Saturday, September 16, 2017

Watching The World Before Her — My Perspective on the Objectification of Women in India

By Francesca Giuliano 

Last month, a few of the AIESEC volunteers I’ve met here in Chennai and I decided to go to Pondicherry, a small lovely town where you can take long nice walks by the Marina and sip iced coffee while listening to the rumbling waves of the ocean. We visited the city centre on Saturday and then decided to go to the beach on Sunday, confident that we would find the perfect spot to swim and relax a bit. Two of us were (white) guys and the rest of us were girls, all of us coming from European countries except for our Indonesian friend. Us girls all wore bikinis, for we had heard that Pondicherry is a quite touristy place and “Western swimwear” is somewhat accepted (whereas in the city we usually never wear short skirts or dresses as a form of respect to the local culture).

Our day at the beach was great. We swam and drank coconut water and played with the waves.
I had fun but I couldn’t pretend not to feel incredibly uncomfortable while wearing my bikini in front of a crowd of Indian young men and women, children, and old ladies. They all kept staring at us with both curiosity and disgust. Although I am used to the feeling of being watched in a certain way by men while at the beach (as, unfortunately, nearly every girl in Italy), I had never experienced being on a beach where men are allowed to wear a swimsuit but women swim fully dressed in their sarees or burkas.

Speaking with honesty, I felt more uncomfortable about being seen in a bikini by Indian women rather than by Indian men. Why? Was it a sense of guilt because I am “allowed” to wear one and they are, apparently, not? Or was it because they were looking at me as if I was breaking a sacred rule they would never even think of disrespecting? I found myself reflecting about the “Western freedom” of showing my body and what the consequences are. What would it feel like to have to swim in my clothes because the society I live in does not allow me to show my semi-naked body to strangers? What is the difference between me and an Indian woman?

The World Before Her by Nisha Pahuja has given me some food for thought on the topic, specifically to understand the mentality of different women across India. The documentary shows a tough, painful, modern reality that is challenging the traditional idea of Indian woman. Globalisation (or, as some myself included prefer defining it, Westernisation) and its dark sides are cleverly represented through the story of two very different Indian young women. Ruhi wants to be Miss India and she has the support of her parents, whereas Prachi comes from a small village, she is devoted to a nationalist Hindu group, and her father is the one who makes choices for her. These women seem to have nothing in common, except for one thing: both of them are trapped in a system where they do not have the freedom to pursue their own desires without having to sacrifice something.

First of all I asked myself: out of all the possibilities, although restricted, why would a girl in her early twenties choose to take part in a beauty competition instead of choosing education? What immediately jumped to my mind is that, sadly, it often happens in Italy as well. Education is ironically the path that leads to uncertainty, whereas the beauty industry feels safer to navigate, especially if you are not aware of the mental and physical pressure you are signing up for (or, more often, if you’re not encouraged to do anything different). In India, imported TV formats such as Miss India are gaining popularity really quickly. Thousands of girls see the beauty industry as the only way they can get out of a system of oppression and traditions that hold them back from chasing their dreams. But what does the beauty industry do for them? It may allow them to make money and gain financial independence. In turn, however, it enslaves them into the world of stereotyped beauty and objectification of their bodies, which is certainly not a definition for emancipation.

Watching The World Before Her, I felt really ashamed realising that the beauty industry is a Western product. In today’s developing India the beauty industry has become a valid and accessible alternative to a rigid patriarchal society. Certainly there are still many girls who, like Prachi and her family, believe that marriage is a duty and that a woman can never be freed from her role in the family. Such girls and their families see Western women as a threat to their culture. In India, gender roles are defined by fixed old traditions and it is hard especially for a woman to seek for independence without the permission of the male figures in her family. Refusing arranged marriage to pursue a career is seen as falling into Westernisation.

The way in which western TV and beauty industries portray Western women is at its core opposite to the traditional Indian woman, because of the idea of independence. They show a kind of independence, however, that is gained not through a male dominated type of career (doctor, lawyer, architect, professor, and so on), but through a selling-the-female-body-to-the-industry type of career. It’s no surprise that the broad Indian public opinion seems to associate nakedness to the idea of Western femaleness. In the Hindu tradition, where a woman’s duty is to marry very early and have children and take care of the house, showing “too much skin” is not socially accepted, especially in the rural areas.  But why have we represented Western women through objectification and sexualization of the female body outside of the West? Does being a free woman mean choosing to be sexualised on TV? That is sick.

I asked myself: if India wants to take something from the West in terms of TV shows, why not taking a format where women talk about politics and representation? Where young activists have debates about body image, body shaming, de-objectification of the female body? Well, it’s easy. Because we don’t have any. In Italy, for example, we barely have any good channel where politics are debated and women are expressing their views at the same time. We pride ourselves for being such human rights fans and we look down at other countries for how women rights are not respected. Still we allow women on mainstream TV only if they have big boobs, small waists and long thin legs, and (most important prerequisite) if they speak very little and about irrelevant things. It is obvious: if it happens in Europe and in other Western democracies, it will happen in other countries sooner or later because of the global homologation we are witnessing in the Internet era.

It’s hard to believe that one of the most discriminatory industries our societies have produced few decades ago has caught up on the global scale, portraying an image of independent woman that is far from what international feminists are hoping and fighting for. Has Western culture become so sick that it has influenced developing countries even in terms of female objectification? And if so, why are so often women the ones who are most vulnerable to changes and transitioning from a social setting to the next? The World Before Her offers a brilliant explanation, which implies several suggestions both to Indian women themselves and to a broader, international audience. Ruhi and Prachi both struggle to define their idea of Indian woman in the twenty-first century. Something is changing and new possibilities must emerge. But Miss India, like any other Western imported beauty competition or format, should not be the answer for the future generations of young women in India.

I come back to the same question: what’s the difference between me and an Indian woman? Am I the one who’s been freed from traditionally sexist paths by my developed society? Or have I just been tricked into believing I am free, when in reality showing my body does not provide me with freedom, but with more concerns about “fitting in” and being worthy of being considered “sexy” or “hot”? Am I not, in different ways, subject to the rule of a patriarchal system that values me on the basis of my size, how fit my butt is, how pretty my face looks? If we want real change and if we really desire to dismantle the power of sexist paradigms across the world, we as westerners need to stop perpetuating images of women who get what they want only if they look sexy and heteronormative. We should help transforming the “dream” alternative to old traditions from Miss World to Head of State. We should use our (undeserved) privilege to spread a more realistic, strong, and really independent image of woman, one that screams I WANT EQUALITY instead of BUY ME.