March Past (And Present)

In this edition of Qafe, Paramita Banerjee delves deeper into the blatant commercialisation that has overtaken the idea of women’s empowerment, especially International Women's Day.

On 8 March this year, this qafeteer found herself tagged in a Facebook status update by Srijit Ghosh, a 20-year-old budding architect, with no claim to fame whatsoever. Just a school friend’s son. Since I have his permission to quote him, let me share with you his angst in his own words: “Throughout the year I don’t see any posts about how women are important in your lives. About respecting them…However, One fine day the whole of Facebook is flooded with status updates about women. Is this how you respect them? Just a day?? Rest all of the days you are quiet. And maybe at times you feel like showering all your machismo (or, like you say, chivalry?) on women empowerment when the news flashes another new rape incident somewhere in the country. I believe this is one of the most artificial days celebrated…Just one farcical day you respect women. I think Women don’t need this day. What they need is respect for all 365 days.”

I’m not inflicted with temporary/partial amnesia to forget that similar words have been/are echoed ad nauseum by media-savvy political leaders, public figures and celebrities. But still, when they come from a young man whose passions are yet to be completely sullied by the big bad world out there, they have an enchanting effect. Not enchanting enough, though, to make me forget other aspects of the artificiality—mockery even—in the manner International Women’s Day is observed these days. Beauty products and jewellery manufacturers, for instance, have managed to successfully hijack the day to launch ‘women’s special’ offers that are embedded in and reinforce, therefore, the hetero-normative patriarchal values that constitute the very basis of the injustice and inequalities that girls and women have to face from the cradle to the grave.

It is apparently nobody’s concern that jewellery ads in big hoardings and television commercials are forever emphasising the need to buy jewellery for one’s daughter’s wedding. Surely, such advertisements cannot have much to do with dowry deaths in a country where the official National Crime Records Bureau records reflect that one woman was killed every hour for dowry related issues in 2012 (the latest year available). Only some outdated feminist scholars and activists with fertile imagination shout themselves hoarse to argue that propagating an almost inseparable link between a daughter’s wedding, and the need to spend/save for gold and jewellery, reinforces the notion of dowry and perpetrates the popular belief that daughters are a burden to any family. If they go a step further to stress that such a perception is the cause behind female foeticide and infanticide and the falling sex ratio of the country, one can safely say that their already unrealistic imagination has reached the borders of insanity.

So, on 8 March, a day meant to commemorate women’s struggle for equality in the labour market and elsewhere, a number of jewellery designers bring out special television and newspaper ads on specific jewellery products not just for the bride to be, but also for college/office-going women. The beauty industry launches a range of products, from skin whitening to anti-ageing creams, face washes and soaps for flawless skin, hair care paraphernalia, perfumes to lure men. What better job does a woman have other than luring men?

Well, women can fool men too, or so the latest Airtel myPlan advertisements would have us believe. These TV commercials emphasise three significant aspects of family life:

  1. Only fathers can have independent mobile phone usage plans that can be shared with the entire family, so that ‘papa ko khush karo’ (please your father) becomes utterly important for teenage sons and daughters to get their share of internet usage increased.
  2. Fathers are really silly men who get fooled by purely token gestures by their teenage children, without even sensing the agenda behind it and the utter lack of sincerity.
  3. Mothers, of course, do not have independent mobile plans to share with their children so pleasing mothers is a non-issue, but they can and do actively help children in deliberately fooling their fathers.

A brilliant depiction of all the ‘traditional’ values of the country, wouldn’t you say? Marriage as a relationship of trust is flawlessly highlighted by the mother’s part in getting her husband fooled by the children. Respect for parents is unquestionably underscored by children deliberately fooling their fathers with the help of their mothers. Dignity of women gets emphasised by mothers helping their sons and daughters in deceiving their fathers. An enraged childhood friend—not someone I’ve known to be one of those outdated feminists overtly or covertly—exploded that these ads should be banned. But then, a series of commercials reflecting the country’s values in such glory can hardly be banned. Banning is for a foreign woman trying to unjustly usurp just one of India’s daughters who might have been brutally raped and killed for her own fault entirely. Banning may be considered for a film that beautifully captures a differently-abled woman’s journey of self-discovery, because it dares to show a lesbian relationship. Airtel myPlan ads? No way!


All this talk about ads makes me wonder whether young Srijit is a little one-sided in his views. After all, he has failed to notice that irrespective of status updates about women in social media, our commercials indefatigably celebrate women every single day of the year. Just think about the advertisements of specifically male-oriented products like shaving razors, aftershave lotions, soaps and deodorants meant specifically for men—they are seldom advertised without involving women in them, with almost the sole exception of Milind Soman daring to advertise Old Spice products using only his “mantastic good looks”, needing no woman next to him. Such continued reiteration that men need women for everything, even to be convinced of what to buy for themselves, is surely a mark of respect!

Think of cricket in this context. The Indian Premier League has made history by including four former women cricketers from around the world in their 26-member commentary team. A laudable effort, for sure, since the IPLis an all-male affair and the International Cricket Council involves women commentators only in women’s cricket. If someone argues that this is just tokenism and condescension since there is no women’s IPL, one can safely say that any such argument smacks of old-fashioned rabid feminism, not to be taken seriously at all. Especially since the IPL officials had already proven themselves to be great advocates for women’s empowerment by introducing all-white trained female cheerleaders—a phenomenon never before seen in India—to add some “glamour quotient” to the event. There is a Facebook fan club for the IPL cheerleaders that describe them as ”HOT and SEXY and an entirely new reason for watching cricket”. Bravo for the IPL management for making the king of games in India subservient to the presence of women cheerleaders on the field!

The month of March is gone, but that cannot be reason enough not to talk about women’s empowerment. India has the fourth highest rate of rape in the world, with official estimates reflecting that a girl/woman is raped every 22 minutes. One woman is killed for dowry every hour, and a case of domestic violence against an Indian woman is reported every five minutes. An Indian woman dies during childbirth every 10 minutes. Against all of that, it can hardly be a crime to talk about women’s issues beyond 8 March. In the United States, the month of March is marked as Women’s History month. Maybe in India, we could mark at least one month in the year as Women’s Safety month—a month when no woman is raped, killed or tortured!


Paramita Banerjee works as an independent consultant in the sphere of child protection and gender justice. Her expertise lies in research, training, evaluation and community mobilisation. This black-coffee drinking queer activist dreams of wielding the pen to ruffle the feathers of status-quo-ist survival.

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