A campaign against domestic abuse that uses the images of goddesses with bruised faces has created huge controversy, but should we sometimes look beyond political correctness?

In one of those strange churnings that happen in the online world, an obscure advertising campaign created three years ago for an NGO called Save the Children India has stirred up a roaring online controversy now. The NGO, which also runs a women’s empowerment project called Save our Sisters, commissioned Mumbai-based ad agency Taproot to create a print campaign against female trafficking and domestic abuse.

Taproot came up with images that depict Hindu goddesses Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga as victims of abuse. Rendered in classic calendar art style, the goddesses are depicted in all their finery and beauty, but with disturbing bruises on their faces. The copy reads “Pray that we never see this day. Today, more than 68% of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to.”

As campaign qua campaign, it’s an interesting take, but not shattering. More so because it is not even clear if it has ever been used. In fact, unkind industry insiders comment that it’s one of those campaigns created only for award nights. Neither agency nor NGO was available to talk to the media, apparently because in an unrelated development the campaign ran into some litigation when it was originally shot.

It has, however, generated one of those typical online feeding frenzies. In fact, Nisha Susan, who famously started the Pink Chaddi campaign, disarmingly says as much about her own post in ladiesfinger.com. “I didn’t realise it was an old campaign. Buzzfeed picks up something and then everybody picks it up.”

So why exactly is the campaign causing offence? For one, commentators are objecting to what they see as the deification of the woman in the images. Somak Ghoshal points to the “patriarchal insinuation” that expects women to be deities if they want to be respected. Columnist Lakshmi Chaudhry mentions the Indian man’s need to see the woman as either goddess or slut, not as a “human or equal citizen”. Deification conveniently places the woman on an impossible pedestal from which it takes very little to fall off and thus invite abuse.

Does this campaign do that? I am not so sure. What it does is acknowledge the deification and use it to convey a message. As a male colleague says, “The ad addresses those men who do perhaps deify women to reflect on their attitudes.” It asks the men who are comfortable dealing with the woman as goddess to ask if abusing their goddess is acceptable. The problem that some feminists have with this viewpoint is that a campaign fighting female abuse should give this regressive position any space at all, should seemingly endorse it. That it asks men to respect women because she is a goddess and not because she is a woman.

In a country like India, though, sometimes it’s the simplistic and crude message that works. You are dealing with the challenge of generating awareness in an audience (both male and female) that does not even imagine that violence against women is wrong. My driver Babu once told me matter-of-factly that he had hit his wife because the sambhar had no salt. “I will buy her flowers in the evening,” he said. I remember Vimala, our cook-nanny-housekeeper. She would come to work almost every day with a black eye or swollen lip. She would say, “Parava illai, amma (never mind). I made him angry, so he hit me.”

It’s got nothing to do with illiteracy or poverty. The same reasoning is running through the head of that nondescript colleague who shares your table at lunch time, and it’s what your IIT-IIM cousin thinks. Where do you even begin the battle of making them recalibrate what they think of as their truths? And if you can make some sort of rudimentary, albeit unsophisticated, beginning here, why not?

An angry woman journalist asks me, “Is the man about to hit his wife going to draw back his fist because he thinks she is Lakshmi incarnate? Won’t he now hit again because he thinks ‘If a goddess can be hit, why not my wife?’” Richa Dubey, the activist who led the Gurgaon Girlcott campaign last year, says, “No ad campaign can prevent domestic violence. But if it raises awareness, it has been effective. This one does not have a preachy tone, it attracts attention, it can work.”

Objecting to the political correctness of some of these initiatives is a tricky proposition. Take, for example, the Ladies’ compartment on a local train. Radicals would argue that segregation is wrong; women should commute with men without fear of molestation. Yes, in an ideal world they would. However, as Dubey points out, “When there’s a fire, it must be put out by whatever means is at hand. We cannot insist that the fire rage until the new fire brigade that’s overdue in the area has been set up.” Thousands of women out there deal with daily commuting; they want to hop on the first bus and not be groped, but till that perfect Indian dawn they might not agree with the academic position that we do away with the ladies’ seat and the ladies’ special.

The creative director of an ad agency has an interesting observation. He reminds me that municipal corporations across India have found that among the most effective ways to stop people spitting and urinating in public places is to paint the images of Gods and Goddesses at these spots. It works, every time. This does not mean that we stop the sophisticated and long-term campaigns that teach hygiene and civic sense. It just means that we meanwhile stop an ongoing menace by whatever intuitive means at hand.

Nisha Susan objects to the passivity of the images. “The goddesses seem to have just accepted the violence,” she says. Lakshmi Chaudhry calls this a “great disservice to both our deities and women”. Surely it will take much more than a mediocre ad campaign to take away the aspect of Shakti from Indian womanhood? Shakti as primordial female energy and power has always been and will remain an enormous source of inspiration for women’s empowerment.

Campaigns like this one generally work at a far more basic level — they use superficially iconoclastic imagery to generate attention around a topic in circles that have traditionally refused to engage with it. Without attention, reform cannot begin.