Mailing pink chaddis, setting brasseries afire and more, all for the sake of women´s rights.
According to popular myth, women’s-libbers of the 1960s burned their brassieres as a sign of liberation – throwing off the yoke, so to speak, quite literally. A century after women workers around the world marched through the streets demanding their rights, and Clara Zetkin, the prominent leader of the US Social Democratic Party, in March 1910 mooted the idea of a Women’s Day to press for their demands, women’s activism has taken many shapes. Critics of the women’s-liberation movement often fail to recognise the working-class origins of the symbolic International Women’s Day, choosing instead to denigrate the bra-burners. But to set the record straight, those early feminists dumped bras into trashcans to protest against beauty pageants, and never actually set their lingerie afire.
Nevertheless, women’s undergarments have made a comeback in the public discourse in India. To the self-appointed keeper of the public morals, Pramod Muthalik, who heads the Sri Ram Sene, a previously obscure rightwing outfit in Karnataka that recently went about molesting women in a pub on the accusation that they had loose morals, a fitting answer came not from the state machinery or the law, which dragged its feet about arresting the man and his goons. Neither did it come from the political class that has frothed at the mouth regarding ascendant Hindutva. Rather, it came from a group of young women calling itself the ‘Consortium of Pub-going Loose and Forward Women’. The group’s imaginative campaign, to send pink underwear to the headquarters of the Sri Ram Sena in the city of Hubli in Karnataka, had thousands of people signing up on Facebook, mailing pink panties to ‘collection points’ all over India, and pledging to fill the pubs on Valentine’s Day – another pet aversion of the brave soldiers of Sri Ram.
Predictably outraged were the keepers of Indian culture, determined to keep women in their place and to uphold the glorious traditions of the motherland. More interestingly, the campaign sparked off heated debates amongst feminists of all colours. The discomfort with this blatantly provocative campaign had the old guard squirming and muttering about the propriety of the action. If the right wing is so insecure and moralistic, does it mean that ‘we’ must stoop to this level of cheap publicity? For publicity was exactly what the in-your-face ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign received within days of its launch. The Internet was certainly abuzz. Indeed, mainstream newspapers, television and even cheeky Amul Butter hoardings ultimately prominently featured what was undoubtedly a more creative expression of women’s right to freedom of expression and mobility than the dreary, routine rallies that are de rigueur in the activist world.
It is perhaps time to acknowledge that there is no single women’s movement, certainly in Southasia. No magic wand of ‘mainstreaming’ women’s concerns or any amount of gender sensitisation is likely to reduce the yawning gaps in the economic, political and legal spheres. These structural issues demand structural changes, towards which governments, as well as women’s organisations across the region, are slowly moving.
Yet in the realm of culture, myriad creative responses are possible, and must be made. Legal action must be brought against those who commit violent acts, and we must have debate and discussion to transform the political and social space. But irreverent acts that highlight the absurdity and double standards of the moral police are often more likely to hit the target. When macho aggression takes on the guise of cultural preservation, turning the other cheek, with tongue firmly inside, might be the most effective strategy. While there is the danger that such modes of resistance could increase the visibility and give more footage than necessary to rightwing louts and their leaders, more public discussion around issues of women’s sexuality, and restriction of movement, can only be a good thing.