Mad Men On the Indian Streets
Yes, they are back. They were never really gone. As the nation reels from incident after gruesome incident of rape, murder and crimes against women, one begins to wonder which medieval time-warp these sorry-excuse-for-men climbed out of?
I guess they were busy with the elections, taking part in the process of democracy and political activism, building a new “vibrant” India, ending the culture of nepotistic politics afflicting our nation, indulging that seductive will to power – these mad men, of higher castes and political connections, these boys who will forever be boys. And what do men do when they win, when the thirst for power has been slaked, when the banners and the rallies and the chanting is a distant memory, you look for release, the gratification born of dominance, subjugation and control, you claim the spoils of war, your rightful booty. You rape.
I might be accused of being unfair. What is the connection, one might ask, of the recently concluded elections with the rape outbreak in UP?
A direct link between the rise in violence against women and the conclusion of the elections may be tenuous. The audacity and spectacle like hanging of the adolescent girls in Badaun might be interpreted as a sort of reassertion of the categories of caste, patriarchy, politician-criminal nexus that pervades the lives of the marginalized communities in most rural areas. Election pundits strived hard before and after the results to explain away the realities of caste and religion, they wanted us to accept Modi as the messianic apostle of a post-caste, post-secular India.
The reality however has proven to be much more complicated. The media which conveniently ignored several similar atrocities against Dalit women during the frenzied election coverage days, has suddenly grown a conscience. Or perhaps a selective geographical sense of moral uprightness with the completely deserved focus on the plight of UP women and the simultaneous, blithe indifference of gendered atrocities across the rest of the country. Now that the euphoria of political triumph fades away, one would hope that we do not revert back to the quotidian injustices that are symptomatic of our society’s treatment of its women. One is also reminded about how rapes do indeed happen in Bharat, and not just in India, as our RSS ideologues would want us to believe. The nebulous glory of Indian Culture is no deterrent to sex crimes.
I had the time to watch a couple of seasons of the aptly titled American show called “Mad Men” recently and I was struck by the parallels between that American reality of the 1960s and our socio-political milieu. We are a nation which is growing and getting increasingly comfortable with a global influence, while America was grappling with the idea of superpower status in the post World War 2 world. There are definite schisms in society in both the countries – a liberal elite casually confident with modernity, in touch with the wider world and a conservative majority which faces issues of female rights, racism, caste and religion with an anachronistic lens.
Gender rights are a site of personal and public contestation, women are increasingly finding their way into the workplace, sexual harassment is rampant and unreported, managing a home and being a mother do not provide the same teleological meaning to women’s lives as they used to. Female sexuality and control over women’s bodies through societal taboos over pre-marital sex, abortion, infidelity and notions of family and marital bliss, define both Indian society and the TV show reality. What shocks the senses is the nauseating sexism and the innocent ignorance which the characters display. It is all regular, everyday, unquestioned truth.
Women are subverted into the overarching idea of male dominance because they play the same game. They adhere to stereotypes, behave in expected ways and shun those outliers who dare challenge the status quo. We see similar predilections in India today. Apologists for the status quo come in different stripes, from the Ramdevs and the Imams, to Khap leaders, from Mulayam Singhs and Akhilesh Yadavs to the purportedly liberal, educated people who refuse to acknowledge workplace discrimination. Women are complicit too. Mute acceptance, suffering in silence, ignoring someone else’s plight, buying into male-dominated notions of family, sexuality and imposing these obsolescent ideas on the next generation are signs of defeatism that women might be guilty of.
One would hope that India finds its own courageous Peggy Olsons and we evolve out of this humiliating and deeply damaging cycle of sexual atrocities. Watching the show is struggle enough, India doesn’t need more Mad Men.
P.S. – I realize that I offered no solutions. Simple, clean fixes are hard for such a pervasive problem. But perhaps an energetic administration, activist judiciary and responsible journalism can go a long way in providing a temporary respite. Education and sensitization, gender sensitive curriculums, exposure to feminist literature is probably the only long term fix. We need a movement of ideas.
(This article was first published on June 8, 2014)