Item numbers, sexual freedom and rape etc

Saw We The People on the misogynistic depiction of women in  “item numbers”. Quick two paisas worth of comments.

Empowerment necessarily means opening greater avenues of expression and engagement for the person/group. However by objectifying a woman and reducing her to her physical attributes leaves only one mode of engagement – that of sex. However this is hardly just for item girls. The curent obsession with beauty and the two-dimensional roles of A-list female actors in popular movies is equally misogynistic. There was a lot of disapproving clucking over unkind comments on Aishwarya Rai on her failure to lose weight post delivery. However the largest part of her currency and marketability was/is her beauty – by her own making. She is frequently called the “most beautiful woman in the world”, and this tag is not referring to her “inner beauty”. So it’s hypocritical to critique those who criticize her for failing to live up to her self-defined USP – when the priority accorded to that standard itself is not deprioritized. No one raises questions about Sushma Swaraj’s or even Barkha Dutt’s weight – because they are not trading in their physical appearance.  

There are product commercials which show women completely consumed by their appearance – one trying to avoid the sun so that she doesn’t become tanned, another who is hesitant to raise her arm cause of dark underarms – why does this not invite comment in this same critique of objectification of women? Not just for the colonial hangover of a preoccupation with fairness, but a preoccupation with one’s physical attributes to the point where it constrains other aspects of one’s life. However this doesn’t engender the same kind of disapproval even though the underlying sentiment is as pernicious as that in an “item song”
 
This is not to say that all vanity is necessarily reductive. One’s physical attributes are a legitimate area of engagement in consensual relationships/alliances. Sexual liberation is part of women’s empowerment. It also goes without saying that how a woman dresses or behaves does not justify rape at all. She has the right to say no at any point, even in the midst of sexual activity – and that’s her right. Any kind of coercion is wrong, violence completely unacceptable and should be met with swift punitive action (proportional, certainly not death, whole life etc). 
 
However I’m also baffled with the argument that a woman should and can be completely heedless of her context to the exclusion of all common-sense, and it is still the state’s job to protect. Of course there cannot be any constraints on freedom, anything that impinges on a person’s right to live her life with equal opportunity and dignity. The government can be charged for safe public transportation. For safety on streets, in the school, workplace and other public areas. However beyond a point, the role of the state can only be post-fact punitive, and not preventive. In asking the state to do the latter, we are inviting it to be more and more intrusive in our lives – which it will happily do with dire consequences.
 
While on the topic of rape: Much of the outrage at the Delhi rape incident seems classist – a middle-class (emulating) woman raped by underclass men. In the beginning there was hardly any print or television space devoted to rapes of dalit women, domestic help, or other poor women. Then a small trickle (Badri Narayan in Hindu etc), which however cannot hope to combat the iconization of the young girl in this instance. The six men too have been categorized as innately evil – with absolutely no discussion of the socio-economic deprivations of their life that perhaps instigated this behavior. This is in turn fueling the brain-dead demands for “justice”, which externalizes the entire problem. Disturbingly people are noting with approval their persecution in jail (beatings, made to consume urine etc), lawyer’s boycott etc – making one wonder at *their* sense of justice. Even now as the discourse is starting to address the social context, the discussion is very patchy and sometimes annoyingly shrill.
 
Finally some thoughts on sexual freedom and autonomy. Given the high degree of uncertainty and anxiety that pervades nascent romantic and sexual relationships, it is unlikely that all behavior is 100% autonomous. High stakes generally incentivizes conformity – whether that conformity is one enforced by the mainstream or that of the progressives/emancipated. Certain kinds of sexual behavior are glamorized less in India, with its wider distribution of people with varying levels of sexual initiation and experience, than say in the US. This (moral) relativism often affects our own normalisation of behavior given the need to assimilate. Very few people deviate from the norm (of their chosen/aspirational social group) – and it’s difficult to deconstruct how much is based on considered thought, and how much internalized through osmosis. At which point, how much is freedom and empowerment 
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