January 03, 2013

The Grey Zone: Censorship and Consent

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.


13 comments to The Grey Zone: Censorship and Consent

  • Surabhi Sharma

    Thanks for this piece Shilpa. But i remain resolutely decided that banning songs or singers can NEVER be the way forward. Booing the song and the singer, that is not a problem. I would have hoped that Honey Singh going out there to that Gurgaon venue would be faced by an audience that made clear that they were repulsed by the song. We needed to be in the audience booing, it would have been depressing, scary if we were outnumbered and that the audience did groove to that song. ( a very realistic scenario!) A petition demanding that a song be banned is problematic – a song, a film, a play, a book – we cannot ban stuff we dont like and defend stuff that we like.
    That Honey Singh’s song is wildly popular especially on campuses, that is disturbing. We can not shift our focus from that fact to the song itself.

    I have been filming bhojpuri music performances in Mumbai. These are attended by thousands, mostly men, mostly working class migrants. Often the songs are highly sexualised, reveling in double entendres. It would be supremely problematic to read these songs as simply producing a rape culture and assuming that the listeners are potential rapists ( The prime minister has said it in so many words- the footloose migrant is suspect number 1!) These songs can be nuanced, often harking back to a sophisticated tradition of double meaning, and there are many that are banal and misogynist, but most give a deep insight into the migrant experience. I have held back from easy readings of these performances, I am still struggling but hope that the struggle is what shows through in the film, not conclusions.
    Honey Singh’s song provokes me to dig deep into punjabi pop culture, to look at the audiences and the performance spaces, the circulation of the music. It makes me want to buy a ticket and go to gurgaon to see if anyone is booing or cheering. Seeing Sheila Dixit dance to his song surrounded and cheered by other women, that IS confusing , right? I cant catch the lyrics of the songs, but the fact that the song is not being sung in a space defined by men should complicate our reading.
    After the widespread protests on the streets of Delhi i can only hope that the Delhi campuses are repulsed by the particular Honey Singh song that we are talking about.I hope there are women in the audience who are able to subvert the meaning of the song by their sheer presence, or i hope they are jeering very very loudly.
    Sorry for the long comment.

  • Shilpa Phadke

    Thanks for the long thoughtful comment Surabhi. And I agree banning can never be the way forward. The petition though was to cancel this particular performance – though this is not that much different.
    Booing, jeering crowds would be one tactic for sure but like you I wonder if this would have been the case. What we need to do is to support, even encourage and build this culture of women going out, for fun, to hang out… And find for ourselves a space where we may make our opinions heard.

  • i didn’t sign the petition – for all the reasons that you think through so well here, Shilpa. And also because i think that banning may merely produce more repression that will end up in more twisted iron rods in female intestines. We need to hear what everyone is saying and thinking, and then boycott, ridicule, make irrelevant, punish – as we have done with the Pink Chaddi or Dented-Painted campaigns. That may lead to some amount of re-thinking, everyone dislikes being humiliated through ridicule. The answer does not lie in whitewashing our performative cultures, expunging them of violence in every form – it’s the same idea that elicited abhorrence of Gangs of Wasseypur, for example, which i think is a brilliant cult film. And yes, indeed, what would a culture be without pornography! – ideally consensual, of course, for makers, actors and consumers. But if there are slippages between, in these performances – when racist, sexist, casteist, communal – we need to engage, analyze, condemn, criticize, hound, expose, but not brush under the carpet by refusing to see and hear? Are we going to promote a culture of candyfloss romances, then, with no violence, pornography, graphic language and lewd gestures in our entertainment industry – and is that going to stop rapes or the demeaning of women, that is what the Honey Singh petitioners have to think about, i guess. Sanjay Srivastava has talked rightly about karva chauth in his piece in The Hindu – isn’t karva chauth as derogatory to women as Honey Singh’s lyrics, only clad in gold and marigolds? why is that acceptable, just because it is not explicit violence? – and anyway, explicit violence is mostly never consensual for those it is perpetrated against, isn’t that endemic to the very idea of violation? Censorship can never be the answer because it is inherently opposed to the freedom and equality we are demanding for all, i think.

  • Shilpa Phadke

    Brinda, Thanks so much for adding nuance to to the complexities of images, visual cultures and all kinds of representations.
    I began this piece by saying that despite my disquiet I didn’t grudge us that moment of satisfaction of having had a performance cancelled by sheer force of numbers. But perhaps I should. I signed in a moment of hopelessness, of rage and perhaps many other feminists did too. My own smooth descent into a kind of autocratic “so there” is indicative of just how seductive it is to ban.
    And in fact it was women’s groups who supported the 1986 legislation ‘Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act’ that sought to censor images seen to be “harmful” to women or women’s status in society. And we are all well aware of how this Act has been used and abused!
    Completely agree that censorship is indeed the opposite of the kind of freedom and equality we demand!

  • Usha Raman

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Shilpa, and for generating the comments it has so far. I think it’s important to stay a while in a space of discomfort and try to articulate the reasons for it, no matter which side of the blurry line we are on. The visceral reaction against censorship as an idea is so often negated by an equally visceral reaction demanding a ban on certain forms of expression that seem to provoke/stimulate the very actions we condemn. On the one hand, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ exhortation to protect the speech we hate so that we may have the speech we love, is the only reasonable stance. But on the other, what do we do when the speech we hate appears to incite the actions we hate and deplore? And then when you lay this over the multiplicity of value systems, social mores and practices that our society is made up of, not only do we end up with many ways of reading, but many ways of turning that understanding into action. Again, the only way out of this seems to lie in education and interventions which work at the level of the individual mind. Sex education, gender sensitization and sexuality education are so very important if we are to retain/reclaim our freedoms and resist censorship.

  • Shilpa Phadke

    Thanks so much Usha for your thoughtful reflections.
    We do need to think of the kind of long term change you suggest, one that can only come from a bottom up change though, among other things sexuality education and gender sensitization at the school level.

  • Manojit

    Of course,Censorship is anti-democratic but in any case like this,i will suggest for cultural awareness.But your article lost its all dignity when you went beyond any Judge and declared “Modi permitted persecution”!

  • mini

    Thanks so much shilpa. Yes there are no easy answers. I too feel strategically also wit, riducule of informed articulate women, particularly the that of the dented painted ladies makes a difference. Ofcource its different context to context as is always. Thanks. The article helps one to work through ones own thoughts, deal with the grey areas.

  • Aakriti

    I did not sign the petition but did inquire from the hotel if the performance was still on (after hearing rumors that the organizers were under pressure to keep the performance).

    Now I fully understand when you say that the need to ban him was so seductive that I was completely drunk on the victory of having his event cancelled. That small voice somewhere did question my censorious intention. But it was sheer helplessness.

    As for Honey Singh, I must say that he is equally enjoyed and consumed by both men and women, in Delhi at least. This particular song and the general tonality and lyrical content of his songs is disturbing for sure.

    Countering problematic speech with more speech? But how? And directed towards whom? Our own little circle?

  • Shilpa Phadke

    Thanks Mini.

    Aakriti, exactly – so tempting and the heady feeling of power. In another forum responders have argued that this kind of pressure politics different from censorship by the government for instance or from that of the Shiv Sena for example.
    But despite my agreement that this petition was non violent, the focus now on item songs is a cause for concern. This piece for instance worries me: http://www.thehindu.com/arts/cinema/how-much-is-too-much/article4268992.ece

  • AKM

    I think that you are missing a small but essential difference here. Censorship/banning is the Govt mandating something. Like the Satanic Verses ban.

    What happened here is that My Yo Yo Singh aroused strong enough passions with his gutterances that people (potential customers) asked the Bristol hotel to throw him out or lose their custom. I don’t question Mr Sleazeball’s right to sing or his company’s publicity campaign for him or even ask him to be arrested. On the other hand, I can and will exult in having shamed enough people to have him labelled a public disgrace.

    The fact that he became a star was a slur on the same public. The fact that his show had to be cancelled because of public outcry is one small ray of hope.

  • Shilpa Phadke

    Yes AKM. This argument has been made in response in some other fora as well. That is was not censorship but a legitimate form of pressure politics and I take your point.
    The important thing then is to make clear this distinction at every juncture otherwise we may open up a can of censorial worms…

  • Shilpa Phadke

    Here’s a reasoned and interesting voice suggesting exactly what you do AKM.

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