Banned: advertisements promoting sex-selection on Google, Microsoft Bing and Yahoo.
Banned: searches from India with the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexual’ on Microsoft Bing.
Banned: porn cartoon Savita Bhabhi, depicting the sexual exploits of a married Indian woman.
The discourse of censorship is well-known to most people, as India’s right-wing moral brigades routinely flock to the streets to prevent everything from item numbers in Bollywood films to sex education posters in trains to the greeting-card shop Archies (for its ‘promotion’ of Valentine’s Day) from going ahead. But what does this mean for freedom of speech and expression in the country? And more specifically, given that the bans most frequently pertain to sex, and more specifically, female sexuality, what does this mean for women?
Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution guarantees citizens the freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right. This is immediately followed by Article 19(2), a clause common to most countries, listing reasonable restrictions under which speech or expression may be banned. However, what these restrictions are and in whose favour they are made are growing issues.
With ever-increasing bans on ‘indecent’ or ‘obscene’ material – both online and offline – India has a rich history of censorship that has been ongoing throughout the decades. Remember ‘Choli ke peeche kya hai’ (a hit Bollywood song with its central lyrics translating to ‘What’s behind the blouse?’)? What about the depiction of lesbian sexuality in the movie Fire? Cases where sexually explicit material has been tried by the courts aren’t confined to cinema. World renowned artist MF Hussain, for example, came under trial for depiction of nude goddesses in his paintings. As early as the 1940s, writers, film-makers and artists have been slapped with charges of ‘obscenity’. And obscenity, more often than not, has had to do with the depiction of the female body, and female sexuality. Today, the digital age frequently sees cases pertaining to inappropriate content on the Internet, which can range from the morphing of imagery to illicit videography to even a woman’s profile picture of herself. Again, the representation of women is at the heart of the matter.
And what about pornography? What’s clear is that there’s always been a lot of porn in circulation in India – during and pre-dating this drive towards censorship. And when it comes to women not only being represented, but consuming, these images, texts and videos, the age of the Internet has created a definite shift. Before the digital era, pornography was consumed in highly gendered spaces such as blue cinema halls, which were frequented only by men. Today, the Internet means that many more people have access to pornography, which includes women. And under Indian law, it is only the distribution of pornography that is illegal, which given the global nature of the billion dollar industry, means that it’s hard to trace who’s distributing what. The converse side of this is, of course, that porn is now the pleasure of the digital elite who have access to the Internet, whereas blue cinema hall owners run the risk of arrest and are rapidly decreasing in their numbers.
So where do real-rather-than-represented women come into the picture? What is offensive to us as women? Is it the depiction of nudity and sexuality? Or the portrayal of women in stereotypical, submissive or housewife-type roles? The feminist movement is divided in thought, and in fact, many of the existing laws surrounding obscenity and indecency have been created with the backing of feminists who feel that excessive representation of sex and violence leads to increased levels of violence against women. Others, however, don’t believe this correlation is real, and that censorship of sexuality is in fact more harmful to women’s rights than it is empowering.
In the context of these varying opinions, some questions to ask ourselves are: in whose interests are these bans being made? When Savita Bhabhi (read and adored by women across the country) is banned but other pornography isn’t, who are these laws protecting – women, or regressive notions of ‘Indian Culture’? How much freedom of expression do women really have in any case? And who is consuming these ‘indecent’ representations? Don’t women, too, enjoy depictions of sex and sexuality? Or the opportunity to represent themselves as ‘sexy’?
Censorship, including under the Information Technology Act, is often seen to be in the interests of women’s protection. But whether or not a clamp-down on depictions of sexuality is helpful for advancing women’s rights within a wider sexually repressive context is something that feminists and activists must engage with. Furthermore, if the Internet affords women new opportunities to play with the offline boundaries of sex and sexuality, what effects do laws that seek to restrict these actions have on women’s sexual autonomy?
Look out for the next blog post further exploring the idea of what sexual citizenship means and how it plays out in different parts of the world.