Morality through the ages: Old strategies, new threats

By Manjima Bhattacharjya

Why is there such a resurgence of the moral police in recent times, threatening women in jeans or beating up women who go pubbing, as in Mangalore recently? Is it because ‘morality’ has historically been a powerful tool of social and political control, and now there is a fear that women are going out of control, and must be contained?

protest moral police

The phenomenon of creating moral boundaries for women has taken on both new and familiar ways. The familiar ways continue – surveillance over where women go, what they wear, how they speak, who they speak to, and so on. Newer forms have also emerged: legislative force (such as the closure of dance bars in Mumbai) or coercive violence (like the Shiv Sena on a rampage separating men and women sitting together on Valentines’ Day), or institutional alarm (dress codes for girls in colleges and universities in Delhi), or a nebulous and unwritten moral social force – which condones harmful traditional and cultural practices like sati and the marginalisation of widows, sometimes in the name of protecting our traditions against Westernisation or in the name of ‘culture’, ‘Indian tradition’ or ‘sabhyata’.  

As these new assertions of ‘morality’ rise and find new forms, so do the ways in which women’s rights are being violated. Those who pose as the guardians of morality, Indian culture and tradition continue to maintain a deafening silence when such incidents come to light. Where are they when dowry murders are reported? Where are they when female foeticide is revealed to be a shocking reality in most states in the country? Where are they when year after year rising cases of domestic violence are reported?  

The moral police emerge year after year, every Valentine’s day, every few months to threaten women in jeans or as we saw most recently, to beat up and terrorise women who went pubbing in Mangalore. The upsurge over questions of morality has taken a new form today that threatens to roll back much of the gains made by people’s movements all over the world and create an environment of threat and terror. This makes it all the more necessary for us to understand the roots of this anxiety and the way morality has historically become a powerful tool of social and political control. What is this many-headed monster, and why does it have a sustained presence and relevance in our lives?  

A historical look 

Men have rarely been targeted for visiting pubs, smoking, interacting with the opposite sex, wearing Western clothes – or even violence, rape, assault. The discourse of morality has been largely focused on and targeted at women, particularly related to their sexuality, and most often used against minorities or the ‘other’ as the dominant group may be. The basis of these declarations of ‘morality’ are often prejudices, which are often used as an argument to justify the inferiority of one group or person vis-a-vis another.  

Historically, moral declarations have served to mark and maintain the boundaries and limits within which women and communities can operate, and have been fundamental to preserving the sanctity and legitimacy of patriarchal institutions of religion, family, nation, race, caste and community. Any challenges to these institutions have been met with outraged moral affront.     

Morality is not a static concept, and with changing economies, polity and society, morality too shifts or is manipulated to suit the times, by the powers that be. Morality is also constantly contested, resisted and re-framed. How strange it is that something which may have been considered deeply immoral at one point in history – whether it is dancing, acting, women wearing trousers, or riding bicycles – is today considered a normal thing! Or that the same thing can be considered immoral in one nation or by one community and moral in another! This shows how fickle the boundaries of morality are, that they are socially constructed and subjective.  

For example, in 1890s New York, there was an uproar when women from respectable homes started riding bicycles. The fear (documented in many editorials and cartoons and columns in daily papers at the time) was that, with women from good homes showing off their ankles as they rode around Central Park, there would be little difference between them and the prostitutes. Similarly, there was a moral outcry, even by those who were the propagators of women’s right to education and widow remarriage, at the entry of women onto the stage in Bengali theatre. ‘Public women’ (most of them were from a background of prostitution) like Nati Binodini and other stage actresses were treated as immoral. Women in the ‘performance tradition’ – dancing, singing -- have also been seen as ‘public women’ and have a history of stigma – courtesans, devadasis and so on. Bharatanatyam, which is today seen as a respectable classical dance form, once faced a possible ban as it was considered to be of ill repute being performed by women of the devadasi tradition.  

Portrayals of women in historical religious and ancient texts also carry a subtext of morality – whether it is the Virgin Mary, or the monogamy of Sita, the polygamy of Draupadi, the devotion of Sati, and so on – which have resonance in continuing notions of ideal womanhood. Whenever these notions have been challenged, there has been controversy. Even in literature, whenever women and men have written of oppression, female sexuality, or exposed certain aspects of religion, patriarchy or culture, there has been a violent backlash. Writers like Ismat Chugtai, Sadat Hasan Manto, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, Amrita Pritam have faced severe ostracism and even court cases, arrest and religious indictments for challenging the status quo through their writing.  

Moral pronouncements and fears have over time been institutionalised also in law, in popular discourse, in the real world around us. Often these create situations of tragic injustice. A judge who pronounces that the rapist may marry his victim is exercising his perceptions of morality, rather than the call for justice. The State also practices double standards of morality -- they are willing to overlook the use of women’s bodies in the marketing of almost anything, and yet will ‘censor’ a film that demonstrates the sexual violence against women in a communal massacre.  

The discourse of morality touches our lives in every sphere – whether it is in the home or in the choice or area of work, or through the law, the State, the police, the judiciary. Through politics, religion, the pronouncements of influential religious groups. It determines what we watch on television, in cinema and theatre, in art and culture, in newspapers or in literature.  

The moral police: Why the resurgence? 

Today we can see that a lot of things are changing around us: women across classes are much less afraid to occupy public spaces, more confident of their bodies, fearless in wearing clothes that they want to wear and exhibiting behaviour that an (earlier?) dominant morality would classify as that of a ‘bad woman’. The divide between the 'good' and 'bad' woman seems to be blurring. New expressions of moral anxieties are a response to these developments and arise out of a fear that women are going out of control, and must be contained. (This leads us to believe that when a woman exercises agency, demands her rights and challenges oppression and injustice, or even speaks out, it is labelled as ‘immoral’.)  

The resurgence is also a response to a perceived threat to ‘Indian culture’ and the fear that the nation is undergoing a phase of ‘Westernisation’ due to the combined effects of an open economy, globalisation and satellite media, communication and technology. As always, women are seen as the bearers of culture and tradition, and it is their conduct and control which is sought to be reined and tightened, the boundaries redrawn, reminders of the punishment of transgression announced… in reaction to this threat. 

The result: loss of secular spaces, end of dialogue, a threat to rights, democracy, freedom. And the slow, dangerous rise of a new kind of fascism and fundamentalism, that threatens to erode the many small victories of progressive movements. What remains shocking is the hypocrisy of it all. The very men who cry themselves hoarse when women wear jeans in colleges or sportspersons wear regular sports attire in their field, are silent when female foeticide or dowry murders take place. The ministers who vociferously call for the ban on women dancing in bars themselves organise a fundraising event in which they invite an ‘item girl’ to dance on stage for the enjoyment of the police force and their cadres. The women who are up in arms against a comment by an actress that premarital sex is alright as long as safe sex is practised, look the other way when sexual assault occurs around them, or remain quiet when acid is thrown by spurned ‘lovers’ on the faces of unsuspecting young women. This is evidence enough of the fickle nature of their notion of morality.  

What is a feminist vision of a moral society? One in which men do not use sexual terror as a tool to control women, one in which women are not suspect for just being, one in which morality is linked to an intrinsic sense of justice, equality and democracy -- and not as a tool for surveillance, subjugation and oppression.

Struggles against the discourse of morality 

Various movements have waged their own struggle against the moral police in the last few years, fighting for rights to freedom of expression, the right to work in safe conditions, the right to livelihood and many other fundamental constitutional rights that are being threatened. Here’s a brief look at some of these struggles.   

Campaigns for the right to freedom of expression: Fire and Water

In December 1998, right-wing Hindu fundamentalist groups staged violent protests against the screening of Deepa Mehta's film Fire (critiquing the Hindu Undivided Family and revolving around the sexual and emotional relationship between two women protagonists). They claimed the film was: " …An explosion of obscenity, a denigration of womanhood and an attack on Bharatiya Sanskriti". 

Various fundamentalist groups barged into cinema halls and smashed glasspanes, burnt posters and shouted slogans. Similar attacks took place in other cities and towns.  The film had been running peacefully for two weeks with acceptance by the masses, before this sudden disruption.

The shocking violence forced civil rights groups, women's groups, sexual minorities rights groups, artists, filmmakers, and concerned citizens out onto the streets in protest across the country, drawing national and international attention. The incident led to the emergence of various new debates and issues in public fora, such as that on lesbian identities in India, the right to freedom of expression, the role of right-wing groups and violent cultural nationalism.  

In 2000, similar violence erupted during the shooting of Deepa Mehta’s film Water, on the condition of widows in Benaras. The director and the lead actors were besieged by obscene calls and threats, and the film set burnt and destroyed by right-wing groups. The UP government did not prevent, condemn or punish the perpetrators of the violence. Despite counter-protests by civil society groups, the agitations and threats compelled the director to cease filming. 

Voices Against 377

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is an ancient law set in the framework of Victorian morality that criminalises all sexual acts “against the order of nature”. In 1994, AIDS Bhedbav Virodh Andolan (ABVA), a human rights group, filed a public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court stating that Section 377 should be repealed because it violated the right to privacy and because it discriminated against people with a particular sexual orientation. Though this petition was not followed up, in 2001 Naz Foundation, an NGO involved in HIV/AIDS prevention, filed a more comprehensive writ petition asking that Section 377 be repealed in the Delhi High Court. It additionally stated that the law is a threat to the right to life and right to health of homosexuals in India because it perpetuates social stigma and police abuse. It also prevents HIV/AIDS prevention work among the homosexual community, making them more vulnerable to contracting the disease.

In September 2004, the petition (and a subsequent review petition) was dismissed by the High Court. Naz Foundation then filed a special leave petition (SLP) before the Supreme Court. The court called for the Central government to be represented before it in the next hearing, recognising that this was a public interest issue that was being debated all over the world. The government’s position was that Section 377 should remain because it was a tool that could be used by the government to interfere in the private sphere in "the interest of public safety and the protection of health and morals". The government claimed that Section 377 was used in cases of assault and deleting the section could "open the floodgates of delinquent behaviour", and that it was needed to deal with cases of child sexual abuse.

The government's response drew angry protests from a number of organisations. Their views were well represented in a letter sent by AIDWA to the minister for law and justice, objecting to the arguments advanced by the government justifying it. It maintained that the government could not interfere in the private sexual activity of two consenting adults, regardless of its interpretation of what was natural or unnatural sexual behaviour. It pointed out that if one were to accept the government's standpoint, then many existing pieces of legislation concerning women's rights and dalit rights would not have been enacted since there are many sections of society that consider wife-beating or dowry taking to be consistent with "tradition and culture", just as they consider untouchability to be the "natural order" of society. Addressing the government's argument that Section 377 needs to be retained because it is also used to deal with cases of child sexual abuse, it said that there was nothing to prevent the government from enacting a comprehensive law against child sexual abuse, which should include a clause that criminalised non-consensual same-sex relations.

Activists are continuing with lobbying efforts and raising awareness through a forum called Voices Against 377, which is a coalition of human rights, child rights, women's rights and sexual rights groups.

The battle against censorship

The government has made several attempts at censoring various initiatives that it considers ‘political’, ‘immoral’ or ‘obscene’, but has always faced energetic resistance. In 2004 the government introduced a condition for the Mumbai International Film Festival of Documentary, Short and Animation (MIFF), that only the Indian entries obtain a censor certificate. This was aimed at keeping out films on the Gujarat riots that would have embarrassed the government. In a Campaign Against Censorship around 275 filmmakers got together to protest this move, and ultimately the government had to withdraw this condition. However the rejection of certain films for this festival showed ‘backdoor censorship’. Among the films rejected for example, were Sanjay Kak’s Words on Water, on the Narmada Bachao Andolan and Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution on the Gujarat riots. In protest of this kind of backhand censorship, filmmakers organised a parallel festival of documentaries rejected by the MIFF 2004, or withdrawn in protest against its selection procedures at a venue strategically opposite the MIFF venue. It was aptly flagged off with an excerpt from Safed Jhoot by Sadat Hasan Manto, Manto's response to allegations of obscenity which were aimed at him and a direct defence of the freedom of expression.  

Censorship of films and documentaries has been a highly controversial issue even in the past. Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s award-winning documentary War and Peace (onthe rise of Indian jingoism, militarism, and the globalisation of the arms trade) was cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in 2003 after a year-and-a-half-long struggle to obtain a certificate of release, and that too after the Mumbai High Court ordered that it be passed without any cuts or changes. 

Similarly other films which have had problems include Aakrosh, a documentary on the carnage in Gujarat in February 2002. Pooja Bhatt went on record to express her surprise that while a film like Jism had no problems with the Censor Board, her films Tamanna (on female infanticide) and Zakhm (on communal riots) faced problems, with officials even demanding that saffron headbands worn by rioters in Zakhm be replaced by black headbands. In yet another instance, the release of a film by Bishakha Datta on sex workers was held up by the CBFC.

Legal amendments

Efforts have been on over a decade to amend the Immoral Traffic in Persons Prevention Act (ITPA) 1986. The Act is aimed at curbing trafficking in women and children, but in practice it criminalised women in prostitution, and further victimised the victim. It also gave unprecedented and abusive powers to the police, without effectively criminalising pimps, traffickers and clients. Prostitution is not illegal as per this Act, although prostitution or soliciting in public places is illegal. The Department of Women and Child Development along with the National Commission for Women was given the responsibility of looking into the recommendations made by women’s groups and preparing a draft for amending the ITPA. Since then the HRD Ministry has reportedly approved the ITPA Amendment Bill 2005 which will be introduced in parliament in 2006. The amendment includes removal of a section that criminalises prostitutes for soliciting, reduction of powers given to the police, and increase of punishment for traffickers, pimps and clients. 

Not only ITPA, various other such acts like the Public Offences Act or Public Health Acts or statutes that are generally vague and address ‘public moral order’, ‘law and order’, and so on have been consistently misused by the police. Women across the country have reported being harassed by police or even arbitrarily arrested on suspicion of ‘soliciting’ and thereby being a threat to ‘public order’. The reasons cited by the police could be anything – ranging from a woman being alone in a public place at night, to wearing certain kinds of clothes, to exhibiting a certain kind of behaviour which the police associate with ‘bad women’. These alarming incidents highlight how moral prejudices operate in the hands of people who have power. These acts are also used to legitimise and justify violence, especially sexual violence, by the police against women in general, more so against women in custody.    

Other legal initiatives include the campaign to institute a new sexual assault bill, a revision of the existing problematic rape law, such that it is framed and used within the framework of rights that sees a range of sexual assault as crimes against women, rather than in a framework of morality that focuses on the character of the victim and places the burden of proof on the victim.  

Livelihood vs public morality: The ban on bar girls in Maharashtra

The issue came into the public eye when a ban was proposed by the Maharashtra government on women dancing in dance bars across the state in March 2005, stating that this was “corrupting the young” and tainting the moral fabric of society.  

Consequently the Bar Girls Union and the Bar Owners Association organised a massive protest rally, coming out into the public to demand that their right to a livelihood not be snatched away. They raised placards and slogans highlighting the hypocrisy of the situation – while Bollywood numbers and actresses were admired and feted, they were being punished for merely copying what was on the screen. They also had a series of meetings to negotiate with the government on this proposed ban, and approached women’s groups to support their initiative to prevent this ban.  

However in July 2005 the Bill was passed unanimously in the Maharashtra State Assembly. The few women’s groups which were protesting outside were shocked at the way in which the dialogue on the Bill was conducted in the assembly by those who claimed to be the moral guardians of society. Comments such as “it is more dignified to commit suicide than dance in bars” were met with applause, “these women who dance naked don’t deserve any sympathy” was cheered, and there was a great deal of laughter when they sniggered “Isha Koppikar… she is an atom bomb, atom bomb”. To the women’s groups they said, “these women who are opposing the ban, we will make their mothers dance…”. The ‘morality issue’ had won, the ‘livelihood issue’ had lost. 

In response the bar girls’ union petitioned the chief minister, the National and State Women’s Commission, Human Rights Commission and even met Congress President Sonia Gandhi and sought her intervention. Many women’s groups came together and issued a statement opposing the ban. The Research Centre for Women’s Studies at SNDT University and Forum Against Oppression of Women, Mumbai, conducted a study to find out the real picture of the lives of bar dancers. This study revealed some shocking statistics about the low socio-economic status of the women and helped to break many myths regarding bar dancers. Following the ban, several cases of suicide by bar dancers have been reported across Maharashtra.  

(Another version of this piece appeared in Hindi translation in the JAGORI Notebook 2006 ‘Nazarband Auratein: Neytikta ki Chaukhatein’ , published by JAGORI, New Delhi, 2006) 

InfoChange News & Features February 2009