The Khushboo case fallout

BY V Geetha| IN Media Freedom | 01/04/2010
When women’s groups protested the misogynistic rancour directed at Khushboo, they did so in defense of her right to free speech; and to insist that frank opinions on sexuality not be proscribed by self-appointed morality cops.
Feminists have a direct stake in free speech, says V. GEETHA

It’s now nearly two years since Khushboo’s remarks on pre-marital sex provoked a rash of chauvinist responses in Tamil Nadu. Several cases were filed against her and it is only now that she appears to have earned a bit of legal respite, though by no means has she earned her ‘freedom’ since the matter is still being heard in the courts.


When women’s groups protested the publicly voiced misogynistic rancour directed against Khushboo, they did so for two reasons: in defense of her right to freedom of speech; and to insist that frank opinions on sexuality not be proscribed by self-appointed morality cops. Amongst those who lent their support to this protest not many were willing to risk stating their views on sexuality and society, and felt safe affirming a citizen’s right to free expression.


In truth, though, these two principles are linked: free speech is never simply that, since the conditions of freedom and proscription are given by what civil society considers permissible or not at any given point in time. It is not accidental that matters to do with love and sex are amongst the most frangible in this context ??" it is never quite clear where legitimacy ends and offence begins as far as these interlinked areas of human experience are concerned. Further the notion of ‘offence’ too is almost always hazily held, and includes everything and anything, from what might offend prudes to what might cause actual sexual hurt.


The problem becomes all the more complex when confident and self-assured women, not necessarily feminists, express opinions on sex and love. When they echo conservative views, such opinions acquire the force of a moral command, and when they disturb these views, they are seen as thwarting social order and morality. Moral panic ensues, or is made to emerge and the woman who has dared to say whatever she did becomes sexually and morally suspect.


Never mind that the very same social order is gleefully voyeuristic and that its votaries are content to watch on television, in awe and horror, the sexual antics of godmen, actors and politicians (witness the broadcasting and viewing on prime time Tamil television Swami (sic) Nityananda’s ostensible sexual habits). It is almost as if in order to retain and gloat over its own repressed sensibility the guardians of morality need to annul opinions that mock at and deconstruct that repression. The denial of freedom of speech in the name of social hurt thus becomes an alibi for a sexual hypocrisy that is always at pains to conceal itself.


Yet, it is not that societies never get to talk of love and sex differently. When the Tamil anti-caste movement led by E V Ramasamy Periyar argued the case for love and marriage across castes in the 1920s and 1930s, there were many who expressed their horror at his views, and some willfully read them as endorsing and enabling promiscuity. Of those who supported him and others who spoke and wrote in favour of love as an emotion that ought to be freely expressed, not all were convinced of the virtue of freedom. Some understood freedom in the context of what has been traditionally restricted in caste society and which they felt within their right to challenge. Others read the imperative to love as ‘natural’ to the human condition. Yet others were passionate about the freedom to love and choose one’s partner. The point is that all these views were argued out in a contentious and lively public sphere, and however acrimonious and lewd the debate it never quite degenerated into a demand for proscription of certain views.


Yet in today’s Tamil society or indeed in any other in India, no such radical civil decorum exists. It is not only sexuality and opinions expressed around it that provoke anxiety. A new range of offences has emerged over the last decade ??" culture, language, history and community have become markers of identity in rather stern ways that their votaries are seldom willing to admit the validity of opinions that query the identity in question. Particularly, they are not interested in distinguishing prejudice from criticism and, instead, are content to retreat into social hurt that only stands to be appeased by proscription of the offending viewpoint. Eva Hoffman, author of Shtetl, a book that examines Polish-Jewish relations in pre-World War II Poland notes that it is acutely important to note when a prejudice acquires the force of law and leads to a decree. She notes too that in the past there existed traditions of humour and irony which allowed Poles and Jews to hold their prejudices with good will, but that these emotions grew savage in the fervid atmosphere of the early twentieth century and led to nasty anti-Semitic legislation and social practice. Her point is well taken ??" that we do not lose sight of the endless shades of grey that separate prejudice and hate speech, for it is these that indicate to us the necessity to be open, engaged and argumentative, at all costs.


In the Indian context, there is a further issue at stake: asking for proscription of offending views removes the offender from public scrutiny and renders him or her impervious to subsequent reasoning and critique; and worse makes the state the defender of a democracy it cynically rejects in its workaday contexts. Not one person who opposed Khushboo could come up with a convincing argument as to why they found her views untenable ??" they could have mustered statistics, counter-opinions, even argued out their prejudices. Instead they had recourse to legal action. Whatever civil protest they mustered together was thoroughly unpleasant, calling into question as it did, her ‘character’ as it were and covertly casting aspersions on the fact that she was ‘Muslim’.


As feminists we have a direct stake in free speech, since, in many instances, our willingness or otherwise to abide by social and sexual norms become the measure of what is to be allowed or disallowed by way of public expression. We know all too well that in order to be heard, we are asked to be ‘good’ and if we fall foul of that ‘purity’ routinely expected of us, it is not only our views that are maligned, but we are refused civic presence.


V Geetha is a feminist historian, writer and editorial director, Tara Books. She is based in Chennai.

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