Our Choice, Our Privileges and Our Politics – Rukmini Sen


Rajini Thukral of Durga Vahini says women setting wrong trends should be declared outcast. According to Rajni Deepika Padukone has set a wrong standard by talking about her sexual choice (written by Kersi Khambatta,) in the Vogue Empower video.

It is difficult to have a nuanced dialogue on Women empowerment and a Woman’s choices when Durga Vahini starts with another Khap Panchayat like statement. But then this is the time we must speak and write about our choices.

Choice is a good word. Choice is a political word. Choice is a historical word for women across the world.

When a group of women say IT IS MY CHOICE they could actually be paying their tribute to one of the biggest Feminist movements. It could be seen as a salute to more than sixty year old pro-choice movement that started in America and found its greatest victory there i.e. legalization of abortion in 1973. Being pro-choice doesn’t mean being pro-abortion. Pro-Choice people include those who are personally against abortion or feel uncomfortable with it, but who would not impose their viewpoint by law onto all women. Pro-choice movement does not advocate abortion over birth. It just defends the right of women to decide for themselves. Pro-Choice movement saved many a teenage girls and women in general from unwanted pregnancies and yet a large number of people support what has been known as Pro-Life movement i.e. they objected to abortions of all kinds and at all stages of life and believed that religion, family and state have a right over a woman’s pregnancy.

Surely, the creators of Vogue Empower short film must be aware of the history of the word ‘Choice’ in the Women’s movement. There have been claims that it is a Feminist video. Thus my elementary observation is that the word CHOICE has been consciously used to suggest that HomiAdjania and DeepikaPadukone’s video will speak about Women’s empowerment.  In such a case I am inclined to ask-isn’t empowerment primarily all about inclusivity? Is it fair/ethical/honest to make a video on empowerment for the ones that are already empowered with the justification that their issues are also issues after all? And lastly when a commercial venture uses words from a movement should it not seize the moment and say something really brave and insightful along with doing its business?

I took the video “My Choice” to some women who are trained to critically analyze caste-class hierarchies, gender dynamics, mental, sexual, reproductive health and other women issues.

The first person I spoke to was RajniTilak, a dalit feminist and writer.  Rajni hadn’t seen the video but was keen to see it when I told her there is a short film on Women’s Empowerment produced by Vogue that has gone viral. Rajni called me back and said she didn’t find any resonance with the video and then in a very matter of fact without any rancor stated, “But it is not made for dalit women. I am not the target audience of Vogue”.

“I hope no one is saying this is revolutionary or even great piece of art”, Rajni enquired. I kept quiet as I was still processing all that had been said in last few days about the video. I am somewhat aware that as a privileged middle-class, convent educated, caste Hindu woman I am not sensitized to the concerns of a huge population of Indian women.

“The primary difference between working class dalit woman’s movement and ‘a section’ of upper class/upper caste Feminism is we believe in Family and society but we don’t want Patriarchy.  The upper class women whether or not Feminist can afford to be individualistic and can shun family. They don’t necessarily challenge patriarchy by leaving Family. Many of them bear with patriarchy at work. I don’t see anything significant being said when they denounce brahminical symbols of upper caste married women as ornaments. Really is that Feminism for the film maker or vogue? We dalit women dealt with all of this in the early twentieth century.”

“We acknowledge family is not necessarily the safest place for women. We don’t endorse bad marriages as activists. We of course don’t support women being ill-treated by men but we endorse family in terms of living as a collective. In the poverty we live in, we prefer being a collective and tap the resources of every member of the family to survive. The upper class liberal women can afford to live alone and be culturally and artistically confrontational. I don’t know how confrontational or even collaborative they are when it comes to real women issues. They don’t stand by us as a team.

The upper class liberal women do have independent struggles but they protest against specific incidents only. There is no ongoing collective struggle against structural Patriarchy be it at work or home. We choose our battles very carefully because we confront caste issues, employment issues and issues of dignity and self – respect on a daily basis. These are issues of a group. We can’t blindly align ourselves with the issues of Upper class/ Upper caste liberal women. They are however closer to us than the right wing hindutva forces. Our fight is against caste, class, gender discrimination”

Quite echoing Rajini Tilak’s concerns Anita Bharti, a Dalit Writer and poet from Delhi regretted that another opportunity to make an informed and empowering video for the larger but lesser privileged population has been missed. She pointed out that absence of underprivileged voice/face from public space is an “acceptable violence of omission” for the privileged. The upper class and caste has always been self -obsessed and they hardly ever acknowledge omission and absence of diverse voice as violence. Not even when money transaction happens in the name of empowering the ones who are already empowered.

Anita Bharti added “Sexual autonomy and sexuality is part of Feminism. But it is just that – a part. For us social violence is an issue. If a dalit woman Sarpanch is fed with cow dung just to show her place as a Dalit Woman the perpetrator of violence is caste man not my partner. When we engage with patriarchy at our mohallas and khaps our strategy is to articulate intimacy vis a vis right to life. We do fight for love and intimacy but it is preceded by our struggle for dignity and social safety.”

“Do Deepika, Zoya, Adhuna and other women only want to talk about their choices? They can. They should. But that is just a part of Feminist politics. Standing up for yourself. Sisterhood in Feminism is to look outside oneself, one’s family, one’s social structure and reach out to a movement that is diverse and larger than you.”

Chayanika Shah, one of the founder members of LABIA (Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action), Mumbai said- “LGBT population has many constraints other than the ones posed by their sexual orientation and sexual choices. If I am a Muslim woman in Mumbra my choice of staying in Mumbra constrains my other choices. My choice of staying in Mumbra is because I have financial – social constraints and cultural ease or necessity. All of this may influence my sexuality. Thus class, caste and sexuality have complex interplay.”

Prof Ilina Sen, a woman studies scholar and a woman’s rights activist thinks the Vogue Empower ad articulates women’s concerns about their sexuality which has been repressed for long but she adds that women are also individuals and citizens with social, political and economic lives. The video does not address these concerns at all.

She adds that many rural and working class women lead lives far less inhibited than many of us. The message can be a bit problematic because it essentializes women to their body and imprisons them into a physical identity only while sounding overtly liberating.

Before Durga Vahini jumped in the moral policing race against Vogue Empower there were some men and women in the virtual world who were upset with the line “Sex outside Marriage”. Activist Kavita Krishnan who otherwise doesn’t think much about the video is not happy about the attacks on Deepika Padukone, “the ones chastising Deepika for legitimizing women having extra marital sex should know that the question of denial of women’s autonomy is a central, crucial one, it isn’t just a concern of privileged women. But the question has been flattened out and glamorized in this film, where it skates past the most dangerous terrain”. Kavita also wondered why a video on intimate choices skipped inter-faith and inter-caste relationships.

“It is silly and hypocritical to be offended by ‘sex outside marriage’ – what age are we living in? The reality is that marriage does not have to be and no longer is ‘permission’ to have sex. Look at research figures, if you want numbers”, said Dr Radhika Chadiramani, a sexual and reproductive Rights Feminist. Dr Chandiramani is all praise for the Vogue Empower video – “The video speaks to me of autonomy and rights over one’s own body, mind and spirit, with a dash of humour. I know it has quickly become controversial, but it is a little over 2 minutes long and cannot possibly state everything under the sun! “

Dr. Zeba Imam has a subtle disagreement “There has to be an effort to understand the issue of choice and sexuality as interlinked with control, structural violence, everyday discriminations, affecting women in many ways and not just limit it to concerns of a certain class and to narrowly define it as right to have sex. I personally think the video trivialized the issue and somewhat derailed the debate by landing it to annoyingly superfluous men’s rights vs. women’s rights counterarguments. But I will accept that that may not be everybody’s reading.”

Arguably India’s most respected psychoanalyst Dr. Madhu Sarin says, “There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using the term sex outside marriage” but then quite like the dalit feminists Dr Sarin thinks that the video seems to bypass or not understand the gravity, seriousness and anguish women experience in having to challenge and distance themselves from people they love or depend upon the most – their families, friends, spouses and partners, their employers and colleagues, in simply experiencing and exercising a sense of dignity and self-integrity.. She adds this has grave psychological consequences – just as the fact and experience of being constantly denigrated, devalued and dominated has frightful psychological consequences too.

Meena Seshu who works with the sex workers at Sangli says-“For me personally the message is meaningless. I find most ads just so. It is not meant for the rural audience so they are not even touched by it. I do not find the sex outside marriage an issue. To me it’s Much Ado about Nothing. Vogue has achieved what it wanted to —- getting our panties in a knot!! They are laughing all the way to the bank! Calling it Vogue Empower is the main issue!! Can Vogue empower? ”

Meena adds- It’s much too expensive to be empowering!!

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