‘No means NO!’ Gender Clashes in Emerging India

By Sujay Ghosh[*]

These are now-famous words in the recent Bollywood movie, Pink, which was released in 2016.  By coincidence, the film was released exactly a year before the #Metoo movement surfaced. This movie resonates with the sentiments of #Metoo movement and aptly summarizes the gender and cultural clashes in India. India is an aspirant of global power status; has been recognized as “world’s largest democracy” for decades; and also belongs to the elite BRICS group – the emerging large economies from developing world. The other BRICS countries are Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa. At the same time, with increasing assertion and participation of women at workplace, the traditionally perceived gender relations are now undergoing massive changes. The movie, Pink, captures this tension.

Pink is about three working girls living in New Delhi, India’s capital city. On a trip away, one of them was sexually harassed. On self-defense, in order to escape, she hit the chief offender, a rich young man from a politically well-connected and powerful family. Initially, she tries to make peace with “what happened,” but unable to bear subsequent harassments and threats, she lodges a police complaint.  The offenders lodge another police complaint in turn and manage, through their power and influence, to get the victim into jail. The subsequent scenes reveal trauma after trauma for the girls – friends, relatives are distanced; neighbors become suspicious; well-meaning neighbors and they, themselves, are threatened; hostile police shy away from their own duties and deliberately protect the powerful offenders; and one of the girls loses her job from her “image conscious” workplace.  Finally, a lengthy and tortuous legal battle ensues in which they have to face many humiliating circumstances, but with the help of a friendly and competent lawyer, they win the case.  In the course of the trial, several popular versions of gender relations, deeply entrenched into patriarchal values, get expressly debunked. The lawyer (a legendary actor over nearly five decades) loudly hammers at those beliefs, in a clear sarcastic tone: a girl should not talk with boys; should not have alcoholic drinks; should not interact with friends cheerfully; should not dress the way she likes; should not stay alone away from the family; should not come home late from work; should not study or work, but, rather, should get married early and stay at home – all for her safety. Otherwise it will be interpreted that ‘she is of questionable character’ – and hence can be taken for granted to have consented for sex with anyone. Towards the end of court proceedings, when the offender-in-chief is thoroughly exposed, he utters some of the filthy sexist invectives (muted in the film).  Unable to tolerate the ugliness, the judge screams at the lawyer: “Control your client.” The film comes to an end with those legendary words: ‘No means No’ – it does not require any clarification or explanation; whenever a girl expresses her uneasiness on sex-related matter, howsoever feeble it might be – it means “No.”

The film also brings out many issues that defy several stereotypes. The Western world is associated with the flourishing of democratic values; western education is associated with modernity because of their early command on science, technology, and modern education.  Here, the offender-in-chief was educated in the legendary Kings College, London, but his values, particularly on women, are deeply entrenched in feudalism and patriarchy.  He believes that “women should be shown their place.”  At the same time, the use of modern technological means such as luxury cars, medical facilities, and ICT does not generate any scientific consciousness towards society. Women at workplace are often seen as challengers to such entrenched values of patriarchy.

Similar issues are reflected in another powerful movie: Corporate – although its focus is the murky politics in the world of big business in India.  A highly qualified and competent female executive, working in a leading company, is often indecently approached by another executive in the industry, with lewd comments and gestures. One day, with a veneer of friendliness, she confronts him with these words: “May I ask you something, P (his name)? What is it with your home that you can’t stop flirting…whenever you see a girl? Is it a bad marriage? Or, an average-looking, narrow-minded wife?” Although those words in effect, somehow second the prevailing patriarchal mindset, for having apparently discredited women, they proved useful in rendering the offender speechless.

Away from the films, a real-life experience would suffice: cricket is the most popular game in the Indian subcontinent and cricketers are among the most valued celebrities. In early 2019, a promising athlete was found making severe misogynist comments on a popular television program.  He and his colleague were subsequently taken to severe condemnation and their careers were threatened.  Interestingly, that athlete also revealed to having shared some related experiences with parents.  This pattern also defies our expectations, because traditionally in India, people are not supposed to have that much “frankness” with parents on such issues.

Thus, both the film and real life experience point out the highly contested sphere of gender relations in India: traditional values of gender-respect are breaking down; yet new values are not accompanied by enlightened modernity.  However, voices countering such feudal prejudices are also becoming louder.  The court proceedings in the film reveals them, and the strong action against two promising cricketers sends message within the popular culture forum of the media that we need to have refined understanding towards gender relations, and that we need to question our prejudices given the inevitability of increased participation by women in public life.  Another positive message is that the powerful people can also be brought to justice.  This holds true for India, and probably for much of the developing world as well.

[*] Dr. Sujay Ghosh is Associate Professor of Political Science, Vidyasagar University, India.

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