The responsibility for safeguarding the rights of women in India is one that has been passed rapidly and frequently between many slippery hands: the government, the police, civil society. Its passage into the hands of the media, however, has been particularly disheartening with the recent publication of, “Dear Deepika, our point of view…” by The Times of India. While their staff is surely indulging themselves in congratulatory backslaps for their paltry witticisms, what they sadly fail to realize is the dangerous precedent they are setting with regard to the portrayal of women’s bodies in the Indian media. By failing to understand the ripple effects of their actions, the press (if one can call The Bombay Times such) compounds the difficulties for women in this country as much as a leering passerby.
In their recent op-ed, The Times of India sarcastically asks Deepika whether she thinks that they should ask for her permission every time they print her picture. But what Priya Gupta and her associates do not understand is that the the way they have used these photographs undermines a woman’s right to her own body. To The Times of India, consent may be a laughing matter, and public shaming is apparently an acceptable means of getting a point across. Yet, in reality, publishing a picture of a person’s breasts, surrounded by red arrows and circles, is ultimately no better for a woman than being ogled on the street. It is an act equally lacking in consent, and one that has much greater potential to harm and violate the victim. The actions of The Times of India, in shaming Deepika both for her body and her anger against their portrayal of her, perpetuates views similar to those that are used to justify violence against women. A woman going to a bar in a ‘slutty’ outfit is asking for the attention. A woman out at night is a hypocrite—if she’s such a smart, independent woman, she should know better. If she gets raped, shame on her for losing her virtue.
If we cannot expect the press—the philosophical ‘Fourth Estate’ and protector of our democratic rights—to show women respect, how can we start to expect respect from the state? Though The Times of India may be the main offender in this case, public discourse on women’s rights throughout the media and in civil society is often couched in offensive and insufficient rhetoric. Why does this particular instance of it touch such a nerve? Perhaps, one expects that the largest English daily in the world, in addition to using proper and appropriate language, might aspire to a greater ideal than sales. If anything, it is in the watchdog of the press that citizens have placed their faith and hope. They are met, unfortunately, not with a publication that chooses to genuinely highlight social issues, but with one that splashes color and advertising on tabloid trash.
However, for a daily publication, however banal their content is, to stoop to ad hominem attacks, the immature re-publication of photo-shoots, and utterly insipid arguments like: “Deepika, just for the record, we do not zoom into a woman’s vagina or show her nipples. As a newspaper, we take every care to ensure that we pixelate them if they show up in a picture,” (how mightily conscientious of them!) is completely unacceptable. It is utterly abhorrent that The Times of India felt that “Deepika chose to raise a furore and suddenly felt ‘violated’ only during the release of her movie Finding Fanny.” Worse, Priya Gupta chose to put the word ‘violated’ in quotation marks, as though the rights of Deepika as a woman, her fears for her own and other women’s privacy, and the broader question of misogyny and the sexual objectification of women ought not be the legitimate concerns of the paper or the public.
This country’s voyeuristic relationship with female anatomy and femininity itself is fueled by poorly-enforced legislation, wrist-slaps instead of court cases, and an acceptance of an unequal status quo. It is a toxic, self-perpetuating relationship that needs to stop. We need to start with the fundamental premise of ownership. We live in a society that views girls as an economic drain, and boys as an economic safety net. Girls, like property, are still chattel on the marriage market. On the streets, women are leered at like wares on display. Perhaps, it is no wonder then, that The Times of Indiafeels that it too has a claim on Deepika Padukone’s body. It is this very concept of ownership–the very idea that a woman and her body can possibly be owned–that The Bombay Times is perpetuating. This country needs its institutions, its men, and its women to defend a woman’s right to equality and respect.