The pretty young lady, walking with long liberated strides on the TV screen, hugs an armload of juicy mangoes to her heaving chest. She looks the viewers in the eye. This, she says, pointing at the logo of a large retail chain in the background, is my self-respect, my pride! I am impressed. No one had told us a woman’s pride in herself was encased in fresh fruit packed neatly. The fruit and vegetable vendors elsewhere, who only saw in the rise and rise of retail business a grave threat to their livelihood, had come out on the streets and broken some windows and upturned a few trucks. But on TV, the Amazon hugging fruits has pushed the bedraggled protesters firmly to the margins.
Business was never so saucy, so fresh, and, of course, feminine. But strange! Wasn’t feminism all about bonding with and supporting not just women, but also all marginalized groups and standing up for their right to a dignified livelihood? In the age of Manmohanomics, has a woman’s self-esteem really come to rest in her ability to dash into a retail store and buy the ripest mangoes at the cheapest rates?
Actually, the corporate world and its advertising arm that together had hated and heckled the loud, demanding and assertive liberated Indian woman for the past three decades, seem to have changed their stance radically ever since the liberated women developed their own powerful money muscles and spending authority. The advertising companies seem to have decided to co-opt the standard feminist arguments and among them entirely reinterpret women’s freedom to choose as the freedom to pick up the best bargains in the marketplace. In the process, advertising has cleverly subverted the feminist idiom, begun using it to simultaneously neutralize and commercialize the image of the Indian middle class woman. Special ad campaigns are being launched to attract the woman client with a mind, a cheque book and plastic money of her own. She is being told how as a free being she must not only patronize certain retail shops, but also buy buy buy: cute scooties, diamonds, small cars, fairness creams and god knows what else. The underlying message is the same everywhere: women are now equal to men, maybe even ahead of them, and so they no longer need to search for new rights. Having arrived, the power brigade should now aim not at self-determinism, but self- gratification. Both the small screen and glossy periodicals are also virtually crackling with advice to the newly arrived power women about shedding the careless comfortable feminist dress sense and embracing power dressing and hanging out in power eating joints. Ads show good-looking women shopping like mad for expensive branded lingerie, cosmetics, diamonds, small cars, two-wheelers in pretty ‘girl colours’, and various kinds of labour-saving devices. Having done that, the new power icon coos seductively, makes rude gestures at men with in-your-face insouciance and mostly rides off into the sunset with equally sassy girl friends.
This false cheerleading for power women halted suddenly when a 70-something, sari-wearing, old-fashioned and maternal ex-MLA from Maharashtra was nominated by the United Progressive Alliance for the highest post in the country.
First the Opposition coalition began to moan and make rude noises; then the media took up the dirge: these political females who talk of upholding women’s cause are just as scheming, corrupt and venal as men, they said. Maybe more, cooed the BJP, rooting for its archetypal pater familias candidate, the Thakur from Rajasthan. Stories have since been surfacing about Pratibha Patil’s family, two or three at a time, implying corrupt deals, nepotism and what have you.
At this point, some blow-dried and botoxed media madonnas in Mumbai and Delhi, who have been known for sniggering in their columns at the lack of style among the feminists and about their passionate indictment of our male supremacist political system for years, were encouraged to jump into the fray to loud applause from the (Right) wings. They immediately brought out the old tokenism argument, and tried to underscore how this was just another sop from the UPA in the name of empowering women and how the chosen one was neither sufficiently stylish nor liberated enough to be above the usual Indian traits. Men, they shrieked, can represent women just as well and Parliament should be all about merit and the individual.
Although nobody in his or her right mind thinks that all our male legislators are representing their constituents well, nor that a Parliament with 93% men and 7% women can be construed as representative, the same stale arguments were trotted out as soon as a woman seemed close to unsettling the real power applecart. The real worry the feminist baiters have is not that they will have a woman President, but that it will give women ‘ideas’ above their station and ultimately bring out the real bugbear waiting in the wings: 33% reservation for women in the nation’s legislature, and plonk it centre stage before they can yell Sharad Yadav! If that happens—and not an Aishwarya, dripping with diamonds or a Bipasha dripping oomph, but a severely dressed Sonia or a quietly dignified Patil become iconic to Indian women—how long can the lucrative shop-till-you-drop ethos be kept afloat? Once they are genuinely empowered and armed with self-esteem, what can prevent women from storming the legislature and occupying not just one-third, but half the available seats?
Until that happens, perish the thought, let the ads promote taking the son to school on a scooterette as the ultimate act of self-assertion, diamonds as the real fire within a woman’s soul, and mangoes as the source of her self-respect.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. She is on vacation and the column will resume 7 August.Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org