PAROMITA VOHRA is a writer, director and media activist whose films focus on the issues of gender, politics, urban life and popular media. Her film Morality TV and the Loving Jihad A Thrilling Tale, for instance, examines the complex dynamics of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh where the police swooped down on couples in a park in the winter of 2005. Other directorial ventures by her include Q2P (2006) and Where is Sandra? (2005). Films she has associated with as a writer include Skin Deep (1998) and Khamosh Pani (2003). She spoke to Frontline about the need for women to choose their personal freedoms. Excerpts:
What do you have to say on the Mangalore incident?
It fills me with anger at so many levels. At the misogyny and hate involved, at the narrow-mindedness that seems to grow by the day in our country, at the inability to respect other peoples freedom and the casual disregard for law and democracy, and the resort to violence as a way of expressing disagreement. If the Rama Sene or its sympathisers have certain opinions about morality, they are welcome to have them, but who are they to impose these ideas on others? What gives them the authority, the right or even a reason?
Do you think there are, in any way, defined boundaries in which Indian women have to operate?
These boundaries of morality are the ones that limit women at all times. The idea that women will choose their own lives, and whatever freedoms they want freedoms of choice, sexuality, entertainment, dress is something that many cannot accept, and the idea of restricting women in this regard is rarely opposed.
People sometimes use false reasons to curtail the freedom women can live with they would say it is for their safety. But to ensure womens safety, they would curtail women, not those who threaten them; they would subject women to scrutiny, ask them to be blameless, rather than prevent criminals who threaten, attack and discriminate against women, or men who dont want to conform for that matter. Women get so culturally conditioned by this that many inhibit themselves and exist within that unspoken boundary because they fear exactly the sort of attack these goons just carried out. A culture committed to the freedom of its citizens, which includes women, has to commit itself to enacting the law in an impartial way, in such a way that people are confident that they can make their choices in safety.
In the responses of politicians and members of the public (in online and newspaper polls), there is a subtle endorsement of the idea that women should not drink or go to pubs. Why do you think this outlook dominates in Indian society?
It is a deeply hypocritical society we inhabit. We would speak of freedom and rights with one side of our mouth and refuse to live by these principles in all parts of our lives.
Today the Rama Sene men and their ilk dont want women to have a drink, a dance or a nice dress. Tomorrow they wont want them to work. Day after tomorrow they wont want them to be seen in public. On what basis do they get to define Indian culture?
There is great anxiety around the idea of women choosing their own intimate lives, defining their personal freedoms, over the lack of control that people are used to exercising over women. But it is also a response to the great changes taking place as society changes and old power equations shift. Groups of people used to exercising control upper castes, males, upper class people, majority groups want the money, the mobility that come with change, but they dont want to lose their old privileges, their controls over those who have been under their control earlier. Somehow we have not managed to create a culture of disagreement in our country one in which we are able to accept a different opinion, way of life or choice other than our own.
The person from the NCW should be ashamed of herself for saying the pub should lose its licence and for confusing the debate. The law has been broken by some people; these people should be punished accordingly. There can be no ambiguity about it. Morality is a personal domain, and something we can decide for ourselves only not extend to others. The law, on the other hand, is a public and general thing and those who broke it should be punished. The attackers dont like women who go to pubs, fine, let them not be friends with those women. That is really the only right they have in this matter.