Seeing women as sexual beings is part and parcel of seeing them as people with their own agency, yearning, aspirations and their own choices.
Is it surprising that Section 497, a law selectively criminalising adultery, took so long to be struck down? Sadly, no. The law, according to which a man who had sex
with another man's wife was committing a crime against the husband, while a husband who had sex outside his marriage was not committing a crime against the wife he betrayed, reflected an attitude with deep, hard roots in our social structures.
Most societies see men's desire — sexual, professional, creative — as natural and central. Women exist for men to have sex with, not as independent sexual beings with their own desires, and springing from those desires, sexual choices. That is one reason why, even when we speak about queer sexuality, the usual images are of gay men. Queerness is rarely represented through images of lesbian women.
Seeing women as sexual beings is part and parcel of seeing them as people with their own agency, yearning, aspirations and their own choices. To recognise this is to see people as essentially equal. The imagination that cannot see these desires as present and valid in all, irrespective of gender, caste and class, is a dehumanising imagination. Once you dehumanise someone, violence — physical, verbal, emotional, structural — follows very easily. It is simply seen as normal, even natural. To point out this violence, to speak the truth, is to be ignored or attacked. So, when women talk about sexual violence, people resist it, kicking and screaming, usually at the women.
Whether it is Christine Blasey Ford's allegation of past sexual abuse against Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh or Tanushree Dutta going public about older incidents of sexual abuse and harassment by Nana Patekar and Vivek Agnihotri, the first response by many is not disbelief, so much as refusal to believe. As Ganesh Acharya said, Nana Patekar is "a very sweet person. He… has actually helped a lot of artists in the industry. I cannot believe he has done something like this." When your belief system is tailored to humanise privileged and powerful men above all, maybe you can only see the sweetness, even in men legendary for their abusiveness.
Brett Kavanaugh in a speech at a law college said three of his school friends (same school he was a student at when he assaulted Ford) went to that college and quipped that, luckily, "What
happens at Georgetown Prep stays in Georgetown Prep." Ghar ki baat, as they say, ghar mein hi rehni chahiye. Our government defended Section 497, because striking it down was a threat to family — a law that essentially saw women as the property of men and adultery as a crime of men against men. Reminds you how we're always told, the film industry is one big family. These so-called family values are often about protecting the privilege of men, not taking care of everyone.
As this law once reflected society, society must now reflect its changing. The everyday violence of powerful men must be acknowledged by their peers. Their accusers and victims must be taken seriously. Wrongdoings apologised for. Structures changed. People like Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan must find the language to do so, when asked about uncomfortable allegations like Tanushree Dutta's, and not respond with bland evasions. The ghar ki baat has to step out of the closet of disbelief.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning, Mumbai-based film-maker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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