The Pink Panties Campaign:
The Indian Women's Sexual Revolution
The cultural boundaries imposed on the sexual freedom and sexual expressions of women, have been an effective means of the subjugation of women in societies all over the world. In the west however, by the 1970s, the feminist movement was already pulling down those walls and demanding the same rights to sexual autonomy as men. Easier access to contraception and the legalisation of abortion were part and parcel of this march to sexual freedom. Though some think this goal is still far from being realised, the recent popularity of television series like Sex and the City, about the sexual escapades of four, single, freewheeling women in New York City, is an indication of a certain level of societal comfort in modern, western societies with the notion of women's sexual assertions.
In non-western countries like India however, even as a minute section of the liberal elite tries to experiment with the idea of sexual freedom within the privacy of its restricted space, the sexual boundary walls for women remain dauntingly tall and unchallenged, and are periodically reinforced through the public castigation of violators. In 2005 when the south Indian film actress, Khushboo, made a statement about the ludicrousness of expecting women in today's world to remain virgins till they are married, she was pelted with slippers and eggs, slapped with a dozen court cases and forced to tender a public apology. When Hollywood actor Richard Gere placed a friendly peck on Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty's cheek, the masses went berserk, and the subject was hotly debated in the media as though the nation could not have found a more pressing issue at that time. When Mira Nair's film, Fire, explored the lesbian liaisons of two unhappily married women, the mobs ransacked movie halls and caused such extensive destruction of public property that the film had to be withdrawn from many theatres. And in an incident in 2008 when two teenage girls visited the homes of some boys to celebrate the Diwali festival with sweets and fire crackers, their community lynched them and burnt them to death. It is interesting to note that in each of the above cases, the issue is with women or girls violating socially-defined sexual boundaries, and the same would not be the case if the gender roles were reversed. So it is perfectly alright for Indian men to peck western women on the cheek in public, to declare that they do not need to remain virgins until their marriage, to visit the homes of girls for festival celebrations or for that matter to portray male homosexuality on screen as was done in a recent film called Dostana, which oddly instigated no public uproar.
But the real tragedy of the Indian women's sexual prison is that even in circumstances where the general norms of sexual conduct are violated by men, and women are subjected to horrific sexual abuse and violence, women are still required by the silent rules of communal conduct, to stoically bear their circumstances. In effect, women in India live within the confines of what is not just a sexual prison but also a virtual sexual torture chamber. Women in rural areas and urban slums who attempt to take control of their reproduction through the use of contraception or tubal ligation, are often brutally beaten by their husbands. Hence most women submit to the rigours of multiple, back-to-back pregnancies and the subsequent ill-health that ensues—not just their own but also of the children they bear. Consequently, 90 percent of Indian women are anaemic and 53 percent of Indian children are malnourished, a percentage almost twice as high than as even that of the children of sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, eventually, many of these women are abandoned by the men, who wander off as migrant labourers, leaving the women to fend for themselves and the large brood of children that they did not opt for in the first place—a vicious cycle which keeps almost 80 percent of Indian women trapped in the vortex of poverty. In villages, young widows or single women, usually abandoned by their husbands, who resist the advances of leering men, are sometimes labeled 'witches' and then mob hunted and lynched. The gang rape of women is a commonly used method of revenge between rival men or feuding castes or religions. A majority of these cases are not even registered and those that do make it to trial often have little hope of getting justice in the face of unsympathetic courts and a communally-biased police force. And when women do dare to speak up, they are frequently subjected to public humiliation—as in the case of a woman Imrana, who brought charges of rape against her father-in-law. With the nation and the government watching on as mute spectators, she was then subjected to an excruciating public trial by an Islamic jury, that declared her polluted and unfit for a relationship with her husband, and then instructed her to divorce him and marry her rapist.
The irony is that the often used phrase the 'sexual objectification' of women—a sort of oblique reference to male chauvinism, has become a literal reality for modern India. The Indian woman has been completely stripped of all human worth and reduced to an actual sexual object, whose only function is to provide sexual and reproductive services for the patriarchy. Other than that, like some other commodities she is also regarded as entirely valueless and disposable. Indeed so valueless and disposable, that through practices like female foeticide, female infanticide, and dowry murders, India has managed to systematically dispose of more than 50 million women from its population. Ironically, there is one train of thought that seeks the solution to this female genocide through the furthering of the objectification argument. If men are inconvenienced because women are in short supply, would not that raise the inherent value of women, even if simply as sexual objects? However, as with the shortage of any commodity, the system does not get introspective, just creative about how it avails itself of it. The Indian patriarchy is far from contemplating its annihilation of female resource, as long as women can still be bought, sold, and shared like common property. With the gender ratio falling rapidly in certain parts of the country, a massive flesh trade has ensued across state boundaries in India, where women are kidnapped or bought from their families and then sold as 'wives' in regions where, due to a shortage of women, men are unable to marry. To economise on the cost of buying many wives for large families of many brothers often a single 'wife' is bought and shared by all the brothers for their sexual and reproductive needs.
As grisly as the woman's position is in Indian society, the worst outcome of this is the extent to which Indian women have internalised their socially malformed role, such that it has caused in them collectively, a certain feminine disconnection—a virulent form of self-hatred. Women in India learn from a young age to hate their own bodies and disassociate from them. The sexual curiosities of young girls are regularly squashed as 'dirty,' such that most of them even as grown, married women are ignorant of the actual terms for their sexual anatomies—the vulva, vagina, and clitoris for instance, and refer to them obliquely using terms like 'down there'. Surveys also show that a large percentage of women, even after childbirth, do not know that their urinary and reproductive openings are not one and the same. Many have never experienced an orgasm and can not even conceptualise it. It is this disconnectedness from themselves that shows up in the often sad and sometime vile response that women have to women in India. Mothers often refuse to accept into their arms or breast feed new born infant girls. In parts of India it is the paternal grandmothers who take on the role of killing the new born grandchild if it turns out to be girl. In dowry-related cases, it is usually the newly wed bride's mother- in-law and sisters- in-law that torture and torment her psychologically and physically, and are often guilty of the murder of the young woman.
This state of India's female sorority, despite the nation's idolisation of certain goddess cults, raises numerous baffling questions. What for instance prevents the growth of a western-style feminist movement in India—not just for economic and constitutional freedom but also for sexual autonomy? What is it that keeps women in India so alienated from themselves? Why haven't we seen an attempt to if not break out, at least resist or resent this imprisonment? There are reasons offered sometimes, like lack of education and economic independence, none of which makes for a sound explanation. This could explain why women might not be successful in attempting to break free, but it does not explain why they do not even seem to resent their condition. And most of all it does not explain why women detest themselves so.
The only rationalisation that works here is that India has built for its women through centuries of acculturation, the ultimate psychological penitentiary—one that turns them against themselves. It operates on the premises of cultural values, of family and community honour, and shame. The old adage vindicates 'May you be the mother of a hundred sons,' just as another laments 'Having a daughter is like spitting in your neighbour's yard.' The girl who never belonged to the family she was raised in, is never able to belong to the family she is married into. Her only validation is in serving the needs of the patriarchy.
However, what is interesting, is that if India's historical traditions are the determinants of what the culturally- and socially-acceptable limits are to be of women's sexual roles in modern India, then India's long, chequered past throws up quite an assorted mix of options. While on one hand, way back in the first millennium B.C.E. women in the ancient Vedic texts were regarded as vixens, sexually promiscuous and opportunistic, who not only swindled men of their precious semen but through their menstrual blood inflicted pain, torture and even death on men, then the first millennium C.E. provided a radically different vision of women's sexuality and sexual freedom. Not only do the texts from this period declare that women had the same rights and freedom to enjoy sex as men did, but that they too could indulge in it for pure pleasure and not simply for reproduction. Moreover, the kamasutras speak of the issues of female orgasm, how different it is for women than for men in that it is foreplay and not coition that leads to orgasm in women, and how it is men who need to know and understand how to pleasure their female partners. Data from this period indicates a tremendous degree of freedom and choice for women in selecting their sexual partners, even if they were married, and in expressing their sexual needs and wants.
In other words the contention of culture or tradition as an excuse to reinforce the sexual prison for women in India does not hold up logically. It is without a doubt, time for the Indian woman to take up cudgels and begin to break down the walls of her prison. The issue of sexual liberation is necessary not just for the Indian women's sanity and indeed survival, but is critical to their self-validation and sense of self-worthiness. A vital point to ponder is: why does the patriarchy target feminine sexual freedom? One of the explanations is that patriarchies are inherently fearful of the reproductive capacity of the female, the woman's ability to bear and bring forth offspring, something that men are incapable of. But another significant point that often remains understated is that sexuality is perhaps not only our only authentic personal identity, but also the most complete validation of our individuality. All other identities we bear: religion, caste, nationality etc. are superfluous, momentary, and at best virtual. We identify with a religion, culture or nationality only because someone embedded that identity into our brains. How we explore and express gender and sexuality, as we grow and evolve with age, is perhaps the most complete and boundless affirmation of the creative freedom of each individual. When patriarchies attempt to squash women's sexual freedom it is an outright attempt to negate them as individuals and free citizens of society.
In February 2009, a revolting incident at a pub in the city of Mangalore in India sparked off perhaps what might be the first seeds of the modern Indian women's sexual revolution movement. A group of women, who were at the bar for a night out, were viciously attacked and sexually molested by a group of men who had decided that the women were being immoral and disrespectful of 'Indian cultural values,' and needed to be put in their place. The incident took place in the presence of television cameras, and even as the nation watched repeat broadcasts of the video, the government refused to act firmly and instantly. A spokesperson from the National Commission for Women, the central government office in charge of women's affairs in India, declared that it was the women's indecent clothing that had provoked the attack. While India debated the pros and cons of what it means to be an apt Indian woman, a group of women, lead by Nisha Susan, launched a campaign of protest. The group called itself the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, and invited others to join them on Facebook. They further decided to register their outrage by sending to the conservative politicians that had backed this incident, hundreds of boxes of pink panties. Chaddi, the word for underwear, is also a term used to indicate radical conservatives. Pink was the show of feminine power. Today the group has more than 57,000 members.
Whether this signals the start of India's female sexual revolution is hard to determine at this point. The reality is that as the gender ratio skews further, and rapidly, the indicators of which way the Indian woman is headed, are to the contrary. For India the real indicators of change will come when women celebrate women, when mothers and grandmothers joyously anticipate the birth of another girl in the family, and then teach her how to love her body, understand and express her sexual needs, and celebrate her life to the fullest. But that will happen only when the Indian woman reconnects with her femininity, her sexuality and her sense of self. Perhaps the Pink Panties campaign is only a small piece of color in an otherwise dismal landscape, but none-the-less for many of us rooting for change, this is a long awaited start.
 Rasheeda Bhagat, 'Khushboo, a soft target,' in the Hindu Business Line, 14 October 2005, online: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/life/2005/10/14/stories/2005101400060300.htm, accessed 25 July 2009.
 Deepender Deswal, '2 girls burnt alive for visiting boys on Diwali,' in the Times of India, 11 November 2008, online: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/3697230.cms?TOI_mostcommented, accessed 25 July 2009.
 'Dostana' has a subtle message on homosexuality: Karan Johar (Interview), in Thaindian News, 16 November, 2008, online: http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/india/dostana-has-a-subtle-message-on-homosexuality-karan-johar-interview_100119592.html, accessed 25 July 2009.
 Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, India: Development and Participation, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1955, 2002 edition, pp. 67–68, 390–91.
 Ela Bhatt, 'Towards the second freedom,' in From Independence Towards Freedom: Indian Women Since 1947, ed. Bharati Ray and Aparna Basu, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 34–55, p. 36.
 'Villagers burn woman accused of being witch,' in Reuters, India, 30 May 2008, online: http://in.reuters.com/article/topNews/idINIndia-33828820080530, accessed 25 July 2009.
 Shuriah Niazi, 'Caste difference contributes to violence against Dalit women – Central India,' in Women News Network (WNN), 27 January 2008, online: http://womennewsnetwork.net/2008/01/27/caste-difference-contributes-to-violence-against-women-central-india/, accessed 25 July 2009.
 Swami Agnivesh, Rama Mani and Angelika Köster-Lossack, 'Missing: 50 million Indian girls,' in the International Herald Tribune, 25 November 2005, online: http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/11/24/opinion/edswami.php, accessed 25 July 2009.
 Archana Jyoti, '15-yr-old Girl's Abduction Reveals Gender Gap,' in the Asian Age, 14 July 2005.
 Sudhir Kakar, Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality, New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1991, pp. 20–22.
 Gita Aravamudan, Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2007.
 Rita Banerji, Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies, New Delhi: Penguin Books, India, 2008, pp. 145–65. For a review of this text, see Anna Husson Isozaki's review in this issue of Intersections.
 Facebook, online: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=49641698651&ref=mf.