he issue has died down, news channels have found other things to obsess with, but in the shadow of the sixteenth December Delhi rape uproar, one can see that the public sphere has been made far more attentive to gender issues and sexual violence. Conversations overheard in cafes and restaurants so often have to do with women's' safety these days. Posters, Delhi Police notifications and pamphlets with helpline numbers can be seen everywhere.
So, when I first saw Farhan Akhtar in a public service advertisement sponsored by the Delhi Police, at a city theatre before a film screening, I was genuinely glad to see a mainstream actor talking about gender related problems. Except when Akhtar began talking, I found myself cringing every two seconds. All the points he raised, all arguments he made stank of thinly veiled sexism. So there he was talking about rape, violence, and inequality, without once questioning the underling patriarchal tone of the advertisement itself. "Yeh humaari zindagi mein kai kirdaar adaa karti hai — ma, behen, patni aur beti ban kar. In ki suraksha karna hamari zimmedaari hai," he says. What this implies is that the narrative is still written by men, the story is still about men; women simply make appearances in their lives to serve them as mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. This age old argument says as clearly as possible that violence against women is not to be condemned because it is wrong to treat any individual that way; instead it is seen as man's failure to protect his women — an embarrassment to any real man.
Akhtar spoke about this ad in an interview with Tehelka earlier this year where he said, "Unfortunately, we live in a country entrenched in patriarchal norms. Now, if you were to see a woman being harassed on the streets, would you close your eyes because it might be condescending to her if you, as a man, were to try and help? In an ideal world, men wouldn't have to be 'the protectors'. The best we can do today is to change whatever enables violence against women." A case of misguided feminism no doubt.
Taking off from the same is Akhtar's second attempt at a gender sensitisation campaign called MARD (Men Against Rape and Discrimination). In the past few months several actors and cricketers like Shahrukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Mahesh Babu, Arjun Rampal, Hrithik Roshan, Shahid Kapoor, Vidya Balan, Adam Gilchrist, Gautam Gambhir, and Shaan have lent their support. The campaign's website offers up a 'charter' which describes what an ideal man should strive to be like as someone who "venerates women for their mind, body and soul, who ensures that their dignity will never be compromised, who never ever forgets that like him, she is an individual." This sounds all well meaning and agreeable, but at the same time leaves one feeling utterly uneasy. For the campaign essentially stresses on redefining the Indian male — shedding misogynistic characteristics in favour of sensitive and gentlemanly ones — in effect refiguring the mard, but reinstating and cherishing the idea of masculinity nonetheless. The question that pops up in your head instantly is — why not drop the idea a mard altogether? Rape and gender based violence are direct consequences of this very same patriarchal culture that differentiates between men and women and set them up in an unequal relationship. The idea of mard can only mean something when you want gender roles to be defined and fixed. How then, can one possibly fight sexism by actually re-asserting masculinity?
A week back I received a press release from Apollo hospitals, which started a campaign about breast cancer awareness. Addressed specifically to men, it talks about the importance of men encouraging their partners to get screened for breast cancer. The catch phrase — "Be Man Enough to Speak Aloud". It baffles me really, since I see no need to encourage such ultra masculine sentiments in this case, where one probably requires men to be supportive and sensitive to specifically female health concerns.
I could talk here about Simone de Beauvoir's now well known assertion that one is not born, but becomes a woman. Or refer to Judith Butler's argument that gender is performed each day, a project that never ends. In essence, the point is not to delineate gender lines again, and invent chivalrous men instilled with a protectionist spirit; what we need is quite the opposite — a complete negation of such lines drawn between men and women. What this achieves is only a reassertion of a fixed gender binary which also fails to incorporate the struggles of those who resist sexual categorisation. What about the sexual abuse of transgenders, homosexuals and sex workers? Can those be wished away with such rigid, chauvinistic and patronising campaign as MARD? So long as gender sensitisation campaigns continue to speak in a language that is embedded in patriarchy, the very agenda of preventing violence against women will be continuously subverted. A gender based revolution needs to invent a radically new dialogue of its own, that allows victims of sexual abuse to speak for themselves without giving in to gimmicky, commercialised, merchandise-based drives that have the lifeline of an equally mercantile cricket series.