Owning one’s own body

Owning one’s own body

A case against activist Rehana Fathima urged the Kerala High court to raise certain critical questions that Indian society is still to answer. The case is regarding a 2020 video posted by the activist on her social media. The video contained a visual of her two minor children — a 14-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl — painting on her semi-nude torso. Back then, the video had created an outrage, urging the police to file chargesheet against the activist under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012; Section 67B (d) of the Information Technology Act, 2000; and Section 75 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015. After a POCSO court in Ernakulam dismissed her discharge petition, the activist moved to the Kerala High Court. On Monday, quashing the case, the High Court argued that "it is wrong to classify nudity as essentially obscene or even indecent or immoral.” The court clarified that “the mere sight of the naked upper body of the woman should not be deemed to be sexual by default. So also, the depiction of the naked body of a woman cannot per se be termed to be obscene, indecent, or sexually explicit. The same can be determined to be so only in context.” The context in the case of Rehana Fathima was as clear as crystal. The Kerala High Court, after analysing the video description, was satisfied that the content was meant to counter the unabating trend of objectifying female bodies. The description states that no child who has grown up seeing his mother’s nakedness and body, can abuse another female body. The larger Indian society can be categorised as conservative, particularly when it comes to bodily or sexual expression. This becomes truer for women in the large parts of the country. From clothing to the timing of showing up in public places, everything is read in a sexual, objectified context. This all-prevalent taboo around the female body fosters patriarchy and is perhaps the greatest reason behind heinous crimes against women. The patriarchal Indian society has accumulated the habit of using and perceiving the female body as both an object of sexual pleasure and a means to satiate acrimonious revenge. Rape and sexual harassment of women are more often a manifestation of the combination of these two factors — in different proportions each time. Rehana must be applauded for her bold step aimed at creating a dent in the deep-rooted Indian patriarchy and the collective tendency to objectify the female body. The court, too, has done the right thing in dispelling the notion of “sexual gratification” and “sexual intent” from the video of the activist’s semi-naked torso. No less importantly, the court observed that naked and semi-naked bodies of men and women are treated differently in society. The scope of this argument is not limited to the element of gender parity (although it may be one important aspect). It is only through equal treatment of male and female bodies that humans can prevent objectification of the female body and minimise sexual crimes against women. Parity no longer remains a relative pursuit in this particular case; it acquires independent objectives. Drawing a comparison, the Kerala High Court asserted that "Body painting on men is an accepted tradition during 'Pulikali' festivals in Thrissur, Kerala…The male body is displayed in the form of six-pack abs, biceps etc. We often find men walking around without wearing shirts. But these acts are never considered to be obscene or indecent." It is true that a segment of society may find the video to be immoral, but the court clearly pointed out that society’s morality and some people’s sentiments cannot be the reason for instituting a crime and prosecuting a person. Morality is defined by social norms that are continuously evolving. What appears immoral today, can be totally acceptable tomorrow. The High Court’s quashing of the case against Rehana is a symbolic move towards one such transition. Certainly, there is a lot of ground to cover.

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