I confess. I signed the online petition requesting a Gurgaon hotel to cancel Honey Singh’s New Year’s Eve performance. Even as I signed I felt a twinge of anxiety at asking to censor a performer. It was a peculiar moment. A brutal sexual assault had ended the life of a young woman despite a brave struggle for survival. We were dispirited and angry. The cancellation of the performance was one small moment of victory; and I don’t quite grudge us this. However, I remain convinced that censorship of any kind is not the way forward.
If the cancellation of this performance seemed like a vindication of the protests against rampantly sexist lyrics, watching Sheila Dixit being booed at Jantar Mantar felt really satisfying. As much as, the fall of MLA and SOP (Son of a President) Abhijit Mukherjee who called women protestors “dented and painted”. Women laughed in his face. Painted and dented were taken on as a mantle and across the internet women proclaimed themselves dented and painted claiming in a variety of witty and creative ways the right to pleasure. Some one set up a Facebook group called the Society of Painted Dented Ladies of India. Women joined with glee many invoking the ghost of another group born in laughter, the “Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women”. The media shared our delight smirking as they conveyed our disdain to the world. This was sweet revenge indeed.
Of course, Mukherjee’s comments were easy to ridicule. Honey Singh’s lyrics which threaten to sexually assault a woman are distinctly less amusing. The lyrics do not express an opinion (as for instance Why This Kolaveri Di does), they state an intention. One might argue that his right (to perform) ends where someone else’s right (to not be assaulted) begins. And yet one might equally argue that the song itself does not constitute sexual assault.
Also, we can ban a Honey Singh but what to do about Sushma Swaraj calling the Delhi girl a “zinda lash”? What can one do at the hopelessness one feels, when Narendra Modi, who conducted or at least permitted the pogrom in 2002 which included brutal sexual assaults on many Muslim women, is elected Chief Minister of Gujarat yet again and is touted as a possible Prime Ministerial candidate for 2014? What can we do about the government of India shutting down metro stations in Delhi to prevent people from protesting near India gate and the other structures of power?
Also, if we are into banning, then can we ban Chief Ministers of states from making statements that blame the victim, a la Sheila Dixit and Mamta Banerjee. For these are elected representatives of the people – they are accountable to us in a way that individual performers are not.
It makes me nervous when I hear people baying for the blood of item songs. Item songs encapsulate a variety of anxieties about the depravity of mainstream films, the unbridled sexuality of women and the brutish animal lust of men. All of these I would argue say much more about those expressing the concerns than about the item songs themselves, sexist though some maybe. We even have the occasional item number catering to the female gaze (or the gay male gaze).
Visual culture is an easy target. Once we go down the slippery slope of banning where do we stop? Remember Fire. Remember the version of the Choli ke Peeche song that was sought to be censored was the one the women sing to each other expressing a kind of sexual agency, not the version the men sing to the women in a form of sexual harassment.
The voices to be censored first will be the most liberal / radical ones. No more radical engagements with same-sex sex or transgender erotica. The Slutwalks will be deemed obscene. Sexuality Education already seen as threatening will attract even more surveillance. Censorship is no friend of feminists as Shohini Ghosh, Brinda Bose and many others separately point out. The 1996 protests against the Miss World contest in Bangalore found feminists and right wingers both standing outside the contest venues with radically differing positions but one goal. Feminists who support censorship often find themselves on the same side of the fence with the most undesirable of collaborators as Carole Vance argues in a 1990 ethnography of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography in the context of the United States.
Ridicule, booing, turning the tables on, writing back (for instance in this objection to the Kolaveri Di song) or singing back (as the Raging Grannies did in the US in response to Congress Representative Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape”) are better weapons than censorship because they are in our control. We must recognize that sex and sexuality are not the problem. Nor are their representations. Lack of consent is. This is what, for me, places the Honey Singh lyrics in a grey zone since the lyrics suggest the consent of the interlocutor doesn’t matter. Despite this my signature on that petition is far from being a resolved question.
Finally representations are a matter of opinion: my erotic maybe your obscene. And this impossibility of drawing lines that we can agree on, is only one of the factors that makes censorship so undesirable. If we are able to focus the conversation on the question of consent we might find ourselves navigating a more challenging range of questions but these complexities hold the hope that in the future sexual assault will be a matter of providing justice not passing judgement. And just as relevantly, they may also hold the promise of an infinitely more nuanced, exciting and diverse understanding sex and sexuality.