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Our Response To These 3 Films Shows The Kind Of Feminism We Find ‘Acceptable’

By Aditya Sharma:

The relationship media and women share, precedes the age of Raj and Simran. It is older than “Sholay” and more dramatic than, “Basanti, inn kutto ke saamne mat nachna” (Basanti, don’t dance in front of these dogs). This relationship has no definite origin, for media has constantly evolved in medium and reach. Cinema and the social media currently are the most popular assets of the media family. India is home to the biggest film industry worldwide and is one of the largest consumer bases for social media in the world. With over a billion eyes glued to TV screens, mobiles, tablets and computers at every second, the information that these mediums provide is sensitive to our formation of opinions and ideas.

Popular media has constantly sexualised women, created gender roles and reiterated patriarchal norms. Objectifying women on popular media is the everyday silent violence that goes unnoticed and unaccounted for. As Dr. Jean Kilbourne says, “Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step in justifying violence against that person.” Thus, Bollywood is no stranger to portraying misogyny and sexism where female leads are denied ‘love marriages’, wives are treated as husbands’ property and men are supposed to ‘control’ women.

In all its grandiose, “Devdas” (1955 and 2002) is at the peak of being misogynist and sexist. Paro (female lead) is conditioned into marrying someone who is 30 years older to her. She leads a life within the boundaries of her marriage. Her bold attempts to personal freedom are seen as deviant. However, “Devdas” stands to be one of India’s most celebrated films both in domestic as well as the international market. Films and filmmaking that is regarded as a liberating field of work, hasn’t been able to rub off the dirt of misogyny and sexism from itself.

Feminism as an idea and a movement faces a bipolar reaction in India. This is owing to changing meanings attached to the visual media that the masses consume. I am particularly intrigued by the way films like “Queen” (2014), “Parched” (2016) and “Pink” (2016) were received, and the reaction that Vogue India’s “My Choice” (2015) film faced as part of their social awareness campaign #VogueEmpower. All these four forms of visual media define the way feminism changes meanings. Sometimes it becomes a good word: lauded for its attempts and practices, and sometimes a bad word: criticised for its uncalled male bashing, if at all. The ‘good word, bad word’ practice represents the general opinion of the masses, one that is dictated by the media they consume.

Actress Deepika Padukone was the lead in the 99 women starrer film “My Choice”. It was directed by Homi Adjania and produced by JSW and Sangita Jinda. Among the 99 women are director Adhuna Akhtar, film critic Anupama Chopra, model/lawyer Scherezade Shroff, actor Nimrat Kaur and other women who are successful, and have made a difference in their respective fields. The black and white film asks women to take control of their “body, mind and choices,” for women are the “universe, infinite in every direction.” The film is eccentric in performance and boldly calls for the personal as political. The choices that the film talks of, spans from the choice of the kind of body she wishes to have, the marriage she wants to share, the sex she wants to indulge in and the kind of love she wants to reciprocate. The words are gallant and unconventional in every detail. Every frame of the film displays women of vigour who speak their mind and politicised their private. However, to my much surprise, the film received a lot of criticism. The film still waits for irony to surface that struck its fate.

It was the early hours of March 8 2014, when I had read the thunderous review of the movie “Queen” in the Indian Express. The review called Kangana Ranaut, lead actress of the movie, “the queen of hearts.” It further continued to say that the movie was “intensely local and gloriously global.” In summation, it was ‘women-centric’ in every detail. The film is about a girl, Rani (meaning queen) who is dumped by her fiancé on her wedding day but dares to go solo on her honeymoon trip to Paris and Amsterdam. It is a coming-of-age, discovery-of-self story where Rani learns to be “independent, bold, and assertive, and takes her own choices.” She is both the queen in her life and the “queen of hearts” of the Indian masses. The film went on to win 2 national awards, 6 Filmfare awards, 5 IIFA Awards to name a few and earned 10 times its budget at the box office. Feminism became a household good word, brimming in everyone’s daily diction.

Exactly a year later, the negative response that the “My Choice” film received sounded louder than most voices under male oppression both at private and public front. The internet broke open with hashtags, spoofs, memes and reaction films. The Vogue campaign drowned in the same path of ’empowerment’ that had made “Queen” a success a year ago. All of a sudden the India that campaigned for her daughters to be ‘independent, bold, assertive and free’, was apprehensive of women urging other women to make their own choices. People did not like bold assertive women talking their minds out. Feminism had all of a sudden become a bad word looming the Indian media.

Passivity, compliance and docility are words that are often attached to the behaviour of women in India. Gender being a social construct, it becomes customary for women to follow a certain code of behaviour and response that are tailored to their particular communities. Indologist Wendy Doniger explains Manu’s ancient and famous text, “The Laws of Manu” to describe the characteristics of the ideal Indian woman: “a girl, a young women or a old woman should not do anything independently, even in her house. In childhood, a woman should be in her father’s control, in her youth under her husbands and when her husband is dead, under her sons’. A virtuous wife should constantly serve her husband like a god, even if he behaves badly, freely indulges her lust, and is devoid of any good qualities.” The matrimonial column in newspapers and films is a magnificent site to witness how Manu’s ideas are reciprocated even today.

Feminism as a bad word finds it origins in opposition to everything that the so-called ideal Indian woman is not. Customary to be passive, compliant and docile, the Indian women, when voiced out through mediums such as the “My Choice” film are ridiculed for radicalising the very movement of feminism and thereby hampering woman’s empowerment.

An opinion article in The Hindu said that film did nothing but “misunderstand the term empowerment, (and) speak of women’s choices within the personal domain rather than the public, and package feminism in a seductive manner causing more harm to the movement than good.” Therefore, to be bold, assertive and eccentric in expression is to be seductive is what the writer hinted. In nearly within a week of the release of the film, response films by the title of ‘My Choice – male version’ were flourishing on the internet. Even if many response films were for strictly humour purposes, such that of the response film by Brat House Films, the whole integrity of the ’empower’’ campaign is lost. Men have for long exercised their choice, and now when a woman becomes the face of the same choices that he took, how could men be far behind to react to it. After all, men have to walk hand-in-hand with women, if not lead them but cannot lag behind at any cost. It only took 99 women in a black-and-white film to pinch the male ego of an entire nation to an extent of bad wording an entire movement.

The anti-498A campaign too gathered momentum around the same time as the “My Choice” campaign in March 2015. It only further added fuel to the fire. Section 498A of the India Penal Code, states that, “Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine. The offence is cognisable, non-compoundable and non-bailable.” The law also includes attempts of dowry harassment on women. The anti-498A lobby claims that women are misusing the law and are filling false cases of domestic abuse and violence. Men are now becoming ‘victims’ of ‘gender bias laws’. This lobby of people grew so strong that they bad worded feminism heavily, leading to proposals to amend the bill in the legislation. The Supreme Court too in 2010 stated that this law had become “a weapon at hands of disgruntled women.” Lack of knowledge and efficient operation of the judiciary may cost the women who in reality face domestic abuse and have IPC 498A to their protection. The number of genuine guilty cases outnumber the false cases heavily.

On the other hand, “Queen” projected feminism as a good word because it partly ran parallel to the ideas of Manu. Rani in the movie was docile, passive and compliant in the first half of the movie, only to discover she has a spine after all. In the second half of the movie, she is dawned with a lot of courage and takes upon an adventure into sex shops, co-ed dorms and red light districts. She is everything that “My Choice” exemplifies. I am not of the opinion that transformations are unwelcome. I simply am perplexed by the reaction of the same Indian mass who consumed “My Choice” into being absolutely radical. Just because the woman in “Queen” is the “dilli ki chori” (Delhi girl) from Rajouri Garden and the women in “My Choice” are “Mumbai ki mem (maam)” doesn’t mean they have differentiated aims. I agree that the Vogue campaign could have opted to feature women from our everyday lives or so to say more middle class backgrounds to make the experience of watching the video more relatable. But just because they did not do so, does not mean that the film cannot ask the million other queens in India to take control of their choices. Feminism as a movement should not be warped to the fancies of the masses.

Recently, I also happened to have read works of Kaja Silverman (“The Acoustic Mirror” and “Dis-Embodying the Female Voice”) who looked into how women contribute to their own objectification on screen. His research stated that the female voice is more closely tied to her body than her male counterpart. Thus, male actors may sound exactly like they’re own self, but female actors may have to lower to a sexy purr to sound more a mistress or hitch the tone up to sound bubbly. Voice, therefore, becomes an important tool of characterisation in media. You will be surprised to know that Bond girls have been secretly dubbed over by women with more sensual voices. What we can carry forward from Silverman’s work is that, the bubbly Rani from “Queen” fit her character’s docile and passive behaviour which made her more acceptable to the masses as a symbol of empowerment. In contrast, Deepika Padukone sounded very blunt and straightforward in “My Choice”, making her deviant from the usual assumption of women to be soft spoken, docile and passive.

Feminism as a good word marked its return with the release of “Pink” in 2016. It has received heavy appreciation by the masses and critics. It has already become a symbol of women empowerment. I am sure “Pink” will take away more than awards than “Queen”, considering it has a rising number of zeroes towards the right of its box office collection figures. The movie is a story of three women who file a law suit against four boys who sexually assaulted them. Consent, and specifically sexual consent, is the central theme to the story of “Pink”.

The dictionary meaning of consent means to give permission for or agree to. But what good is a permission or agreement without a choice? The decision to say “yes” or “no” is also a choice equally being made by a person rationally. Therefore, the moment Amitabh Bachchan said, “No means no,” I could hear the “Wows” and “Oh’s” in the movie hall, but I couldn’t help but be appalled at the irony from two years ago with “My Choice”. The arguments “Pink” makes are commendable and makes an individual to think deeper into moral and ethical values and virtues in practice. But didn’t “My Choice” too do the same thing, perhaps in black and white?

My main intention to present to you these comparisons of opinions and reception of films is to project the way the Indian audience sways without an understanding of firm notions of academic discourses such a feminism. Feminism is treated like a staple Indian meat dish available at every possible place with a kitchen. The only difference being that the real recipe is unknown to most and the dish cooked is unworthy of taste.

In February 2016, I had written an article in the Assam Tribune titled ‘The Moody Nation’. It spoke of the moody character of the Indian mass, one sunken in irony. Crowd swaying is the term Shakespeareans would use to explain this moodiness. The conceptualisation of feminism in India too is a result of this distinct characteristic. Bipolar opinions are formed when there exists commonsensical knowledge and feminism is its long standing victim. The practice of forming opinions without having rationally thought about it through the lens of scientific understanding results in knowledge that does more harm than good.

Lack of rationale is a like a half-baked cake because in the 21st century everything under the sun and moon has a deeper political significance. But we do not like half-baked cakes too, do we? Thus, the choice of remaining politically correct effects not only the political sphere but also finds its reach to values, virtues, practices and traditions, as in the case of attaching meaning to feminism. Citizenry, therefore, must be exercised based on careful individual thought and not bandwagoned on what is fed to us through the media.

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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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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