By Amrithavarshini Venkatesh
Edited by Nidhi Singh, Junior Editor, The Indian Economist
“When ladies in bikinis swim on public beaches, do you think that the men are looking at the sea? No, they are only ogling the ladies. Our daughters and sisters should not do this. We cannot sell our daughters and sisters for the sake of tourism.”
And so the Public Works Department minister in Goa argues that women should not be allowed to wear bikinis in Goa. He also calls for a ban on alcohol, which in his opinion especially spoils girls. He is also opposed to massage parlors and casinos. Of course, apart from the usual problems of the fact that people have the right to drink and socialize as long as it doesn’t infringe other human rights, this highlights a specific problem of a disregard for the agency of women.
With yet another sexist minister, one wonders what lies ahead for women in India. In the past month, we have seen exposed to a wave of sexism from ministers that make decisions, all of whom seem to want moral policing to protect Indian Culture, and women, who are expected to represent and bear this culture with care. And so ministers from Uttar Pradesh are rape apologists, a minister from the health department would rather the spread of AIDS than publicize condoms that ‘promote pre-marital and extra-marital relationships, and now Ramakrishna ‘Sudin’ Dhavalikar would go out of his way to ensure that women don’t fall prey to influences that corrupt her modesty.
The problem with this logic is manifold. And there is a need to speak out against such logic and highlight the issues with it:
- Why is it that people claim that pub culture affects society, ‘especially women’? How is it that women are a separate category, and why are different expectations placed on them than men? Why does alcohol especially affect women? If he were talking about third party harms and domestic abuse, that would be understandable because of the disproportionate harms on women, but he only seems to be talking about alcohol’s corrupting influence that enables girls drink alcohol and dance until early morning. So, really he just doesn’t like the fact that women dress a certain way and dance for long.
- Assuming they do ‘especially’ affect women, why exactly does this minister have to be the knight in shining armour that protects her? Why does she not have independence in her own private sphere? If her decisions do not affect anybody or even herself, why is there a need to intervene except if she asks for it? Using the language of ‘daughters and sisters’ with the connotation of protection gives women as much agency of as a potato has. They are no lesser than anybody else and can make their own legitimate decisions, and do not need to be protected from those decisions. Note here, that only when the intervention is asked for, does the law enforcement promptly fail women. They are in cahoots with perpetrators, or they are more than willing to judge the woman first.
- Why are we placing somebody else’s cultural rights over the human rights of women? Why is their body constantly policed? Why do they not have the freedom to express? Consistently cementing ideas of how a woman should conduct herself and her body in a public space sexualizes the woman’s body further. Treats it as different, unattainable, having an elusive quality to it, and further creates rhetoric to take it away from public purview. To question a woman’s character based on her clothing is akin to blaming her body or the fact that she takes pride in her body. You don’t see the minister making a spectacle of topless men, really.
- What do they mean when they say ‘Indian Culture’? How is it possible to claim that they want to preserve pristine Indian Culture? Would that mean it doesn’t matter if it disproportionately affects women? Do they not realize that the beauty of a Globalized world is the amalgamation of cultures? It’s also high time the minister explains why his rights of belief in a certain culture is more paramount than their choices not to follow the same culture.
It is also notable that the minister’s comment came as a response to the Sriram Sena’s public proclamation that they would set up a centre to weed out such unethical cultures. It is sad to see that ministers are getting pulled into this slug fest. As opposed to defending rights, they seem more than willing to push themselves to the extreme. More alarming however, are some of the responses to these comments:
- Our way of living has been influenced by the Portuguese for 450 years. This influence is definitely there and cannot be removed easily. Dhavalikar may have commented on bikinis with some good intention, but we do not support Mutalik. — N Shivdas, Sahitya Akademi award-winning Konkani writer.
Why is this the primary problem? Why would the destination and the culture it is influenced by determine the rights of the woman in a space? Irrespective of all considerations, whether or not a believed culture reflects something, shouldn’t the women make their choices?
- Goan women have their parents, brothers and husbands to guide and protect them. May be Dhavalikar can tell his wife and daughter not to wear bikinis or go to pubs. – Pratima Coutinho, spokesperson, Goa Pradesh Congress Committee
Do women necessarily need someone to protect and guide them? They have their own minds. It would do well not to make public statements that only entrench paternalistic sentiments in the name of speaking against sexism.
- It will only affect Goa’s tourism industry if we begin to project Goa as a fanatic state. – Nandan Kudchadkar, businessman/nightclub owner
This statement makes it more about tourism rather than the larger issue at hand, trivializing the debate on the rights of women.
However, there is a silver lining we see through other comments that have been raised by Human Rights Activists who have defended the rights of women to choose their lifestyles without being judged for them.
So where really does this take us? The problem with the law makers themselves having and entrenching such opinions is that it strengthens taboos and pushes away progressive legislation. The problem with making cultural arguments, especially by people in legislative power that you expect unbiased decision making is the fact that human rights takes a backseat. Worse still, is that such elements in the legislation often hijack rational debate and discourse. For example, to claim that women wearing short skirts is amoral is difficult to prove or disprove. We can ask however, why there is a different morality applied to a woman. Answering this with culture or God stops the debate because it stops culture from evolving and respecting human dignity.
Culture is desirable because it is a powerful cohesive force and can offer people comfort. However, the benefits of creating a culture can only be recognized fully by everybody when the culture is inclusive in its conception. This is why it becomes paramount to let cultures grow and reflect perspectives of the people that are contained by it. To crush half the population in the name of culture is systematic abuse, and should not be condoned. So let us be politically aware, and speak out against such acts before it becomes too late, and these comments become the law.
Amrithavarshini is a 19 year old with a passion for debate and theater and immense hatred for bugs of all shapes and colours. Sharp in her thoughts and loud in both words and actions, when she is not lambasting anti feminist rhetoric, calling out hypocrisy or eating Malai Kofta, she can be found on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras where she is pursuing an Integrated Masters in Developmental Economics in the Humanities Department.