Atul Anjan's comment on Sunny Leone shows Left not free from gender bias - An insider's critique
Atul Anjan's comment on Sunny Leone shows Left not free from gender bias - An insider's critique

Atul Anjan's comment on Sunny Leone shows Left not free from gender bias - An insider's critique

By Kavita Krishnan

Recently, senior CPI leader Atul Anjan faced criticism when he gave a speech declaring that a Manforce Condom advertisement starring Sunny Leone led to rapes.     

Comrade Anjan said in his speech that an advertisement for Manforce condoms was being repeatedly aired on TV, starring, “Sunny Leone, a woman who acts in the world’s most naked films… who has come here from Australia… she’s lying on the sand and a man walks towards her and they say ‘we do it once, we feel like doing it again and again’…such things promote sexuality not sensitivity… as long as such ads are aired, we cannot prevent rapes.”     

Comrade Anjan was defended by AIDWA General Secretary Jagmati Sangwan, who said that he was objecting to the advertisement not to Leone as an individual, “Not only he, we too are offended when the ad is aired on TV, his remarks shouldn’t be taken personally, we demand that the company withdraw the ad because it instigates sexual violence.”  

I will examine the argument shared by Comrade Anjan and the AIDWA – that such ads incite violence – later in this article. For the moment, however, it has to be pointed out that Comrade Anjan was, in fact, objecting to Sunny Leone herself, not, as Comrade Jagmati suggests, the condom company and its representation of women. He made this clear when he elaborated on his position in a statement to a news agency.

Comrade Anjan said, “An ad should be decent. This ad is extremely ashleel, extremely kaamuk (vulgar, lustful/sexual). Government ads for condoms say a mother should keep a gap between two children, adopt Nirodh for better health, that is a good ad. The language used in the Sunny Leone ad (‘We do it once, we feel like doing it again and again’) isn’t suitable for viewing with mothers and sisters… Mothers and sisters should understand this, society and we all should understand this.” He then went on to explicitly name and shame Sunny Leone, not the company “Who is Sunny Leone? She is a porn actress of the world, she isn’t even from this country, she has come here. In the name of art we can’t allow gidd sanskriti (vulture culture/predatory culture)…We have to protect our society’s social concerns, family values and our culture.” He ended sarcastically, “If my words have hurt them, I apologize to supporters of porn star, I tell them, go ahead, watch and show such ads.”           

Comrade Anjan’s remarks are objectionable primarily because of the moralistic and chauvinist manner in which he shames Sunny Leone and blames her for rapes in India. His critique of the Manforce ad does not contain a critique of patriarchal representations of women. Instead, his objections are primarily about a foreign actress coming to India and promoting a lustful advertisement that, he says, cannot be watched with ‘our mothers and sisters’ because it shows a woman explicitly saying she enjoys sex and would like to do it again, and therefore offends ‘Indian society’, ‘Indian culture,’ and ‘family values.’  

Comrade Anjan’s argument amounts to moral policing, precisely because it declares that ‘Indian culture’ is not compatible with representations of women’s sexuality, and that Indian culture and family values need to be protected from the morally polluting effect of a vulgar Western porn actress. It is significant that while Comrade Anjan says the ad can’t be watched with Indian “mothers and sisters,” he also specifically appeals to Indian “mothers and sisters” to “understand” how damaging such ads are. This reveals an interesting tension: he would like us to believe that “mothers and sisters” would find such an ad offensive, but at the same time he fears that they might not find it offensive, and therefore feels the need to tell them that they ought to find it offensive. 

Moral policing in India and restrictions on women – by families, by khap panchayats, by Sangh Parivar outfits, by college authorities – inevitably argue that ‘Westernized’ clothes (skirts, jeans, revealing clothes) and behavior (celebrating Valentine’s Day, having boyfriends, marrying for love, drinking in pubs, kissing in public and other public displays of affection, pre-marital sex in a hotel room) are unsuitable behavior for Indian ‘mothers and sisters,’ offend ‘Indian culture’ and ‘family values’ and ‘instigate rape.’ Comrade Anjan’s logic is indistinguishable from that used to justify such moral policing. Women’s movement groups in India have pointed out, rightly, that “family values” that prescribe restrictions on the freedoms of “mothers and sisters” are in fact a source of violence against women – violence that ranges from domestic violence, sexual violence and ‘honour’ crimes. If we object to these arguments when khap panchayats or the Bajrang Dal make them, how can we support them when a Left leader does?

Will Comrade Anjan clarify what his views are on women who dress in ‘revealing’ clothes on a beach or on a public street, or who talk or write openly about their sexuality? Would he be willing/able to go with with “mothers and sisters”, to watch an Indian performance of Eve Ensler’s feminist play Vagina Monologues in which women actors openly speak of women’s sexual desire and pleasure? Is he critiquing the normative patriarchal images of female sexuality in the Manforce ad and would he be fine with a feminist, empowering representation of female desire and sexuality? His words suggest instead that he is outraged by the representation of the condom as a sexual accessory rather than as family-planning device; that he is comfortable with representation of domesticated motherhood in the sarkari condom ads and outraged at the verbal and visual representation of female sexual desire in the Manforce ad. Moreover, his words imply that he is comfortable with sex for procreation within marriage and motherhood as prescribed by patriarchy (and condoms to regulate that procreation) but uncomfortable and disgusted by the very idea of sexuality/sexual desire.

Note, I am not saying here that the Manforce ad is a feminist one; my point is that Comrade Anjan’s critique of it reinforces sexist stereotypes about Indian women and attitudes of moral policing against women. To say that women’s open display of sexuality is obscene and offensive to Indian culture is a regressive argument that is the fountainhead of a whole range of moral policing and violence against women. So, it is in fact Comrade Anjan’s views that reinforce a repressive and violent climate where women are shamed for their clothes and sexuality and blamed for rape.

What about the argument (made by Comrade Anjan and endorsed by AIDWA) that the ad instigates violence? Watch the ad here. The ad can undoubtedly be critiqued from a feminist perspective, as I will go on to discuss, but it does not trivialize or promote violence against women. So, basically the argument being made is that an ad that hints about women’s sexual pleasure and the sexual act, will incite ‘lust’ (kaamukta) and men whose lust is thus aroused will go on to rape women. This argument is identical to the classic victim blaming/rape culture argument made by Manohar Lal Khattar, and advocates of dress codes, that claim that women who dress in revealing/’indecent’ clothing incite ‘kamukta’ (lust) in men and therefore provoke rape. Such arguments suggest that men, if aroused, are bound to seek a sexual outlet and cannot help raping – and so it is women’s responsibility to ensure that they do not provoke men to rape. Fighting rape requires teaching men to take responsibility for seeking consent for every sexual act – blaming pornography or item numbers for rape, shifts responsibility away from men and reinforces the rape culture argument that men, once sexually aroused or ‘incited’, can’t help raping women.             

I find the idea that a condom ad should avoid mention of sex and should only speak of ‘family planning’ and ‘health’, quite amusing. Even the Nirodh condom ads these days refer fairly explicitly to sexual pleasure and sexual acts – not ‘family planning. A feminist critique of the Manforce ad, instead of blaming the ad for instigating rape by arousing sexual desire, would question why condom ads tend to stick to hetero-normative representations of masculine desire. The Manforce ads show Sunny Leone moving sensually in revealing clothes, accompanied by a female voice-over speaking of female desire. But in spite of the female voice and female actor, the ads are designed to appeal to male buyers of condoms by assuring them that the condoms will make them desirable to women. Even the female actor’s enactment of female desire is scripted to fit a male viewer’s stereotyped and sexist expectations of what a sexy woman looks like, rather than women’s own experience of desire.     

The advertising industry does commercialise and commodify sexuality, especially women’s sexuality. My question is, even within the framework of commercialization and commodification, why can’t ads depict the seeking of consent as sexy? Is it too much to expect ads (as well as popular culture in general) to show us images of regular women of various body shapes and sizes and ages, casually dressed in everyday clothing, as sexual subjects who resist pornographic stereotypes, rather than as objects of male desire? Can’t condom ads acknowledge women and gay men as consumers of their product? Can’t they acknowledge that women and men find safe sex – safe both in terms of respect for consent as well as condom use – sexy?

It must also be stressed that the advertising industry also commercialises and commodifies a whole range of regressive, patriarchal ‘family values’ that prescribe domestic, subservient roles for demure, fully-clad ‘mothers and daughters’. Remember for instance, the ad that suggests it is a wife’s failure in her duty to serve up tasty fare by using the correct masala brand that results in a husband staying away at mealtime? Or the innumerable ads that show cooking, cleaning and laundry as women’s work, and child care as the work of good mothers? And the insurance company ads that show only men as earners and insurance as comparable to ‘maang me sindoor’? And of course, the fairness and anti-ageing product ads project demeaning images of female sexuality and women’s body image. 

 As the autonomous feminist organization Saheli argues in the September-December 2004 issue of its Newsletter in a reflection on feminist debates around ‘decency’ and censorship, “It is the blatant sexual depiction that lends itself more to outrage and protest than the more quiet reinforcement and glorification of ultra-femininity in its most narrow sense that we see today.”    

The Manforce condom ad does not have any connection with violence against women. But let us recall and discuss some experiences of feminist intervention that has resulted in the withdrawal of ads and products that did, in fact, trivialize and normalize violence against women.   

In December 2003, a Maruti Zen car advertisement appeared on television that portrayed the car as a predatory Big Cat on a dark night, stalking a fearful woman who is finally captured by the car’s headlights in a dark alley. The print versions of these ads can be seen in archive here - they compare various attributes of the car (styling, strength, acceleration, endurance, agility) to various predatory Big Cats (snow leopard, tiger, cheetah, jaguar, panther). The advertisement is titled ‘Predator’s Prowl’ and the archive notes that its challenge was to ‘Establish the Zen as a predator.’

Pratiksha Baxi, Uma Chakravarty, Tripta Batra and 15 other women, women’s groups and civil liberties groups wrote an open letter in protest, observing that “…cars in general have become a weapon for men who abduct and rape women…The projection of cars as predators and women as sexual objects constitutes rape culture.” (TOI, Jan 1, 2004) The company promptly withdrew the ad from television with an apology.

In conversation with me about this experience, Pratiksha Baxi notes that the open letter did not argue that men watching the ad would go out and rape women. The open letter had been a feminist protest against the sexualization of women’s fear of car-borne sexual predators, and did not argue that the ad offended ‘Indian’ sensitivities. Yet, Pratiksha Baxi recalls that the company’s public apology said they were withdrawing the ad because a section of Indian society felt that it offended their values! So, while the company responded to the protest letter, it framed the protest in terms of ‘Western’ vs traditional ‘Indian’ values rather than acknowledge that the ad promoted rape culture!

Pratiksha also recalled an occasion when feminists in Delhi protested against Holi cards issued by Archies that depicted pichkaris as penises, and breasts as balloons – thus trivializing and normalizing the sexual harassment and violence that is widely faced by women on the occasion of Holi celebrations. Again, she recalls that while Archies withdrew the cards, the feminists who initiated the campaign found it difficult to prevent their voices from being drowned out by right-wing groups that invoked ‘vulgarity’ and ‘insults to Indian culture’ as grounds for their protest.

I recall how AIPWA protests in Patna in 2001 forced jewellery company Tanishq to withdraw a billboard ad that invoked the fear of dowry deaths by telling parents “Vivah zewar shuddh na hon to beti par kya guzregi (Imagine what will happen to your daughter if the bridal jewellery has not been made of pure gold).”      

The Saheli article cited above discussed feminist dilemmas of protesting beauty pageants and sexist advertisements, in the face of the ever-present difficulty of distinguishing feminist concerns from right-wing moral policing that invoked ‘Indian culture’ and expressed moral outrage for women’s sexuality and choice of attire. The article’s conclusion resonates today:

“Given all these dilemmas and questions, how do women’s groups like ours respond to the myriad discriminatory, negative images of women surrounding us – the blatantly misogynist images? Sit back and watch and debate?

“Several anti-censorship arguments also generate discomfort – from the ‘cool’ libertarian stand that everything is fine (it really isn’t – we just have to find other ways to understand and deal with it); to the ‘don’t ban anything, just produce enough of “our own” material (but hey, where are the resources to do that... what is one Saheli newsletter (250 copies) against pornographic magazines or cinema that reach millions?).

“Since we do not support censorship or bans, are we then agreeable for regulation or monitoring? The question then is who would do the monitoring and regulation – where do they stand on issues of freedom of speech and expression, what are their sexuality politics ... can any one group or class ever do justice to the pluralistic world we live in?

“Clearly, the sexist images that surround us need to be challenged and contested, and the strategies to do so must emerge from a feminist understanding, rather than a right-wing urge to silence anything that displeases."

There are indeed several instances of thoughtful critique and protests by Left and autonomous women’s groups against misogynistic representations of women. But it is also true that even among activists of Left and women’s groups, there is a tendency to conflate protests against sexism and capitalism with moral outrage at ‘ashleelta’ (vulgarity/indecency) and women’s sexuality (whether in ads and films and songs or in real life). We – the Left and women’s groups – need to be ever-alert to resist this tendency even among our own ranks. 

In her article ‘Reflections on Birati Rape Cases: Gender Ideology in Bengal’ (EPW, February 2, 1991), Tanika Sarkar reflects on how the culture of contemporary capitalist ads, magazines and films, while ‘modernising’ women’s bodies, nevertheless re-inscribe patriarchal values. She also discusses the Left’s discomfort with this modernized female sexuality and its failure to articulate and theorise a gender ideology that is distinct from the (patriarchal and right-wing) panic over sexually permissive culture. While Sarkar is discussing the West Bengal CPIM in particular, her observations hold good for tendencies on the Indian Left in general – tendencies the Left must acknowledge and consciously correct. She writes:

“Does contemporary capitalism then fit out the modern woman with an affirmative self image at last, which has been withheld by other cultural traditions? Yet the ad-cum-film-cum-magazine culture 'modernises' her body and time (by allowing her access to new non-domestic accomplishments and to the public sphere) without giving her access to a value system which might offer contestatory forms of selfhood that refuses the politics of consumerism. The modern young woman, alarmed by the newly acquired awareness of the diminishing returns from her newly-valorised and differently-accented body, learns to identify ageing not with maturity, not as an accumulation of gains and inner riches, but as waste and loss of power. Consumer capitalism, after all, is rooted in this never-ending spiral of fear and desire; it equips her to fight a losing battle over and with her body and her commodities every moment of her life. Lacking the grace and dignity that motherhood had endowed the inevitability of ageing with, and lacking other ideologies of empowered womanhood, she supplements her new existence with a modern, consumerist spirituality, restlessly trying out pilgrimages, gurus and ritual. The more the long-held sacred visual signs of motherhood are being evacuated from the actual bodies of women, the more they are digging themselves in as sacred, adored cultural symbols in popular films and literature – the other face of the cultural production of consumerism.

“While the Left in Bengal has certain specifically "Leftist" discomforts about the modern young woman which coincide with the rest of popular culture, its own cultural critique or gender ideology (which exists more as an absence of articulation or theorisation) offers only a single term against the manifestations of this phase of capitalism. The oft-repeated slogan of 'apasanskriti' or 'decadent culture' refers not to the problems of home-grown patriarchy and its religious sanctions, nor to the culture of ad-films-magazines syndrome; but always and only to sexual permissiveness in western films and literature.”

In this context, we may recall the terms in which the late CPIM leader EMS Namboodiripad chose to critique Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997). EMS, writing in the CPIM’s Malayalam publication Deshabhimani, noted that the character of Ammu was evidently modelled after the author's mother Mary Roy. He wrote that "the author has accused her own mother of indulging in deviant sexuality. Yet, Mary Roy takes pride in the ‘beautiful work’ by her daughter." This, he said, was because “sexual anarchy” and “illicit, deviant sexuality” had become a feature of bourgeois aesthetics. Bourgeois writers like Roy, he suggested, saw “sexual anarchy” as a mark of “revolutionary spirit,” not as a social evil as the Left properly saw it. It is notable that EMS, a theoretician and intellectual of the CPIM, saw the love affair of a divorced middle class upper caste mother of two children with a Dalit working class man as an instance of “sexual anarchy” – reflecting the very same disgust that caste and class patriarchy and “the bourgeoisie” reserves for such relationships!

Reading Rachel Holmes’ biography of Eleanor Marx recently, I was struck by how such articulations are closer to garden-variety bourgeois moralism, and very far removed from the pioneering theoretical analyses and lived lives of Engels and Marx and their women comrades, including the remarkable Jenny Marx, Mary and Lizzy Burns who had free-love unions with Engels, and Marx’s daughter Eleanor herself.

The Left needs to reconnect with its own emancipatory legacy, which pioneered a critique of the institution of family and sought to look at human sexual and relationships without the lens of bourgeois patriarchal moralism and double standards. Engels, who tore apart the hypocritical facade of ‘family values’ and exposed the subordination of women that hid behind such ‘values’, would turn in his grave to hear this pompous phrase invoked by his followers, two centuries after his death!      

In my own experience as a Left activist over the past couple of decades, I have witnessed the evolution and maturing of the Indian political Left’s understanding and articulation on gender and sexuality: including a shift in its position on the death penalty and LGBT rights and its analysis and critique of gendered restrictions and regulations for women in the family in terms of forms of social reproduction in globalised India.

In recent times, Left student and women’s groups have given slogans of women’s freedom a mass social dimension (in the movement following the December 16th gangrape, for instance) and protested powerfully against moral policing. But, in my observation, there are still considerable sections of Left ranks, cadres and even leaders, who embrace the Left theoretical critique of patriarchy merely superficially, and continue to hold on to the ‘apasanskriti’ paradigm, expressed in terms of moral disgust at sexual permissiveness and women’s sexuality.

I end with an observation I made in a 2011 article that still holds true: “It is the Left parties alone, among political forces in India that have a critique of such (patriarchal) gender ideology. But it is not enough for Left forces to possess this critique. The Left needs to actively resist and challenge the prevalent patriarchal ‘common sense’ in their daily practice.” (Patriarchal Ideology And Political Culture, 25 May, 2011

(This article owes much to experiences and insights shared by Pratiksha Baxi.)

[The author is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) and Politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist).]

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