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Understanding India's pub-going, loose and forward women

The Pink Chaddi and Pub Bharo campaigns that followed the attacks on women in a Mangalore pub should be seen not just in terms of the right of women to access public spaces, but as a negotiation with what it means to be middle class, Indian, women, and consumers in a global modernity, says Padma Govindan

The power to exercise consumer agency in a public space, to participate in the global modernity in a previously forbidden mode, is at the heart of the pleasure. One goes to malls and pubs not just to shop and drink, but also to access and be seen accessing leisure spaces that define the modern global consumer—a case of sexual commodities negotiation. Thus, defiantly adopting the affect of “pub-going, loose, and forward” is not just a defence of the right of women to access public space as citizens, but is predicated on the legitimacy of middle class women claiming ownership of visible consumption as a form of gendered empowerment.

In the last six months in India there has been an increasing degree of attention paid to the task of either redefining or questioning the boundaries of ‘respectability’ for middle and upper-middle class women in public and private spaces. While conservative moral panics (and the reactions of left-identified writers and activists) of this nature seem to flare up in a somewhat predictable cycle within the Indian political machine, mainstream media, and in feminist activist circles, the events that precipitated this more recent spate of hand-wringing bear closer examination.

The public physical attacks by the Ram Sene on women in Karnataka in January 2009 illuminates middle class anxieties around the legitimacy of women occupying public urban spaces as citizens, upwardly mobile professionals, and global consumers. There has been a plethora of public criticism against both the actions of the men who perpetrated these acts as well as protest against the mainstream media’s coverage of the events and the victims involved. However, I contend that the experiences of the women involved—particularly the women who were attacked in the Mangalore pub—represent the nuanced decisions around risk, power, pleasure, and consumption that women make every day as subjects in the global flows of money, imagery, consumption patterns, and cultural narratives that shape the modern Indian middle class.

Rather than reiterate the position that the furor  over the pub attacks involved silencing any discussion of sexual and gender oppression suffered by other marginalised communities of women, there is another productive site of analysis: the complex negotiations that young middle class women make around socialising, dating, purchasing and drinking, represent an ambivalent engagement with modernity itself—that is, what it means to be middle class, an Indian, a woman, and a consumer—and where the limits of gendered and sexual legitimacy lie within that particular nexus of identities. This essay contends that the heart of the defence of women’s entitlement to unmolested physical freedom in the wake of these two events lies not merely in a political investment in the rights of all women to safely occupy public spaces (although that dimension is certainly not absent), but in an implicit defence of the right of women to self-define the boundaries of social and economic consumption in a specifically middle class context.

On January 24, 40 male members of the Sri Ram Sene, an ultra-orthodox Hindu political group based in Mangalore, entered a Mangalore pub called Amnesia and beat up the women who were present, dragging them into the streets while TV crews filmed the attack. (That particular video has successfully gone viral on the Internet.) Ram Senea founder Pramod Muthalik was arrested, along with a few others of the group, in the wake of the attack, but also claimed to be planning an action for Valentine’s Day: “If we come across couples being together in public and expressing their love, we will take them to the nearest temple and conduct their marriage.” Among the frenzied responses to the attacks from various government officials (including the sacking of the head of the National Commission for Women for supporting the actions of Ram Sene), the chief minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, made a point of agreeing with Muthalik: “We…are against this activity of boys and girls walking hand in hand in pubs and malls.”

While there were many different kinds of reactions to the attacks from feminist activist groups (such as a demonstration in Bangalore on Valentine’s Day), by far the most public and controversial response was the Pink Chaddi Campaign, started by Nisha Susan in Delhi. A largely Internet-based action, the Pink Chaddi Campaign called for men and women to send pink underwear to Muthalik’s office in Mangalore as a sign of irreverent protest—a deflating of the aura of God-like wrath that communalist organisations frequently assume—and the Ram Sene office was flooded with over 500 chaddis. Susan also called for pub-crawls by men and women across India on Valentine’s Day, under the banner ‘A Consortium of Pub-going, Loose, and Forward Women’, a striking reclamation of words usually used to taunt women who overstep the boundaries of middle class respectability. The campaign, which was extensively covered by both the national and international press, received both an enthusiastic response from professional women, and also a virulently angry response from both Ram Sene and other men—many of whom continue to hack into the Pink Chaddi Facebook page with death threats and sexual abuse. Pramod Muthalik eventually agreed to a peaceful discourse, after attempting to bring a civil suit for defamation, but the Pink Chaddi Facebook page remains under attack. (It should be noted here that as of March 2009, Muthalik has been banned from entering Mangalore by court order.)

 
As Ponni Arasu states in her essay for Kafila.org, it is important to be aware of the class implications of the Pink Chaddi campaign, the media characterisations of Ram Sene, and the class dimensions of the moral panic around middle class women in public spaces: “We can start with the famous Pink Chaddi campaign. The questions are obvious; who is on Facebook? Who can afford to buy or even give away a used chaddi? Why is the media so interested in this and has not been when a bus full of students in Mangalore were attacked by the same group that attacked the women in the pub in Mangalore?” It is also noteworthy that the response of some government officials and much of the mainstream Indian media made a point of drawing a distinction between the white-collar profile of the women in the pub and the working class profile of the men involved with Ram Sene; when Union Minister Renuka Chowdhury called the Mangalore pub attack the “Talibanisation” of India, she also said that the attacks on the women were by “lumpen elements”. In addition, Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa in the same breath denounced “pub culture” in his state and also made it clear that should Ram Sene engage in another assault, he would invoke the Goonda Act to stop them.

Clearly both the intent of the Ram Sainiks involved in the attack (with their endless references to pub and mall “culture”) as well as the activist and government response is to highlight the class discrepancies at work: either to draw attention to the increasing “un-Indian” immodesty of middle class women who are shopping in malls and drinking in pubs, to point out the marginalisation of working class women whose access to public space is even more restricted by patriarchal modes of control but whose suffering doesn’t inspire the same outrage, or to denounce the attackers as barbaric working class “undesirables”. Absent from this overlapping set of responses and counter-reactions are the women themselves: the middle class, student and professional women who were at the pub with their friends and partners. If the argument being so hotly contested is that Indian women are going against their traditional culture and values by exposing themselves in public spaces and adopting non-Indian behaviours such as drinking, dating and shopping, then this begs the question: why do young white-collar Indian women want to exercise the ability to engage in these behaviours in these specific spaces?

Shilpa Phadke is an assistant professor at the Centre for Media and Cultural Studies at TISS, and also a founding director of the Gender and Space project of Pukar in Mumbai. Her work focuses primarily on sexuality, urban space and media, and she is a strong proponent of examining Indian middle class sexuality from the perspectives of citizenship, pleasure, and globalisation. When I interviewed her, she drew this picture of the complexities of middle class women’s desires for space: “I think most young middle class women have to strategise every day about how to appear both modern and desirable without crossing into the dangerous territory of being immodest. At the same time, they also want to participate in a globalised consumer experience—shopping in malls or hanging out in pubs—and they want to push the boundaries of what is ‘acceptable’ for women of their class because of the pleasures involved in doing so. It’s important not to forget just how much desire is bound up in the power to access spaces like pubs as a modern consumer.”

In her essay titled ‘Some Notes Towards Understanding the Construction of Middle Class Urban Women’s Sexuality in India’, Phadke also makes a clear connection between middle class globalised modernity in India and feminist sexual politics: “To be sexual in the manner legitimised by these processes (of globalisation) is to conform to a new vision of ‘modernity’ rather than to protest or rebel…These values have in many ways come to embody notions of progress and modernity for women and have also remained to a large extent uncontested by Indian feminist activists and scholars, for whom the arena of consumption and desire has always been a difficult one to address” (2005). That is to say, for middle class Indian women, there is simultaneously empowerment and surveillance in the defining elements of modern urban life.

The decisions that women make in the pursuit of both modern legitimacy and gendered subversion—should I go to a pub, should I drink tonight, what clothes will I wear, with whom will I go, how drunk will I get, will I smoke, will I have sex, do I even have money to go out tonight—all constitute a complex set of negotiations with the boundaries of consumer power, sexual and social pleasure, and female respectability. The power to exercise consumer agency in a public space, to participate in the global modernity in a previously forbidden mode, is at the heart of the pleasure. One goes to malls and pubs not just to shop and drink, but also to access and be seen accessing leisure spaces that define the modern global consumer—a case of sexual commodities negotiation. Thus, defiantly adopting the affect of “pub-going, loose, and forward” is not just a defence of the right of women to access public space as citizens, but is predicated on the legitimacy of middle class women claiming ownership of visible consumption as a form of gendered empowerment. And as Phadke convincingly argues, feminist activists in India don’t yet have a credible way of incorporating the pleasures of middle class consumption and empowering defences of that pleasure (as the Pink Chaddi Campaign undoubtedly is) into a larger approach that also acknowledges and addresses class inequality.

This is not to say that feminist activist interventions should either wholesale dismiss the complexities of middle class sexual negotiations, or act as an apologia for capitalist middle class consumption. Rather, that any feminist interruption, as it were, needs to make clear the tensions between gendered oppression and class-based hegemony. No public action or political movement can represent all people at all times, and to expect so would be unreasonable—and as I said earlier, the sexuality of the middle class is a fruitful site of analysis in the Indian context. It is both ubiquitous in its aspirational imagery and undermapped as a site of theoretical or political inquiry. The complex pleasures of sexual consumption cannot be dismissed by feminist actions, but neither can they be unquestioningly accepted. The goal of any political action, particularly as regards the sexual policing of middle class Indians, must include a nuanced excavation of the sources of sexual agency and decisionmaking, and the intersections of those decisions with the pursuit of modernity and global consumerism.

(Padma Govindan is the founder and co-director of the Shakti Centre, a sexuality advocacy and research non-profit organisation in Chennai. She is also a sex advice columnist for Marie Claire India)

InfoChange News & Features, May 2009