All publicity is good publicity when it is attached to a good cause. Or is it?
A violence against women campaign (These Bruised Up Pictures Of Indian Goddesses Have A Point To Prove) commissioned by the non-profit organization Save the Children India to promote its Save Our Sisters (SOS) anti-trafficking initiative in India, has used graphic images of models dressed up as goddesses from the Hindu pantheon. These figures, resplendent in ornate saris and jewellery, bear obvious signs of physical abuse. Many-handed Durga stands next to her lion with angry scars on her face; Lakshmi dispenses wealth and bounty, but the corner of her mouth is twisted by a bruise. These harrowing visuals are accompanied by a message: “Pray that we never see this day. Today, more than 68 per cent of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to.” There is a number for people to reach out to if they need help or want to help others.
To my knowledge, the SOS campaign has been mostly received with approval so far. It has been called “powerful” but “shocking”, and necessarily so, because the “social issue that these ads try to tackle is a very important one and something we must take seriously as a society,” as the media portal Scoop Whoop puts it. British newspaper Daily Mail calls it “hard-hitting” (Battered and bruised Hindu goddesses unveiled to highlight plight of India’s sex trafficking victims). And indeed, there is more than a grain of truth in these sentiments. Violence against women, or for that matter against any living being in ordinary circumstances, is not acceptable, and every attempt must be made to deter the perpetrators, protect victims, and sensitize the public to it.
Some have taken exceptions to the way the campaign has been pitched, and rightly so, in spite of its presumably noble intentions. Nisha Susan writes in the webzine The Ladies Finger! that “The problem with the term domestic violence is that, like the prettily bruised goddesses, it doesn’t quite capture the shattering of bones, the clotting of blood, the breaking of nose, the breaking of teeth, the breaking of ribs, the attempts to burn you” (The Trouble With Being A Goddess). As Susan’s nuanced analysis of the reality of abuse points out, the SOS campaign is not just in spectacularly bad form but also strikingly shallow in the message it manages to send out.
To begin with the aesthetic part, there have been worse examples of tasteless artwork in the history of advertising—from the campaigns run by United Colors of Benetton since the 1990s (Top 10 Controversial United Colors of Benetton Ads) to those run by Ford Figo, more recently (Bobby Pawar, chief creative officer and managing partner at JWT India, axed as the Ford India sexually offensive ad controversy deepens ). I am also reminded of a recent fashion spread in Vice magazine on women writers who committed suicide, which opened up the hornet’s nest of the ethics of representing suffering (EYE SPY: Don’t look now ).
But the offence, in the case of the SOS campaign, does not simply pertain to the depiction of wounded women; it also stems, rather, from the patriarchal insinuation that only the vision of a wounded goddess will have the desired effect on the abuser and deter him from further mischief. It’s not enough to invoke “sisters” in the name of the campaign itself, but the point must be laid on with a trowel. To be respected, women must be imagined either as mothers or sisters or, better still, exalted as deities. To consider them simply as individuals who, like any other, deserve to be treated fairly, does not have the same potency as turning them into what they are certainly not—namely, entities from another planet, as the SOS campaign seems to suggest.
In India, as in many other societies, there is a cultural tradition of encouraging men to think of women as being part of an extended pseudo-filial network. From glorifying the nation-state as Mother Supreme to calling the girl next door sister, the history of imagining the woman as the Other is charged with many prejudices—political, social, psychological. If such an attitude is supposed to help inculcate more respect for the opposite sex in the male psyche, that seems hardly to have worked in reality. Surveys have repeatedly shown that a majority of women are abused by either members of their own family or people who they are close to. Clearly, the fear of god or the thought of his extended family is hardly going to discourage a man from stop hitting women or threatening them with violence or treating them like lesser mortals (it’s another matter that the choice of Hindu goddesses is patently exclusionary, leaving out members of other castes and religious denominations).
What troubles me most as a man is the institutional consensus that deification of women is a valid and reasonable way of grappling with the problem of violence against women. Such an endorsement from “society”, whatever that means, makes the first principles of gender equality appear redundant. Ironically, this line of thinking, often culturally endorsed and entrenched, reinforces an ancient inequity between the genders: men and women must be hierarchically placed in relation to one another, one party must defer to the other, in order to live in harmony. Once a peaceful coexistence is achieved, everything else, namely equality and dignity, can go for a toss.