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What makes Bombay’s municipal corporators demand a ban on scantily clad mannequins?

India: Conservative streak beneath Bombay’s cosmopolitan surface

31 May 2013

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The Hindu, May 31, 2013

Now, politics with dummies

Sidharth Bhatia

There is a strong conservative streak beneath Mumbai’s cosmopolitan surface and politicians know how to mine it

With so many problems troubling the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai — garbage collection, infectious diseases and of course potholes — anyone would think that the city’s municipal corporators would be working overtime to find some solutions. Instead, their time and attention is being spent on trying to clean up the moral turpitude of the citizens. They have declared war on mannequins — yes, those expressionless plastic dolls — on display inside and outside shops that sell women’s lingerie. (Presumably, those mannequins that wear saris will remain unaffected.)

It all began with a municipal corporator belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who declared these mannequins were embarrassing to women and also evoked lusty and even criminal feelings in men. Plus, not surprisingly, they also represented corrupt western culture, since they were usually found wearing lacy — and therefore racy — lingerie. Every time she passed the roadside stalls and shops in her constituency — the middle-class, central Mumbai suburb, Ghatkopar — and saw these lifeless models clad only in bras and other unmentionables, she was appalled. So she asked the Municipal Corporation to do something about it.

‘Against Indian culture’

It would have remained as a politician’s personal view, but it escalated. Her idea appealed to the Mayor, Sunil Prabhu, who belongs to the Shiv Sena, which is an ally of the BJP. He immediately put it to vote and the 227-member general body of the BMC passed a resolution demanding that the Municipal Commissioner frame a policy on “indecent display in public areas.” This will give powers to civil officials to order shopkeepers to remove a mannequin if they think it is dressed in a way that will “provoke” men to commit crimes against women.

Naturally, shopkeepers are appalled at this blatant intrusion into their commercial affairs and even the BMC’s own officials are reported to have cried off from taking on this responsibility, stating that such matters would come under the police. The municipality’s responsibility ends at ensuring no zoning laws are broken by encroaching on public space; enforcing public morality is not their problem.

The corporator, Ms Tawade, and her colleagues, especially from the BJP and the Sena, put up a defence of their demand, which centred mainly on the “against Indian culture” line and its alleged connection with crimes against women. To many citizens, the whole matter looked silly and moral policing of the worst kind. This is how the city reacted, if one were to go by the mocking comments in newspapers and on social media.

It would be a mistake to think that there are no supporters of this kind of thinking. They may not write to the newspapers, may not tweet or post on their Facebook account and also not appear on talk shows, but the municipal corporators, who represent citizens at grass-roots level, do understand their constituency well. They know that however progressive Mumbai might appear on the surface, there is a strong conservative streak that remains invisible. Unsaid, at least openly, is the divide between those who believe in “Indian culture” and the deracinated elite which has embraced foreign ways. Every now and then, this conservatism comes out into the open, startling those who nurture fond notions of the city’s liberal — and westernised — ethos.

Policing Marine Drive

In the 1990s, a prominent Shiv Sena leader, Pramod Navalkar began a campaign against canoodling couples on the Marine Drive promenade. In a city devoid of privacy, Marine Drive — and several other similar spots such as seafronts and parks — offer a degree of anonymity to youngsters. The couples are usually left alone by passers-by but Navalkar wasn’t going to and went after them.

He is long gone, but public display of affection (PDA) is frowned upon by not just politicians but also the police. Couples routinely report being harassed by the police who ask them to leave if found to be getting too intimate. Some months ago, a boy was taken to the police station because he gave a peck on the cheek of a female friend.

Last year’s onslaught on drinking places and nightclubs was greeted by many Mumbai residents who said they worried that their children were getting corrupted. They even supported the aggressive tactics of Assistant Commissioner Dhoble who used to carry a hockey stick to frighten errant bar owners and had been caught on video pushing a few people around.

Bar dancers

More often than not, while all kinds of reasons for taking any action are advanced — alien cultural practices, legal technicalities or even security — the conservative impulse hides a reformist mindset. In 2005, the Minister of Home, R.R. Patil, banned bar dancers all over the State, claiming that many migrants from Nepal and Bangladesh were in the trade. But Mr. Patil has long harboured a reformist zeal to banish social ills, much like Anna Hazare, who backed the minister to the hilt. It did not matter that thousands of young girls were thrown out of work overnight — the government did not for a moment consider that they be given some economic help or rehabilitation. All that mattered was that the morals of the public, especially lustful men, were protected.

In the case of mannequins, no jobs will be lost and no one but the shopkeepers who find the dummies useful to advertise their wares will really be affected. Undoubtedly, the vendors will find a way to get around this rule too. It is not a major issue that affects the public in any significant way. But this is yet another example of the assault on the broad-mindedness of Mumbai by the forces of reaction, which diminishes this city bit by bit.

(Sidharth Bhatia is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist and author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story, HarperCollins, 2012.)

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Open Magazine

Soft Brains, Hard On

What makes Mumbai’s municipal corporators demand a ban on scantily clad mannequins

by Madhavankutty Pillai

Ever since the Delhi rape of 16 December, life has been a little more difficult for middle- and upper middle-class male chauvinist pigs (MCPs) in cities. An uncle who comments on his niece’s dress suddenly finds himself becoming a Twitter update with a dozen sneering retweets. Politicians like Pranab Mukherjee’s son have become responsible for new contributions— ‘dented-painted’—to the lexicon. Patriarchy has become a word thrown about so much by so many so often that it is on its way from a noun to a not-so-nice adjective. The MCP’s world has become a forest of feminists on the prowl raring to pounce on any little derogatory gesture.

But man will be man. As Sophocles wrote, ‘He hath resource for all; without resource he meets nothing that must come: only against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from baffling maladies he hath devised escapes.’ And thus you have corporators of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) exposing their primitive convictions in their suggestions on how to prevent crimes against women—but with an ingenious twist.

On Monday, Mumbai Mirror reported that the BMC general body, the assembly of the city’s corporators, had passed a resolution barring inadequately clothed mannequins from public display. This pioneering decision was rationalised on several fronts: that women are embarrassed by such mannequins, that people mistake them for sex toys, that this was urgently needed in the wake of the drastic rise in crimes against women. The mayor of the city, a Shiv Sainik of long standing called Sunil Prabhu, even gloated over what he saw as a revolution of gender justice under his charge. Last month, he had observed that such mannequins attract the attention of men, who, unable to control their surge of lust, then put sex crimes on their to-do list.

The person who moved the resolution was a woman, a BJP corporator, but forgive her, for she is an unwilling, meek and crafty victim of patriarchy. Sheetal Mhatre, another woman corporator and another agent of patriarchy, was quoted as saying that a mannequin that was not fully clothed was an affront to a woman’s self-respect. She also brought in what a professor of Philosophy might call the utilitarian argument—‘No woman buys clothes by seeing such dummies.’

Mainly because it is such an idiotic resolution to pass, and also because there is no National Commission for Mannequins to issue an angry press release on it, reports on its passage have been buried in the inside pages. But it is still worth pondering the mind that cooks up something so fantastic. The immediate cause is obviously the desire of politicians to be seen doing something. Most of them have no real power until they manage to get a government office. Till then, they have to remain relevant. In this particular case, however, there is an added element of imagination. A mannequin is just plastic.

The only thing human about it is its form. Even for their deliberations over the resolution, the corporators would have had to first imagine it as a woman dressed in lingerie. Picture, then, 220 odd corporators inside that hall in various frenzies of lust (and women corporators imagining their husbands and brothers in such frenzies) lamenting the evil they had been possessed by.

The advantage of targeting mannequins is that you can call them ‘dented-painted’ without their complaining. To say that a scantily dressed mannequin is inviting rape is to say a scantily dressed woman is inviting rape, but now you can get away with it. The mannequin is the filter through which you can publicly air your views on all sins being traceable to the female body without being pilloried. Mannequins are far from becoming a vote bank, so that is not a problem either.

These corporators actually don’t realise it, but they might be onto something profound, a new religion itself. Animism, or the infusion of souls into natural objects, has long been a form of worship in tribal societies. This is its opposite—inanimism, the doctrine that inanimate plastic bodies draped in negligees have titillating souls.

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Ritwik Agrawal: Mannequin Lingerie Ban in Mumbai – It’s about controlling women, not men