The Fight for a Just Portrayal
The Fight for a Just Portrayal
Over the past decade women’s organisations have been agitating about the way their sex is portrayed in the media. Some of the things women have been fighting, for example, are: advertisements encouraging parents to save for the daughter’s dowry; the equation of a ‘good’ woman with a housewife; equating a brand of vegetable oil with mother’s love. It is true that as a result of agitations by women’s organisations, advertisements promoting dowry have become less in number. But such campaigns have little impact on advertisements which promote sexist stereotypes and pornographic images – these have, if anything, increased.
We strongly object to the use of women’s faces and bodies to sell products because such ads put women at par with the products and turn them into objects of display and sale. Ads create the myth that women are primarily sex objects for the consumption of men and every man has by right access to the bodies of all women.
In the month of March 1987 we were extremely disturbed to encounter a particular hoarding placed at a strategic point on the very busy road that leads to our office. This particular advertisement, which was trying to sell Gossamer underwear, showed a woman coming through the green channel at Customs wearing nothing but her underwear. And the legend declared: ‘She’s got nothing to declare – not even her lingerie’.
We wondered whether the green channel was meant for the woman to pass through or for men to have direct access to her. Did she have nothing to declare because she was practically naked? There were a number of hidden messages in this particular ad which we objected to. We are not opposed to representation of nudity per se, but we do object to one-sided nudity of women – men’s bodies are never treated in this way. Further, we object to the sale of sexuality to sell products.
For some days we saw this advertisement every time we went past that spot and finally we could bear it no more and decided to do something about it. In order also to pressurise the government into framing rules for the new law against the indecent portrayal of women, we got together and blackened this hoarding. We raised slogans like: ‘Sell things not women’ and ‘Implement existing laws’. Passers-by stopped and talked to us and many also asked us to keep the pressure on the government to stop this kind of thing. Office goers stopped to see what we were doing and we did not need to block the road to create a traffic jam.
Our campaign did not stop with Gossamer. We found, also on our way to the office, several advertisements for a film called ‘Fraternity Vacation’ which showed women in various pornographic poses. This was about four months after the Gossamer incident. Newspaper advertisements also carried pornographic pictures and words advertising this film. Most such films are so third rate that if people really knew what they were like, no one would go to see them. This is why they have to use advertisements that display women and hide what the films is really about. The posters of this film also had one special feature: they were sponsored by a cigarette company an advertising brand called Esquire. We decided to take our campaign forward by blackening these posters.
On August 28, 1987 about 70-80 women demonstrated at Archana cinema and blackened hoardings of these films. The police were forced to help us take down a hoarding at a nearby crossing where we blocked traffic and distributed our pamphlets. We also went to the police station and registered a complaint under the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, although we knew that the rules for the Act had still not been framed.
The manager of the cinema hall was taken into custody. But there must have been some link up between him and the police for two days later the blackened hoardings were replaced with new ones showing the same scenes. We went again to the police station and sat there on dharna until the manager was forced a second time to remove the offending posters. After this we pressurised the government to speedily frame rules for the Act. Our campaign got publicity and finally, on 2nd October 1987 – nine months after Parliament passed the Act – the government gave in to public pressure and rules were framed implementing this law.
During this time the police commissioner took the initiative in setting up a committee which was supposed to monitor the portrayal of women in advertisements. The committee does not have a single woman on it who has been involved in the campaign undertaken by us or other organisations. This is why it is important that we be vigilant about what this committee does.
About the Law
The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986 was passed by parliament on 23 December 1986. This is aimed at curbing the indecent representation of women in advertisements and various kinds of publications.
Section 3 says, “No person shall publish or cause to be published, or arrange to take part in the publication or exhibition of, any advertisement which contains indecent representation of women in any form.”
Section 4 says, “No person shall produce or cause to be produced, sell, let to hire, distribute, circulate or send by post any book, pamphlet, paper, slide, film, writing, drawing, painting, photograph, representation or figure which contains indecent representation of women in any form.”
Section 2 (C) says, “Indecent representation of women means the depiction in any manner of the figure of a woman, her form of body or any part thereof in such a way as to have the effect of being indecent or of being derogatory or denigrating women or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals.”
The Act was passed to supplement the existing Sections 292, 293 and 294 of the IPC relating to obscenity. The government felt the IPC provisions were inadequate to deal with the specific problem of indecent representation of women. However, we feel that the new law is also inadequate and confusing.
The new Act obscures the distinction between the terms ‘indecency’ and ‘obscenity’. As feminists we could hardly agree more with that part of the Act which defines indecent representation as anything which has “the effect of being derogatory or denigrating women”. But can we agree to a definition of indecency as that which is “likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality”, when we ourselves question current standards of public moralitdefines indecent representation as anything which has “the effect of being derogatory or denigrating women”. But can we agree to a definition of indecency as that which is “likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality”, when we ourselves question current standards of public morality?
In any case worldwide there has been no consensus on definitions of obscenity nor is there clarity on the question within the country. For greater debate is needed on the issue. In Canada, for instance, the criminal code defines obscenity as “undue exploitation of sex or of sex and any one or more of the following subjects, namelity?
In any case worldwide there has been no consensus on definitions of obscenity nor is there clarity on the question within the country. For greater debate is needed on the issue. In Canada, for instance, the criminal code defines obscenity as “undue exploitation of sex or of sex and any one or more of the following subjects, namely crime, horror, cruelty and violence”.
A feminist viewpoint on the issue is that rather than obscenity we should use the term pornography which means the graphic description or depiction of women as sexually subordinate creatures, in servile and slavish positions.
Whatever our objects to the 1986 Act may be, we have had to take recourse to its provisions when we lodge complaints against objectionable hoardings, posters and material. We shall keep using the law whenever possible, while continuing to demand better legislation. We must remember that since there is no clarity in the law, much depends on the judgments of individual judges, which leaves scope for arbitrariness.
Indira Jaisingh, writing in The Lawyers Collective (October 1986), had warned that the IPC provisions had been misused by Orissa Chief Minister JB Patnaik in his battle against The Illustrated Weekly. Cases had been filed under Section 292 against the Weekly, alleging that its reports on Patnaik’ sexual abuse of people were obscene and an issue of the magazine had been seized by the police. Since the Indecent Representation Act gives the police wider powers of search and seizure, we must also be vigilant against misuse of these powers.
Ultimately, we believe, the struggle for a fair and just portrayal of women in media cannot be waged in the courts and legislators but in the minds of men and women. SO we shall carry on our public campaign with renewed vigour. We need to be vigilant about advertisements, articles, cartoons, jokes and programmes that appear in newspapers, magazines, televisions and radio. If you have complaints about these please send them to us at Saheli.