Choice of the Naïve Privileged

As compared to Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone few would recognise Monica Paulus, at least in this part of the world. Both women work in different arenas and are well-known in their own way. Both, however, present different, yet competing visions for women’s empowerment through their words and deeds. For Deepika’s privileged, self-conceited world of glamour and make-believe; the empowerment of women means their ability to make their own choice vis-à-vis their sexuality.

In her much talked-about video, “My Choice”, Deepika amuses us with her blissfully naïve, yet simplistic solution to empower women. She chants the mantra of “my choice” several times over to assert her right to live, love and lust the way she wants. She discovers women’s empowerment as their right to explore and express sexuality beyond the bounds of social norms. She also reminds the hypocritical men who nurture double standards that they are her choice, she is not their privilege. After all, why should men have all the fun? So in her video which has gone viral on social media, she prescribes a series of ‘choices’ which she believes will emancipate and empower the aadhi abadi (sic) women. Some call it brave, bold and blunt, some downright pervert and sensational. The debate continues.

On the other hand Monica Paulus represents the real world where empowerment is still a matter of struggle for survival and day to day existence. Her vision does not include the so called ‘choice’ of privileged women. It’s no wonder then that she thinks and strives for women’s empowerment in a different manner. Monica, who hails from Papua New Guinea, rescues women and girls who are often accused of sorcery and thus subjected to violence, persecution and execution, which is prevalent in her tribal community.

In a society where women are easy to brand as witches and suffer severe punishment ranging from brutality to death, Monica is the lone crusader fighting violence against women, convincing local police to protect the victims and arranging food and shelter for these hapless human beings. Monica empathises with such women because she has herself gone through this ordeal earlier in her life. Her contribution towards women’s empowerment finds a mention in the United Nations Women Annual Report 2013-2014 as well as in Amnesty International’s list of the bravest women in the world.

Not very far, in our neighbouring Pakistan women are still struggling for basic education, dignity and honour. Misinterpretation of religion and the ensuing radicalisation of a large section of society have driven women to the margins. This is regardless of the basic tenets of Islam, which considers women equal to men because both sides are friends and protectors of one another. In reality the women of Pakistan are still largely a socially, economically and politically disempowered lot. So much so that efforts to empower them often meet the fate of Malala Yousafzai – the celebrated Pakistani teenager who resisted Taliban’s diktat against girls’ education in Swat valley and endured an assassination attempt. She was seeking empowerment of those women through education, who were certainly not as privileged as Deepika and her liberated clan.

A report on women’s empowerment in Pakistan by USAID and Aurat Foundation points out some horrific facts about the status of women, who in their whole lifespan have not experienced any semblance of empowerment. The report says that Pakistani women suffer health problems due to the lack of reproductive choices in terms of the number and spacing of children. It’s the family which enforces such decisions on them. Recurrent pregnancies are the result of the desire to produce a male child. Any dissent is met with violence by their own family members, which often results in serious mutilation and at times death. For those numerous women who live on the margins, what would be the relevance of Deepika’s cherished choice of loving temporarily or lusting forever? Will it empower them and improve their quality of life in any manner?

The disadvantaged, marginalised and oppressed sections of women in India, who constitute a large section of Indian society, have no access to Deepika’s infinite universe. She is happily ignorant that on the gender inequality index we ranked 132 out of 148 countries. Despite women empowerment and inclusion being an essential agenda of the Millennium Development Goals, we have not even achieved the middle mark. In a country where, as per the 2013 Safe City Survey, only five percent women and girls feel safe in public places, one wonders whether women would prefer personal safety or personal choice of the kind Deepika is propagating. Jessica Lal, Bhanwari Devi and many such incidents have not yet faded from public memory. Deepika’s own fraternity was quick enough to grab the opportunity and make a film on Jessica Lal.

Despite amendment in laws related to crime against women: rape being redefined, making unwarranted voyeurism equal to stalking, acid attacks as serious heinous crimes under IPC, women no matter educated or uneducated, infant, young or old are not entirely safe in this country. They’re still subjected to the ruthless and conservative diktats of Khap and other Panchayats, which often infringe on their choice to life, livelihood and dignity despite the existence of rule of law.

For a while, let’s give Deepika the benefit of doubt. Let’s presume she is completely ignorant about the very idea of empowerment. After all, she’s an actress, not a social scientist. Her job is to perform, not to think, so she may have read the script without knowing the meaning. Her personal convictions in life may be different. Despite that, would we like a serious social concern like women’s empowerment trivialised in such a way that it loses the support and sympathy it deserves? The issue must be discussed to sensitise and not to sensationalise. Presenting women as object of lust and desire is a Bollywood stereotype. No wonder then that it discusses women’s empowerment too with the same intention.

(The author is an academic and socio-political commentator)

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