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Policing Mathira, Deepika — and all South Asian women

Updated September 23, 2014

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The examples of Mathira and Deepika are significant. Not because it is relatable or extends to everyone but precisely because it doesn’t.
The examples of Mathira and Deepika are significant. Not because it is relatable or extends to everyone but precisely because it doesn’t.

In my limited experience discussing the origins and impact of sexism with my peers and students, there is nothing that comes up more often than questions of moral policing.

Many of my male friends and students have a tendency to flip the question on its head in an attempt to deflect from its importance, it’s always,

but men face sexism too

or

there are so many bigger issues than sexism

Both of these statements are obviously true and both are equally ludicrous within the context they are uttered. To say that men are also victims of sexism is a tried and tested deflection technique, because it doesn’t address the question of proportions or percentages.

Few would disagree that men also face sexism and are victims of harassment, as well as abuse but fewer still would try and equate the scale of that victimisation with that faced by women on a personal and occasionally even institutional level.

As for the perpetual ‘there are so many bigger issues’ segue, yes there are…there is terrorism, lack of land reforms, educational policy and so-called revolutions. That, however, is not what is being discussed and it would be a relief to, for once, have a discussion on the premise of what is being said rather than what isn’t.

As a society, we seem to have mastered this art of side-lining uncomfortable realities by pointing towards ‘more uncomfortable realities’ or worse, by stating that other countries have it worse … as if that, in some way, means we don’t have to address or attempt to solve our own problems.

Also read: Moral police go on billboard ‘blackening’ spree

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the phrase:

But there are more instances of rape in the United States than nearly all other countries’.

True – but the US also punishes most of those instances and considers rape a crime, something we sideline from the onset, during investigations, prosecution…even simple acknowledgment of the crime.


Mathira & Deepika


Two stories this month have raised very interesting parallels with regards to moral policing, one relates to Mathira’s pregnancy and the other to Deepika Padukone’s ‘cleavage’.

Both stories provide an interesting foray into the methods employed by the Indian and Pakistani media in targeting female celebrities differently from their male counterparts. And before someone points it out, of course, neither of these stories takes into account the problems faced by ‘everyday women’ which is precisely why they are significant in the context of moral policing.

Celebrities have always been touted as ‘exceptions to the rule’ in any and every society when it comes to rules regarding social behaviour, attire and expectations. It is the attitude adopted towards these individuals that is a very strong indicator of where societal expectations lie and how they are being shaped, in other words ‘where society draws the line’.

The one thing that both the Indian and Pakistani media have clarified in the past month is that neither believes in keeping its nose out of where it doesn’t belong. Whether the question is of a woman’s pregnancy and the paternity of her child, or another’s body and how much she chooses to expose it.

Some would argue that celebrities, who benefit from the rabid celebrity culture that permeates Hollywood, Bollywood and to a lesser extent Lollywood, invite such scrutiny and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. However, that still misses the point of where individuality begins, even for a so-called ‘public person’.

  • Do most celebrities use the media’s obsession with their personal lives to their advantage?

Many do.

  • Does that excuse the media when it violates the most basic standards of respecting another person’s privacy?

Not so much.

With regards to Mathira’s supposed deviation from traditional and orthodox gender expectations, the Pakistani media’s reaction is less surprising, but no less reprehensible.

Mathira is not the first Pakistani actress to attract criticism for her so-called controversial ‘personal choices’, most Pakistani actresses tend to use the little leverage they have in a very limiting film industry and culture by capitalising on ‘shock value’ – whether this is with regards to their relationships, clothing or career choices.

As such, it is hardly surprising that celebrity culture – in general – rests on the rich and famous trying to steal as much screen time as they can, both on-camera or off it. We all judge famous people and often that is a choice they allow the public; commentary on their appearance, weight, relationships, etc. drives an entire parallel industry. This business model doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t deserve any privacy at all.

Being a ‘public person’ doesn’t preclude being a person.

Mathira’s pregnancy became a matter of public concern because the actress allegedly refused to announce her nuptials and did not play out her relationship in public enough. This allowed the bastions of moral monitoring to effectively gauge the exact date of her conception, its legalities and the technicalities of her marriage contract. She responded to the criticism, as most of us are wont to do these days, on Twitter:

Being an artist, you’re public property but why would people have issues with your married life? Pakistan deserves to be what it is today, thanks to the hypocrites, and judgmental people with such double standards. We will never have a naya Pakistan.

Given the circumstances, Mathira does make sense here; a ‘Naya Pakistan’ free of old attitudes and hyperactive moral policing is a hard one to conceive.

On to Deepika, the reaction to the superstar’s latest ‘cleavage controversy’ in India has been quite disappointing. The actress recently reacted to a headline ‘cleavage show’ published by the Times Of India. Much has been made about Deepika’s public lashing out and the lacklustre response by TOI in turn.

Also read: Deepika Padukone, TOI in tussle over cleavage

Padukone recently wrote:

The reason I write the above line is because we all know that in India we are so desperately trying to make a change in the way sections of our society think in order to move towards a happier world devoid of inequality, rape, fear and pain. I am not naive about my own profession; it is one that requires lots of demanding things of me. A character may demand that I be clothed from head to toe or be completely naked, and it will be my choice as an actor whether or not I take either. Understand that this is a ROLE and not REAL, and it is my job to portray whatever character I choose to play convincingly.

The Times of India responded again, turning the statement on it’s head to blame Deepika for being part of a culture and industry, that apparently warranted less criticism for sexist treatment because it was rooted in its own perpetual sexist interpretations.

The Times of India’s apologist response only compounds this problem.

It is again deflection in the vein of ‘she’s an actress, she romances men on screen and dresses up for award shows…so we have no responsibility to treat her with the same consideration we would extend any other woman’.

The reason such attitudes matter is because they extend far beyond the celebrities at whom they are directed.

When the public feels that ‘certain’ people deserve less respect, privacy or agency than others because the choices they make are not socially acceptable, then by extension that narrows the scope for everyone else.

It is not a stretch to apply moral policing on all women; in fact many in society do exactly that.

When one targets their vitriol at celebrities and actors, he or she is essentially setting a bar on acceptability. The personal becomes public once again, and that domain then trickles down to everyone else.

The idea that a woman’s body is her own to do with as she pleases will never be a popular one, certainly not in Pakistan because the idea inherently clashes with our deeply flawed concept of ‘honour’ - where all notions of religion, society and acceptability rest with women. It doesn’t matter how Pakistanis act, whether, we as a nation are corrupt, petty, violent or illiterate, just as long as we ‘look’ properly Islamic.

What is the barometer for gauging this look?

Women.

The West, and their ‘evil, western ways’ are considered immoral essentially because of the freedom and mobility of women in the West. Nearly all questions of ‘Eastern values’ essentially boil down to questions of women’s agency, especially regarding their bodies, who controls them and how much.

This is why, the example of Mathira and Deepika is significant.

Not because the two cases are relatable or extend to everyone but precisely because they do not.

Such instances on both sides of the border just go on to show that when it comes to public policing of society's morals – read women’s behaviour/clothing/choices/actions/visibility – there can be no exceptions.