Since the beginning of 2022, more than 650 serious crimes have been reported against women in India. This statistic encapsulates various egregious crimes that include rape, assault on women, kidnapping and abduction, brutality by husbands, and domestic abuse, among others. Instead of focusing on the social foundations of this growing gender oppression, the Indian state has largely maintained a punitive response that seeks to legally criminalize sexual harassment and violence. One important avenue of doing so has been the institution of laws regarding obscenity and indecency. Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code – developed under British colonialism – terms any book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting representation, figure or any other object obscene if it is “lascivious”, appeals to the “prurient” interest or tends to “deprave” and “corrupt” persons. The Indecent Representation of Women Prohibition Act (obscene portrayal of women), Information Technology Act (obscene content in electronic form), Young Persons Harmful Publication Act (obscene content that can corrupt a child) and Cinematograph Act (obscene scenes in movies) are some other legal instruments that construct the normative parameters of obscenity in India.
The ideological reasoning behind the obscenity laws is driven by an overbearing patriarchal sentiment, one which wants to ensure respect for women by curbing their sexual autonomy. When talking about how gendered cultures are generated and reproduced through digital platforms, Richa Kaul Padte writes: “An obsession with visual representation continues to define the way in which public institutions understand violence against women in the virtual arena of the internet…inches of exposed flesh mark the parameters of where decency ends and exploitation begins…Image-based violence and exploitation tend to be criminalized and often heavily covered in the media, because our culture places a great deal of moral value on the representation of women’s bodies.” This misogynist preoccupation with the display of female sexuality is present in the physical world, too. Whenever we think of a woman on the street in any Indian city, or village, the first question that comes to the mind of the majority of Indians is, why is she there? “Whether shopping, going to work, or picking up her children from school, she is always doing something. The male dominated nature of public spaces means that women’s presence within them should be justified with a purpose. Now picture the same street, and think about where the men are. Sitting. Standing. Talking. Smoking. Sleeping. The street belongs to men, temporarily on loan to women who need it for a specific reason.”
What is evident from the above is the hyper-sexed nature of female presence. In “Becoming Young Men in a New India: Masculinities, Gender Relations and Violence in the Postcolony,” Shannon Philip notes that “women are seen only as sexual beings, with little ritual, social and cultural power in a local patriarchy, which results in ‘friendships’ with women not being valuable. Since women are assumed to be only sexual and inferior, ‘friendships’ with women are also seen exclusively as sexual friendships. In contrast, men and their homosocial bonds are implied to be the ‘pure’ forms of friendship”. It is crucial note that this sexualization of women is built upon the heteronormative desexualization of men’s bodies in relation to one another, which allows their “bodies to be on display in public spaces of ‘new’ India, but they remain unmarked and ‘ordinary’. However, the same actions or embodied movements of women are sexualized and on display to be consumed”. Thus, a division emerges between the public, desexualized bodies of men, which have to perform masculinist tasks in the non-domestic world, and the private, hypersexualized bodies of women, which are tasked with reproductive roles in the patriarchal household.
The socially enacted separation of genders has a structurally passivizing impact upon female freedom. As patriarchal social relations manufacture links of toxic homosociality, the male sexualized gaze comes to be directed towards the body of the woman who dares to occupy public spaces. Through culturally entrenched practices of catcalling, the woman becomes the discursive and physical arena in which sexist dialogue operates. She always inhabits a specific objectified position within that narrative-material field, being relegated to the patriarchalized position of being the body to be gazed at and consumed. When we take into account these hegemonic forces, it becomes clear that there are certain ways in which women are expected to move and be noticeable in public spaces; non-compliance with these gendered codes carries prohibitive responses. To demonstrate the existence of such norms, Philip provides an ethnographic account of a young woman in Connaught Place (part of a group of female friends), who burst into spontaneous dance when she heard the loud music that was being played through speakers by a few bars. Responding to this scene, the author’s research informant (Aman) amusedly looked at him and said, mimicking her actions, “Sister-fucker (behnchod), she’s moving her head like this, like this.” “Once he finished the step, he too burst out laughing and gestured for me to put my palm out for him to clap it with his palm. He then said, ‘Sister-fucker, these girls yaar,’ and sat back down on the wall.”
Philip remarks that “the very fact that Aman had to comment on this ‘dance’, which lasted a mere few seconds, hints at the marked and hyper-policed nature of women’s presence in public spaces…the fact that the young woman moved her body freely and took on an active embodied subjectivity in an urban public space meant that she breached the masculinist codes with which women are expected to access public space. This was a deviation from the ‘closed’ body posture that women are supposed to have…This deviation is commented upon with disapproval and a sense of amazement as Aman finds it difficult to articulate what exactly is breached here. The swearing followed by the comment of ‘these girls’ points to the gendered disorder taking place in the context.” Socio-political responses to these drastic curtailments of female sexual autonomy have been regressively protective, with the dominant actors espousing a “‘chivalric chauvinism’, wherein men claim a higher moral and heroic masculinity associated with saving the damsel in distress.” This form of chauvinism allows for “the uncomplicated and unproblematic coexistence of two seemingly oppositional symbolic discourses: of masculine ‘fun’ on the one hand, and women’s safety on the other.” Safety, in this context, conveys a variety of conservative values. Kavita Krishnan eloquently expresses its insidious character:
“The word ‘safety’ is overused and tired. Each of us women know what ‘safety’ means, we hear it from our parents, from our hostel wardens, from our communities. It means that as a woman, you must behave yourself. You should stay at home, not dress in a particular manner, it means that you’re safe if you don’t live with freedom! A huge pile of patriarchal laws and institutions are served up to us as ‘safety’ and we reject this plate of protection. We don’t want it…Whenever anybody speaks of women’s safety—the government machinery, the police, the judiciary, the political parties (barring the women’s movement and the left movement)—they’re talking of a patriarchal definition of ‘safety’ and ‘protection’. They’re not talking of protecting or defending women’s fearless, unqualified freedom. We need to tell them: if you want to ‘protect’ anything, protect our fearless freedom, our bekhauf azaadi!”
Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at email@example.com.