The Vogue ad about women's empowerment and choices has attracted ire from various quarters. Several critiques have emerged, some fair, some bordering on the ridiculous. Does the ad seem gimmicky and slick rather than truly empowering? Maybe. Is it unconvincing and somewhat hypocritical that an actor who has in the past endorsed products and ideas that perpetuate gender stereotypes is now selling a version of empowerment that is flawed and incomplete? Perhaps. Was this a bungled teachable moment, with more attention to medium than message? Possibly. As some have pointed out, this could have been a great opportunity to talk about issues that truly affect women -- domestic violence, marital rape, wage inequality -- but instead it trivialises empowerment by catering to a narrow class sensibility.
"For all its flaws, the ad provides an opening to question the somewhat sanitised version of feminism that has gained acceptance in our society..."
However, what really has people all riled up is the ad's emphasis on freedom concerning sexual choices, and what is being seen as a blatant, morally corrupt promotion of adultery and promiscuity. Let's get to the biggest objection first. The brouhaha is over whether Deepika Padukone thinks it is all right for women to cheat on their husbands. Many people seemed to have missed an important grammatical nuance -- the ad talks about the choice to have sex "outside of" marriage, not "outside" marriage. This refers, I would think, to the idea that women have a right to make choices about sex and partners outside of the bounds of marriage, and not have their body treated as the property of their parents or husband. Can a woman decide to have a fulfilling relationship that allows her to exercise sexual choice without having to "put a ring on it"? Do women have the right to reject the institution of marriage but not be censured, by law or society, for enjoying companionship outside of the framework marriage?
There has been some debate about the legal status of live-in relationships in this context but meaningful discussion is often drowned out by sanctimonious declarations about Indian values. Similarly, current laws on the age of consent and adultery negate the notion of women having the right to agree to sex unless it is within the institution of marriage. Consenting women are often pressured to file rape cases by family members, particularly when the choice of [inter-faith or inter-caste] partner challenges patriarchal notions of authority, shame and honour. Once a woman is married, consent is automatically assumed, which is why we have as yet failed to address the issue of marital rape. Sex, unless within the bounds of marriage, is vilified. Sexual consent in a marriage is deemed irrelevant. Thus, women's sexual autonomy is completely circumscribed by a combination of archaic laws and oppressive patriarchal values. This is perhaps the idea that the ad was trying to address in a somewhat garbled way when it talked about the choice of sex outside of marriage.
"We want our women to get educated and bring home the bacon, but god forbid if they want to make informed choices about consensual sex."
Who has the right to make decisions about a women's body? For all its flaws, the ad provides an opening to question the somewhat sanitised version of feminism that has gained acceptance in our society, one that allows people to pay lip service to women's rights without really questioning the deeply entrenched prejudicial patriarchal attitudes about women's bodies. Indians like to vociferously support women's rights as long as the discussion remains kosher, but we baulk as soon as the conversation begins to meander into the territory of the right of women to have control over their bodies, their reproductive decisions, the right to choose sexual partners, or the right even to choose spouses. We want our women to get educated and bring home the bacon, but god forbid if they want to make informed choices about consensual sex. Honour killings and slut shaming are seen as perfectly valid responses to suppress expressions of women's sexuality that are in contravention of cultural mores. For all its shortcomings, what India's Daughter painfully brought home was the fact that no matter which side of the prison bars men are on, many firmly believe that single educated women choosing to be out and about with male companions are immoral, loose and deserving of censure, even rape.
Talking about feminism, choice and empowerment without addressing sexual rights does great disservice to women's rights and women's health. The stigma surrounding premarital sex or sex outside of marriage often prevents young women from making informed choices about contraception and safe sex, leading them sometimes to seek dangerous solutions to terminate unwanted pregnancies, trapping them in a new kind of nightmare. This is not just an Indian problem either. In the US, for instance, the conservative religious movement seeks not just the criminalisation of abortion but also promotes the idea of sexual abstention until marriage in response to questions about sexual education and access to contraception. In spite of having a legal right to abortion, choosing to terminate a pregnancy outside of marriage becomes a pretext to strip women of their dignity and agency and heap humiliation upon them for what is seen as a transgression with respect to the use of their body. Unfortunately, the appalling discourse of slut shaming and conflating women's sexuality with morality is a thriving double standard that permeates discussions about reproductive rights, sexual autonomy and rape across the world.
Whether we like the Vogue ad or not, it is imperative that we, as a society, have a sensible and grown-up discussion about a woman's right to sexual autonomy.