I remember reading the words, “India is an agrarian economy” from my school years in almost every geography book, at the same time being unable to imagine more than 80% of the population slaving away on the fields, having never seen a field myself, outside of a Bollywood film that is; till I realised most of these fields are located somewhere in Europe as well. As a member of the privileged class who has never had to do any manual, back-breaking physical labour in her life, or ever worry about meals; as a child I’d have a tough time imagining how the villagers must look like, what they must sound like and so on. For quite a while, media representations were my primary and the only source to form deeply tilted view of ‘them’. Typically the bumbling village idiot, speaks in broken English, zie represents Old India or Orthodox norms and then the city would civilise him — raise your hand people of the Olde Interwebes if this sounds ridiculously close to colonisation — or an urbane protagonist would, disseminate proverbial knowledge and wisdom akin to the (ironic) role of the ‘Good Native’. Where the villagers are plot devices to further the UberLiberalHumanist tendencies every urban character inherently is born with; sort of like a DesiDoucheColonial enabler on zie’s own and the villagers welcome this taking over of bodies and idea with vapid simplicity. Some ‘liberal’ films will show the villager as a loyal servant to his ImperiallyKind Babu to the extent that boundaries between Master and Servant are blurred and they hop and skip all over the realities of bonded labour, zamindrai exploitation and systematic bankruptcy in the span of a two-minute dance number. Conversely, ‘edgy’ films made from the villager’s point of view — produced, written and directed in the city, of course — place the urban antagonist in the coloniser’s shoes, critique the ‘loss of Indian-ness’ and ‘our values’ while lamenting in the previously mentioned European fields where the scenes are shot. Any way this LadyBrain looks at the dichotomy, both groups are determined to lock each other out, only to the satisfaction of the Center that openly rejoices and engages in further wall-building.
This week while watching T.V. with my mum and her progenitor, we saw a contraceptive ad furthered by the government to educate the masses about the safety and availability of contraceptives . Here the discourse of contraception takes place between two rural women, drawing water from a well — for what is more stereotypical of the village native than the Olde Water Drawing Trick? People in cities have taps and other modern things. Apparently — talking about not taking responsibility for the next child one of them is carrying. Then her friend suggests a visit to the DoctorLady (because a dude doctor would be so uncouth in a situation like this, obviously!) for a box of trusty contraceptives. At first, I came very closely to cheering loudly as having women firmly stating they didn’t want further children reeked of agency to me and was enough for my uterus to sing. Only on further analysis, I remembered a similar ad from a while ago and the problems came rushing back.
This video is another Government funded video encouraging the use of contraceptives.
Here too, the discourse is gendered and controlled, women discussing contraceptives, each firmly rooted in all sorts of locks, clasps and binds of Indian Femaleness, being wives and mothers. Both dress and talk traditionally, bowing down to all forms of sanctioned patriarchal expression. The thing that irks this LadyBrain the most in this ad and many of its genre is how words like ‘choice’, ‘agency’ and ‘freedom’ are strategically missing from the discussion and ‘family planning’ is used in its place, blunting whatever effect having two women talk about their reproductive choices had. The LadyFriend who ‘educates’ the other — and the viewer by extension — is fully or will show hints of urbane-ness. From a glazed accent, to perfect diction to attesting superior knowledge (here signifying she is a doctor) places her on a pedestal and immediately reveres her to the afore-mentioned coloniser’s superior shoes.
Perhaps the most disturbing and striking message of these ad films is ‘Only Married Ladies Talk Contraception’, as if pre-marital sex is a fantasy West-inclined people have made up. Sort of like Coca-Cola or Equality, “such things exist only there. India has moral values, we’re not like those culture-less Western buggers”. Obviously, this attestation flies in the face of all “honour killings”, but somehow we never talk about that. And I can see the anxiety over untutored feminine sexuality that keeps up the DudeCouncil up at night (innuendo not intended); for if a dude doesn’t regulate your sexuality, can you, a mere Lady be trusted? If you chimed in Yes! Of course! then I suggest you read the part where the DudeCouncil is anxious again. In such a context, imagine an ad that depicts two unmarried women discussing contraception and then picture the Collective Shattering of Supposed Cultural Values; for even hinting at female sexuality, let alone choice, consent or freedom is a recipe for disaster. And on top of that, ‘Those Sluts! How Dare They Not Be Punished For Every Time They Exchange Bodily Fluids (even voluntarily!) Outside Of Marriage?’ type of societal moral indignation is a tad hard to deflect, especially when the majority chimes in at the exact spot. Even more so, if that majority is the policy-maker for your State.
While I don’t resent the depiction of rural women as having quasi-agency — even when shielded by ‘family planning’ — what doesn’t sit well with me is the idea and the conception that Urbane Feminine Sexuality is inherently deviant when contrasted with rural or married women’s sexuality, precisely because it is largely unministered by the DudeCouncil. By concretely codifying feminine sexual mores into dichotomies in the Urban and the Rural slots, we’re further fissuring very notion of women’s sexuality, rigidifying some sexual behaviours and consciously making a few others invisible. Like the poet Radhika Gujjala points out, “representing absences does not make the absent present/ but re-presents (to us) absence”. The Woman With Choice roars in her cage, and we pretend she doesn’t have a voice.
1. Ask Barthes, okay? He’ll explain.