In the four minutes that the Vogue #MyChoice video was played online, many critics missed the 3.8 or so minutes that talked about various options women exercise over their bodies: to have children, to travel, to love or to eat in quantities they like, and instead focused on those few seconds Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone speaks about a woman’s right to her own sexuality. The reaction in India to the video teaches us a lot about how any traditional society reacts and we may do well to learn from it because soon enough our women will awaken to their choices too. Just like the India’s Daughter of India video, which exposed in Jawed Akhtar’s words that “all Indian men think like rapists”, this video has been received largely as an attempt to wash over the traditions and culture of India.
Veteran Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Murli Manohar Joshi flayed Deepika Padukone’s video on women empowerment as “height of lack of consciousness”. He said specifically, “We do not realise how much we have changed. It has been an Indian tradition of addressing woman as ‘mother’, but now there are objections at being called a mother.” The irony is unmistakable. This is the precise statement that the video intends to rebuke. The contention is between these two concepts where one seeks to burden an entire people’s culture and tradition over a woman’s uterus and her ability to fertilise an egg legally whereas the other really says that the choice belongs to the one with the uterus and the burden can be better placed elsewhere.
Even in the 21st century, this is a revolutionary concept. So much so that Deepika is being publicly humiliated and slut shamed online by those who are in the Murli Manohar Joshi camp. Online bullying and cyber harassment is commonplace where women speak out to provide an alternate view of their independence. But, as Monica Lewinsky said in her TED talk, “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.” This blood sport is not just done by men but by women as well who perhaps have internalised that any idea to hold choices about their bodies must be first routed through a male authority.
Many critics start off with the premise that if and when women exercise their own choice they will be bound to make wrong ones that will ultimately lead to colossal disaster: they will get infinitely fatter, the human race will perish and all women will do is seduce innocent men and break family structures. Others accuse Vogue of being an avenue that only objectifies women, but is that not the oldest argument against every time big money was behind women who were unabashed? The video features 99 women, one of whom was a Muslim who covered her head. Indeed that too is her choice to not be “objectified” assuming that women who step out of purdah are asking for it.
When Margaret Atwood wrote the feminist dystopia The Handmaiden’s Tale, her central theme was fertility because that is the first thing a government of patriarchs want to control. The reaction to this video proves that that fiction is not too far from reality. To fit in to such a dystopia this is what the handmaid thought to herself: “All you have to do, I tell myself, is keep your mouth shut and look stupid. It shouldn’t be that hard.”
Well Deepika, who has previously never been afraid to come out and talk about her depression, has chosen to not shut up and not dumb herself down, and that is imaginably hard in a society where by and large you are not expected to. Her choice to do this video is a testament to the fact that women really do not enjoy being disempowered and thus unhappy. Those who think the issues Deepika has illustrated in her video are a fragment of her elitism should go take a closer look at women in our villages who birth several anaemic children in a row without their consent, or visit some of the girl children who are wedded to much older men, or talk to those feudal girls who are prohibited to marry because the lands they inherit need to be kept within the families. Frankly, it is elitist to label the video as exclusivist just because it visually does not represent too many traditional women.
The first casualty of patriarchy is disharmony between women themselves. When women see Deepika they need to see a reflection of the same choices they hold dear, not a woman far removed into the stardom of one of the world’s biggest film industries, who does not have anything in common with women here. To Murli Manohar Joshi campers: a woman is more than a just a mother. She is first a person. Some inspiring words for all women, borrowed from the Handmaiden’s Tale: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”