Gendered morality

Outraged: Women protesting against the attack by the Sri Ram Sene.

Outraged: Women protesting against the attack by the Sri Ram Sene.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Akhilesh Kumar


‘Culture’ and ‘tradition’ are notions defined by men to demarcate the bounds of women.

“Will it be an acceptable defence of Indian culture if women form Seeta Sene and bash up men in all the bars in our cities, small towns and villages?” asks Du. Saraswati, Kannada poet and a women’s activist.

The attack on women in Mangalore on January 24 has, yet again, emphasised that our definition of Indian culture always grows out of deep-rooted biases on what an ideal Indian woman ought to look like and do. The incident is in continuation of a long “tradition” of women being chastised for boldly entering public spaces and shunning their responsibility as “guardians of culture” as wives and mothers within homes.

The link between culture, morality and gender are too blatant to be missed in the attack in Mangalore. The activists of the Hindutva group who carried out the attack justified their action saying that they were acting as “brothers” in the interest of the women who were risking their modesty and safety by being in the company of men in a pub. This explanation has convinced none, considering that the video footages of women being slapped and molested make it abundantly clear that the intentions were anything but “brotherly”.

The debate, however, gets more nebulous as it moves away from that of crass physical abuse and violation of law. In endless panel discussions on local and national television channels since the Mangalore incident, activists who speak for the woman’s freedom of choice have repeatedly been accused of encouraging young girls to go “astray”. Issues of health, lifestyle and public safety have been propped up and activists told: “So, you are actually defenders of pub culture!”

The basic contradiction between the choices we have made as an economy and the dated notions of culture we want to hang on to cannot be missed in the debates in media. We may take pride in proliferation of IT and BPO companies, which employ a large number of women. But we want to keep our “culture” insulated from all the sweeping changes. “Why can’t women go and have a good time if men can?” is a natural question to some, but blasphemous to others.

Confused about culture

“We are very confused about how to understand our culture,” says Ramya, a popular artiste in Kannada and Tamil cinema. “There is a section which is growing up fast with change, and another which is not,” she observes. In fact, those who argue that drinking in a pub is immoral and alien to our ethos deliberately forget that drinking bhang during Holi too is part of the very tradition we want to protect by moral policing, Ramya points out.

The complex notion of “culture” — whether we read it from the point of view of those who go to pubs or those who believe it their birthright to bash up women who visit them — is open to analysis vis-À-vis history, economy, class, caste, consumerism and so on.

“But to mix up these arguments with the questions of morality and gender selectively in the present context and veer the debate in a different direction is a mischievous attempt to justify a flagrant violation of women’s right and a criminal act of violence,” says Mallige, a young activist from a women’s support group for acid attack victims in Karnataka.

The impact of the market economy on the lives of women has always been hotly debated within feminist circles. But the defenders of Indian culture who are keen to brand those speaking up for the rights of women in public spaces as “elitist supporters of western culture” will not target young men in jeans who work in multinational companies.

Says Saraswati: “For the time being let us keep our eyes focused on the most important questions: what kind of a culture are we talking about when a bunch of flag bearers of religion and morality barge into a pub, hold women by their hair, slap and molest them? And how do they get away with it?”

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