wearing bermuda shorts and for opening the top button of their shirts on hot summer days, the video crosses the line from funny to disturbing when the sexually assaulted man goes to the police to report the crime, only to find that the policewoman in charge makes ‘passes’ at her male subordinates as a matter of routine and insinuates that the man has fabricated the incident of assault. This, if nothing else, should convey the daily realities of sexism and harassment that women undergo and the need for a multi-pronged approach to deal with such ground realities.

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  1. Parboni

    i really really like your article,it comes out with a kind of feminism that can really be called feminism.I completely agree with every bit of your article,and even the bit where a woman is mostly seen in the context of her relationship with man,but however in the context of this farhan akhtar advertisement,doesn’t it make a more impact when a man has to consider his relationships..and thus isn’t it structured like this to just attack the emotion of a man,rather than reducing woman to her realtionships?They don’t say protect ur mother sisiter…it is about the pride in relationships…and hence isn’t the power vested in woman herself?Just a counter opinion,however,i must appreciate the language,and the clarity with which you have put forward your points.It is though provoking and well thought of.:)

  2. Saanya

    I am so happy you raised the issue with the Farhan Akhtar ad! It’s so frustrating to hear the ‘she’s someone’s wife/daughter/mother’ nonsense- what about she’s an individual

  3. Aditya

    Well written. Really like the point you make about India being a country stuck in different time periods. You got the date of the Delhi rape incident wrong, but this one time I’ll let it pass for the rest of the content is praiseworthy. 🙂

  4. Astha

    The first time I watched the campaign it made me uncomfortable. I knew what was wrong with it. I could hear my heart aloud – I deserve respect for the same reasons that men think they deserve it. I DO NOT need protection from anybody. And respect is no charity. And you do not have to be a MARD to be able to do so. The excessive emphasis on MARD, far from challenging the problematique of masculinity, reinforces it. Hence, women’s safety becomes a personal question to men because a) Their masculinity is affirmed if they take on the role of a ‘protector’ rather than a violator (note that once again women are not recognised as ‘subjects’) or b) because he should be worried about his mother, daughter, wife (vulnerables, in short). Brilliant Rovel.

  5. vivek

    That’s right why you respect woman as sister, mother or in a relations. Why not only as a woman or individual. So if you only respect your mother or sister then definitely you need to change your perceptive & thinking.

    About man or about Farhan Akhter quote/slogan on M.A.R.D, why anyone only thought about being Superman or protecting your family or feeling superior to female members of family or women in society.

    I think it M.A.R.D. also about being a GOOD MAN who has Propriety (code of conduct), ethics & morals (relating to principles of right and wrong in behaviour & especially regarding personal conduct), who knows what is his Duties towards family, towards society & towards himself.
    this is my point of view on being a M.A.R.D. Please reply in comment section towards my thinking.

  6. sarath

    This is in fact one of the most relevant and well written article on the essence of gender equality (forgive me for not calling it feminism). It is not about women being protected by men, or men subduing to women. its about co existing and embracing their sexuality. The direction and effect of the campaigns should be towards this balanced state in the society which by the way can be very hard to achieve.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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