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Try And Wrap Your Head Around What Farah Khan Said About Women In Bollywood

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By Edwin Thomas:

On October 8 2016, New Delhi was witness to a one-of-a-kind gender empowerment conference called ‘The Bridge Talks’ organised and hosted by The Caravan at the Imperial Hotel.

A forum to talk ‘women empowerment’ and feminism, the day-long conference saw the likes of Union Minister Maneka Gandhi, author Urvashi Butalia, activist Mona Eltahawy, politician Mani Shankar Aiyar, actors Sharmila Tagore, Nandita Das and many more.

Determined not to spare the audience from some terrible viewpoints, one of the sessions featured choreographer-turned-director Farah Khan in conversation with Anant Goenka of Indian Express. You would think a person like Khan, who has been in the industry for a long time, would have some unique perspectives on issues regarding women in cinema.

Posted on Facebook by The Bridge Talks.
Posted on Facebook by The Bridge Talks.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go exactly as planned. In fact, to say that she spouted some questionable ideas on feminism and Bollywood is putting it very kindly. Thank goodness I was live-tweeting the entire session to showcase Khan, unedited.

It Didn’t Start Out All That Bad

To her credit, Khan spoke in frank and intriguing terms about what it means to be one of the very few commercially successful female directors in Bollywood. But warning signs of the avalanche that had yet to make its debut were present: “It’s wrong to say my movies aren’t feminist because I am taking on male directors,” said Farah when questioned on the ‘feministic’ aspect of the films that she has made.

It is, perhaps, a reasonable argument to make in the sense that her movies may not have themes that are necessarily empowering but she’s playing in the boy’s club and even beating them at their own game – maybe a shitty game, nevertheless, a game at that.

Things Fall Apart

I quote Chinua Achebe’s famous work to describe what happens next. On the topic of item songs in Bollywood, Farah Khan took the audience for a ride.

“In an item song, the actress is not the item. It’s just item because it has nothing to do with movie,” said Khan of actresses in her item songs. There is a huge difference between objectifying women who seem to have no agency of their own but to entertain the male gaze, either through visual or auditory means; and one where a female subject explores her sexuality through terms defined by herself.

Unfortunately for Khan, that concept seems to have fallen flat. Inadvertently, in a conventional item song, the actress becomes an item. “When you’re talking about feminism, you don’t want to think about women who want to be in item songs.” Choice is a concept that is central to feminism but it is also crucial to look at the kinds of choices made available based on which women can exercise their agency. However, this aspect has usually been overlooked to counter feminist narratives by misleadingly inserting the aspect about ‘choice’. Talk about flipping the script when you know that you’re so close to losing your shit. The feminists have been shamed.

“I don’t think I have shown any girl in an obscenely sexual [manner] in any item song,” mused Khan as many must have thought to themselves what they missed about third wave feminism in “Sheila Ki Jawaani” and an intricate intersectional approach featured in “Main Lovely Ho Gayi“.

“Only actresses who don’t get item songs say that they don’t want to do item songs,” proclaimed Khan when asked about the numerous female actors who have refused to do item songs to get ahead. “Madhuri Dixit got fame because she did sexy item songs.”

While it may not have been necessary to shame actors who have refused to feature in item numbers, she did have a surprisingly simplistic view about actors who do go for them anyway. When asked about what was so feminist about Kareena Kapoor dancing in “Fevicol Se“, Khan had this to say: “Nobody put a gun to Kareena’s head to do an item song.”

With that comment, Khan managed to show how years of experience in a particular industry doesn’t necessarily equate to a complex understanding of the same when it comes to gender dynamics. It would be anyone’s guess as to why a lot of female actors in Bollywood have such constrained career options to begin with – a structure determined by years of selling cinema to a largely male audience. So yes, Kareena may have danced in that song by her own volition but to not acknowledge the systemic bias that exists is appalling.

*Cue Slow Trainwreck*

Keeping it real, Khan had an MRA approach to perceived discrimination in Bollywood – by dismissing its very existence.

“Bollywood doesn’t care if you’re a woman or man. Only success is measured. Discrimination always from press.” Wish things were that simple where the idea of ‘merit’ is supposed to be an equaliser that is blind to all forms of identity markers but in reality, it is almost always based and centred around the success designed for and by a dominant group. But hey, blame the press.

On the gender pay gap in Bollywood: “”Piku” will not make more than “Sultan”. How can you be paid equally? The minute women get those audiences, only then they will be paid equally.” For a woman who had to make it big in a man’s game, she clearly doesn’t have any empathy when it comes to selling women-centric cinema in a man’s universe. And then to place the onus on women is a class act by itself.

Forget empathy, she doesn’t seem to want to leverage her power position to help even things out: “People will make only what is selling,” she said, “We should make women-centric films but I find it difficult to get a budget.”

And here’s a shout out to India and its problems with feminism: “Its very easy to say all problems in India stems from item songs. It’s not the case.” Thanks, but no thanks for empowering the genders, Farah Khan.

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  1. James Bond

    Try and wrap your head around this.

    Government Sponsored Sexism

    1) Real sexism is almost no shelters for male victims of domestic violence.
    2) Real sexism is men getting harsher punishments for the same crime.
    3) Real sexism is countries with compulsorily military service for men.
    4) Real sexism, courts that takes children from fathers based on gender.
    5) Men cannot even vote or get citizenship without enrolling for the draft.
    6) Real sexism is numerous government departments dealing with women’s issues but none dealing with men’s issues.
    7) Male infant circumcision/genital mutilation is legal and performed widely and even completely socially accepted but female genital mutilation is not.
    8) A young boy raped by a woman can be forced to pay child support to his rapist if she gets pregnant, that’s real sexism.
    9) Many countries do not even recognize female on male rape. It can maximally only amount to “sexual assault” that’s real sexism.
    10) Real sexism is having no special laws like VAWA to protect men, even though men are the majority of victims of violent crime.
    11) There are drives to fill quotas for women for the high paid roles but not in the dangerous jobs dominated by men, thats real sexism.
    12) In the army, police, fire service or any other position women have to meet much lower physical standards than men.
    13) Real sexism is services for men only given a fraction of the funds that services for women are given at a government and a social level.
    14) For the same crime, irrespective of the gender of the offender, the perpetrator gets more punishment if the victim is female rather than male.
    15) Most divorce laws are skewed against men, men can lose half his properly, money and children to a woman who decides to leave him.
    He is expected to pay for this betrayal, especially if he has already provided for and supported her, this is real sexism.

    Social sexism against men
    16) Real sexism is being mocked when raped because you’re a man.
    17) Men are expected to not show emotion and remain stoic at all times.
    18) Victim blaming is acceptable ONLY when men are the victims and women the perpetrator. This is real sexism.
    19) Real sexism is having your gender stereotyped by society as being violent, abusers, etc.
    20) Men’s lives are given less value in any emergency situation.
    21) Male children are often given harsher punishments by teachers for the same level of mischief as girls.
    22) Young boys are given less care and attention by parents than girls and beaten over twice as often as girls by parents.
    23) Violence against men by women is much more socially acceptable.
    24) Affirmative action for women only in jobs, education, grants, etc.
    25) Men enrolled in are often given tougher, more dangerous tasks to perform than women in the same post (in a job) This is real sexism.
    27) Males who complain about being objectified are shamed as being “mentally fragile” or their sexuality is questioned. This is real sexism.
    28) Men do not have the privilege of showing affection to each other in public as women without people questioning their sexuality.
    29) Men are expected to ask women out, pay for dates, decide on the venue – if she rejects him he is often labelled creepy or needy.
    30) If a man slaps a woman, he is an abuser and a monster, If a woman slaps a man, “he must have done something to annoy her”
    31) When a man breaks up with a woman, he is called a “jerk”. When a woman dumps a man, “he must have failed her somehow”
    32) Men are excluded from many positions such as babysitters, etc.
    33) Young men having to pay higher car insurance is acceptable but the idea of women having to pay more for health insurance is not.
    34) Despite the fact that the real victims of sexual discrimination are men the term sexual discrimination usually excludes men and the vast majority of surveys and news stories about sexual discrimination dont include men.
    35) Our culture and media makes the assumption of men as guilty, violent offenders where as women are given special treatment at every turn.
    36) In modern movies and TV violence against men is glorified but violence against women is regarded as especially horrific.
    37) Many news reports will read the number of people killed and then highlight women and children as more tragic than male death.
    EG: “37 people were killed in a bus crash including 17 women”
    38) Men are expected to carry heavy things for women, give up their seats for women, shovel snow, mow gardens and do any other job involving manual labour, that women do not wish to perform.
    39) Real sexism is a society where men are taught that a man’s role is to work, provide, pay and die in order to ensure a woman’s happiness.
    40) Real sexism is the fact that men working longer hours in harder more dangerous jobs to earn more money to pay for women’s choices is being turned into a weapon against men.

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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.

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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.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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