Asia-Pacific, Headlines

CULTURE-INDIA: Left Women Groups Join ‘Moral Police’

Sujoy Dhar

KOLKATA, India, Jan 11 2001 (IPS) - The organisers of a fashion show in this eastern Indian metropolis, formerly known as Calcutta, were surprised by the street protests outside the luxury hotel venue.

The protestors were women holding placards, which condemned the holding of the “sex auction mart”.

Top Indian women models took part in the early January show, staged by a leading Indian liquor company to announce its sponsorship of a major city sports event.

The city had not seen such a protest till now, unlike some other parts of India where beauty shows have been disrupted by hardline Hindu religious protestors.

Such shows have become common in almost every Indian city after the country’s successes in a series of global events like ‘Miss World’, ‘Miss Universe’ and ‘Miss Asia-Pacific’ in the past seven years.

What was even more surprising was that the protestors were affiliated to the Left parties, which have ruled India’s eastern border state of West Bengal for nearly a quarter century. Kolkata is the state capital.

Protests against such events till now were staged by radical Hindu affiliates of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Hindu groups, specially the prominent Vishwa Hindu Parishad (world Hindu council), denounce such events as a show of ‘disrespect’ to Indian tradition.

The BJP-led provincial government of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh has even ordered a ban on beauty contests.

Sworn foes, the Left parties, specially the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), and the BJP do not see eye to eye on most political issues.

Indeed, the communists had earlier hit out at the Hindu radical groups for the latters’ attempts at ‘moral policing.’

The Left parties had strongly supported the screening of the controversial film ‘Fire’, made by India-born Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta that dwelt on the theme of lesbianism.

Radical Hindu groups held violent protests against the film’s screening in Indian theaters. The Left parties also hit out at the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu groups for stopping the shooting of Mehta’s second film ‘Water’ in the north Indian holy city of Varanasi.

However, the left women protestors defend their decision to oppose beauty shows.

“We are being accused of having double standards. But the fact is that we had never supported the shows as they originated from the West,” says a communist party woman leader.

“We had expected the ruling BJP (in the federal government) to ban all these shows, but they let us down,” says another Left woman activist.

The women’s groups of leading Left parties like the CPM and the All India Forward Bloc are preparing for a mass campaign against such events.

“A resolution to launch a sustained movement against this obscene culture would be soon undertaken in our state conference,” says Aparajita Goppi, leader of the women’s wing of All India Forward Bloc.

“We have started with seminars and workshops to make women aware that events like this are nothing but sex auction marts,” adds CPM’s Rekha Goswami.

Goswami says beauty pageants are “extreme forms of commodification of the female body and demean womanhood.”

Says another Left woman activist: “(Nobel Peace laureate) Mother Teresa (who lived and worked in this city) was never beautiful. Pageants like this concentrate on physical beauty alone and treat women as commodities.”

However, independent women’s groups here do not agree with the Left women leaders.

Noted women’s rights activist Maitreyee Chatterjee says while she herself disapproves of such shows, she does not think these should be forcibly stopped.

“I don’t feel that anyone has the right to ban beauty pageants. I am totally against them in principle. I do believe that pageants demean women as these contests send the message that beauty…is only physical,” she says.

“(Such shows) are not a corruption of Indian culture alone as they demean women of all cultures. But it is a free country and if some girls like to walk down the ramps, its their choice,” she adds.

Internationally-acclaimed woman filmmaker Aparna Sen who is based here, too frowns on the protests. “In a democracy you can only protest, you cannot ban. I think these people are again playing moral guardians,” she says.

The Left protests have led to statements of defiance by those who organise and participate in such shows.

“There is nothing immoral or exploitative about these shows and we will continue to hold them,” said a fashion industry representative even as protestors demonstrated noisily outside the venue of another beauty show.

Says leading model Koyena: “Such protests should be rubbished. What’s wrong with beauty pageants and ramp shows. Modeling is just another profession and the beauty business just another business.”

“There can be no place for cultural fundamentalism in a democracy,” another leading model Meghna Das was quoted as saying.

The issue is being widely debated and getting prominent media coverage. Every day, newspapers are publishing comments from the women who take part in such shows.

“Many models and actresses use these beauty pageants as a launching pad for their careers. Indian women now have a pedestal and people across the globe can appreciate that. A ban would be childish,” says Celina Jaitley, a model and ‘Miss India’ finalist.

“The business of beauty and fashion are big industries in India. There are thousands now whose lives depend on this. It might not be easy to dismiss the issue merely as a question of culture or morality,” adds actress Raima Sen.

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