Whose choice is it anyway?

IN Media Practice | 16/04/2015
The Vogue My Choice video starring Deepika Padukone makes gender equality look deceptively easy.
The Indian reality is far more complicated, argues MRINAL PANDE. Pix: youtube.com
There is no denying the visually alluring aspects of the My Choice video created by Vogue India magazine, starring the reigning Bollywood diva Deepika Padukone and 99 other celebrity women. This was, we were told, a campaign created for Indian women’s empowerment under a ‘social awareness initiative.’ 
The short video has successful women telling viewers about the positive choices they have made in their lives, defying many silly patriarchal do’s and don’ts for women. Interestingly, this initiative was funded by Vogue which is a profit making business organization and known globally for promoting several questionable norms for female beauty and fashion. 
In the ‘80s, for example, the magazine carried a fashion spread titillatingly called  ‘Hidden Delights’. It had glamorous photos of female models in various stages of undress and bondage. Some were being dragged by their corset straps, others had their legs and/or nude bodies tied up with straps. Also in the ‘80s, Vogue carried ads for perfumes featuring underage Lolita-like models and was among the early promoters of liposuction and breast enhancement by plastic surgery.
In 2015 it may not be possible to be that blasé about women’s bodies and how to enhance their allure for men, but the script for this video heralding women’s empowerment was scripted and produced by two male professionals, Kersi Khambata and Homi Adajania. 
It was perhaps also not a coincidence that the leading figure in My Choice should be Ms Padukone, also known to Indian viewers for her endorsement of Kellogg’s special weight-reducing K brand cereals, and beauty products like Neutrogena and Garnier fairness creams in TV commercials. 
Recently Ms Padukone made headlines in media confessionals, talking about how she had battled a depression that threatened to undo all her achievements. This was lauded as a brave act by many. But the underlying dual message to all liberated women was clear: even those of you endowed with both beauty and brains can’t have it all. You may think you are liberated and equal to men now, but success will always come to women at a price. And fame and riches will leave you depressed and miserable. 
As things stand today in India, there is clear evidence available from board rooms to Bollywood that our socio economic system still believes in sexual dominance of men and expects submissive compliance from women in matters pertaining to both personal and professional norms. 
As we have seen in the Nirbhaya case, political power in India may be forced to amend laws on rape and dowry after long debates, but all laws must operate within civil society and this still views women as unequal to men. 
Crafted under the social moral radar, the new anti-rape law does not free married women from forced sex within marriage (Parliament refused to accept that there is such a thing as forced marital sex despite the findings of the Verma Committee). 
It makes adult women free to engage in sex and initiate it, but does this without actually freeing them from the reproductive tyranny of the husband’s family. It also leaves the doors to exploitation open by decreeing that women will need a husband’s/father’s permission to abort an unwanted foetus. 
Ms Padukone’s own media confessions prove how, despite all the bugles and kettle drums heralding the arrival of truly free women, without the social dialectic of economic and sexual dominance changing, the freedom to display your body and choose your sexual partners will lead only to more episodes of exploitation and bad sex. 
And repeated experiences of this sort may occasionally push even the most empowered among women into clinical depression.
Of course women know what inequality is because they have experienced it first hand. They can also point out which legal and social barriers to equality need to be removed. But not having experienced equality on par with men’s, they can’t be prescriptive about the sort of jurisprudence that will guarantee real equality within the socio economic reality of their lives. 
In matters ranging from rape to pornography, whenever an interface between law and society happens, we find that laws crafted under male epistemology are being used to determine what consensual sex between adults really is, what can be construed as a woman’s consent to sex, or what sort of pornography is detrimental and dangerous to women and what sort is just, ha-ha-boys-being-boys!
Moreover, the formally accepted meanings of terms like privacy, freedom of expression, sexual excitement, free consent, child custody and consumer rights, are still being interpreted and defined by courts and Parliament using the male idea of practices adopted by Indian families as the final arbiter of the greater public good. 
Ms Padukone would do well to remember that many of the films she herself has acted in define women’s status through socially sanctioned sexual violence. Rape,  as portrayed in Bollywood films, mostly equates women with violability, with villains using ugly threats of sexual assault as punishment for being a female.
We can be quite easily duped by a commercially created concept of female beauty by smart marketeers working to please the male gaze. With their limited knowledge of women unlike themselves, can the hundred women in this video be so sure that this is what real sex equality has come to mean for all women? 
In a world where all socio political and economic institutions and their terms of reference remain exclusively controlled and defined by men, rape or anti-pornography and anti-sex trafficking laws still largely see and protect women not as individuals (as they do in the case of men) but only as part of the community. 
The Vogue women might have asked the viewers, if working women have 'arrived' in India, why are almost 90% of them still sedimented in poorly-paid high risk jobs in the informal sector? If they are so 'free' why are their sexual lives more threatened by violence and intimidation today than a decade ago? And last but not the least, if being rich is the panacea, why are illegal, gender specific abortions skewing up the male female ratio alarmingly in our richest states?

Because they choose not to ask these questions,  to the majority of Indian women the video is at once sophisticated and crude, deceptively progressive and arrogantly backward.
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