December 2012. India woke up to the shock of sexual assault that was so violent, it turned our collective stomach. For a while, our outrage spilled out into the streets. There was talk of changing laws. Not long after, the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) decided that lingerie was part of the problem. They decided to ban the display of lingerie-clad mannequins.
|As the cool kids used to say, shy was coming.|
"On May 16, all 227 members of the BMC's general body put aside their party differences and passed a resolution put forward by Ritu Tawade, a Bharatiya Janata Party corporator from Ghatkopar's ward number 121, to ban mannequins wearing lingerie because it provokes men to commit 'wrong acts'"
I did not know what to make of the fact that nobody - neither male nor female politicians - seemed to disagree. Nobody stood up to say: "This is ridiculous!"
What does that say about us? Do we agree that a female-shaped body makes perverts out of men? And what of the men who dress and undress mannequins? Did they want to rape real women?
It was a laughable idea. I once lived near one of the biggest garment markets in India and would often walk past shops that had just raised their shutters. I watched female-shaped mannequins being dressed. Most shopkeepers were men. They would strip a mannequin, then drape sarees, suit fabrics, put on lacy lingerie. Those men didn't look excited in the least. They looked either grumpy or preoccupied.
I was thinking of the shopkeepers and their un-sexy chores when Mumbai banned the public display of lingerie-clad mannequins. What is it like to be a man with no family in the city? What is it like to be a somewhat conservative man who waits for women customers all day, but has no opportunity to meet women socially? I tried to write about such a man and ended up making a short film.
I suspect what drove Tawde to complain about lingerie displays was not concern for women's safety but embarrassment. As the cool kids used to say, shy was coming. BMC corporators, perhaps most people, don't know what to do about the fact that, underneath the sarees and kurtas, we have bodies equipped for sex. Embarrassment, though, is no excuse for legitimising the horrible idea that the female body itself triggers violence.
But if we accept that a non-living object can trigger rape thoughts in the minds of men, if plastic statues must be covered up and kept off the streets, then the logical extension of the argument is that flesh and blood women must be covered up and kept indoors.
Indeed, that argument is made. Chandigarh wants women to not be "scantily dressed" when they go out to clubs. The Bar Council of India has proposed a "dress code" after an uproar at a law college in Bengaluru where a professor humiliated a girl for wearing shorts. Many schools and colleges forbid shorts and sleeveless tops. A minister in Goa proclaimed that girls wearing bikinis and short dresses are not a part of our culture.
Swimming women apparently are also not part of our culture. I have lived many years in Mumbai and have been to various beaches around the island city. I have never once seen a woman in a swimsuit.
In other countries, millions of women wear swimsuits and bikinis on public beaches. They wear shorts on campus. They wear mini-skirts. Their shops have mannequins wearing lingerie in the display windows. Yet the men of those countries are not especially driven to "wrong acts". In fact, the lives of women there are more secure than our lives in India. Why is that?
If "our culture" cannot cope with the fact of our bodies then the culture needs to take a good, hard look at itself. We do not become better people by insisting that women hide themselves (or else!) and by refusing to accept that desire is not a trigger for violence. We just become a sadder, more confused people who cannot own up to either desire or violence.