Caution against shaming


The wave of shaming that was unleashed in the wake of the appearance of the image of a breastfeeding woman on the cover of Grihalakshmi, a leading women’s magazine in Malayalam, in March this year, seems to have finally been contained by the Kerala High Court’s eloquent judgment. Dismissing a writ petition claiming that the image was obscene, insulting to women and in violation of child rights, the judges explicitly stated that these claims were unfounded. They cited recent scholarship on free speech which cautions against anti-pornography positions that may only too easily slide into rank conservatism. This judgment is especially significant for Kerala where social conservatism has historically stayed largely unchallenged and spread right across the political spectrum. And where the challenge to it comes largely from the young, this judgment may seem to have monumental implications.

Echoes from the past

Many battles were fought in Malayali society of the early twentieth century (and before) over the exposure of the upper body. While rules of caste difference and deference required that the chest, female and male, of those deemed to be social inferiors be exposed in the presence of ostensible social superiors, social reformism in general seemed outraged only by the nakedness of the female form. Perhaps such exposure of lower caste people was a way of emphasising, making visible, their vulnerability to power produced in and through the social contract between Brahmins and Nairs; nevertheless, modern social reformers inevitably read it through the lens of Victorian morality and so saw only the machinations of upper caste sexual predators in it — and the nakedness of the male chest remained unseen. The move to make women cover their breasts was a prominent item on the reformist agenda; though women in Kerala did breastfeed openly for the larger part of the twentieth century, this practice has faded.

The image of a young model on the cover of Grihalakshmi actually makes only a very small dent in this deeply-entrenched, if entirely modern, taboo. For it certainly marks the woman very clearly as married, respectable, elite, and therefore ‘eligible’ to demand exception from the sexual gaze. It is seen to be maternal — distinguished clearly from the sexual. Seen that way, the image is not too far from familiar stereotypes about mothers: the mother’s body, being non-sexual and devoted to nurturing, is not about physical pleasure, and should be exempted from the sexual gaze, it seems to say. But the conservatives obviously disagreed, and saw it as obscene. That this view gained some traction reveals the strength of social conservatism, now armed with the shaming possibilities unleashed by the social media. What remained absent was critical scrutiny of the statement being made on biological motherhood — using the image of a sophisticated, professionally-groomed young woman who would be more identified with the modern workplace than the home. In a certain frame, this might appear to be the modern woman determined to also stay ‘traditional’, by embracing community-sanctioned marriage and motherhood in ‘traditional’ ways.

The High Court judgment does consider whether the exposed female body is instantly obscene, and rejects the idea. It does mobilise ‘ancient Indian culture’ to support its argument — citing the representational traditions of Indian art — but later, seemingly addressing others who identify modesty that demands the clothed body as ‘tradition’, says: “We cannot, as a nation — people of all shades of faith and belief — afford to chain ourselves to the past, glorious it may have been… Only from the prism of the present, the past appears to be glorious.” It clearly distinguishes legal paternalism from legal moralism and warns against the same. This is truly valuable, especially, after the much-discussed Hadiya case, in which these were confused, and a young woman’s self-chosen marriage was annulled by the High Court. It considers several tests of obscenity and finally asserts that in present community standards, “Given the picture’s posture and its background setting (mother feeding the baby)... it is not prurient or obscene, or even suggestive of it.”

Cause for worry

Clearly, this brings cheer to those who defended the cover as essentially non-sexual, and actually more related to developmental concerns such as maternal and child health. It also comforts those who would defend the image as a defiant depiction of pleasure in the mother-child physical bond. And these are, no doubt, important gains. Yet, at a time in which the government seems to be relentlessly pushing maternal-and-child and kitchen-centred programmes as ‘women’s development’, and given the slant towards social conservatism evident in many publications, one cannot but worry.

J. Devika is a feminist researcher and a professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 10:09:57 AM |

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