Ever since the popular anger against the December 2012 Delhi gang rape engulfed the nation, politician of every stripe and rank has been more than willing to jump on to the “protect the women” bandwagon. The latest to do so is Ritu Tawade, a 39-year old Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation corporator of Bhartiya Janata Party. Little over a month back, she mooted a proposal to ban the display of lingerie on mannequins in the city, which was later lapped up by all 227 corporators from across the political spectrum. The proposal will be implemented in Mumbai provided it gets the civic body commissioner’s nod.

Tawade loathes the two-piece sporting plastic ladies for perverting men and promoting rapes. In her opinion, such displays are “against India’s rich and varied sanskirti” that “does not permit us such a show of indecency in public.” Tawade, along with the Mayor of Mumbai (Shiv Sena’s Sunil Prabhu), believes that the half-naked dummies in the markets embarrass women as well as families. Incidentally, Tawade’s decision came after some female college students in her ward complained of harassment by male students on a pavement lined with lingerie shops with “vulgar” display.

While it is possible that such episodes could have happened, it is equally true that men do not need mannequins to harass women. Sexual harassment is neither restricted to such “triggers”, nor to the areas with bra shops.

Over a year and half back, two brave youngsters Keenan Santos (24) and Reuben Fernandez (29) were murdered when they tried to protect their female friends from misbehaving hooligans near a restaurant at Amboli in Andheri West. Similarly, in December 2012, a 20-year old Dombivali resident Santosh Vicchivora paid with his life for confronting a group of teenagers who had passed lewd remarks at a girl. This happened when he was on his way from the bus stop to his building. It should be noted here that the Mumbai police have registered more than 1,000 cases of eve-teasing and 221 cases of rapes in 2012 – these, in a city with 6.7 million male population. If the bikini-clad models, plastic or otherwise, were actually driving the male hormone out of control, the number of sexual violence cases would have been a lot higher. Obviously, Tawade and the other corporators overestimated the power of a thong in turning a man into a monster, and did not bother to check the correlation between sexual harassment and lingerie mannequins. Nor have they bothered to do a survey on whether the women/families from various wards feel equally uncomfortable with the display of innerwear.

There are many crowded marketplaces in Mumbai where the lingerie business/display causes no problem to women. The Vile Parle East, a conservative Gujarati area, has many small bra shops in its famous vegetable market. Many people pass by them every evening without as much as looking at the brassieres, let alone getting dirty ideas. Similarly, the Santacruz West station market has number of bra-selling vendor carts. In Lokhandwala, the cosmopolitan hub of Andheri West, over a dozen outlets exhibit sexy lingerie. In fact, one of the shops known for its kinky stuff has a bus stop right in front of it and an auto stand close by. In ten years, this author has not noticed a single instance of any man ogling at the lacy/fur bras or making offensive gestures at women entering that store. At the worst, the display there induces giggles, mostly amongst girls. Although thanks to the publicity this issue has generated, many men may now stop by at the lingerie store to figure out what the ruckus was all about and if the display really does the trick for them.

There are over 325 million women in the age group 15-64 years in India. Out of these, 35 million live in A and B centres and all of them wear/buy these “embarrassing” items of daily wear. With 70 per cent of the Indian lingerie market being unorganised, a large chunk of women buy their stuff from small shops/carts run by men. It is not uncommon for the bra-selling men to know the bust size of their regular customers, to show them the latest designs or to explain various fits to them. Yet, there have been no indecent incidents in such set ups. If discussing one’s bust size with a man is ok, why is it not ok to let that man display his merchandise? Similarly, in a lower/middle class family, it is common to see division of work – if the mother washes the clothes, her daughter puts them for drying and father/son folds the dried clothes; do not they all get exposed to the little thingies that Tawade and co is finding too bad for family consumption in the markets?

One is not sure if Tawade and her supporters have been to the Kumbh Mela or to any other religious place where the devotees bathe in sacred river/pond. They should, however, do a Google images search of Kumbh snan or Ganga snan to see pictures of semi naked men and women taking a dip in the Ganges – women’s sarees drenched, stuck to their bodies and barely concealing their breasts. It is more “vulgar”, if that is how one wants to see it, than the men-mannequins-markets setting.

The Hindu goddess Kali wears nothing on top, but a skull garland. Bare backs are common in many parts of North and West India. In some north-eastern states, many elderly women just about cover their chest. Before the foreigners invaded India, toplessness was prevalent amongst women in many parts. If one stays in a houseboat at Alleppey, one would see quite a few women taking early morning plunge in the back waters with nothing but the white cotton sarees tied below their waists – reminding one of the Krishna’s alluring gopis bathing in the Yamuna river, made famous by the calendar art that enjoys extensive reach in the Indian households; something that Tawade’s party has yet to achieve.

One woman’s cultural sensibilities evoked by a local issue and accepted by a civic body that does not want to look bad when it comes to the issue of women’s safety, may put an end to “showcasing of women’s body on Mumbai streets.” However, this would neither guarantee a drop in the eve-teasing incidents, nor explain what causes rapes of infants, who wear stinking diapers and not lacy numbers, and 80-year olds, who threw out the underwear years back.

Tawade, buoyed by the media exposure she got, is possibly already on to her next goal: getting lingerie advertisements banned in print and electronic media and on billboards. Her story will inspire many others to come up with similar proposals in order to get their share of limelight.

Although one can grant that Tawade is well meaning and can try to ignore the absurd link between mannequins and male perversion that she has tried to establish, it is not possible to overlook that she has done more harm than good to the woman’s cause by deflecting the blame from the harasser to a lifeless female form, which is not remotely as erotic as the sculptures in many of India’s famous temples. Mannequins have now joined the long list of things that pollute male minds – revealing/tight dresses, lifestyle choices, mingling with men, and yes, chowmein – while the culprits continue to escape the liability. The list will continue to grow given our politicians’/public intellectuals’ penchant for dealing with a serious issue in a shallow manner. These dummies, one has to agree, are quite damaging for the women’s cause.

(Image Courtesy- Al Jazeera)

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Semu Bhatt

Semu Bhatt is a Mumbai-based independent strategic analyst and author, with an ability to write on a range of subjects. She particularly enjoys writing on geopolitics, governance and security issues. She is highly experienced in strategic conflict assessment and scenario planning. She is the co-author of The Cost of Conflict between India and Pakistan, an internationally acclaimed study on the costs of India-Pakistan hostility, and The Cost of Conflict in Sri Lanka, a report commissioned by the Norwegian foreign ministry.

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